Polish immigrants Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

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 Jamestown, Virginia;Polish immigrantsJamestown, Virginia, as early as 1608. Most of the Poles who came during the nineteenth century were common laborers searching for job opportunities and better lives for themselves and their families.Polish immigrantsPolish immigrants[cat]EUROPEAN IMMIGRANTS;Polish immigrants[04210][cat]IMMIGRANT GROUPS;Polish immigrants[04210]

Early Immigrants

The Poles who arrived in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1608 were brought in by Smith, JohnJohn Smith to make soap, pitch, tar, rosin, and glass. The earliest name to be recorded was that of Robert the Polonian, who became known as Robert Poole. In 1619, Virginia’s Polish workers petitioned for the right to vote. When they were denied, they staged a strike and were granted their petition. That incident was evidently the first recorded workers’ strike for voting rights in American history.

By the beginning of the eighteenth century, Pennsylvania;Polish immigrantsPennsylvania had become the primary destination for Polish immigrants. Many arrived with the Moravian immigrantsMoravian Brethren when they came to settle in the area. After Sadowski, AnthonyAnthony Sadowsky arrived there in 1730, he soon moved to the Ohio River Valley and changed his name to Sandusky–which can now be seen on maps of Ohio. Sandusky and his family became prominent in the exploration of the Ohio territories. Poles continued arriving in small numbers up until the American War of Independence.

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, KazimierzKazimierz (Casimir) Pulaski and Kosciuszko, TadeuszTadeusz (Thadeus) Kosciuszko played particularly important roles as brigadier generals in George Washington’s Continental Army.

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 Napoleon INapoleon Bonaparte resurrected a truncated Poland, but it soon fell back under Russian, Austrian, and Prussian control. Over the next five decades, Poles staged several failed revolts against their foreign masters. After each rebellion failed, Refugees;PolesPolish refugees fled west and many came to America. In 1834, 234 Polish refugees arrived in New York, where they formed the Polish Committee in America. In 1852, the Democratic Society of Polish Émigrés was formed and became affiliated with the antislavery movement.

The U.S. Civil War and Afterward

When the U.S. Civil War, U.S.;Poles inCivil War broke out in 1861, Poles found themselves on both sides of the conflict. In Louisiana;Polish immigrantsLouisiana a Polish Brigade was formed to fight for the Confederacy, while in New York Krzyzanowski, WlodziemierzWlodziemierz Krzyzanowski organized the Fifty-eighth New York Infantry for the Union Army. Known as the Polish Legion, Krzyzanowski’s infantry unit dressed in Polish-style uniforms. Both units saw action in Virginia and eventually faced each other at the Battle of Gettysburg in July, 1863. Overall, an estimated 4,000-5,000 Poles served in the Union Army and 1,000 in the Confederate Army.

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 Texas;Polish immigrantsTexas, Polish immigrants founded a settlement known as Panna Maria.

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 enclavesEthnic enclaves;Polish of their own such as “Poletown” in Detroit;Polish immigrantsDetroit. The largest concentration of Poles formed in Chicago;Polish immigrantsChicago, around the city’s Milwaukee Avenue. Polish shops, churches and social clubs were soon to follow.

While many immigrants settled in cities, others chose Agriculture;Polish immigrantsrural communities so they could continue their familiar agricultural lifestyles. Many saved their earnings from factory work to purchase midwestern farms. Central WisconsinWisconsin’s Portage County attracted such a large number of Poles that the majority of its residents were still Poles into the twenty-first century.

The Roman Catholic Church

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 Roman Catholics;PolesRoman Catholic parishes became a major priority. The Catholic Church had played an important role in Poland society in Europe so it was only natural for immigrants to want their own Polish parishes in America. Chicago’s St. Stanislaus Kostka Church, which formed in 1867, was the first Polish parish to form in the upper Midwest. The following year, 1868, saw the opening of the first Polish immigrants;schoolsPolish parochial school in the United States in Milwaukee.

During the late nineteenth century, demands for Polish parishes grew at such a rate that they began to trouble the Roman Catholic hierarchy. In Indiana;Polish immigrantsSouth Bend, Indiana, a Polish parish formed directly across a street from an Irish parish. To avoid wasteful redundancy, the church’s hierarchy worked to discouraged ethnic-based parishes by portraying Catholic churches as vehicles for the Americanization of immigrants. However, many Polish immigrants regarded this attitude as a form of discrimination because German and Irish immigrants had already been allowed to form their own parishes. In 1904, a group of disaffected Poles decided to split from the main body of the Roman church by forming the Polish National Catholic ChurchPolish National Catholic Church (PNCC), which allied with the Episcopalian Church. Within a dozen years, PNCC membership grew to more than 30,000 members. Father Francis Hodur was consecrated as the first bishop of the PNCC in 1907.

Meanwhile, within the Roman Catholic Church, Polish parishes were quickly followed by Polish religious orders, the most prominent of which was the Felician SistersFelician Sisters. The Felician Sisters formed their first base of operation in New York City to aid newly arriving immigrants in 1877. By 1882, they had moved to Detroit as Polish immigrants moved west. The Felician Sisters became the bulwark of the Polish parochial school system. Other orders soon followed, such as the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth.

