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Gypsies in America

Updated on April 4, 2015
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Who are the American Gypsies?

There are eleven distinct gypsy groups in the United States:

  • Cale, which is sometimes spelled Kale, are gypsies who have their origins in Spain; they are generally known as “Gitano.” These gypsy families tend to have small numbers in the communities and travel mainly in the urban centers on the Eastern and Western coasts of the United States.
  • English travelers are fairly ill-organized groups of gypsies and generally associate themselves with the Romnichels. Most of the English travelers came over from England in the 1880s.
  • Hungarian-Slovak gypsies are generally not roaming or traveling gypsies and found primarily in the Northern United States. These folks are known for playing “gypsy” music and looking the part of the stereotypical gypsy.
  • Irish travelers roam from place to place mainly throughout the Southern United States. These folks call themselves travelers, but other gypsies call them Irish Gypsies. Irish travelers came over in the 1850s.
  • Ludar gypsies are from the Banat area of Europe. They are also known as Banat Swabians; they come from Serbia, Hungary, and Romania. They arrived in large numbers after 1880.
  • Roaders or Roadies are traveling family groups that have no connection to any of the other gypsy groups. They are usually American-born and are associated more with the hobo culture.
  • Rom gypsies make up the largest percentage of gypsies in the United States. These families are of Easter European descent and arrived in the United States after the 1880s. They tend to congregate in large urban centers, but do travel throughout all of the United States.
  • Romnichels, also spelled Romnichals, are gypsies of English origin and tend to live in more rural areas. They are the most assimilated of all of the gypsy groups, thus their true numbers are unknown.
  • Scottish travelers, like the other travelers, don’t call themselves gypsies although they are categorized as such. These travelers came from Scotland after 1850 where they were known as Tinkers. Sociologists have identified over one hundred distinct clans in the United States.
  • Sinti gypsies are a little-known group of German families who have assimilated with both non-gypsy and Romnichel groups.
  • Yenisch are a group of Germans who have been classified as gypsies, but don’t consider themselves as part of the gypsy culture. These family groups formed their own communities in Pennsylvania in the 1840 and created a lucrative trade in basket-making.

Irish Travelers in America circa 1954

An Irish American group of travelers in the Southern United States in the mid-20th century
An Irish American group of travelers in the Southern United States in the mid-20th century | Source

Why are They Called Gypsies?

Linguistically, the word “gypsy” comes from the word “Egyptian.” Unfortunately, this is an inaccurate moniker although most do call themselves gypsies in English. Ethnic gypsies were originally a group of fighting forces created to hold back armies of Islamic troops in India. After the Islamic wars with India, these family groups moved into Europe, Northern Africa, and Asia where they married into and adopted some of the cultures of the people in these areas.

Gypsies in India During the Islamic Indian War

A family of poor Indian gypsies painted by Raja Ravi Varma. The original gypsies came from the Punjab region of India, then spread to parts of Europe before immigrating to America.
A family of poor Indian gypsies painted by Raja Ravi Varma. The original gypsies came from the Punjab region of India, then spread to parts of Europe before immigrating to America. | Source

What About the Term "Rom"?

“Rom” comes from a Sanskrit word that means “to roam about.” Anyone interested in etymology can list many words with the root “rom.” These “roamers” literally roamed the countryside, never settling in any one place. Once dispersed, these groups picked up language and culture from the different regions.

Travelers and Roamers

A gypsy caravan in a mobile travelers park.
A gypsy caravan in a mobile travelers park. | Source

The Gypsy-Americans

American gypsy scholars know the most about the Roms and the Romnichels. The Roms came from Eastern Europe while the Romnichels came from Great Britain and other parts of Western Europe. Most folks who study the gypsy culture put the groups into two distinct camps.

While the two groups have quite a bit in common, they faced different prejudices based on the time of their immigration and their main country of origin. The Romnichels arrived in the United States earlier than the Roms. The Romnichels ran successful horse and mule trading businesses. The Rom came later. They brought with them more of what Americans call stereotypical gypsy culture. Almost all Gypsy-Americans trace their ancestry back to Europe.

Roms in the United States

Rom gypsies in America
Rom gypsies in America | Source

Coming to America

Gypsies came to America for the same reasons that other immigrants have to America—to flee persecution and/or to make a better life for themselves and their families. Most European countries, until recently, have had laws restricting the rights of gypsies, and many had laws that caused deportation for many gypsies. Because of many of their cultural practices, Christian churches have been the most suspicious of gypsies and thus were the impetus to the deportation of gypsies from their country. There was never any talk of “sending them home” as no country would claim them.

Some gypsies actually arrived in the United States through annexation. Napoleon deported many gypsies into the Louisiana Territory before selling it to the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase.

Persecution and Economic Freedom

Photo of persecuted gypsies in occupied Yugoslavia
Photo of persecuted gypsies in occupied Yugoslavia | Source

Where Are These Gypsies?

