The Importance of  Polish Immigration Story to Polish Research

Taking your first step in finding Polish records can be very challenging. At the beginning of my research, I found it essential to review the history of Polish immigration to America: when, why, where, and how. Understanding this aspect of Polish history was critical to my success because knowing the immigration story helped me find the seemingly hidden records for my Polish ancestors.

Poles in America

The first Poles arrived in America at Jamestown in October 1608. They were among the craftsmen the Virginia Company hired to produce materials such as export glassware and make tar and resin needed to repair arriving ships. In addition, our history books mention Polish military leaders Casimir Pulaski and Tadeusz Kosciuszko and banker Haym Saloman having crucial roles in the American Revolution. Finally, although I have not found any reference of other Poles in Colonial America, there were probably small numbers of Polish workers, intellectuals, and sons of noblemen who immigrated.

The first significant events that affected Polish emigration were the three partitions of Poland between 1772 and 1795 when Prussia, Russia, and Austria carved up Poland, and it disappeared from world maps. However, few Poles fled  Poland after the partitions, and generally, the refugees who could afford to leave went to European countries. The farmers, who made up the large waves of later Polish emigration, could not leave because the nobles would not allow it. However, pressure to leave grew as the new rulers of Polish partitions did not treat their Polish subjects as full citizens and gradually enacted policies that had significant adverse effects. Accordingly, their policies helped build the Polish national unity that we see today.

The first wave of Polish emigration began in the 1850s when Poles left Silesia to settle in Texas, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Their documented histories listed that they left due to the harsh poverty, high taxes, military conscription, and social discrimination at the hands of their Prussian rulers. Poles also began emigrating from other Prussian areas in the late 1860s after the German Empire enacted the Kulturkampf Laws meant to eliminate the Polish culture in Prussian-controlled lands. The laws banned the Polish language from schools and newspapers. In addition, traditional Polish songs and dances were forbidden. In 1886, the Prussian Colonization Policy forced Poles to sell their lands to Germans recruited to re-settle in these new “German” lands. Polish farmers were now day laborers and could not find steady work. Emigration was the only solution to their growing poverty. Records show that over 400,000 Poles left between 1869 to 1899 from German-controlled Poland. Passenger lists indicate most left in family groups.

Polish emigration in the Russian and Austrian partitions began in earnest in the 1880s and generally affected the younger generation because of a lack of jobs. Investors did not build factories in the Polish partitions because they had seen the past uprisings by the Polish people and had fears of future turmoil. Farms could not be sub-divided when the father died. Only the oldest son inherited the land. Owning land became the key to economic stability. Without jobs or land, the younger sons had to leave. Also, fathers had to find the “right husband” for their daughters, someone with the prospect of inheriting the family farm. The other alternative was sending them to relatives in America to find work or a husband. Passenger manifests indicate that most Polish emigrants from the Russian and Austrian partitions were single men and women. This mixture differed from the family groups leaving the German partition.

With the lack of opportunities in rural Poland, and growing unemployment in the cities, emigrating to the United States became an attractive alternative. Letters from earlier immigrants and advertisements circulated by the shipping companies further fueled thoughts about leaving.

Once in America, Polish men worked in the mills and factories that were driving America’s economic growth in cities and areas such as Chicago, Buffalo, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Milwaukee, and New England. They worked at the hardest jobs that nobody else wanted. Single Polish women also worked in the factories or as servants until they found a husband. Also, some Poles were able to buy farms in America.

Many emigrants left Poland to earn money in America and then returned home to buy Polish farmland. As a result, almost a third of the Polish immigrants returned home after a few years in America. Nevertheless, the majority of the Poles found it hard to abandon their new home once they saw how much better their life was staying in America. These are the immigrants who are our ancestors.

Learn your ancestor’s immigration story. Identify their challenges. Write and preserve their family stories to honor your Polish heritage for future generations.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: