In the 21st century Lithuania is a model for former Eastern Bloc countries, boasting a strong economy, high incomes, and good governance, but it’s been a long road to get here. Once the largest country in Europe, Lithuania nearly disappeared during much of the 20th century. During that time, hundreds of thousands of Lithuanians immigrated to the United States, where they contributed to the country’s economic success through their work in manufacturing, mining, stockyards, business, and the performing arts.
The Lithuanians of America
Situated on the eastern shore of the Baltic Sea and surrounded by Latvia, Belarus, Russia, and Poland, Lithuania is a country that has been entangled in the complicated and violent politics of Europe and the Baltic states for the past thousand years. The Grand Duchy of Lithuania was Europe’s largest country in the 14th century; after that time the country became embroiled in a series of wars and annexations. In the late 18th century Russia claimed the Lithuanian region for itself. Not until 1918 after World War I did Lithuania once again become an independent country, known as the Republic of Lithuania. After World War II, Lithuania maintained a fierce armed resistance to the Soviet Union’s occupation of the country but remained a part of the Soviet bloc until 1990, when it was the first former Soviet republic to declare itself independent.
The first recorded Lithuanian immigrant to the United States was physician and teacher Alexander Curtis, who migrated to New Amsterdam (now New York City) in 1659. A more significant wave of immigration began in the 1860s after the Russian abolition of serfdom which released millions from virtual slavery but also left many citizens of the Russian Federation adrift, underemployed, and suffering from religious and cultural persecution.
For many years the Lithuanian language was banned by its Russian overlords. Lithuanian is acknowledged by linguists as one of the most ancient European languages, one of only two surviving languages of the Baltic language family (Latvian is the other, though the two are, for the most part, mutually unintelligible). Today, Lithuanian and Latvian are recognized as the last remnants of the language family known as Proto-Indian European, from which most other European languages are derived. Because of the Russian ban on the Lithuanian language, the exact number of Lithuanians who immigrated to the United States in the 19th century was unrecorded, since they were grouped with Poles, Russians, and Germans, depending on the language they supplied to immigration officials. It was not until Lithuania declared its independence in 1918 that immigrants were officially designated as Lithuanians per se. The U.S. Emergency Quota Act of 1921, however, quickly restricted the number of immigrants from Lithuania (and elsewhere) allowed to migrate after that date.
The 1921 Quota Act was aimed primarily at “undesirable” immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, particularly from Italy, Russia, Poland, Greece, Hungary, Lithuania, and Asian countries. Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge argued that the policy was necessary because people from these regions were “races with which the English speaking people have never hitherto assimilated, and who are most alien to the great body of the people of the United States.” A nativist movement, galvanized by a desire to defend the rights and perquisites of those immigrants who were already naturalized, argued that the new waves of immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were taking the jobs of established immigrants. Various nativist policies were supported by politicians, labor unions, and white supremacy movements such as the Ku Klux Klan well into the 21st century.
Despite the challenges facing Lithuanian immigrants, some of America’s best loved artists are descendants of those early pioneers. Bob Dylan (born Robert Zimmerman) is a descendant of Lithuanian Jewish immigrants, as is Robert Kraft, the billionaire Massachusetts businessman and owner of the New England Patriots. Other famous American entertainers with Lithuanian ancestry include the singer Pink, Anthony Kiedis of the band The Red Hot Chili Peppers, actor Robert Downey, Jr., William Shatner, and Sean Penn.
One of the best known Lithuanian Americans was the American action star Charles Bronson (originally Charles Buchinksy, 1921-2003). Born in the tiny coal-mining community of Ehrenfeld, Pennsylvania, Bronson was one of fifteen children born to a first-generation American-Lithuanian mother. Their father, Valteris P. Bučinskis, was born in the Lithuanian city of Druskininkai and descended from the ethnic minority of Lipka Tatars. He Americanized his name to Walter Buchinsky after immigrating.
Growing up, Bronson spoke Lithuanian, Russian, and Greek in the home, but not English. At age ten, Bronson’s father died and young Charles and some of his other siblings went to work in the mines to support the family during the Depression. At times they were so poor that Bronson wore his sister’s dresses to school because he had no other clothing. “In Ehrenfeld, we were all jammed together,” he told film critic Roger Ebert in an interview. “All the fathers were foreign-born. Welsh, Irish, Polish, Sicilian. I was Lithuanian and Russian. We were so jammed together we picked up each other's accents. And we spoke some broken English. When I got into the service, people used to think I was from a foreign country." Bronson served in the U.S. Air Force as an aerial gunner in the Pacific theater during World War II, where he earned a Purple Heart.
Charles Bronson became famous as an actor, a profession he worked at throughout the 1950s and 1960s, becoming a star in Europe through his performances in the spaghetti westerns of Italian director Sergio Leone. It was not until the 1970s that Bronson became a sensation in America, thanks to his starring role in the film Death Wish (1974), in which he portrayed a frustrated citizen who becomes a vigilante to avenge the death of his wife. The film remains a huge influence on American cinema and portrayals of violence in popular culture.
From difficult beginnings in Pennsylvania, where as a boy, “you didn't get paid by the hour, you got paid by the ton, and… when I worked, the rate was a dollar a ton,” Charles Bronson went from being one of “the hardest-working people in the world” to acting because "it seemed like an easy way to make money.” His gambit paid off: by the 1980s he was one of the highest-paid actors in the world.
Today, the independent nation of Lithuania is a member of the European Union and one of the most economically successful countries to emerge from the former Soviet Union. Its history of migration is still resonant in the country today; outside of the capital city of Vilnius, the city with the highest number of Lithuanians today is Chicago, U.S.A.
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The Coal Miners of “Little Lithuania” and its Surrounds
The coal mining industry has been active in Pennsylvania since the late-1700s and it was historically heavily reliant on manual labor to extract coal from the earth before hauling it away by horse and wagon. This labor need was largely fulfilled by immigrants. Northwestern Pennsylvania had a high concentration of coal; fueled by the traveling recruiters from the coal and railroad companies, word spread of the abundance of employment opportunities, bringing droves of immigrants to the area, despite the grueling and often dangerous nature of the work.
Included in the wave of immigrants were Lithuanians who were facing labor shortages in their homeland. Heavy concentrations of Lithuanians made their new homes in the coal-laden northwestern county of Schuylkill, as well as surrounding Carbon, Luzerne and Lackawanna Counties. In 1820, approximately 357 tons of coal was extracted in Schuylkill County and had grown to about 23.5 million tons by 1880. Lithuanian immigrants began arriving to this coal region hub in great numbers during the mid to late-1800s, which eventually earned Schuylkill the nickname of “Little Lithuania.” To this day, approximately 5% of the population is of Lithuanian heritage.
Following the Avondale Colliery disaster, which killed 179 miners when the sole mine exit was blocked during a fire outbreak, the mining industry became a well-regulated industry. In addition to saving lives and improving working conditions, regulations also created a genealogical bonus by forcing the creation of additional records. One example of this is employment records, which commonly include biographical information like names, marital status, date of birth, residence, name of spouse and number of children, as well as citizenship information. Sometimes records may even provide details which may not have otherwise been recorded, such as education, parent names, location of birth and physical description.
The annual Pennsylvania Mine Inspector Reports publications, most notably those from the years of 1870 to 1930, included two tables which are genealogically significant—one table which summarized the fatal accidents inside and outside the mine and one which summarized the non-fatal mine accidents. Details recorded about the deceased miners included their basic biographical information, their cause of death, as well as place and date of death, marital status and number of orphaned children, if any. The non-fatality accident reports were not as comprehensive, but they did include the date of the accident, name of the miner and cause of the accident. In later years, the miner’s age, occupation and nationality were also captured. Additionally, transcribed Register of Mine Accidents for the Anthracite and Bituminous Districts, covering the years of 1899-1972 are available online.
Remember, records of your mining ancestors, Lithuanian or otherwise, can provide an array of detail to your family history from the genealogical to the contextual. Happy mining!
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Jeremy Roberts, Jeremy Roberts (https://jeremylr.medium.com/ : accessed 14 October 2021), “Scholar Paul Talbot chronicles badass action hero Charles Bronson.”
The Economist (https://www.economist.com/ : accessed 14 October 2021), “Chicago is the second-biggest Lithuanian city.”
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Jay Zane, VilNews (http://vilnews.com/ : accessed 14 October 2021), “Why Pennsylvania?”
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Hi there! I'm the author of the MarkerQuest article about Little Lithuania, and I just wanted to say I was delighted to stumble across your blog! You write really well and I enjoyed reading this. Keep up the great work!