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Tracking Down Polish Ancestors

Polish-Americans are one of the largest ethnic groups in the United States today, with about 5 million to 6 million Americans having Polish heritage.

Early Colonial records show the ship Margaret and Mary arrived in Jamestown, Va., carrying at least two Poles who served as makers of tar, pitch and soap ashes.

The history of Polish immigration to America falls into four periods. The first, from 1608 to about 1800, when a few came for personal reasons--economic, ideological and romantic. The second period, during which only a few came, was 1800-1860. It is between 1860 to 1914 when most of our Polish immigrant ancestors arrived. The fourth period occurred after World War I.

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The California gold rush attracted some German Poles, and a group of Polish peasant farmers from Silesia established the first Polish-American settlement and first independent Polish Catholic parish at Panna Maria, Tex., in 1854.

About 434,000 Poles came from German-controlled territory between 1850 and the 1890s, with about 50,000 of these arriving between 1899 and 1914. Russian and Austrian Poles began arriving in large numbers after 1890. About half of the 800,000 Galician Poles who came before World War I arrived in the 1890s. About 170,000 came from Russian Poland before 1900 and 635,000 afterward.

If your immigrant Polish ancestor came between 1880 and 1914, he probably sailed on the North German Line out of Bremerhaven or Bremen or on the Hamburg American Line. The Hamburg passenger lists are available on microfilm through the LDS (Mormon) Family History Library in Salt Lake City, but few Bremerhaven or Bremen records have survived. The majority of Poles landed in New York--at Castle Garden before 1892 and at Ellis Island afterward. Their destination was almost always one of the already established Polish settlements.

The Prussian Poles who came in the mid-1800s usually became part of German or Czech communities or established separate Polish colonies in farming areas, except for the political emigres, most of whom remained in New York. Two Polish groups arrived from Canada shortly before 1860 and settled in Wisconsin and Michigan. The Poles who came after the Civil War went primarily to the Middle Atlantic and Midwest states, especially to New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Nebraska and Missouri.

Since most Polish immigrants were Roman Catholics, church records are invaluable to genealogists. If you are unsure of the parish, but know the city or town where your family lived, consult the telephone directory for the particular city at your nearest large public library and then write to the parish priest. Or consult The Catholic Directory, available at the chancery office of each diocese. Reference librarians at Notre Dame, St. Louis University and the Catholic University in Washington have most of these directories, and can provide you with the name of the proper parish, since parish boundaries have changed through the years.

Start your search in church records because children of many early Polish immigrants were born at home and their birth records may not have been recorded in civil records. Since most children were baptized within a few days of birth, these baptismal records are valuable. Church records also will include marriages and deaths.

A helpful guide for beginners is “Polish Family Research,” available for $5 postpaid from Summit Publications, Box 222, Munroe Falls, Ohio 44262. The Polish Genealogical Society, 984 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago, Ill. 60622 is an outstanding organization. Membership fees are about $12.50 per year.

Once you are ready to “cross the water” and research in Poland’s records, you will find the LDS (Mormon) Family History libraries have many records available on microfilm.

Myra Gormley welcomes genealogical questions for her column, but is unable to answer individual letters. For her beginner’s how-to genealogy kit (with charts) send $4 to Kit, Box 64316, Tacoma, Wash. 98464.


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