The migration of Croats to America is part of the European immigration process to the New World. Like other immigrant groups they founded fraternal societies for mutual assistance, protection and benefits in case of accidents or death. The largest one, the Croatian Fraternal Union of America, which recently observed its centennial (1894-1994), has a prominent place in the American fraternal system.



Some historians have asserted that, a few seamen from Dubrovnik sailed on Columbus' ships. Legend has it that the Croatan (Lumbee) Indians of North Carolina were named after Dubrovnik sailors ship wrecked off of Roanoke Island. The colony of Ebenezer, Georgia, was probably the location of the first massive immigration of the Croats and Slovenes into America. There is ample documentation about the spiritual and educational work of the Croatian missionaries Ivan Ratkay, Ferdinand Konšćak, and Josip Kundek.


A larger emigration from Croatia, the so-called modern colonization, began from Dalmatia and Hrvatsko Primorje. In the beginning only individuals emigrated, followed later by smaller groups from the Croatian coast. The people from Primorje settled in California because of its familiar climate. A greater number of immigrants, in the earliest period of emigration, established themselves along the Mississippi delta, in the Pacific Northwest, and in New York City. The first Croatian immigrants were mostly seamen, fishermen, and farmers. As they were few in number, they did not represent an important ethnic group in American society. Because of the vast distances separating them and their small number in the first phase of immigration, the Croats were neither well organized nor were they socially and politically active in their new surroundings. True, there existed some Croatian benefit organizations such as the Slavonic-Illyric Mutual and Benevolent Society of San Francisco, established as early as 1857, or the United Slavonian Benevolent Association of New Orleans, founded in 1864. These societies were exclusively of local character and were situated on the western and southern coasts of the United States.


Until the 1880's, there existed only smaller Croatian organizations of local interest. A period of mass emigration from Croatia began towards the end of the 19th century, between 1880 and the beginning of World War I. The scale of the emigration wave from Croatia to America up to the present can best be represented by statistics. Estimates show that half a million people left Croatia between 1890 and the beginning of World War I.


Upon arriving in America, Croatian immigrants were mostly attracted by Pennsylvania's well developed industry which promised good salaries in the coal mines, the iron works, and the railway and road construction industries. The first groups of Croatian immigrants gathered precisely around the mines and the smelters of Pittsburgh and its surrounding area. Another large center was Cleveland, Ohio, where the steel and machine and tool industries were concentrated.


It was also quite understandable that Croatian immigrants gravitated to Chicago, one of the largest centers of commerce and industry. This meant new possibilities of employment in the very well developed iron, leather and food industries, as well as in the electrical and chemical industries.


It is impossible to list all of the places which Croatians inhabited. They settled down in all parts of the country, from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Driven by necessity, they changed places and states in search of better working and living conditions.


What was the position of Croatian immigrants in their new American environment? The beginning was hard for almost everybody and later many factors influenced the destiny of each individual. Apart from a few businessmen, intellectuals, artists and those having other successful professions, a large number of Croats never managed to free themselves from financial difficulties and lived in an everlasting struggle for existence. For many of them the hopes of returning home gradually faded and their children accepted more and more the values of their adopted country.


American Fraternalism


While the members of the nations with longer immigrant tradition in the New World, such as the Italians, Greeks, Poles, Czechs, Jews, etc., could rely on assistance from their national organizations during difficult times, the Croats did not have as yet such organizations. Consequently, their situation, particularly after work - related accidents, was that much harder and hopeless. Because of their difficult social position, Croatian immigrants also begun to found the fraternal organizations immediately upon immigration.


It is well known that the emergence and development of American fraternalism is primarily the result of the workers' immigration and their organization. Upon arriving in a foreign country, where the people spoke different languages and practiced different customs, the Croats forged a feeling of cooperation and solidarity within two institutions: ethnic churches and fraternal organizations. These two organizations made it easier for Croatians to enter a new society, gave them a place for prayer and social gathering, and taught them how to adapt to the values of their new community.


The fraternal organizations played an important role in the life of individual ethnic groups. The history of the Croatian Fraternal Union is in many ways the history of the Croats in the United States.


