True Lithuania

First wave of Lithuanian emigration (1865-1915)

The first massive emigration wave in Lithuanian history (1865-1915) had truly epic proportions.

Some 20-30% of Lithuanians then fled their country that was ruled by discriminatory and economically backwards Russian Empire. They established their "colonies", churches, and organizations across several continents. These emigrants were also called “grynoriai” ("free air men") and it was they who launched the Lithuanian diaspora. Most of the people searching for their heritage in Lithuania these days descend from "grynoriai" and this article helps to understand why they did leave, how did they live, and what they leave after them.

The majority of first-wave emigrants were Catholic Lithuanians. However, there were sizeable minority groups that also emigrated from Lithuania at this time (Jews, Poles, Germans). Where their experiences differed from the majority, they are explained as special cases.

Why did Lithuanians emigrate in the 19th century and before World War 1 (1865-1915)?

At the time, Lithuania was under the rule of the Russian Empire. Lithuanians were heavily persecuted, Lithuanian language was banned while males could be drafted into the Russian army for 12 years, essentially extinguishing their youth and possibly life.

Furthermore, until 1861 most ethnic Lithuanians were considered serfs – a slave-like property of local nobles for whom they performed forced labor. While serfdom was abolished in 1860s and Lithuanians gained freedom of movement, there was no land reform to give them land which remained in the hands of the mostly-non-Lithuanian nobles.

Thirdly, the Russian Empire decided not to develop industry in Lithuania, making non-agricultural jobs scarce. This meant that, for many, emigration was the best or even the only option to make a living.

The main reasons for emigration were thus (1)Earning money (for those who inherited no land), (2)Avoiding drafts, (3)Avoiding persecutions.

A Lithuanian postcard of Kražiai massacre when Russian cossacks massacred Lithuanian Catholics who were defending their church from closure. An example of anti-Lithuanian discrimination that pushed people from Lithuania

A Lithuanian postcard of Kražiai massacre when Russian cossacks massacred Lithuanian Catholics who were defending their church from closure. An example of anti-Lithuanian discrimination that pushed people from Lithuania

Special cases: minorities. In addition to ethnic Lithuanians, many Lithuania’s Jews, Poles, and Germans also left. While their social standing in Lithuania was typically above that of many Lithuanians (they were never serfs), there were still forms of discrimination directed particularly at them. Furthermore, unlike ethnic Lithuanians, ethnic minorities (especially the Jews) had less of a reason to stay as Lithuania was culturally as alien as the USA to many of them.

Special cases: Lithuania Minor. A significant part of Lithuania, known as Lithuania Minor, was ruled until 1945 by Germany rather than by Russia. There, serfdom did not exist and emigration started in the 1840s. However, the numbers of these Lithuanians were smaller; many passed as Germans.

How many people emigrated from Lithuania between 1865 and 1915?

Some 700 000 people left Lithuania in this era, making this the second-largest emigration wave from Lithuania ever (after the Third Wave).

Where did people from Lithuania emigrate in 1865-1915?

Most (~350 000) emigrated to the USA. Mid-Atlantic, Great Lakes and New England industrial cities, mining areas of Pennsylvania and Illinois. In 1915, most of the Lithuanian-Americans lived in Pennsylvania (27,7%), Illinois (18,7%), New York (15%), and Massachusetts (14,7%). The two key areas of Lithuanian settlement were Chicagoland and the Pennsylvania Coal Region, each housing some 100 000 Lithuanian-Americans. At the time, immigration to America was essentially unrestricted: only a few percents who were deemed health hazard or too frail to work would not be admitted.

Lithuanian churches in the USA marked by red symbols. Nearly all of them have been established by the first wave, this map closely showing where this wave emigrated to

Lithuanian churches in the USA marked by red symbols. Nearly all of them have been established by the first wave, this map closely showing where this wave emigrated to in the USA

Much smaller numbers (~20 000) went to the key cities of the UK, Canada, Argentina, and Brazil.

Significant numbers (~330 000) also went to other cities of the Russian Empire, such as Saint Petersburg, Riga, Warsaw, Kyiv, Odesa. ~100 000 of them went to what is now Latvia.

