My Polish Ancestors: Peasants or Nobles

When I found the Polish baptismal records for my ancestors, I was surprised to see that they were of “royal birth.”

How could my ancestors be nobility and still be poor farmers? A recent article by Iwona Dakiniewicz helped explain what happened to my ancestors and many more of the nobility. Iwona’s article was titled Time for Nobles and it appeared in the February 2015 edition of the Rodziny published by the Polish Genealogical Society of America.

Iwona explained that at one time all of the children of the nobles had an equal right to inherit the property. The sons received equal parts of the land and the daughters received dowries. This caused rapid subdivision of large estates. If the farm became too small, the landowner had to work the land himself because he could not afford to support serfs or pay laborers. Thus the class of minor nobles (zaściankowa) was born from the heirs who owned small farms but whose ancestors were brought up on large manor estates (folwarks) and had lived privileged lives. Their heirs could not enjoy the right of inheriting equally. After the estates were reduced to sizes that could barely support one family, the laws were changed to giving the right to inherit to only the oldest son.

Iwona’s article also explains that the adjective zaściankowy comes from za, “behind” and ściana, “wall.” This describes the idea that the minor nobles were impoverished and working their own fields but seemed to stand behind an invisible wall that continued to separate them from the peasants who lived nearby.

The mass exodus of the farm laborers from the Polish countryside between 1870 and 1920 was due to their poor living conditions. They needed to emigrate to find a place that could improve their living conditions. This wave of immigration is often called za chlebem or “for bread.” Peasants were not the only class of Polish people included in this wave. It also included many of the children of minor nobles who did not have the right to inherit and had to emigrate to find opportunities for themselves.

The majority of Polish-Americans are descendants of Poles who arrived after 1850. It is estimated that more than 2 million Poles had immigrated by the 1920s. Today, there are over 10 million Americans of Polish descent in the United States. Learn more about your Polish ancestors and enjoy your heritage.

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