Different reasons and motives made the Croatians use mutual care. Many of them died in accidents at work, and after their death, no one took care of their families. Numerous workers were crippled, unable to work, helpless, deserted and lonely. Towards the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, there was no real social protection in America and that was one of the main problems for newcomers.'[i] Abandoned and frequently exploited in industrial plants, mines, workshops, and in the transportation industry, they realized that the only solution to their difficult life and their working conditions was mutual understanding and help, and the organization of their own associations.


For the above reasons newcomers from Croatia more easily accepted the program of American fraternalism. They had brought with them the experience and tradition of gathering in different charitable societies and church communities, a tradition known to them since the Middle Ages. Life in communities was an imitation of a way of life in many of the agricultural parts of Austro-Hungary until the end of the last century.[ii] Workers, and especially miners, also had a long tradition of gathering in their societies for mutual help.


The establishment of fraternal organizations in America can be traced as early as 1868 when John J. Upchurch, a railway worker, organized the first society called the Ancient Order of United Workmen. The aim of the society was to offer workers better conditions and security than those offered by the Trade Unions. Upchurch's initiative gained popularity and the organizations founded according to his ideas became successful and influential. The idea of fraternal protection soon attracted the wider public. The workers, united in fraternal organizations, had proper protection under rather advantageous paying conditions. However, many insurance companies, functioning on a commercial basis, considered fraternal organizations as competitors and tried to make their work impossible.[iii] This is why the Order of the United Workmen asked the delegates of the various fraternal organizations to attend a meeting held in Washington in 1886. They founded an association of relief organizations named the National Fraternal Congress. Its aim was to successfully lead the fight against the insurance companies.


The newspaper Zajedničar, the organ of Croatian Fraternal Union, wrote: "The aim and purpose of this great and powerful American association was to protect the interest of benefit organizations and their members, as well as to try and prevent the passing of unfavorable laws in some states concerning those organizations. Based on the experience and the members' mortality rate, it was attempting to introduce a correct scale of membership fees thus providing a healthy and solid basis for their existence. Only by the merit of the National Fraternal Congress did the American associations grow and strengthen financially, and today, in twenty seven states, a law called the `Mobile Bill' has been passed dealing with the behavior of benefit organizations." [iv]There was, however, some disagreement in the National Fraternal Congress in 1900 when the "Force Bill" was introduced, according to which some newer fraternal organizations should have paid their share by a less favorable rate table. There followed a break-up of the society and a new one was formed - the Associated Fraternities of America. But the split did not last long and at the 1912 joint meeting in New York, both organizations reunited under a common name: The National Fraternal Congress of America.


It was a period of fruitful activity in the American fraternal movement. The growth that the movement witnessed is shown by the total number of organizations that were active in the USA just before World War II: 182 national relief organizations had a state work permit. They counted 6,465,240 adult members and 10,340,194 junior members, and consisted of 99,148 lodges. The assets of all relief organizations totaled $1,331,019,996. The protection of certificate value amounted to $6,609,444,732.


With approximately eight million members organized in almost one hundred thousand lodges, and with assets of more than one thousand two hundred and fifty million dollars, relief organizations were an extremely influential power in American public life.[v]


The Croatian immigrants did not immediately enter fraternal organizations in large numbers. Only when they realized that the fraternals were offering them good social security did they start organizing fraternal societies, clubs, homes, and establishing halls for meetings, talks and conferences. The development of the fraternal movement, especially at the beginning of this century, is a result of these actions.


The Foundation of the Croatian Union of the United States of America.


The initiative to establish society for mutual help in case of death, disease, work accident, unemployment and other distress was promoted in the columns of the two Croatian immigrant papers. Nikola Polić, the editor and publisher of the journal Chicago-Sloboda (Chicago-Freedom) and Juraj Škrivanić, the publisher and editor of the Napredak (Progress) of Hoboken, New Jersey during 1893, wrote systematically in favor of establishing a general organization for the Croats of America. But the real supporter of the idea was Zdravko V. Mužina, who was born in Hrvatsko Primorje. Because of his political activity in the Party of Right, he lost his scholarship in Zagreb and his politic colleagues sent him to Chicago to help Nikola Polić, also a Party member, in editing his journal Chicago-Sloboda.