Ellis Island museum of immigration

Ellis Island immigrant registration facility of New York passed by most of the America-bound Lithuanians. They would spend weeks in the third class of transatlantic vessels to see the mighty skyline of New York and disembark here for the final decision of acceptance

How did the pre-WW1 Lithuanian emigrants live after emigration?

Most of them worked in the industries and mines. The jobs were hard, long, and dangerous yet they still trumped what was available back in Lithuania.

Outside of work, they formed self-sufficient communities. In each “free” city with more Lithuanians (nearly all of those were in the USA), they would build a Lithuanian church that served as a community hub. Church buildings or building complexes typically included event halls for secular and ethnic activities as well as a school for immigrant children, staffed by Lithuanian nuns, who would also care for sick and windows. Some 10-20 years after the establishment, as the community grew and salaries grew as well, the “temporary” church would be replaced by a larger permanent one, with even more premises.

Holy Cross Lithuanian church in Chicago (Back of the Yards)

Holy Cross Lithuanian church in Chicago stockyards districts, one of the largest Lithuanian churches in America. It is surrounded by other buildings of the parish that served the community

Around every Lithuanian church, a Lithuanian district would develop as Lithuanians would try to live at a location from where they could easily walk to all the Lithuanian activities taking place in the church. Such a district would have many Lithuanian businesses and in many such districts, the English language was not needed for life.

The cast of 1910 preformance Kęstutis based on the history of Lithuania, as acted by Worcester (MA) Lithuanians

The cast of 1910 preformance Kęstutis based on the history of Lithuania, as acted by Worcester (MA) Lithuanians

These districts were also large markets for Lithuanian goods. The relative wealth and significant freedom in America allowed the first wave of Lithuanian emigrants to perform deeds not possible back in contemporary Russian-ruled Lithuania. They had the world's first Lithuanian language novel published. They operated the biggest-circulation Lithuanian newspaper in the world at the time. They were the first ones to organize Lithuanian-language theater troupes. They have established some of the first Lithuanian orchestras and, aided by America's technological advancement, made the first Lithuanian musical records. Technologies such as photography, film, or pianolas were far more widespread there than in contemporary Lithuania, leaving more historical media documents from the US Lithuanian communities than from Lithuania itself.

Shenandoah Lithuanian orchestra

Shenandoah Lithuanian orchestra

At that time back in Lithuania, literally every ethnic Lithuanian was religious (some 90% Catholic and 10% Lutheran). After emigrating, however, some became accustomed to radical leftist ideas in their new workplaces. Up to 10% of Lithuanian first wavers could have joined leftist movements and abandoned religion. These atheists would establish Lithuanian Halls or Clubs, often as an alternative to Lithuanian parishes. There, only secular activities would take place. As the number of atheists was lower, such secular clubs existed only in major communities and were typically smaller than the churches there. In addition to leftist/socialist Lithuanian clubs, there were nationalist Lithuanian clubs that, although did not deny religion, saw ethnicity as more important than religion and so disliked the internationalizing and foreign-control factors of the Roman Catholic church. Typically all the Lithuanian clubs were located not far away from the Lithuanian church, as they were established in the already-existing Lithuanian districts.

Vytautas Kareivis Aid Society members posing with their uniforms (image from the Society's heritage rooms)

Vytautas Kareivis Aid Society of Grand Rapids members posing with their uniforms before World War 1. They considered themselves Lithuanian lancers and would march in Grand Rapids and were associated with the nationalist line (image from the Society's heritage rooms)

Another major division was that between “Lithuanists” and “Polonists” which was imported from Lithuania itself. In Lithuania, for centuries, Lithuanian language and culture was regarded to be lower in status to Polish; Lithuanian language was little used outside of family conversations. During the late 19th century, however, a national revival was sweeping Lithuania: Lithuanians sought to use Lithuanian language for all the spheres of life (including culture, science, religion, literature). That had repercussions in America where, back in some 1870s-1880s, Lithuanian-speaking Lithuanians, Polish-speaking Lithuanians, and Poles would often form parishes together (with Polish as the main language) but, as the Lithuanian national revival went on, Lithuanians would often break away to form Lithuanian-language parishes (1890s and later), sometimes leading into bitter conflicts over the property of the once-joint organizations. A minority of Lithuanian-Americans opposed this “Lithuanization”. They remained in Polish organizations and eventually ceased to consider themselves Lithuanian(-American)s.

Due to such multilingualism in Lithuania, it used to be the norm to translate one's name just as any other word (e.g. call oneself "Michał" when speaking Polish and "Mykolas" when speaking Lithuanian). Moreover, there was no standard Lithuanian orthography yet. As such, after emigration, even relatives could have ended up with very different last names: some took Lithuanian versions (in various orthographies), some took Polish versions, some tried to anglicize their names. Some names were misheard by the officials and written down incorrectly (most of the First Wavers were illiterate and couldn't write their names down themselves). As such, few of the last names used by First Wave emigrants after emigration (and their descendants now) are exactly like those that exist in Lithuania itself (this is in contrast to the later emigration waves).

A graves of Bočkauskas family in Mahanoy City illustrates the Polonist-Lituanist divide of the era. While the main gravestone has the surname written in Polish (Boczkowski), the grave of Dominikas Boczkauskas, a publisher of the largest Lithuanian newspaper at the time, has the same surname written in pre-modern Lithuanian (Boczkauskas).

Graves of Bočkauskas family in Mahanoy City illustrates the Polonist-Lituanist divide of the era. While the main gravestone has the surname written in Polish (Boczkowski), the grave of Dominykas Boczkauskas, a publisher of the largest Lithuanian newspaper at the time, has the same surname written in pre-modern Lithuanian (Boczkauskas).

For social security, Lithuanian insurance communities were established. Within some 10-30 years, as more and more Lithuanians died, Lithuanian parishes and some Lithuanian clubs acquired their own land lots to be used as Lithuanian cemeteries so even after death Lithuanians could be buried next to other Lithuanians. This tradition was limited to the USA, especially Pennsylvania, Illinois, New England, and New York, however.

Lithuanian-American cemeteries map. All of them were established by the First Wave emigrants, with the exception of Toronto one

Lithuanian-American cemeteries map. All of them were established by the First Wave emigrants, with the exception of Toronto one

Given that much of Lithuanian activity used to take place within the emigrant community and many even never learned other languages or naturalized, they would often marry other Lithuanians even after emigration and thus have Lithuanian families. As more men than women did emigrate at first, it was common for them to invite their wives, sweethearts, or other women from Lithuania. They typically spoke Lithuanian with kids although often wanted the kids to learn the local language as best as possible (i.e. typically English).

Detroit Lithuanian Hall

Detroit Lithuanian Hall. Many of such halls were established by leftists

A certain part of pre-WW1 emigrants would move again after initial emigration, seeking better economic opportunities. Those who emigrated to countries other than the USA gradually moved to the USA. In the USA itself, there was a movement from mining towns to new industrial centers (e.g. Upstate New York, Detroit). Typically, Lithuanians would move there in large numbers and once again create a Lithuanian church and/or clubs.

Many Lithuanian-Americans would send money back to Lithuania, supporting their relatives there by sending money. Many would also invite their siblings, and more distant relatives, growing the Lithuanian communities that way.

As the independence of Lithuania began seeming real ~1914 Lithuanian emigrants would support the pro-independence activities financially. After Lithuania became independent in 1918, they would invest in Lithuania. Some third of Lithuanian-Americans actually returned back to Lithuania, often buying land there for money they earned in the USA. Such “return” peaked after 1918 independence.

The first wave Lithuanian-Americans campaign for the liberty of Lithuania in the 1910s.

Among those who didn't "return" to Lithuania, however, only a minority would ever visit it again. They may have wanted it but a transatlantic voyage at the time meant many days of shipboard travel time at a cost of numerous monthly salaries. Journeying back to Lithuania, in terms of time and costs, could be compared to taking a several-months-long cruise around the world today. Thus, unless their relatives also emigrated, most of the First Wavers would never see them again, keeping correspondence in mail alone.

Special cases: minorities. Jews, Poles or Germans who emigrated from Lithuania at this time would not see themselves as Lithuanians at all but simply as Jews, Poles or Germans (e.g. Jewish-Americans, Polish-Americans, German-Americans but not Lithuanian-Americans). Thus, they did not join the Lithuanian communities or organizations but rather integrated into the wider communities and organizations of Poles, Jews, or Germans in the area. They also nearly never returned to Lithuania.