Adjusting to American Life

With their spiritual lives safely provided for, Polish immigrants turned more toward self-help organizations and Press;PolishPolish language newspapers for information on their specific concerns and needs. As early as 1852, the Democratic Society of Polish Émigrés in America was formed in New York City. It continued until 1858, when its name was changed to the Polish Committee. During the 1860’s, the St. Stanislaus Kostka Society was formed to aid Polish Catholics, and the Gmina (Commune) Polska was formed to aid Poles without regard to their religious or political affiliation.

Polish immigrant family working together on a Maryland farm in 1909.

(Library of Congress)

In cities from New York to Philadelphia to Milwaukee, organizations named after saints and Polish national heroes, such as the American Revolutionary War general Kosciuszko, TadeuszTadeusz Kosciuszko, sprang up during the 1870’s and 1880’s. To coordinate efforts on shared Polish concerns, several national bodies were formed during this period. The Polish Roman Catholic Union was formed in 1873, and the Polish National Alliance appeared in 1882. However, the members of these two organizations did not agree on all issues because of a religious/secular divide, and the organizations were often in conflict with each other.

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.”

Polish-Press;Polishlanguage newspapers became immigrants’ primary sources of information about what was happening in the Old World as well as what was happening in their New World. One of the earliest newspapers was Buffalo’s Polak w Ameryce, which began publishing in 1887. It was quickly followed by Kuryer Polski in Wisconsin;Polish immigrantsMilwaukee, Wisconsin; Ameryka Echo in Ohio;Polish immigrantsToledo, Ohio; Dziennik Polski in Detroit; and one of the longest-enduring Polish newspapers, Gwiazda Polarna in Stevens Point, Wisconsin. By 1907, even Polish socialists were publishing their own paper, Dziennik Ludowy, in Chicago.

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 Michigan;Polish immigrantsMichigan. Polish Women;Polishwomen also took an active part in politics by working in the women’s suffrage movement. To coordinate their efforts, the Polish Women’s Alliance was created in 1898 in Chicago.

Twentieth Century Developments

When World War IWorld War I[World War 01];and Polish immigrants[Polish immigrants] broke out in 1914, Polish immigrants in the United States formed the Polish Defense Committee to support the Polish Legions of Pilsudski, JózefJózef Pilsudski, who was working to get the Central Powers to guarantee the re-creation of the Polish state. By 1917, however, when the United States entered the war against the Central Powers, Poles were shifting their support to a Polish army formed in France under Haller, JózefJózef Haller. Polish Americans sent both money and volunteers to France to fight for a free Poland.

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 Wilson, Woodrow[p]Wilson, Woodrow;and Poland[Poland]Woodrow Wilson aided in the rebirth of Poland after the war, immigrants not ready to think of themselves as “Polish Americans” had the opportunity to return to their homeland and resume being Polish citizens.

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 Labor unions;and Polish immigrants[Polish immigrants]labor protests of the 1920’s and 1930’s, most notably Chicago’s stockyard strikes during the 1920’s and Detroit’s auto worker strikes of the 1930’s. Poles began to break into the arts and sports, especially baseball, the quintessential American game. Coveleski, StanleyStanley Coveleski was an integral member of the Cleveland Indians during the 1920’s and eventually made it into the Baseball Hall of Fame. He was followed shortly thereafter by Stan Musial of the St. Louis Cardinals. Poles were also making their way in Football playersprofessional football.

Maintaining Polish Identity

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 IIWorld War II[World War 02];and Polish immigrants[Polish immigrants] started in Europe in 1939 when Nazi Germany invaded Poland. The response of the American Polish community showed how much it had changed in only two decades. This time, Polish Americans did not enlist in a Polish army in exile as they had in 1917. Instead they enlisted in the U.S. military forces that they thought would contribute to the liberation of Poland while defending the United States. Now, their first loyalties lay with the United States, but many of them still gave moral and monetary support for a free Poland. Large numbers of Polish American men served in the European and Pacific theaters, while many women worked in the factories throughout the war.

Following the war, a new wave of Polish immigrants came to America fleeing Communism;Eastern Europecommunism in Eastern Europe. The new migration was split between the well educated who found their way into the fields of education, medicine, and business and became leaders in the Polish American community, while the less educated took the routes of their predecessors into factories and mines as common laborers. However, members of both groups picked up the banner of maintaining Polishness in the United States through cultural and arts societies. They also became leaders in the anticommunist movement in the United States.

From the mid-1950’s through the 1970’s, Cold War;and Polish immigrants[Polish immigrants]Polish immigration to America was severely curtailed due to the Cold War. Following the crushing of the Poland;Solidarity movementSolidarity Labor Union in 1981, a fresh wave of Polish refugees made their way to the United States. These new immigrants did not mesh well with the older generations of immigrants. The new immigrants were, for the most part, well educated and saw their predecessors as frozen in time–not seeing the world or Poland as it actually was, but as it once had been. Many of these newcomers would return to Poland after 1989. They resembled the early Poles in America’s mindset around the turn of the twentieth century.

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.Polish immigrants

Further Reading
  • 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.


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Categories: History