Mužina soon decided to go to Allegheny area, Pennsylvania, where a large number of Croats lived, to try and establish a society for Croatian immigrants. He arrived in Pittsburgh at the end of 1893 and immediately made the acquaintances of the immigrant leaders Petar Pavlinac, Franjo Šepić and others, with whom he started a compaign for founding a Croatian fraternal benefit society. He was successful in establishing the newspaper Danica (Morning Star) that appeared on New Year's Day, 1894.


What Mužina and his friends envisaged was a fraternal organization, a union of all Croatian societies, to aid the sick-workers and to take care of funeral expenses.


September 2 and 3, 1894, were historic days for Croatians in America. On September 2, the fourteen delegates of the already existing Croatian societies met in the Slovak Majak Hall, in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania. During the course of the meeting, delegates of all Croatian societies formed "Hrvatska Zajednica u Sjedinjenim Državama," the Croatian Union of the United States. A year later the organization was renamed to the National Croatian Society. From 1904 the official organ of the NCS was the newspaper Zajedničar, which usually included supplemental reports from various meetings held in the head office. The reports primarily highlighted fraternal insurance work. The Zajedničar also published the views of the organization on political matters both in America and the old country.


By 1925 the National Croatian Society numbered over 55,000 adult and 23,000 junior members in over 500 lodges. The remaining Croatian fraternal organizations numbered as follows: the Croatian League of Illinois with over 12,000 members in approximately 250 lodges; the twenty-seven Croatian Unity of Pacific lodges with some 1,500 members; the four "St. Joseph" National Croatian Beneficial Society with over 600 members; and the eight Young National Croatian Union lodges with over 1,500 members. Combined, all those organizations had millions of dollars in insurance, property and other assets.[vi]


The merger of all these organizations was logical and necessary, because the fraternal organizations had to unite in order to become more efficient in helping their members. Social activities could not remain within the boundaries of small or large immigrant communities built around the mines and factories. They had to be broadened and planned on a national scale and still retain their fraternal and co-opera­tive sense of action in order to develop a fraternal spirit.


The unification of the above mentioned fraternal organizations was realised by November, 1925, and a new organization, the Croatian Fraternal Union was formed. It was a historic event for the movement of Croatian fraternalism and for the Croatian people in America and in the old country. This merger marked the birth of the greatest Croatian fraternal organization in America and simultaneously the greatest Croatian organization outside Croatia. Soon after the Young Croatian Union of Whiting, Indiana, and a few others joined.


The establishment of powerful fraternal organization represented a turning point for Croatian immigrants in the USA. In this organization they found mutual help, cultural advancement, and joint action for the improvement of living conditions. A separate system of organization consisting of junior nests, sections for the elderly, and centers for the efficient promotion of social activities, caused the Croatian Fraternal Union to become the main promoter of all social activities. Under the patronage of its lodges, English courses were offered to older immigrants and native language courses for younger descendants born in America. The lodges were instrumental in founding committees and clubs for the promotion of education, theatrical groups, and the development of the tamburitza and other orchestral music. The Croatian organized language and folklore courses, and staged various performances with rich programs. The CFU held regular monthly meetings, banquets, picnics and outings in large parks. The Society also organized specific lectures where numerous speakers offered enlightening details about the social, cultural and political life both in immigration and in the old country.


The leaders of the Croatian Fraternal Union established communication with American institutions and representatives from the local political community. A few individuals among them became important persons and they often invited the mayor, government officials, and judges to attend their fraternal celebrations, thereby contributing to the benefit of the organizations.


In 1924 the Croatian Fraternal Union sent protests against the administration of immigrant laws. Numerous petitions demanded the abolishment of the laws dealing with the registration and enumeration of immigrants. With the help of the CFU committees were formed for the promotion of citizenship rights and for equal opportunities in achieving all civil rights. The leaders emphasized to their members that they should care more about solving problems in their new country and participate in the American way of life on an equal basis with other citizens. More and more members of the organization became naturalized citizens.