This was understandable at that time as, in the pre-WW1 Lithuania, minorities typically did not speak Lithuanian or known Lithuanian culture and lived very separate and different lives from the ethnic Lithuanian majority. It was the ethnicity/language/religion rather than citizenship or birthplace that defined a person at the time (the citizenship was Russian and no community except for ethnic Russians actually identified with it).

Some 30 000 Jews left Lithuania in this era, while the numbers of Lithuania's Poles and Germans are not researched.

Special cases: emigrants to other Russian Imperial cities Lithuanians who emigrated to other Russian Imperial cities (Riga, Saint Petersburg, Tbilisi, Kiev, Warsaw) also established businesses and organizations but failed to build churches or club palaces for several reasons: (1)This was limited by the discriminatory policies of the Russian Empire (2)Their incomes were smaller (3)They were much more likely planning to come back after either earning money or getting an education. Indeed, nearly all of the Lithuanians who emigrated to other Russian-ruled lands at this time returned after 1918 Lithuanian independence, extinguishing Lithuanian communities in places such as Russia or Georgia and reducing the Lithuanian community in Latvia by two thirds. In 1920-1922 the Russian Soviet revolution essentially rendered Russia unliveable.

Lithuanian choir of Liepaja, Latvia (then Russian Empire). Even where no Lithuanian buildings were constructed, Lithuanian choirs were an important pillar of ethnic activities

Lithuanian choir of Liepaja, Latvia (then Russian Empire). Even where no Lithuanian buildings were constructed, Lithuanian choirs were an important pillar of ethnic activities

Unlike in the West where nearly all Lithuanian emigrants were blue-collar, some Lithuanian intellectuals also moved to other Russian Imperial cities. That's because the closure of Vilnius University (1832) left Lithuania without higher education opportunities, the closest universities being in places such as Saint Petersburg or Kiev. Such intellectuals almost invariably returned to Lithuania after studies or a brief pre-1918 career.

How did the children and grandchildren of first wave Lithuanian emigrants live?

In the main clusters of Lithuanian-Americans, so-called “Lithuanian colonies”, the childhoods of Lithuanian-American children culturally resembled childhoods in Lithuania.

They went to a Lithuanian mass in a Lithuanian church with their parents, they went to the Lithuanian parish schools. Often there were enough Lithuanians in the area to have a Lithuanian-speaking group of friends. Many of them learned English only in late childhood or teenage years.

Memorial plaque for Little Lithuania in Shenandoah

Memorial plaque for Little Lithuania in the Pennsylvania's Southern Coal Region where numerous villages and towns still have a Lithuanian ancestry percentage at 10%, 20% or more.

Often, they would marry other Lithuanians as a Lithuanian-centered social life meant the likelihood of falling in love with a non-Lithuanian girl or boy was lower. Also, the parents still often opposed interethnic marriages.

Still, there was always a slow “cultural trickle” out of the Lithuanian community. The children who grew up in less-Lithuanian areas and went to non-Lithuanian-parish schools often integrated into the non-Lithuanian-speaking community, as they were often even bullied for speaking Lithuanian. Also, there were some Lithuanian-Americans who tried to speak English to their children as they believed that was beneficial to them, especially in the less Lithuanian areas. Despite this, many English-native-speaking descendants who lived in the “Lithuanian colonies” would still consider themselves Lithuanians.

South Pittsburgh St. Casimir Lithuanian church

Massive Lithuanian churches such as South Pittsburgh St. Casimir were grounds for not only marriage rites but also for meeting your husband, wife, and friends

Until World War 2, many Lithuanian churches added English masses to accommodate those who spoke better English than Lithuanian but very few would leave a Lithuanian church altogether. The high birth rates meant that any Lithuanians who “left the community for good” were well replaced by new Lithuanians well into the 20th century.

The true destruction of the first wave Lithuanian-American communities came ~1960, and typically this was the time when the grandchildren or great-grandchildren of the original immigrants were growing up. The key reasons were white flight and public welfare.

Public welfare made the Lithuanian parish schools redundant as Lithuanians could send their children into public schools for free. Educated there among non-Lithuanian pals, the children would not really be able to communicate well in Lithuanian. One after another, the Lithuanian parish schools closed down ~1960s-1980s. Likewise, the Lithuanian insurance institutions became redundant as well.

