‘Magyar Amerika’: Hungarians in the United States of America, 1831-67, Part One   Leave a comment

Early contacts between the United States of America and Hungary were sporadic and personal. Historian and poet István Parmenius of Buda accompanied Sir Humphrey Gilbert’s British expedition to Newfoundland in 1583. According to some accounts, Captain John Smith, one of America’s first settlers, travelled in Hungary in 1600-1602, and fought the Turks there before his excursions to the New World, where he met the native princess Pocahontas. An estimated 140 Hungarians fought in the American Revolutionary War. Colonel Commandant Michael de Kováts of the Pulaski Legion trained the first American cavalry unit in the tradition of the Hungarian Hussars. Kováts was killed in Charleston, South Carolina in 1779, fighting for American Independence. He therefore ranks among the first Hungarian freedom fighters and a revolutionary martyr pre-dating those of the Hungarian War of Independence by nearly seventy years.


By the 1820s, the Hungarian view of America was changing, due mainly to the influence of the Enlightenment on Hungary. Before, and even after the American War of Independence, the New World was primarily a geographical expression. János Ferenczy, in his Közönséges Geográphia, published in 1809, and Zsigmond Horváth, in Amerikának haszonnal mulattató Esmértetése (1813), went beyond providing basic information about towns such as Philadelphia and Boston, to emphasize the importance of public libraries, learned societies, hospitals and self-government. They also mentioned the problem of slavery and the treatment of the Amerindians. In the 1820s and 1830s in Hungary, there were more and more articles about the United States, translated from German and French, published in Hungarian periodicals. In these descriptions, there was an increasing emphasis on the political equality of the American people. These articles also projected a positive image of the Americans as skillful, hard-working people.

Bölöni Farkas Sándor (1795–1842) író, műfordít...

Bölöni Farkas Sándor (1795–1842) író, műfordító, utazó, művelődésszervező (Vasárnapi Újság, 1871. július 23.) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Among these articles, written by other Europeans, Sándor Bölöni Farkas’ work was the first to give the first-hand impressions of a Hungarian author who deliberately presented these as part of a treasury of progressive ideas ideas for what he saw as a backward Hungary. These progressive views resulted in the book being banned a year after publication. His diary entries show that he knew exactly what he was trying to do; to awaken the spirit of independence in the Magyar nation.

In the mid-nineteenth century, in addition to those Hungarians arriving in the States with the intention of settling down and establishing a new life, there were many who chose it as a place of exile after the Hungarian Revolution of 1848 and the War of Independence which ended in defeat in the following summer of 1849. There were also many others who wished to see The New World with their own eyes, like many other European travellers, but set out intending to return home after an extended sojourn in the USA.

Sándor Márki’s Amerika s a magyarság was published in 1893, the first summary of the experiences of Hungarians who visited or settled in the USA. Several studies appeared afterwards, the last of these being Ödön Vasváry’s Magyar Amerika, published in Szeged in 1988.

Hungarians in the States, 1831-48

In 1831, Hungarian scholar Sándor Bölöni Farkas journeyed to the United States and wrote about his encounters with Americans and their new form of government. In his book, Utazás Észak-Amerikában (Journey in North America), published in 1832, Bölöni Farkas wrote of a land of unlimited opportunity, and presented a rosy picture of the American political system. He translated the Declaration of Independence into Hungarian, noting that it attributes all rights to the people and the people yields only some of them to the administration. During his visit he met President Andrew Jackson and saw the Philadelphia Mint. He commented on the commitment to public education, the US penal system, religious diversity and slavery – the one fly in the ointment, as far as he was concerned. His book became popular with Hungarian readers.

Bölöni started on his journey in 1830, but didn’t arrive in New York until 3rd September 1831. Besides touring all the major eastern cities, he also visited Canada, spending time in some of the towns there. He returned home on 23rd November 1832. We can therefore assume, allowing for the homeward journey, that he was in the States for no more than a year. His aim was to inspire his countrymen to establish independent institutions in their own country.

Photogravure of Charles Alexis Henri Clérel de...

