Serbian-Americans History: 200 Years in the Blink of an Eye
It has been more than 200 years since the first recorded Serb in the United States. Since then, there have been several mass immigrations of Serbs. Despite being one of the smaller ethnic communities in the United States, Serbian-Americans created and shaped American and world history, from George Fisher, one of Texas’ founders, to Mihajlo Pupin, who came to the United States with $5 and became one of the greatest minds ever, to Tesla, who illuminated the world.
Although American-Serbs of all statuses are working to retain their national identity, and while America is a home for the majority of them, Serbia is and will remain their motherland.
The History of the Serb Immigration to the United States
The United States is a nation of immigrants, whether your ancestors migrated to this country hundreds of years ago or whether you emigrated just a year or two ago. The journey of every immigrant has been fraught with challenges, including finding employment and becoming a citizen. Yet, many immigrants have overcome these issues to become a part of America or even become famous Americans.
It’s the same for Serb immigrants who came in search of a better life and, over the course of time, ranked among the top scientists, politicians, athletes, artists, and intellectuals of American society.
But, what did that path look like? And, who had the courage to break the ice first?
Serbian immigration to the United States started in the early nineteenth century.
At the turn of the century, there were small communities in port cities such as New York, Boston, and particularly New Orleans. Many of these Serbs established a thriving community in San Francisco during the gold rush in California, from where many of them continued north to Alaska.
After the second wave of Serb immigrants arrived in the United States, they settled mainly around industrial areas and mining centers: Pittsburgh, Hazelton, Chicago, Butte, Anaconda, Gary, Detroit, Cleveland, etc.
The first Serb immigrants who arrived in America came from the Adriatic coast.
Most of the second and biggest wave of immigration came from areas that were ruled by Austria-Hungary and Turkey at that time; these were places like Lika, Bania, Kordun, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Slavonia, Vojvodina, Kosovo and Metohija, as well as Montenegro.
Later on, immigration was more diverse and harder to precisely track.
George Fisher - The First Serb Landed in the United States
Even though there were some records about Serbs in the US from the 18th century, Đorđe Šagić (Djordje Sagic) was the first Serb who officially received American citizenship.
Who are you, young man?
I’m a fisherman.
What’s your name?
Djordje, the fisherman.
Oh, you’re George Fisher?
This is an anecdote of how, according to the author Marko Lopušina (in his book “Serbs in America 1815-2010. First 200 years of conquering USA”), Đorđe Šagić got his American name – George Fisher.
Because Đorđe spoke no English that day, and he agreed with everything the police on the Philadelphia docks said, he earned his American name and became known as George Fisher, the first Serbian-American.
Have you ever heard his story?
George Fisher was born near Budapest in the then Habsburg Monarchy. He attended a theological school, but instead of spiritual battles, he took up arms and went to defend Belgrade from the Turks in the first Serbian uprising.
The milestone for him was 1815, when he boarded a ship in Germany and went to the US.
Despite not speaking English, he was well educated. Some records said that he spoke over 10 languages. George had an amazing career in America and became one of the 200 most prominent Americans at that time.
As a great idealist and a freedom fighter, he made a big mark on American society. Knowing what it felt like to be suppressed, he joined the struggles to abolish slavery. After the Mississippi, the road led him to Mexico, which had just separated from Spain. After a while, he received Mexican citizenship, and he had the task of settling 500 American families in Texas who belonged to Mexico at that time.
According to historical records, he actively engaged in the foundation of Texas independence in 1836.
Then, his adventurous spirit led him to California in search of gold.
He worked as a merchant, customs officer, lawyer, and judge, along with many other official and honorary positions he received (such as Honorary Consul of Greece). George got married four times and had almost 30 grandchildren.
Still, there are many mysteries surrounding his life. For example, his role in the formation of the Iorian Masonic Lodge in Texas.
If we can describe him in a sentence, we can say that in George’s veins, heroic Serbian blood flowed and, along with a Mexican spirit and Texas character, made him one of the most prominent Americans of all time.
And, it’s not a matter of serendipity that he was the first Serbian-American. His life was a constant battle for freedom and justice, which we believe is the same for Serbs.
“Conquering freedom is conquering life” *allegedly said by George Fisher*
What do you think? Do you agree with what George said?
It’s a pity that after all the struggles Serbs had throughout the past two centuries in the United States, we seem to be the bad guys (e.g. in Hollywood Blockbusters). Or worse, that nobody recognizes us and when you meet someone they say, “Oh, you’re from Siria, that’s nice?” No? Siberia?”
In the end, the Serbians and their descendants enriched this country with many outstanding contributions.
Still, there’re many American Serbs and tales about them whom we know nothing about.
That’s why we believe you’ll find this article useful.
We hope you’ll share it online and with your friends; your grandmother or uncle Mitch will read it.
We hope you’ll send it to your high school sweetheart, whom you assume is of Serbian descent, or to your college professor, whose spouse is Serbian.
Please note that we have just begun. More articles about Serbian-Americans will follow.
In our next articles, you’ll learn about Waves of Serbian immigration to America, Serbian-American organizations in the US, Serbs who built America, Serbian-Americans in America today, and so on.
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It’s time to stand up for our rightful place and respect in the United States. The first step, though, is to learn more about ourselves, understand and honor our history, and come together.
Only Unity Save the Serbs!