Waterbury Lithuanian school entrance adorned by Vytis

Waterbury Lithuanian school entrance adorned by Vytis. The building has been abandoned and sometimes rented out to non-Lithuanian events

Yet it was the white flight and racial riots that really killed these Lithuanian communities. Most of the Lithuanian districts and institutions were in the inner cities of the rust belt. Blacks moved into these districts ~1960s and the crime rates soared there. Lithuanians felt forced to leave to the suburbs but nowhere they would create a “Lithuanian suburb”, spreading across tens or hundreds of miles of suburbia instead. Not having fellow Lithuanian neighbors they no longer had the need to talk in Lithuanian or the possibility to easily participate in Lithuanian activities.

Often, at least some of the “children” and “grandchildren” generations (who were adults in the 1960s) continued to go to the original Lithuanian clubs and parishes despite no longer living in the area, but the generations which grew up away from there nearly never did. The organizations, therefore, began “dying out” ~1980s. For example, the majority of Lithuanian-American parishes built by the “first wave” were closed down or became non-Lithuanian in the 1980s-2000s.

Lithuanian Ss. Peter and Paul church during demolition

Lithuanian Ss. Peter and Paul church during demolition in Westville, Illinois

~2000 the popularity of genealogical research, however, made some descendants of the first wavers rediscover their heritage, although their connection with that heritage is different: rarely they would learn the language or traditions, but rather study family stories and visit the sights of their childhoods. Interestingly, some Poles and Jews have also joined this trend: they would consider themselves having a Lithuanian heritage if their forefathers came from Lithuania, even though those Jewish or Polish forefathers would have never actually considered themselves Lithuanians. That‘s because in modern-day America it is the location of emigration that matters in establishing ancestry (rather than ethnicity, the most important piece of identity in Lithuania of ~1900).

Decades after the closure of Rumford ME Lithuanian club building, grandsons/granddaughters of immigrants have reestablished Lithuanian organization which now organizes annual picnics

Decades after the closure of Rumford ME Lithuanian club building, grandsons/granddaughters of immigrants have reestablished Lithuanian organization which now organizes annual picnics

Special case: smaller USA towns (especially the Pennsylvanian Coal Region) In some towns (especially Pennsylvania, Illinois) Lithuanians made up 10% or more of the population. There, the white flight did not happen. As such, the Lithuanian institutions survived, still populated by the descendants of first wave emigrants. Hotly-contested church consolidation closed most of the churches, but the clubs remained, although gradually they would begin accepting non-Lithuanians and some of them lost association with the Lithuanian culture, except for their name and history.

Mount Carmel Lithuanian club

Mount Carmel Lithuanian club in Pennsylvania, open since 1926

What heritage the first wave of Lithuanian emigration has left behind?

Some 80 massive Lithuanian churches built by this generation still stand in the USA, as well as tens of club palaces and some 40 cemeteries.

Most cemeteries are still operational (albeit no longer Lithuanian-only), however, most of the churches are now closed, except for those located in the main cities that have been joined by later immigrant groups.

One of the entrances to the Westville Lithuanian cemetery

One of the entrances to the Westville Lithuanian cemetery, still caed for by the Lithuanian descendents in this 3000-strong town

The full online map of Lithuanian heritage in the USA is located here.

Click to learn more about Lithuania: Diaspora 10 Comments
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  1. Thank you! This article is great!

  2. Great article. Very informative. My great grandfather Benjamin Zologa immigrated in 1902-3 from Lithuania. Where do you suggest I begin an ancestry search?

    • Archives. If you know at least approximate names / dates / places (or some of that) about your relatives from Lithuania, you may go to the Lithuanian archives. We may offer you heritage search services there.

  3. Really good article safed my article for university Aciu!

  4. Hello Augustinas, thank you for all of your insights and great information. I noticed in your comments on other websites as well that you keep referring to the “Lithuanian archives” and suggest that people search there for more information, but I have no idea where to find the Lithuanian archives. Is there a website for searching the archives? Any help you can give to point me in the right direction would be much appreciated.

    My G-Grandfather was born in Kaunas Lithuania in 1879, migrated to the US in 1896, and was naturalized here in 1900. I am interested in dual citizenship, but need to know if I would qualify for that, or if there is such a thing anymore. I understand that some of the rules for that have changed in 2021, but I don’t really know any specifics.

