Sunday, April 22, 2007

Katerina Jicha, Pioneer Woman

Today is the 118th anniversary of the Oklahoma Land Run, the day that one of my ancestors—and about 50,000 other people—tore into the Unassigned Lands of central Oklahoma in an effort to claim some of the last free land available in the country under the Homestead Act. So while today I want to salute Jiri (George) Jicha, who made the run that day, this post is mainly a tribute to his wife, Katerina (Kate) Jicha, who raised the seven children and ran the farm after George died—just eight months after staking his claim. (Kate and George were the maternal grandparents of Blanche Vermillion Branch.)

Many of you are familiar with the Pioneer Woman statue in Ponca City, a monument to "the heroic character of the women who braved the dangers and endured the hardships incident to daily life of the pioneer and homesteader in this country." There was a competition to create the statue in 1926; the winner was Bryant Baker, who titled his work "Confidence" (above). You'll notice that there is no man in the tableau. The reason for his absence is not specified, but other entries (I saw mockups of all 17 once at Woolaroc) were more explicit: I seem to remember some in which the woman was fending off marauders with her rifle as her husband's body lay nearby.

Anyway, I never gave much thought to the Pioneer Woman until a couple of years ago, when a cousin of a cousin sent me Kate Jicha’s probate file. Reading about her estate and the sequence of events made me realize we had at least one bona fide Pioneer Woman in the family—just surround the statue with six more kids and it could be our Kate.

Katerina Janda was born to Mated Janda and Magdalena Zemanova in 1842 in Zdeslav, a village in the region of Czechoslavakia known as Bohemia. (One of her great-grandsons visited the town in the 1990s.) She married Jiri Jicha sometime before 1872. When he was 41 and she was 39, they joined thousands of other Bohemians in emigrating to America.

I haven't done enough historical reading to know why the large migration happened; does anybody have any insight about it? When I asked Blanche if she knew why they came, she said she remembered her mother telling her something about people being so hungry in Bohemia that a soldier took a bite out of another soldier's arm. Make of that what you will.

With six children, George and Kate sailed for America in 1881. Blanche's mother Mollie Jicha told her that she remembered sticking her hand in the water in New York Harbor when they arrived. (They were a few years too early to see the Statue of Liberty or to be processed at Ellis Island, by the way.) They must have moved out to Nebraska right away, because their seventh child Joseph was born in Nebraska that same year.

George and Kate may have had family connections in America already. Kate's brother Joseph Janda apparently had emigrated to America around 1870.

After six years in Nebraska, the family moved to Indian Territory; I'm not sure where, but I'd guess they were in McClain County, where some of the family lived in later years. On April 22, 1889, the tenth birthday of his daughter Mary, George Jicha lined up to cross the river near Purcell and take part in the Oklahoma Land Run. The territory was opened for settlement at exactly 12 o'clock, and people raced to claim the best land they could. The family story is that George found a fine tract of land but was chased off the claim by a woman with a gun. The implication has always been that the claim was rightfully his (and that perhaps she was a "sooner"—someone who had sneaked into the territory early and squatted on a claim). But perhaps she was just a speedy and determined Pioneer Woman herself.

At any rate, as his grandson Vivian Nemecek told the story, George had to settle for "school land" east of Noble. Whole square-mile sections of Oklahoma Territory and others were set aside to be leased, the income going to fund schools in the territory. If that is indeed what George claimed, he must have bought a farm sooner or later, because the 160 acres that Kate and her family worked belonged to her at her death.

George died on December 23, 1889. He was 50 years old. Their children ranged in age from 8 to 17. They were in a place that had some Czech settlers, though apparently not the large numbers of places like Nebraska—or small pockets like Prague, Oklahoma. Kate must have lived to see her family's customs challenged by the realities of their new world. Although they had been baptized as Catholics, all of her children became Protestants, and they all took anglicized names. And although two of her daughters married fellow Czechs, the three other children who married chose American-born Anglo Saxon Protestants.

Kate only lived to see one of her children married. The match displeased her, though I don’t know why. Her daughter Josie, at age 18, married a 19-year-old farmer named John Black who had taken care of his young sisters since their father had died in 1890. Josie's descendants say that Kate "disowned" her for marrying John. This is not true in a financial sense, as Josie was treated the same as her siblings in Kate's will, but she must have registered disapproval in a way that hurt Josie. Blanche Branch once mentioned an aunt named Josie whose husband "practically kidnapped her," so there is a tale of some kind to be told there. Maybe it'll turn up over time.

