Poles constituted the most numerous Slavic group to immigrate to the United States during the late nineteenth century. A large number of Polish immigrants settled in the Midwest, where they and their descendants played important roles in the politics and industries of cities such as Chicago, Detroit, and Milwaukee.
Polish immigration to the United States can be divided into three primary periods: before 1870, 1870 to World War II, and the decades following the war. The majority of Poles who immigrated to the United States arrived during the early twentieth century, but they were preceded by Poles who joined the British settlers in
The Poles who arrived in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1608 were brought in by
By the beginning of the eighteenth century,
The Revolutionary War (1775-1783) attracted the attention of Europeans, including Poles, many of whom came to America to join the struggle against British rule. By 1776, hundreds of Poles were living in the British colonies and many supported the revolutionary cause.
Pulaski had been a leader of the Poland’s Bar Confederacy, which had resisted Russian influence. After leading a failed revolt against the Russian Empire, he fled from Europe to North America, where he volunteered to help train the fledgling American cavalry and tried to create elite cavalry and infantry units similar to modern rapid response forces. He was eventually killed while leading a cavalry charge against the British forces in Georgia and has become recognized as the founder of American cavalry.
A graduate of the newly formed Polish Military Academy, Tadeusz Kosciuszko found his opportunities limited in Poland, so he decided to join the American revolutionary cause. He became a good friend of the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson. Kosciuszko was an engineer and artilleryman by training and was assigned to design the fortifications at West Point in New York. He later wrote the first manual for American artillery. After surviving the war, he was awarded a plantation and slaves by the new American government. However, he freed his slaves, sold the plantation, and gave the money from the plantation sale to the former slaves for their education.
In 1795, Poland was partitioned among its more powerful neighbors and ceased to exist as a sovereign country. Throughout the nineteenth century, Polish nationalists struggled to re-create their homeland. Between 1807 and 1813, the French emperor
When the U.S.
The decades immediately following the Civil War began the first major period of Polish immigration. The Polish regions of central Europe were still disrupted by warfare and political uncertainty, and all of Europe fell into an economic depression during the 1870’s. Consequently, the lure of America became ever stronger. Most of the Poles who began immigrating to the United States during this period settled in the states of the industrial north, but some also went farther west. In
Most Polish immigrants gravitated to the industrial North, attracted by expanding employment opportunities in factories and the coal and iron mines that fed the industries. Buffalo, Detroit, Milwaukee, and Chicago became especially strong magnets to Polish peasants, who had limited education, few industrial skills, and little or no ability to speak English. Most filled lower-rung jobs left by earlier Irish and German immigrants who had moved up the labor ladder. As Irish and German workers moved into managerial and foreman positions, the Poles and other immigrants from central and eastern Europe became common laborers in factories and mines.
Because Polish immigrants were sometimes seen as competitors responsible for lowered wages, they were not always welcomed with open arms. Signs with slogans such as “No Polaks Wanted” became commonplace in shop and factory windows. Many Polish immigrants had to pay bribes to find work. Nevertheless, despite these handicaps and ethnic bias, Polish immigrants generally succeeded in finding work.
Polish immigrants initially settled into communities among other central Europeans, such as Germans, until their numbers grew large enough to form ethnic enclaves
While many immigrants settled in cities, others chose
As the number of Poles in the United States grew, they began to push for social organizations of their own rather than sharing with other ethnic groups. Having their own
During the late nineteenth century, demands for Polish parishes grew at such a rate that they began to trouble the Roman Catholic hierarchy. In
Meanwhile, within the Roman Catholic Church, Polish parishes were quickly followed by Polish religious orders, the most prominent of which was the
With their spiritual lives safely provided for, Polish immigrants turned more toward self-help organizations and
Polish immigrant family working together on a Maryland farm in 1909.
In cities from New York to Philadelphia to Milwaukee, organizations named after saints and Polish national heroes, such as the American Revolutionary War general
The Poles also created their own athletic clubs, similar to the German Turner’s Clubs, that were called Sokols or Falcons. The initial purpose of these clubs was often to train future soldiers to fight for a reborn Poland. The creation of fighting squads known as Bojowki was popular in the socialist-oriented Sokols but condemned in the Catholic-oriented halls. The goals of the Sokols revealed a basic division within the nation’s Polish communities between those who considered themselves “Poles in America” and those who saw themselves as “Polish Americans.”
During the 1880’s, Poles began making their presence felt in American politics with the election of Polish city and state officials in Illinois, Wisconsin, and
When World War I
Many Poles volunteered for the U.S. Army after the United States entered the war. The conflicting efforts of Polish immigrants during the war reemphasized the split personality of the Polish community. When U.S. president
For those immigrants who opted to remain in the United States, Polish social and fraternal organizations played a major role in helping them become Polish Americans. Poles also began playing larger roles on the American scene. They became leaders in the
Despite efforts to become more American, Polish Americans still wanted to maintain some elements of their ancestral identity. Polish cultural clubs helped maintain that identity by sponsoring concerts of Polish music, art exhibits, and weekend classes in Polish language and history. Nevertheless, within each new generation, ties to Poland and Polishness (Polkosc) became weaker. During the 1920’s, the numbers of new Polish immigrants were severely diminished by new federal anti-immigrant legislation.
World War II
Following the war, a new wave of Polish immigrants came to America fleeing
From the mid-1950’s through the 1970’s,
With each new generation, the Polish American community has moved farther from its Polish cultural roots. Although fraternal organizations continue to operate local organizations and Polish language newspapers, they are quickly disappearing as more and more Poles begin to see themselves not as Poles in America or Polish Americans but as Americans of Polish descent.
Bukowczyk, John J. And My Children Did Not Know Me. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987. Concise but useful history of Polish immigrant history. _______, ed. Polish Americans and Their History: Community, Culture, and Politics. Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1996. Collection of articles about Polish immigrants with papers focusing on such subjects as labor, family issues, women and gender issues, religion, and politics. Pacyga, Dominic A. Polish Immigrants and Industrial Chicago: Workers on the South Side, 1880-1922. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003. Excellent study of Polish immigration focusing on Poles working in Chicago’s steel mills, slaughterhouses, and meatpacking plants. Pula, James. Polish Americans. New York: Twayne, 1995. Popular history of Polish Americans. Renkiewicz, Frank, ed. The Poles in America, 1608-1972. Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.: Oceana, 1973. Excellent collection of primary documents related to Polish American history. Wytrwal, Joseph A. America’s Polish Heritage. Detroit: Endurance Press, 1961. Broad survey of Polish immigration to the United States, which Wytrwal divides into three major periods: adventurers of 1608-1776, political emigrants of 1776-1865, and economic refugees of the 1860’s to 1920’s. _______. Poles in American History and Tradition. Detroit: Endurance Press, 1969. Classic work on Polish American history.
Czech and Slovakian immigrants
Rickover, Hyman G.
Russian and Soviet immigrants