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July 2024
9min read

The Face of Poland in America

When Polish peasant immigrants began to arrive in America in the 1870’s, there had been no Poland on the maps of Europe for almost a century. Few Polish peasants had a notion of a homeland broader than the district which had contained their village; fewer yet spoke a language which all Poles could understand. For many of them, the realization that they were Poles came only in America—which is what made the Polish peasant immigrant experience unique among all others.

Like their Irish predecessors of the 1840’s, and the Italians who shared their immigration era, most of the Polish peasants who came to America were illiterate, unskilled, and Roman Catholic, but that is the extent of any similarity between them. The Irish had no doubt about who and what they were; their tiny country had not allowed for much diversity among them. They shared a common language and could make themselves understood in English. They were united by a rich national history and cultural traditions, and they were sustained by a powerful religion which they brought with them, along with its priests. The exploited and oppressed Italian immigrants of the 1880’s came closest to the huge loneliness of the Polish peasant in America, but they, at least, possessed a deep sense of their home country’s magnificent past (an Italian, after all, had discovered America itself) and a patriarchal family tradition that helped to hold them together in the New World. Furthermore, society allowed the Irish and the Italians to keep their European labels, hastening the organization and development of supportive ethnic communities.

The unskilled and impoverished Polish peasants, who came to America in search of land and money, had no such advantages. They came from a vast multinational state, with a variety of customs and traditions, which had been partitioned among rapacious neighbors who had done all they could to deprive its people of a national identity. If these hardhanded toilers knew anything of Poland’s culture and history, it was as folk tales and legends. Instead of one language, they spoke at least nine rural regional dialects, most of them mutually unintelligible. On arrival in America, they, like their country, were “partitioned,” most of them classified as nationals of whatever foreign tyranny happened to rule their part of Poland—as Prussians, Austrians, or Russians (such classifications, of course, make it impossible to determine how many Poles were among the approximately three million immigrants from Eastern Europe who entered the United States between 1870 and 1910). Catholicism had been a common constant in their European lives—indeed, priests were the peasantry’s natural leaders’but there were, at first, few priests in America whom they could understand, or who could understand them. The well-established Irish clergy had little sympathy for these newcomers; it was, in fact, often downright hostile to them, and the Polish peasants were thrown almost entirely on their own pitiful resources even for religious solace.

So they were alone here in America, alone as no other ethnic group had ever been. Ironically, they were not the first Poles to take part in the American story. There had been many here before them—the craftsmen who had joined English settlers and established the first industries of the Jamestown Colony, the soldiers and scholars who had joined with the Dutch in New-Amsterdam, colonial map makers and explorers, and in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, soldiers, financiers, and reformers. During the Revolution, Count Casimir Pulaski served brilliantly as a cavalry officer, Thaddeus Kosciuszko was George Washington’s chief military engineer and designed and built West Point, and New York merchant Haym Solomon helped finance the war. In the early and middle nineteenth century, Ernestine Louise S. Potowska-Rose became a leading light of the feminist and abolitionist movements and Dr. Marie Elizabeth Zakrzewska founded two hospitals for women staffed exclusively by women and a school for professional women nurses. Some six thousand Poles served during the Civil War on both sides, including such officers as Brigadier General Wlodzimierz Krzyzanowski, Brigadier General Colonel Jozef Karge, Colonel Joseph Smolinski, and Major Alexander Raszewski—while in Washington, Count Adam Gurowski agitated so vigorously for immediate emancipation of the slaves that he became known as “Lincoln’s Gadfly.” Yet these Poles and the many like them, cultured and well educated, were aristocratic refugees who had seen reflected in America the dream of independence and unity they hoped for their poor, dismembered homeland. They had little to give the great waves of immigrants who came after them—and even when help was offered, the peasants tended to view it with distrust as coming from the “nobility.”