How did this fraternal organization of about one hundred thousand members manage to gather the immigrants and maintain their interest in the fraternal program? The CFU had a strong organizational structure which was affirmed by the activities of its conventions and the system of lodges. The highest governing body of the organization was the convention, which was, as a rule, held once every four years. During the convention, delegates would evaluate the work of the Supreme Board, as well as that of the Board of Trustees and the board members of the CFU. A new management team would be elected at the convention and the by-laws for future activities accepted. At these sessions the most important matters of the organization were discussed and basic principles were established for the future.


Due to the rivalry between American fraternalism and commercial insurance, the fraternal organisations had to introduce a variety of life insurance products under more favorable conditions than those of the commercial insurance companies. They were also obliged to plan and fulfill their cultural programs more seriously so as to attract the youth and make them more active. As a matter of fact, the Croatian Fraternal Union formed, within the youth clubs, sports and educational sections, promotional activities, as well as the Junior Cultural Federation. The task was ti unify all the tamburitza groups, dance groups, and choirs, to organize festivals, and to assure their future activity. The CFU was also successful in creating to help less fortunate students. The success of all these activities depended on the number of members and the financial power of the organization. This required the coordination of all actions and an expansion of the programs in order to make the organization as attractive as possible for the generations born and educated in America on whom the future of the organization actually depended. More favorable insurance options, humanitarian and cultural activities, sports competitions for the young, and competitions for folk music and folk dances from all parts of the world, were the elements which distinguished the CFU and American fraternalism in general from the more numerous other insurance companies.


American fraternalism also played an important role in American immigrant society, a role it has retained until today. There are currently 204 fraternal relief societies operating in America. Among them, 167 are members of the National Fraternal Congress, and 18 are enrolled in the Canadian Fraternal Union. In 1990, alone 108 fraternal societies signed insurance contracts worth $24,648,975,955, while the total insurance in force amounted to $147,714,157,821.[vii]


This vast and complex activity is coordinated by the National Fraternal Congress of America. Its fundamental tasks are:


- the promotion and expansion of all fraternal activities of common interest to all Congress members;

- informing the general public about fraternal societies, their programs and activities; and

- providing all necessary assistance to Congress members.


Every fraternal society may become a member of the National Fraternal Congress if it agrees with its program and its regulations. In other words, members must not be shareholders or make any profits, but should work only for the members' welfare. Fraternal organizations are supposed to act via their lodges, whose delegates elect the Society's management at the Convention. The Society's Home Office takes care of all business operations by introducing the most favorable table of rates, and by expanding the program of fraternal activities.


The boards within the National Fraternal Congress control the current legislative system, financial transactions, and all investments. The boards have also been established to coordinate relations between the fraternal congresses of individual states and fraternal societies. The ad hoc boards acting in the Congress solve problems that emerge through operations. Professional committees, which also make up part of the Congress, deal with the numerous managing operations, both in the Congress and the fraternal movement. The Congress operations are managed by a twelve member board made up of various fraternal societies among the Congress members. The Home Office of the Congress has its seat in Chicago, Illinois.


The Canadian Fraternal Union, operating in Canada, follows practically the same principles as that of the National Fraternal Congress of America. Several fraternal societies, the Croatian Fraternal Union among them, are members of both the above-mentioned organizations. South Slavic immigrants founded eight fraternal societies, seven of which are members of the National Fraternal Congress.


The Croatians, considering their number both in the USA and Canada, belong to smaller ethnic communities. However, the Croatian Fraternal Union belongs to a group of larger fraternal societies in proportion to its membership and total assets. There were, for example, 150 fraternal organizations operating in America in 1950 with total assets amounting to more than a billion dollars. The Croatian Fraternal Union was 26th in rank among them. Already by 1971, it moved to 14th place and was the second largest Slavic fraternal society in the USA, immediately behind the Polish Union. In 1983, it reached the 13th position, the highest ever achieved, but fell to the 21st position in 1989.[viii]


As one of the most successful fraternal organizations, the Croatian Fraternal Union, has a very important role within the activities of the National Fraternal Congress. Its board members are fully aware of the importance of taking part in regional fraternal congress, particularly the Congress of the State of Pennsylvania. They hold positions of responsibility at these congresses while the CFU National President, Bernard Luketich, was director of the National Fraternal Congress of America.