Like the stereotype, many gypsy families continue to roam from place to place, sometimes following a strict route each year, or simply going where they might make a living. Many Gypsy-Americans set up “camps” in mobile home parks and travel out from there; they divide up into smaller family groups but come back together regularly. Many gypsy families travels in the warmer weather and settle in their “camps” during the colder months. Some gypsies move from apartment to apartment, keeping the homes within the gypsy family community. Gypsies tend to be equally divided between rural and urban areas. Gypsies, like all Americans, tend to follow or go to areas of economic growth.

Hungarian-Slavik Gypsy Music

Maintaining Their Gypsiness

Like many ethnic groups in the United States, gypsies have the ability to assimilate without losing their cultural identity. Many gypsies will live in non-gypsy communities but maintain a gypsy culture and social identity. Many of the psychic reading businesses are run by gypsies. Many gypsies adopt two different forms of behavior—one for their non-gypsy life and one for their gypsy life. Gypsies do this instinctively to survive as they are still fearful of prejudice and hate for their lifestyle.

Can I Tell Your Future?

A fortune-teller's caravan
A fortune-teller's caravan | Source

You Look Like a Gypsy

Many people think of gypsies as dark-skinned, swarthy, and short. Americans dress “like gypsies” for Halloween in colorful elaborate clothes. Gypsies have been romanticized and vilified. Gypsy women are cast as harlots; many say that gypsy women sell sex for money or to barter goods or just because they are such “sensual beings.” Some Americans believe that gypsies don’t believe in monogamy and let their children run wild. Recently though, sociologists have begun to shed light on the true nature and culture of this sub-group of Americans.

Summary

Like all Americans, gypsies come in many different shapes and sizes and socio-economic groups, although there are some distinct characters that do set them apart ethnically. Most Gypsy-Americans can trace their ancestry to Europe beginning in the mid-19th century. Gypsies make up a large part of the traveling or roaming groups in the United States. Gypsies, while proud of their heritage, will conceal their ethnicity if it will keep them from being harassed or discriminated against.

You Just Might Be a Gypsy-American!

Do you think that you might have gypsy blood?

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The Writer in Her Natural Habitat

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    • Dana Tate profile image

      Dana Tate 2 years ago from LOS ANGELES

      Melissa this was a remarkable read. I don't know much about Gypsies except for the stereotype I got from watching television. We all know they are portrayed, in the movies, as being tricksters and con-artists. I'm glad you shed light on this. Thank you for sharing. Voted up!

    • PAINTDRIPS profile image

      Denise McGill 2 years ago from Fresno CA

      What a fascinating history lesson. I had no idea. Like Dana said, all I know is what little I gleaned from television and we know that's not too accurate. Who know but that we all may have gypsy ancestry to one degree or another.

      Blessings,

      Denise

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 2 years ago from England

      As someone who is married to a gypsy this was fascinating! did you know that the Irish travelers, or tinkers, were actually just normal folk who originally worked for 'real' gypsies, and then took to the lifestyle? great read, and voted up and shared! nell

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      That was fascinating. I admit to knowing very little about gypsies in the United States. The picture taken in the 1950s with the wagon was incredible. Hey, I'm adopted...maybe I have gypsy blood and don't know it. :)

    • melissae1963 profile image
      Author

      Melissa Reese Etheridge 2 years ago from Tennessee, United States

      Yes, that is one of my favorites.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 2 years ago from USA

      What a wonderful hub. I've never considered that gypsies were a significant element of the American sociocultural experience and history. So much to ponder here.

    • Shyron E Shenko profile image

      Shyron E Shenko 2 years ago from Texas

      Melissa this is amazing. I don't know any gypsies. I don't know if some of my ancestors had Gypsy blood. I have researched my ancestors and found that some of my ancestors were here before the white man came to America.

      Voted up, UABI and shared.

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

      The gypsy culture is mystifying and mysterious. It is amazing to me how Gypsies have managed to pretty much span the planet but still retain their unique beliefs and practices. Thanks for teaching me more about them, I did not know there were 11 distinct gypsy groups in the US alone. Great hub.

    • Supuni Fernando profile image

      Supuni Fernando 2 years ago from Colombo, Sri Lanka

      This article is outstanding. I was always fascinated with Gypsies and their lifestyles. Thank you for enlightening me.

    • Rana Pecarski profile image

      Rana Pecarski 2 years ago from Texas

      I spend a lot of time in Serbia where there is a huge gypsy population.Interesting article.

    • profile image

      Neva 2 years ago

      I just had a dna test and found that my most common dna, ie what I mostly am, is divided between European and Romani. This was something we never knew in my family, even though I did grow up knowing my family followed some traditions my friends at school did not. I am trying to learn more about my Romani heritage.

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