Causes of Emigration from Lithuania



Emigration of the Lewis Brothers


There were four main causes of the emigration of the Lewis Brothers from Lithuania between 1868 and 1871: (1) the bloody uprising of January 1863 and discriminatory Russian policies afterwards, (2) conscription into the Czarist army, (3) crop failures, and (4) lack of work.


1863 Uprising

The January Uprising was an uprising in the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth  (present-day Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, Latvia, parts of Ukraine, western Russia) against the Russian Empire. It started on January 22, 1863, and lasted until the last insurgents were captured in 1865.

The uprising began as a spontaneous protest by young Poles against forced conscription into the Russian Army, and was soon joined by high-ranking Lithuanian officers and various politicians. The insurrectionists, severely outnumbered and lacking serious outside support, were forced to resort to guerilla warfare tactics.

They failed to win any major military victories or capture any major cities or fortresses. But they did blunt the effect of the Tsar's abolition of serfdom in the Russian partition, which had been designed to draw the support of peasants away from the nation. Severe and bloody reprisals against insurgents, such as public executions and deportations to Siberia, led many people to abandon armed struggle and turn instead to the idea of economic and cultural self-improvement.

The Tsarist government intensified its discriminatory policies in Lithuania after 1863.   A radical policy of Russification was introduced into the educational system, while oppression of the Catholic Church expanded.  All this served as an impetus for the emigration to America.




There was a general desire to avoid recruitment into the hated Russian army.  After the introduction of compulsory enlistment into the army of the Russian Empire, Lithuania figured in Tsarist statistics as the areas with the greatest number of deserters.


Crop Failure


The crop failure and terrible famine of 1867-1868 increased the emigration from Lithuania. 47,819 died during one year in the Province of Kovno.


Lack of Work


There was a great surplus in the labor force of the Lithuanian village.  The reforms of 1861-1863 that abolished serfdom accelerated structural changes in the Lithuanian countryside. The number of landless and peasants, those owning only small tracts of land, grew rapidly. During 1867-1900 landless peasants in the Guberniya (province) of Kovno (Kaunas) increased from 74,905 to 208,034 (14.8% of all villagers), and from 28,000 to 115,000 (8.3%) in the Guberniya of Vilna (Vilnius). The same was true of the Guberniya of Suvalki (Suvalkai).


Only a small percentage of the peasants could find work in the cities since the possibilities of their absorption were quite limited.  Industry grew rather slowly, so the demand for new labor remained insignificant.


Moreover, the industry based on the workshops of individual craftsmen was disappearing in Lithuanian cities. These small artisans who could not compete with larger industrial enterprises, were forced to close their workshops, and were frequently left with almost no sources of income. This process further reduced the ability of the cities to employ the growing labor force from the villages.


Mass Emigration


Mass emigration from Lithuania began in the eighth decade of the 19th century. America was not the only country to which the emigrants traveled. Lithuanians also settled in England, Canada, and South Africa. Major Lithuanian colonies were founded in many of the cities in Imperial Russia, particularly Riga, Libava (Liepaja), St. Petersburg.


Numerically, the emigration from Lithuania was one of the largest in Europe; only that from Ireland was proportionately greater. In his letter of February 2, 1908 to the Minister of the Interior the Governor General of Vilna (Vilnius) suggested that a special section of emigration be instituted in his chancellery because "the time has arrived to regulate movement of the population which the authorities are now unable to control."


In the last decades of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, 635,000 people emigrated from Lithuania. This was approximately 20% of the population of 3 million people who lived in the territory of Lithuania in 1897.


The greatest number of emigrants journeyed to America. Despite the poverty of the first emigrants, their failures, and the exceptionally difficult working conditions, America nonetheless remained attractive because of the promising possibilities for settling there. Hundreds of American writers promulgated stories of shoe-shine boys becoming millionaires. The press, schools, and books heralded the advantages of the land of opportunity.


Letters received from relatives and friends who had already settled in America kindled an almost youthful enthusiasm and resolve to travel to America. Frequently, the text of the letter had already been prepared, and the writer needed only to add a few words of his own.


The texts of such letters were the start of a unique Lithuanian-American folklore. More than once, the singularly primitive letters of a self-educated poet from Brighton Park or Shenandoah vividly revealed the plight of the emigrants.


Of course, it also happened that some "Lithuanian lad" complained that  "America is praised because there is so much work", but when an individual "looks at the work, tears flow", since “wherever one goes, wherever one looks, people are crying" that others "are walking around without work".


However, the Lithuanian village youth found far more agreeable those letters that were replete with enthusiasm and praise for The American Creed – the idea of enrichment and perseverance. News of the limitless possibilities of the New World was spread through such letters.


Work here is hard

But the pay is good

Not as in Lithuania

Where there is no money.


The Lithuanian political emigration to America was periodic like the ebbing and the rising of the tide.  Sometimes larger groups came over, sometimes smaller.  It is difficult to calculate the number of Lithuanians who arrived in America before the so-called great emigration, whose impetus was basically economic.  However, it is beyond doubt that during the struggle of Lithuanians for their national existence, America was considered a bastion of liberty, the promised land, for those fugitives from the Tsarist yoke who wandered homeless throughout the world.


Emigration to Chicago


From the very beginning of the development of Chicago, a giant among industrial cities, Chicago became a multi-national center that attracted members of more than twenty groups of immigrants from various European and Asian countries. It would seem that their uniform and difficult work, and the monotonous process of mechanization in the steel mills, railroad construction, and the stockyards could eliminate all the essential national characteristics of the ethnic groups.


This is related to the fate of all emigrations in a typical immigrant land such as America. It was quite difficult for immigrants of all nations to find their place. On the one hand, the new arrivals attempted to preserve their national culture and traditions. On the other, they needed to enter into the life of this new land, to feel its pulse and its longings. It seems that at this decisive crossroad, many Lithuanian immigrants managed to retain their national identity, and it did not hinder them in adjusting, more or less, to the norms and standards of their new home and contributing to its flourishing.