The significant role which the Croatian Fraternal Union plays in the American fraternal movement results from the endeavors of a large number of fraternalists and its management in promoting the most diverse fraternal activities in the Society. Its progress can clearly be seen through its convention minutes.


In spite of the fact that the Croatian Fraternal Union was quite a successful fraternal society, and its assets were steadily increasing together with its total insurance in force (as a result of the introduction of the most modern and favorable rate tables), since the Fourteenth Convention of 1975, its membership has been in decline. As a result, the prevention of a further drop in membership has been a central issue of discussion of all sessions of the National and the Executive Boards.





This phenomenon was not characteristic of the CFU alone, but was a trend shared by all fraternal societies in general. In fact, it may be identified as a membership crisis in the general fraternal system of the United States and Canada.


Why is this happening? The organization of fraternal organizations along ethnic, religious or political lines, may in fact hold the key to the increasing disinterest in fraternal societies. Besides this, more favorable insurance conditions offered by powerful professional insurance companies started to attract people. In Canada, the situation was even worse because the Canadian federal government advertised extremely favorable insurance rates.


It goes without saying that the Croatian Fraternal Union did not easily reconcile with such a state of affairs, and its executive officials did their utmost to stop this decreasing tendency and enable the membership to increase again. New members were being persuaded to join by means of constant and well planned campaigns launched several times a year.


True, the campaigns resulted in thousands of new members, but absolute increase were still quite modest. The membership, on the whole, grew older and the number of deceased was increasing. Most of those who showed renewed interest in fraternalism had already passed away and there were fewer and fewer young members to replace them. Sometimes the number of the members deceased could hardly be made up for by the new ones joining the Society; many of the new members were not active at all, or would leave the Society soon after enrolling.


Despite the difficulties in attracting new members, the CFU leaders did not become pessimistic. The Executive and the National Board members, as well as most of the membership, firmly believed that the Society still had a future. The Society was in need of new ideas, new programs, and needed to show permanent care for its new membership. It was also essential to collaborate with other fraternal societies within the program of the National Fraternal Congress and the regional fraternal congresses.


Hundreds of thousands of Croatian immigrants and their descendants living in Canada and the USA were greatly interested in further CFU activities. This was especially so with Canadian Croats, who were primarily newcomers, and whose interest in fraternal programs was keen. The goal of the CFU was to convince all Croatians, both in the USA and Canada, that the Croatian Fraternal Union was the oldest and largest Croatian organization in the world, and that it welcomed all Croats and other Slavs of various political and religious beliefs, as long as they appreciated liberty and fraternalism. Those showing interest were clearly informed about the advantages which the Society offered, like health and life insurance under the most favorable conditions. But the most important advantage was the CFS's humanitarian, cultural, educational, and sports programs, which included the Junior Order Cultural Federation operations, the Adult Tamburitza Federation and a variety of sports clubs. Through its Educational Fund, the CFU also granted scholarships to numerous student members. Also associated with the Society were many Croatian clubs, centers, lodges and committees dedicated to the preservation of Croatian cultural heritage.


With the establishment of free and independent state of Croatia after 1991, American Croats initiated new associations and ties with the old homeland in the fields of culture and education, which will ultimately enable the Croatian Fraternal Union to promote, enrich and expand its activities all across the United States, Canada and Croatia.



The Croatian Fraternal Union and Croatia's Independence


In its hundred year old history, the CFU has always supported the Croatian people in their struggle for freedom. During the latest tragic events in war torn Yugoslavia, the Society assisted Croatia and its people morally, materially and politically. Recognizing the democratic processes in Croatia and the desire of Croatian people to be free and independent, the CFU stood in support of the Croatian people.