Here is a picture of Kate and six of her children. (Click on it to make it larger, if not clearer.) I don't know the date, but it was probably after 1893 (when Josie married, as she is not in the picture) and before Kate died in 1897. Seated left to right are Jim, Kate, and Mollie. Standing are Mary, Joseph, Jennie, and John.

If Kate didn't like Josie's marriage, one wonders what she would have thought of her daughter Mollie's choice of husband. A few years after Kate died, the 28-year-old Mollie married 24-year-old Walter "Whit" Vermillion. Whit was a horse trader whose brother, Ira, was in the federal prison at Leavenworth for roping an old Czech farmer named Joseph Nemecek (whose sons later became Mollie's brothers-in-law) and dragging him to his death. I'll tell this story in greater detail in a later post.

Kate wrote a will (left) on May 26, 1897; she died 21 days later. She left her estate in equal shares to her seven children, but stipulated that the farm should not be sold until her youngest children, Mary and Joseph, reached 21 years old. She intended that they have the farm as a place to live until then.

The probate file includes inventories and receipts that give a glimpse into farm life at the time. In the summer of Kate’s death, the Jichas had 50 acres of corn and 14 acres of cotton, and had also raised wheat and oats. They had 8 horses, 3 mules, 12 head of cattle, 2 pigs, and assorted plows, cultivators, and wagons. When all these were sold five years later, the most expensive item was a mule that brought $100.25. (A blind mare went for $5.)

For the five years before Kate’s son Joseph reached 21, her executor, a local Czech named Joseph Valouch, had to keep track of what was bought or sold. In the meantime, the children began to leave home. In 1898, the third daughter, Johanna (Jennie), married Jim Nemecek, another native of Bohemia. By the 1900 census, only John, the second son, and Mollie, the oldest daughter, were living on the farm. Mollie left for Washington state around 1901 to marry Walter Vermillion, whose family was homesteading out there. (They would return within a few years.)

The estate was settled on August 30, 1902, the farm having been sold for $3500 to Joseph Nemecek, a brother to Jim Nemecek. Receipts in the probate file show that all Kate’s children received their share of the estate—$540.75 apiece—on August 30, except for Mollie, who received her share in Washington state a month later. (An online “inflation calculator” says that that amount would be the same as about $12,500 in 2006 dollars.)

Getting all this down, I find that I’ve learned only enough about the Jichas to realize how much I don’t know. But this is an ongoing process, and I hope I’ll have more information and insights as time goes on. In the meantime, just for the record, here are Kate and George's children and grandchildren:

1. Jim Jicha (1872–1946). He apparently had mental problems of some kind, and was institutionalized at one point. Blanche Branch remembered him fondly and viewed him as a kind of seer or psychic who predicted events in Europe like the Russian Revolution. She remembered that he called her "bobule" which I have since learned means "berry" in Czech. He did not marry.

2. Margaret (Mollie) Jicha (1873–1931). I've mentioned her marriage to Walter Vermillion. After returning from Washington, they lived in Wayne, Oklahoma. They had two children who died young, Fay and Louis. Their other two children were Blanche Vermillion (Branch) and John Walter Vermillion. Walter died in 1907, just a few months after Blanche was born. Mollie married again then divorced, after which she and Blanche moved to Oklahoma City.

3. Josefa (Josie) Jicha (1875–1912). I mentioned her marriage to John Black. They had four sons: Hugh Black, John Black, Homer Black, and Clyde Black. [UPDATE: A cousin tells me I missed John and Josie's daughter Mary. Duly noted.]

4. John C. Jicha (1876–1959). He married Emma Evatt in 1909. John ran a store in Wayne. They had five children: Evatt Jicha, John Curtis Jicha, William Paul Jicha, Doris Jicha (Lamar), and Mary Evelyn Jicha (Russell).

5. Johanna (Jennie) Jicha (1878–1966). She married Vaclav (Jim) Nemecek in 1898. They had five children: George Nemecek, Mary Katherine (Katie) Nemecek (Long), Thomas Nemecek, Margaret Nemecek (Barton), and Kenneth Nemecek.

6. Mary (Marie) Jicha (1879–1935). She married Andrew Nemecek, brother of Jim Nemecek, in 1903. They had six children: Joe Talmadge Nemecek, Murel Andrew Nemecek, Vivian Nemecek, Genevieve Josephine Nemecek (Mote), Mary Frances Nemecek, and Helen R. Nemecek.

7. Joseph Jicha (1881–?). I lose track of Joseph at 21, when he receives his share of the estate. He doesn’t appear in a census after that, and Blanche Branch never mentioned him when telling about her aunts and uncles. My assumption is that he died while still a young man.

As always, I’d love to hear from anyone who has information or just memories to share about these families. You can add to the comments below or e-mail me at

No comments: