Jozef Kostlan Letters

Zdenka Sojka, 1914

While the provenance of the two letters written by Jozef Kostlan is not clear, they provide valuable information about the experiences of early migrants from Bohemia to the United States. The letters are found in the collection of papers acquired from Ms. Zdenka Rypka (nee Sojka) of Owatonna, Minnesota. The Rypka and Sojka/Gottfried family history reaches far into the 19th century, with various members of the two families residing in Chicago, Iowa and Minnesota, all favorite destinations for emigrants from Bohemia beginning in the 1850s. Quite likely, the author of the two letters, Jozef Kostlan of Linn County, Iowa, was related to ancestors of Zdenka Rypka (1894-1975). She was born to two Czech-speaking parents, Vaclav Sojka and Marie Sojka (nee Gottfried) whose mother Anna Gottfried lived in Chicago. Anna Gottfried most likely immigrated from Bohemia with her small children, Marie and her siblings Alois and Frances. The Sojkas farmed land in Osage, Iowa (Mitchell County).

Both letters appear to be copies made by someone in Bohemia since they both bear notes written in the same handwriting as the letters indicating that the person who wrote the present texts was not Jozef Kostlan. On the first letter, dated December 26, 1863, the note reads “Psani z Ameriky” (Letter from America), on the second letter, dated March 9, 1865, the annotation is “Toto psani sem obdrzel dne 3. dubna” (This letter I received on April 3). Both of the preserved manuscript letters are written in the same hand as the notes which indicate that the person who wrote the notes was not the same person who authored the original text of the letters. Also, both letters often address various family members as well as friends and neighbors (“Dear fathers, sisters and brother, brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law, uncles and aunts, cousins, godparents, neighbors, friends and all acquaintances with your husbands and wives as well as children …”), suggesting that they were written for a wider audience while at the same time containing private and intimate information, in some case even sensitive assessments of commonly known third parties. It appears as though it was left to the judgment of the recipients (parents and siblings of Jozef Kostlan) to distribute appropriate portions of the letters to additional readers or, perhaps more likely, listeners. It is not clear who was the person who actually copied the original letters. From the messages themselves, it could be assumed that more than one household in the family were interested in owning the texts of the letters, therefore the copies.

The letters reflect the local dialect common in the region in which Jozef Kostlan and his family lived before emigration. The villages of Zderaz, Borová and Voldříš (Oldříš) mentioned in the letters are all found in a 10-mile radius near the towns of Policka and Litomysl in the Pardubice District of eastern Bohemia. The 1863 letter mentions the journey from Pardubice to Bremen. There was a railroad link from the Moravian metropolis Olomouc to Prague since 1845, and Pardubice was on this line. The Kostlan family was thus able to get on the train fairly close to their village. The Policka region in eastern Bohemia produced a sizeable emigration already in the 1850s. It was a poor agricultural region with a considerable Protestant population of which the Kostlans were a part also.

The two letters below describe in great detail the experiences of the family during their voyage and during the first months in their new home.