The Zajedničar, reflecting the pluralism of its readers and the CFU membership, endorsed all new political parties which sought to bring freedom and democracy to the Croatian people. Recognizing that the Croatian people wished to be masters of their own destiny, the CFU articulated its position in support of this democratic movement. ' We are particularly aware of the democratic movements in Croatia, the country of our forefathers, and give to all the alternative political parties and their leaders, our unconditional moral support. The Croatian Fraternal Union has throughout its history stood by the Croatian people in their struggle to be free people, even in the times of their greatest oppression, the times when it was unpopular to be associated with that country. The CFU did its utmost to let our Croatian people know it was aware of their oppression, sufferings, and that they were not alone in their struggle. The Croatian Fraternal Union is again standing by its people, encouraging them to continue in their struggle for freedom in which they can enjoy their own language, sing their own songs and proudly say, `Yes, I am Croatian'. We wish the same for all the peoples and nationalities. Only when we are free to acknowledge who we are can we live alongside our neighbours in peace". [ix]


At the height of the Communist Yugoslav Army assault on Croatia in September 1991, the Eighteenth CFU Convention was held in Las Vegas, Nevada. The destruction unleashed upon Croatia was condemned by delegates in their speeches, as well as by the resolution carried at the Convention. The Convention also initiated the establishment of the CFU Croatia Humanitarian Aid Fund into which $50,000 was remitted by the Convention itself, and another $6,000 was raised by the delegates during the session.


The Croatian Humanitarian Aid Fund established at the Eighteenth Convention turned into a permanent fund-raising program and the foremost CFU activity in aiding the homeland. The names of donors were published in every issue of the Zajedničar, and $900,599 was raised by April 20, 1994. At the same time, the Society continued to offer assistance, supplying medicines, food, medical equipment, clothing and other necessities, and shipped to Croatia more than 400 containers of humanitarian aid worth more than $40,000,000. At the sessions held in March 1994, the National Board thanked all the donors with the following words, "We are, as always, grateful to our loyal members and friends who have given their whole-hearted support to the CFU Croatia Humanitarian Aid Fund. With our humanitarian aid, we have helped thousands of people, the victims fighting for their survival in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Our membership's excellent response to this program proves once again the unchanged commitment and the one hundred year-old tradition of the Croatian Fraternal Union. "[x]


The Croatian Fraternal Union did not limit itself to organizing humanitarian aid for Croatia. CFU members recognized how great the historical role of political organizations such as the Croatian Alliance during World War I, and the Council of the American Croats during World War II were. Therefore, in February 1994, the CFU fully supported the establishment of the National Federation of the American Croats whose program was to promote and protect the interest of Croats in the United States and all over the world.


Supporting the democratic changes in Croatia and upholding its people in their struggle for independence, the Croatian Fraternal Union, as an American organization, asserted that its views derived from the principles of American democracy and the right of national self-determination. The CFU also proved to be a true fraternalist organization, based on a program of benevolence and humane relations. As an American-Croatian association, the Society showed clearly that even after a hundred years, its membership was aware of its roots, of being part of the Croatian people. Based on these beliefs and principles, the Croatian Union can look ahead with optimism, expecting yet another century of successful work.


[i] George J. Prpić, The Croatian Immigrants in America, New York, 1971, p. 156.

[ii] Dragutin Pavličević, Hrvatske kućne zadruge, Zagreb, 1989.

[iii] Fraternal Life Insurance, Indianapolis, Indiana, 1938, p. 24.

[iv] Zajedničar, Pittburgh, 22. 10. 1913, No. 42.

[v] Radnički kalendar, Pittsburgh, 1941, p. 77.

[vi] Ivan Čizmić, History of the Croatian Fraternal Union of America, Zagreb, 1994, pp. 175-186.

[vii] Zajedničar, Pittsburgh, August 30, 1989, and September 21, 1990.

[viii] The Minutes of the Ninth CFU Convention, San Francisco, 1971, Zajedničar, September 26, 1983.

[ix] Zajedničar, March 21, 1990.

[x]  Ibid., May 6, 1994.