Peter Rovnianek: Financier, Nationalist... Grifter?

Peter Rovnianek was a financier, Slovak nationalist, newspaper editor, and one of the most prominent Slovak immigrants to America during the Gilded Age. This paper will explore his influence among Slovak Americans and his business and publishing practices. It will also take a look at his more questionable business ventures that cost him, as well as thousands of Slovak immigrants, their life savings. The paper shall also attempt to assess his status among Slovak Americans as one of the most prominent Slovak immigrants and one of the worst grifters of Slovak immigrants of the Gilded Age.

America billed itself as a land of dreams in the late 1800s. By 1892, a French-gifted statue, La Liberte eclairant le monde, began to greet arriving immigrants as they traveled into the New York harbor, making their way to a new life in the United States through Ellis Island. This nation had, only twenty-seven years earlier, survived its Civil War; the 13th Amendment abolished slavery of all people except those imprisoned for crimes--a symbol of which lays at her feet in the form of a broken shackle and chain. Supposedly, there were riches to be found in this New World, and this promise enticed many immigrants suffering from hunger and penury.

These immigrants were often the poor peasantry of Central, Eastern, and Southern Europe. They hoped for wages and salaries that would allow them to return home, support their families, and be able to find upward mobility in their nations. Some of these immigrants, however, found that America did not offer such wages and that working conditions in mines and in mills were not far better than the conditions that enslaved people suffered before 1865. Low wages, dangerous conditions, and being forced to live in company towns (towns erected, serviced, and owned by the companies that the denizens worked for) were certainly in stark contrast to the dreams that these immigrants held as they crossed the treacherous seas. Companies could raise rents and the prices of goods in the company stores while cutting wages, thus maximizing profits. Should a worker complain, the company would not only fire the disgruntled employee, but also evict the entire family. Not only this, but these miners were paid in scrip, which was a currency that was valid only in a company town at the company store. If the worker demanded dollars rather than company scrip, the scrip could be converted to dollars, but often at a rate around 75 percent of the face value. (1) These conditions oppressed the lowest of the working classes in America, and Slovak immigrants would be among those who were relegated to poverty.

The number of Slovak immigrants that came to America between 1889-1914 was upwards of 480,000. (2) Most of these Slovak immigrants were peasant stock; a few came from affluent families. Many Slovaks came to America to make more money to buy more land in the Austrian Hungarian Empire; staying in America was not their primary desire. (3) They endured the long journey to America only to find that they were not landing well-paying work; even the affluent and the educated Slovak often found themselves in the mines and mills; just as Jan Slovensky, Julius Wolf, and Peter Rovnianek himself would, at first. The fact that these Slovak immigrants faced prejudice from other nationalities and from Americans made their upward mobility in American society harder; they were relegated to low wage labor, sometimes despite even the higher educated landed jobs in mines and mills until they could prove their proficiency in English or show their professional acumen. (4) Even then, the Slovak immigrant was just one of the Austrian-Hungarian "Bohunks" that American industry relied on, especially Pittsburgh mines and mills, but never wished to accept. The proof of this is evident in a joke from New Yorksky Dennik, that a woman from Humenne, Slovakia arrived in New York only to meet a black man that spoke her dialect of Slovak. He warns her that without caution, she could become Black in America, too. (5) Of course, the racial aspect of the joke was central to the banal humor with which it was written, but the warning was not lost on the Slovak immigrant of the early 1900s. The greenhorn had to be mindful of their actions, customs, and traditions; if they held to these too strongly and did not assimilate into American culture, they would become "Black." America, as well, had put in place many new restrictions and requirements on immigration, starting with the xenophobia of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 to the literacy requirements of the Immigration Act of 1924. America was reliant on immigrant muscle, but was not welcoming of immigrants into American communities. This situation for Slovaks in America made them susceptible to cheaters and grifters; it is easy to assume that the Slovak immigrant was ready to accept the help of almost any more affluent countryman while remaining suspicious of Americans and other immigrant nationalities. The Slovak immigrants, to preserve their communities in the face of American xenophobia, created fraternal organizations to provide life insurance, community, and social events for the immigrants, the best examples of which would be The First Catholic Slovak Union and the National Slovak Society, both of which are still extant in 2023.

Peter Vit'azoslav Rovnianek was born on June 27, 1867, in Dolny Hricov, a small village in the Zilina District of mondern-day Slovakia. His father was a successful butcher who, according to Peter Rovnianek himself, believed that the "greatest treasure that a parent can give is good upbringing, and for that he made sure that every child received the best schooling." (6) Certainly, Rovnianek received the best his father could secure, as he was a seminary student in Budapest. As is evident in his autobiography Zapisky za zivapochovaneho, Rovnianek was well educated and a talented writer. He often, in this work, voices his Slovak nationalism: "Sme Slovaci rodom a duchom!" (7)

He left the seminary, though, because of his nationalism. This nationalism was the source of many "insults and contempt," as Rovnianek himself described. (8) He describes withstanding such insults as "the first drop blood, which I enthusiastically sign for my Slovak a belief that--day by day deepened the domineering of my heart and was willing to bring any sacrifice on the altar of the nation." (9)

Rovnianek's future business partners, Julius Jan Wolf and Jan Slovensky, traveled much together. They were...

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