    I also want to do the research for genealogy purposes as we don’t have information on his life in Lithuania. We have the names of his siblings (one or two of which also came to the US) with birth years, and the names of his parents (with approximate birth years), census records, draft cards, and marriage certificates for those that made it here. I would like to know more about his parents as well. My aunt has been working on our family genealogy for years, but she is no longer able to, and there are many gaps I would love to be able to fill!

    Thank you so much for your time and assistance, as well as the great information you provide to those of us who would love to learn more about our family histories.

    • There is still a dual citizenship, however, for people who left with the early-to-middle First Wave it is typically not available (my article with comments on the topic is here). A single citizenship, however, may be possible, or a Lithuanian descent certificate (read my article about it here). We do provide both citizenship-through-descent and Lithuanian descent certificate services, if needed.

      By “Lithuanian archives” I mean archives of Lithuania. They are located in Lithuania. There are different possibilities to access them, including:
      -Hiring a private Lithuanian archive researcher. We help with such services. This provides the best results but also has a price.
      -Going to the archives yourself (in Lithuania). This may be interesting for yourself but takes time and has a steep learning curve (and, if you live far from Lithuania, it also costs to fly, but it could also be an interesting experience – we may help with ancestry tours in Lithuania, if needed).
      -Writing to the archives with direct questions, with specific names, dates, and churches/locations (e.g. “Do you have any proof that Jonas Jonaitis was born in 1879 and Baptized in the church of Holy Trinity, Kaunas?”). This is cheaper than a private researcher (you just pay state archive fee) but only works if you know significant amouts of “seed data” already (at times, this “seed data” is incorrect – e.g. age of the person known by descedents in the USA is not the same as the real age, as there were reasons to change it and people simply cared less about their real age back then). It will also likely provide more limited documents than a private researcher could (but could potentially give birth, marriage, death records).

      While some data has been scanned and put online, this is only a small minority of archive data, so online search is only sometimes possible and only for some documents.

  5. This is all very helpful. I did look up Lithuania archives, however was unable to read the site due to language barrier. My question though is what if I have names but no dates? I know very little to no information about my grandfathers side what I do have was found in my grandfathers military documents here in the US and a lot of online research. So how can I request records of people I’m not certain are related?

    • There are three types of useful information: names, locations, and dates.

      Do you know the locations, even if approximate?

      If you know locations and names, then it is possible to check multiple archive books of the particular location for different dates (e.g. 10 or 20 years of data from a particular church). If you would visit Lithuania, you could do it yourself, or you could hire an archive researcher with which we could help.

      If you know no locations, however, then it also depends on luck. If the name (i.e. surname) was especially rare, it may hav eexisted only in some locations, and so then we could check the books of those particular locations.

      Also, it helps if you know more names, so there would be a possible way to prove that the people discovered are really the same (e.g. if you know names of parents and children, then a Baptism record of the child with such a name who had parents of such names would most likely be the one you are searching for, nearly certainly so if the surname is not very common).

      When one does not know much of the information, writing a question to the archives is typically not an option. The two remaining options are either to go to the archive yourself and request many books (for many dates of the same location or several locations), or to hire somebody to do this.

  6. I have immigration papers, from when my I don’t know how many great grandfather, Joseph Dziaukas migrated from Russia to Lackawanna county in 1896. His last name was changed to what I now have Zokus, I was always told that he was actually from Lithuania. I was curious on how I could find out more information. I know what he was most likely German or Polish. Because I had my dna done and I have alot of German and polish dna but no Lithuanian. Every time I search for answers I get nowhere.

    • I think he would have certainly been Lithuanian as that is a Lithuanian last name.

      People of different ethnicities have similar DNA (only in some “far away” ethnicities, e.g. different races, does it differ more). There is no 100% sure way to tell by DNA if someone is e.g. Polish or Lithuanian – there are just varying probabilities.

      Moreover, interethnic marriages between “close” ethnicities are nothing new, they existed for centuries or millennia, thus mixing the DNA, likely many times over many generations. Still, the offspring would likely have eventually drifted towards one of the ethnicities in terms of self-identification.

      Ethnicity is at least as much about culture as about DNA or even more so.

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