18 / 2003
Marjan Drnovšek


Few were Slovene immigrants in America who in the middle of the 19th century set up a farm in Minnesota, which in 1858 became part of the United States of America. In that period, people were immigrating mainly from the German Catholic provinces, for example from Bavaria, from the river Rhine Basin and from Westfalia. In the 60s, as well only a smaller number of Slovenes decided to immigrate to the countryside of Minnesota. They were settling particularly in the region of Stearns County, Minnesota where the Slovene missionary Franz Pierz/Franc Pirc (1785-1880) was active. Pirc was also an immigrant commissioner and an advocate of the idea that Minnesota should become the most Catholic American state (a monograph on Pirc was published in English: William P. Furlan, In Charity unfeigned. The Life of Father Francis Xavier Pierz. Diocese of St. Cloud, 1952). Consequently, he was inviting Catholics and entire families to establish in the new environment common settlements with Catholic churches and priests as a basis of new life in new world. Yet Slovenes did not respond to that invitation in large extent. Thus, Minnesota did not become a New Slovenia as some in the homeland wished (see: Slovene Catholic gazette Zgodnja danica, and Novice 1865). The Slovenes lived in the settlements of St. Joseph, St. Jacob, Kraintown (St. Anthony) and elsewhere.

In 1855, Apolonija sister of missionary Pirc, joined him with her whole family, that is the husband, four children and son-in-law of the eldest daughter. With the help of her brother, they gained 160 acres of land in St. Joseph, Minnesota, and were farming successfully in the following decades. Apolonija was the second woman (the first was the sister of Friderik Baraga Antonija Höffern in 1837) and the first mother who came in the 19th century from Slovenia to America. In that year, Franz Pierz published a book Die Indianer in Nord=Amerika, ihre Lebensweise, Sitten, Gebräuche u.s.w. nach zehnjärigem Aufenthalte und gesammelten Erfahrungen unter den vershiedenen Stämmen, St. Louis with a supplement Eine Kurze Beschreibung des Minnesota-Territoriums. The book was intended for the German Catholic immigrants in the U.S.A., and the short description of Minnesota to help people decide to settle in the then Territory of Minnesota. Pirc was inviting them through German newspapers, for example Der Wahrheitsfreund, Cincinnati, Ohio. In that period, he was not yet inviting Slovenes to America; he did so after the end of the American civil war (1865).

Exceptional is the significance of missionary letters and letters of rare laics who wrote their relatives and friends in the homeland. Not so few were entirely, abridged or just as summaries published by the then newspapers in the homeland, the most in Zgodnja danica and in Novice. Many letters were written in such a manner that they were in regard of content directly suggesting publication in a newspaper. Thus, many private letters gained public character. (Incidentally, the conference Reading the Emigrant Letter : Innovative approaches and interpretations, Carleton Centre for History of Migration, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada, August 7-9, 2003, was dedicated to such issues.) The Catholic press readily published missionary and as well rare Slovene laic letters as they spoke of spreading and preserving Catholic religion not only among the natives but also among the immigrants from Europe. With their help, they were collecting contributions for the work of missionaries. We classify those early letters, among them Apolonija’s, among informative messages about possibilities for a new life in Minnesota, which were – in regard of personal experience – enthusiastic or full of disappointment, but far from stereotypic views in the sense that in America dollars were lying about on the ground. All agree there are plenty chances for success, but one must work hard for it.

Apolonija’s letter, which she herself wrote on November 7th 1855, and was published in Novice on January 9th 1856, is about two themes: the journey from Ljubljana over Vienna to Hamburg, from there by steamboat to Liverpool, and then by sailing ship together with 313 passengers to New York (a storm and the seasickness made strong impression on her), and about their beginnings of farming in St. Joseph. She was satisfied and invited to America all brave enough as there was plenty of land there. The editor of the newspaper Novice, Dr. Janez Bleiweis somehow accused Apolonija at their departure for the U.S.A. that she lured her whole family to that perilous journey. Despite that, he published her letter, markedly commenting that a woman wrote it. In her letter, Apolonija mentioned women’s thematic as she was enthusiastic about the status of women in America, where they were respected and every violence (of men) on women was punished.

The author analyses in detail Apolonija’s letter in comparison with letters of that time: the letter of the elder daughter of Janez Pogačnik (St. Joseph, April 17th 1857) and that of nephew Jernej Pirc (Crow Wing, October 22nd 1854) who left for America a year earlier. Both letters were published in Novice. Indirectly we know that there was a tight correspondence bond between the brother Franz Pierz and the sister Apolonija until Pierz's departure for America in 1835. The author also analyses the letter to his sister, which he wrote in Grand Portage at Lake Superior on October 10th 1838. It is preserved in transcription in Pierz’s collection at the Arhiv Slovenije (AS 791).

In the conclusion, the author contemplates on causes for a lesser response of Slovenes in regard of departing for Minnesota in the 50s and 60s of the 19th century. The economic situation of peasants was on Slovene territory poor as they were burdened with taxes, bad harvests and other natural disasters were taking turns, and consequently they were running out of money. Yet proper massive emigration of Slovenes to the U.S.A. occurred not until the end of the 19th century when there was no available land left; thus, people – of predominantly peasant origin – had to employ themselves in mines and factories. The reasons for a lesser leaving of Slovenes for the U.S.A. during the time of the missionary Franz Pierz are various. We must (probably) place among them the most fundamental, that is lack of money for the journey and for starting a new life in America. In accordance with the model and the practice that the migration idea first caught the most west European countries and then moved slowly towards east, having here in mind the development of traffic, education of people, their level of information, migration policies of the emigration states, the net of emigrant agencies etc., to psychological backgrounds with individuals. It seems paradoxical but higher education and level of information about the world were foundations for massive abandoning the homeland. That was at the turn of the 20th century higher than in the middle of the 19th century.

Marjan Drnovšek has a PhD from historical sciences and is an archivist, employed at the Inštitut za slovensko izseljenstvo ZRC SAZU in Ljubljana. He is researching various aspects of migration movements within Slovenes. His latest work is a monograph: Franc Pirc (1785-1880). Sadjar na Kranjskem in misijonar v Ameriki / Franz Pierz (1785–1880). Fruit grower in Carniola and missionary in America. Naklo: Občina Naklo /The commune of Naklo/, 2003, pp. 96.