Photogravure of Charles Alexis Henri Clérel de Tocqueville (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Besides Bölöni’s popular work, the Hungarian middle classes in the 1840s were also influenced by a translation of Alexis de Tocqueville’s study of the United States. It was published in two volumes between 1843 and 1845. He and his friend Gustave de Beaumont visited the states when they became disillusioned following the July Revolution of 1830 in Paris. Their official aim was to study the penal system, but their real goal was to write a book on the ’mechanics’ of the American way of life. For Tocqueville, the United States was of interest because the future could be studied in the present. He was impressed by the prospects for freedom and equality, and moved by the genuine concern shown by Americans for the liberty of others and the well-being of their communities. He observed that though the Americans were law-abiding, it was their religion which forbade them from committing injustices. He was interested in the details of the Americans’ lifestyle, especially their manners. However, he was somewhat prejudiced by his own aristocratic background, finding many of their ways dull and uncivilized  The picture of American society he drew was therefore more a reflection of his own class consciousness rather than a true image of a social system not based on class distinctions. He wrote that the Americans had no desire for the finer arts of life born of aristocratic leisure.

As the United States expanded westward across North America, extending its new constitutional government, the Hungarian National Revival was emerging, with its emphasis on enlightened ideas of national identity and self-determination. During the 1820s the Hungarian Diet had begun to press for increased us of the Magyar language in schools and to discuss individual rights and economic development. In the early 1830s, a reformist group led by Ferenc Deák came to power in the Diet, or Parliament. Some of its members looked towards the United States as a model, in particular its jury trial system and traditions of religious tolerance. Contemporaneously, a group of Young Parliamentarians formed around Lajos Kossuth, a lawyer appointed as the delegate of an absent baron. In 1835, the Habsburg Government cracked down on Kossuth’s group, and Kossuth himself was arrested in 1837 and jailed until the opposition in the 1839-40 Diet forced a discussion of freedom of expression. The following year he began a new political journal, Pest Hírlap, which called for reforms based on the capitalism and political liberalism of western Europe and the United States.

Other Hungarian scholars who travelled to the United States before the 1848 Revolution included Károly Nagy, a mathematician and astronomer who met with President Jackson and established links between the Hungarian Academy and the American Philosophical Society founded by Benjamin Franklin.

Fig. 1: The Tour of…

007Ágoston Mokcsai Haraszthy published a book about his American travels in 1844, ten years after Bölöni’s work. While in the States he also founded a settlement (originally named after him, now known as Sauk City) and a humanist society in Wisconsin. He later travelled to California, where he imported vine cuttings for the state’s emerging wine industry. Haraszthy’s Utazás Éjszakamerikában was more of a study of economic progress than Bölöni’s book, which was more of a text book on American democracy than a travelogue. Haraszthy was impressed by the technical improvements he witnessed there and was constantly thinking of their application to Hungary. Passages detailing these improvements were interspersed among accounts of his hunting episodes and other adventures. He found other topics interesting, such as the public amusements


Nevertheless, as a practical person he was impressed by the enterprising spirit of the New World and obsessed by economic possibilities engendered by a democratic society. Although he listed the most popular religious sects existing in the States, he did not comment on the religious freedom exercised by the American people.

Haraszthy’s work was less comprehensive than the later works of the exiles Wass, Xántus or Árvay.

Hungarian Exiles and Emigrants, 1848-1862

In 1847, Kossuth and Deák created an opposition party. The April Laws passed by the Diet in 1848, following the Revolution, provided for a constitutional monarchy on the western European model. Power was to be centralised in bourgeois Budapest and limited to the Hungarians. It appeared to the minorities that the ideas of equality, liberty and national self-determination would not be extended to them. Although Croatia was part of the ancient crown lands of King Stephen, the Croatian leadership remained loyal to the Emperor, a major factor in the ultimate defeat of the Hungarians in the War of Independence.


Despite these failings, many Americans were sympathetic towards Hungary’s revolt against Austrian rule, especially since some Hungarian laws cited the American Revolution and War of Independence as their inspiration. Although the Hungarians lost their War of Independence at Temesvár in August 1849, following the Czar’s intervention in autocratic alliance with the Habsburgs, the theory and practice of an independent nation had been experienced, and would not easily be forgotten. Its leaders were either executed or exiled, but the Fillmore Administration succeeded in negotiating the release of Kossuth and his men from captivity in Turkey, smuggling them to Britain aboard the USS Mississippi, and from there to the United  States. Kossuth arrived in New York to begin a tumultuous tour of the country, following which streets, squares and even some towns and counties were named after him. His hundreds of speeches received wide press coverage on both coasts of the country. Though Kossuth was given a respectful, sympathetic and even enthusiastic hearing everywhere, he received no official support for an independent government in exile. He left for Britain in July 1852.


Conscious of growing domestic tensions over the status of slavery in the mid-western territories, American leaders were unable to intervene, against their own policy of non-interference and in the face of strong Austrian protests in support of defeated European freedom fighters who had little chance of restoring their independent government. However, in July 1853, Commander Duncan N Ingraham of the USS St Louis did succeed in rescuing Márton Koszta, one of Kossuth’s comrades, from the Austrian warship Huszár, anchored in the port of Smyrna. Koszta had been seized in the Ottoman city by the imperial navy, but after interviews with the US Consul, Ingraham learnt that Koszta had lived in the United States for nearly two years and had declared his intention of becoming a US citizen a year earlier. However, he had not yet received a reply to his application from the US Chargé in Constantinople (Istanbul).  Both ships prepared for battle before Koszta was transferred to the St Louis just before Ingraham’s ultimatum expired. Although the Austrians protested, the US Secretary of State declared that, though not yet a citizen, Koszta had a home in the States and was therefore being considered for citizenship, a position which gave him the right to the protection he had placed himself under, and to be extradited to the US by agreement with the Ottoman authorities. The US newspapers praised Ingraham for his brinkmanship in standing up to the imperial navy.

General Hungarian immigration to the US increased throughout the 1850s. By the time of the outbreak Civil War an estimated four thousand Hungarians lived in the States. Some stayed for a while before returning to Hungary, while others made the US their new home. László Újházy, originally one of Kossuth’s associates, chose to stay and found a Hungarian settlement, New Buda, in Iowa. He later became American consul in Ancona, Italy. János Xantus belonged to the Kossuth Emigration, as did Samu Wass and László Árvay, arriving in America in 1851. Xantus’ first book on North America was published in 1857. He returned to Hungary in 1861 but then went back to the States in 1864. Árvay, also a political exile, remained in the states until 1855. Samu Wass’s travelogue was published in 1861. He spent ten years in America, having fled Hungary at the end of the War of Independence, not returning home until 1859. Xantus became a unique contributor to Hungarian-American relations. He conducted scientific research and worked for the US Government, serving in the Army as a geologist and explorer, as well as becoming a US consul in Mexico. His sometimes exaggerated accounts were published, accompanied by drawings of Native Americans and western landscapes. He once wrote:

I like riding in the prairies best. They very much resemble our own beautiful, unforgettable plains. Often I hum a folk song, but instead of our fata morgana, the roar of the buffalo is heard.

005However, even the roar of the buffalo could not compare with the mirages known as castles in the air seen on the Hungarian plains. Xántus’ Letters from America were originally written to his family and are therefore of a personal character. However, this did not prevent his works from being those of a political exile who had the chance not only to visit but also to live in the USA. His book therefore provides a closer look at the reality of the American way of life, giving examples of the problems facing someone who is forced to live as a stranger in a foreign land. He had to adjust himself to a far more practical way of life than the one he had left behind. According to his letters, he found his place in his new home, though he described his American life as much more interesting and exciting than it actually was. Hungarian critics have pointed out that the details of his expedition to Elk River in Kansas where he met the Witchita Indians must have been at least partly born of his imagination, and that these passages appear to have been translated from English.

Between 1855 and 1857, he had to stay in Fort Riley in Kansas, where he was a surgeon’s assistant,  and did not have the opportunity to take part in expeditions over the western territories in the manner of Irving and Cooper. Apart from his partly imaginary trips to the plains, of which Europeans can have little idea, he was the only one of our six travellers who visited some of the cities on the west coast, including Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego. Anna Katona has remarked that:

János Xántus tried to explain life in the States to his immediate family, consequently most of his Hungarian-oriented remarks were of an everyday character. One of his main concerns was the mail. His remarks are certainly in praise of the efficiency of America.

Among his many adventures, he inserted true descriptions of the American way of life and means of transport and communication – he described travelling by train, including on top of a railway carriage, life on a steamboat, and even discussed the problem of servants with his relatives. Though he gave hints about the equality that he found among people and the opportunities that were open to all, he seems not to have been fascinated by the political system in the way in which other Hungarian writers were. However, he claimed to have paid his respects to President Buchanan, probably an invention. However his account of the life of the exiles in the Hungarian settlement of New Buda is considered to be reliable and is the only account we have of this.

Fig 2: The Tour of…

 008Nine Years in the Life of an Exile was the first volume of his planned memoirs. Although it contains a thorough chapter on New York, it’s likely that most of his North America material would have gone into the second volume which never saw publication. The chapter he devoted to New York is not merely descriptive but also summarised the development of the city based on his impressions and experiences gained during many visits.


