"There was a large number of Croatians who emigrated to the Watsonville area in those days, and there's probably well over 2,000 people of Croatian descent who are still living in Santa Cruz County today," he added.
According to Ninkovich, an archivist and historian based out of Fresno, between 1900 and the start of World War I, several hundred Croatians made the arduous journey from the Konavle region, which is just south of Dubrovnik, Croatia (then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire), to Watsonville. "Quite a few of the early immigrants in 1870 up until 1890 settled in Jackson where they worked in the mines," Ninkovich said. "But later, groups started moving to Watsonville where they bought up many of the apple orchards. The Croatians were always better farmers than they were anything else." Ninkovich said that, for the immigrants, farming was something that was in their blood - especially having come from a land that had revolved around agriculture for roughly 2,000 years - and Watsonville seemed an ideal place to settle.
"Some of them started out packing apples and worked hard for a long time until they could save up enough money to buy their own land," he said. "The important thing is that, as a result of this migration, today there are more diaspora of Konavle in Watsonville than in any other place in the world. Every person in Konavle knows where Watsonville is - although they pronounce the name 'Vatsonville' - and many have family still living there."
Ninkovich is calling on the people of Watsonville who are of Croatian descent to assist him in his quest to collect information and photos for the Croatian Immigration History Project, which he has been volunteering his time to work on for the last couple years.
"You still see the common Croatian surnames in Watsonville like Scurich, Resetar, Lucich, Matiasevich, Secondo, Alaga, Kralj, Marinovich, Pista, Bachan, Fiorovich, Lettunich, Skocko, Bokarica and others," Ninkovich said.
All the information gathered will be donated to the Croatian Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Croatian State Archives - both located in Dubrovnik - as well as to the Pajaro Valley Historical Association.
"There are really several reasons that we are doing this," Ninkovich said. "For one, we want to provide a foundation for future genealogists' research. We also want to provide a safe repository for people's photos and family histories, which often get lost or destroyed over the years. However, we'll only take copies of photos and written materials. The families and owners will keep the originals." Other reasons for the project, according to Ninkovich, include the fact that the information will help the Croatian Academy with its ongoing historical and demographical work, and could possibly be made into some sort of book in the future.
"To me, one of the most important reasons for doing this is really for the people back in Croatia, who lost most of the photos when their homes were burned and destroyed during the war in the early '90s," Ninkovich said. "Some of the most incredibly moving experiences I've had in my life have been when I've been given some of these old photos by people in the U.S. and taken them back to these families in Croatia. Many times the people cry when they are able to see a photo of their grandmother or great-grandfather or other relatives when they thought they'd lost the photos forever."
For the next few months, Ninkovich will be living in Watsonville to work on his project and is hoping people will come forward to share their stories and photos.
"Right now, we're only looking for photos and information on those who were first-generation immigrants - likely those who came here prior to 1920," Ninkovich said. "We're also focusing only on those who came from the southern-most part of Croatia - from the Peljesac Peninsula south to Montenegro - and are centering around the town of Dubrovnik."
Ninkovich added that he is more than willing to chat with others who may have questions about the project or about Croatian history in the area, or who want information about a surname.
"The connection that Watsonville has with this one region of Croatia in particular is really amazing," Ninkovich said. "I visit the region about once a year and the people all know about 'Vatsonville.' It's really unique and special."
For more information or to set up an appointment, contact Tom Ninkovich by leaving a voicemail at (559) 855-2120 or calling his local cellular phone at 818-5082. Also, information is available on the project Web site at www.croatia-in-english.com.