Attracted by jobs in the burgeoning mining and manufacturing industries, Hungarians came to West Virginia in considerable number after 1900. Many were recruited by agents of coal and manufacturing companies in their own country or when they entered the United States at Ellis Island, New York. Companies sometimes guaranteed travel costs, to be worked off after arriving in America. These immigrants were said to have come ‘‘on transportation’’ and began their new lives in debt to their employers. Many planned to work awhile, save money, and then return to their old country. Some did return, but a greater number stayed, either due to assimilation or the inability to raise enough money for the return trip. Typically, single men or married men without their families arrived first, later sending for their loved ones to join them.
In 1890, there were 236 native Hungarians in West Virginia. By 1900, there were 1,062 Hungarians in the state, with about half of them split evenly between McDowell and Marion counties. Most were coal miners. The 1910 census lists a total of 5,939 Hungarians in West Virginia, although the influx slowed as indicated by the 1920 census listing 6,260, with Logan and McDowell counties with the greatest number. Hungarians were the second most numerous immigrant group in West Virginia mines after the turn of the 20th century, with Italians being first.
Hungarians were particularly conscious of retaining their customs and language, often requiring their American-born children to first speak Hungarian, and then learn English when they began public school. Some even formed Hungarian language schools. In this way, Hungarian traditions, foods, and religion were maintained in West Virginia. After World War I, immigration numbers fell, although some Hungarians did continue to enter West Virginia. Today, the close knit Hungarian communities have dispersed, as other ethnic groups have done in the state through the last 60 years.
Written by Cathy Pleska
14th Census of the U.S.: Population 1920. Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1922.
Bailey, Kenneth R. A Judicious Mixture: Negroes and Immigrants in the West Virginia Mines, 1880-1917. West Virginia History, (Jan. 1973).
Barkey, Fredrick A. Immigration and Ethnicity in West Virginia. West Virginia History: Critical Essays on the Literature. Dubuque, IA: Kendall-Hunt Pub., 1993.