László Árvay’s work remains in manuscript form, unpublished. He gives an account of his life in exile, having taken part in the Revolutionary War of Independence in 1848-49. He crossed the border at Fácset after his troops were defeated at Lugos in August, 1849. They fled to Turkey where they lay low for two years in Aleppo, before setting out for America. He travelled with János Fiala, a Colonel in the Revolutionary Army, arriving in New Orleans in March 1852. Árvay’s life there was reported to be strenuous, but his own accounts are about living in a hotel, visiting the theatre and having lunch at Puneky’s Hotel (Puneky was a Hungarian from Szeged who had been living in New Orleans for some time). They stayed in the city until Kossuth arrived there in March 1852, but did not accompany him to New York for the passage to Britain but went to St Louis to earn their living there. Although there were plenty of jobs available, at first Árvay found it humiliating to accept manual labour.  He tried his hand at farming, fencemaking, gardening and labouring on a farm. As well as living in St Louis, he also stayed in Davenport and spent some time on the farm of his fellow exile, Tivadar Rombauer. With the help of Börnstein, the chief editor of the local newspaper in St Louis and another early Hungarian immigrant, he managed to get a post as an engineer at the Pacific Railway Company. He worked in Jefferson City but still found it difficult to settle. Since he was given free train tickets he decided to visit the eastern cities; New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Cincinatti, Buffalo, Chicago, Pittsburg, Washington and the Niagara Falls.

Having seen so much of the States and being provided with a free ticket for a sailing ship to Britain he finally left America in February 1855. He later took part in the Crimean War in 1856, from where he returned home to his family in Szeged.

Although Árvay’s diary mostly contains the events of his own American life and an account of the political exiles after the War of Independence, it does contain passages on the manners of Americans and on transport and communications which are useful to the historian looking for evidence of the social and economic development of the USA at this time. His view of American life is quite critical, however, partly due to the difficulty he had in settling into the raw newness of life there and in making a living. There are no direct references in the diary to the political economy of the States at this time, and it seems probable that he was unimpressed by a country which many of his fellow countrymen had considered a model of democracy in the years before the 1848 Revolution.

In the conclusion to her essay on Hungarian travellers in the United States, Anna Katona has remarked, drawing on the contemporary sources,  that:

…amidst the awakening of the backward country in the 1830s and 40s, America figured as a model of material, spiritual and moral modernisation as well as material improvement.

She claims that, as before 1848, the vast majority of post-1849 Hungarian visitors were still attracted by American institutions and prosperity. This became the main focus for Haraszthy’s work, and for that of Károly Nendtvich, for which he was awarded a prize by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in 1864. A review in Budapesti Szemle praised the book for its scholarly approach, reflective method and truthful portrayal of public and private life, institutions, professions and classes of society.


Nendvitch was born in 1811, brought up in Pécs, studied Medicine in Pest and became an obstetrician. However, he preferred Chemistry and graduated in it, becoming a professor. As the discipline was not considered a natural science at that time, he had little chance of getting a salaried post at the Budapest University, so he resigned and taught introductory Chemistry to medical students to make a living. In the period before the 1848 Revolution, he wanted to become more actively involved in the reform movement. He was among the founders of the Association of Natural Sciences in 1841, whose aim was to popularise the natural sciences among the common people and to make them understand that without scientific knowledge there could be no progress for the nation. He also analysed the different types of coal found in Hungary, classifying them according to their value for industrial purposes. For this research he was awarded a prize by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. He was asked by Kossuth to assist in the work of the Iparegyesület (Chamber of Trade), founded in 1841, and in 1848, following the Revolution, he was offered the post of Head of Chemistry at the University of Budapest.

However, he had hardly taken up this post when the War of Independence began, and when the Revolution was suppressed, he was court-martialed for his radical ideas and activities. These had included giving introductory lectures in Chemistry to the Army, since it was accepted that the soldiers could not use gunpowder properly without an elementary knowledge of Chemistry. He was removed from his post at the University, but allowed to continue his work at the Trade Institute which later became the University of Technology in Budapest.

Fig 3 :  The Tour of ….

010Nendtvich was desperate over the state of post-revolutionary Hungary and was also embittered about his own situation. The institute where he led the Department of Chemistry was not properly equipped, and not suitable for proper research. Therefore, the possibility of visiting the USA gave him new enthusiasm. So, in 1855, he spent two months in the States, from mid-July to mid-September, publishing his two-volume work three years later. During his visit, nothing seemed to escape his attention and he provided a thorough, scholarly description of the States. The two volumes of his work have the same topic but differing themes.

In 1857 the Trade Institute was granted the title of University of Technology, and he remained there until his retirement. He died in 1892.

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