Most of today’s ten to twelve million Polish-Americans are descended from this faceless, unnumbered peasant mass who crossed the Atlantic bringing with it only a capacity for back-breaking labor, a talent for endurance, and a determination to rise in the world. Enticed by agents for shipping lines and labor-hungry industries in the United States, Polish peasants began to come here in the late 1870’s, first in a slow, steady stream bound for the.anthracite coal fields of Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, then in a torrent in the 1880’s, shipload after shipload, raw material for the blast furnaces, the forges, the mines, mills, railroads, quarries, and coalpits which transformed America’s landscape after the Civil War. Few of them came with the idea of staying; they came to make money and return home. But in spite of the frustrations and unhappiness they found here, the opportunities of America eventually caught up with most of them, making a return to some landowner’s Polish acres virtually unthinkable. The man came first, alone, then sent for his wife, or for a girl from his village who might want to marry him. Few of them knew enough of their various dialects to write a letter, but each community soon found its pisennik —professional scribe—for whom the alphabet was not a mystery.

And this is what they wrote: “If you complain so much about your miseries, sell everything and come to America with the children, because it isn’t the work here that’s so bad, but the loneliness.… I’m always a stranger among strangers here.… When I went on the ship, the water was coming through the chimneys [ventilators] and I thought we would drown, but we didn’t.… There were 1,800 of us on the ship, and four young children died, but eight more were born and so it evened out.… We are lonely here.… Here you hear only noise, thousands of people going here and there, and the factory whistles. Yes they have birds and (lowers, but they arc far away, in a garden, and who has the time to go and see them for nothing? Who will pay for that?… When people tell you that in America the gold lies in the streets, don’t you believe it! Here everybody has to work.… This is no golden land, but it is a new land, here you break your back for 12 hours a day, and back home they’re thinking that they’ll be filling their aprons with gold the minute they’ve come.… So they come, knowing nothing, like the blind.… In America, you will spill more sweat in one day than in a week back home.… But I will not go back if someone was to give me the master’s estate. Once you have tasted America, there is no way to go back to those old miseries.”

And this they wrote: “I have work, I’m not hungry, only I have not yet laughed since I came to America.… Here they pick out their workmen like cattle at the market, but you can make a life for yourself. … Who can’t make a life for himself in this country, will never do it anywhere else; I would like to marry Zoska, because the girls in America are lazy and let themselves go, so send me Zoska.… Dear Cousin, I’m happy that old Mrs. Kalinowska is bringing me a pretty girl, but maybe she can bring two? Because, you see, there’s two of us bachelors here and we’d both like to marry. …”

The girls and the women began to arrive and immediately altered the nature of the peasant immigration, because where these earthy Polish women put down their bundles there were soon Polish children, and that meant roots and work for yet another generation. The women, too, wrote: “Dear Mother, don’t be angry with me because I married without you knowing about it, because you forbid me to get married in America.… But there is no joy in the old country, and he loves me and will always love me, so bless us both. … Dear Mother and Father, don’t long for me, because I thank you with all my heart for sending me to America, and I have faith in God that I may yet see you before Death divides us forever.… I am really happy because I am healthy, and so are my children, and that I can help them get ahead and that I can still do everything that I must. …”

Willing to do the heaviest, the dirtiest, and the poorest-paid work, the Polish peasants won the bitterness and resentment of English-speaking workmen (the Irish and the Welsh and the Cornish who had themselves replaced native-born Americans); beaten by jealous workers, clubbed by corrupt constables, exorbitantly fined by justices of the peace, harassed and imprisoned by petty officials, they had no one to turn to for help or advice. Most of them had emigrated from villages where there had been too few jobs and too many men; placed in the anthracite and bituminous coal fields or hired at the dockside for the heaviest labor in the mills and forges, they had neither the time, the means, nor the knowledge to find work elsewhere. The newspapers abused them, complaining of “the mixed populations with which we are afflicted.” In stores they were cuffed and laughed at when they came to make their trivial purchases in their broken and insufficient English. Their wages were not always paid; the miserable lodgings available to them were so outrageously priced that as many as fourteen of them sometimes shared a single room. Cheated of their wages and denied the rights of civilized human beings, they were often driven to caves for shelter, or found themselves in shacks in which they, in Poland, would have refused to house cattle.

Yet the Polish peasant would endure, for if he had brought with him his vices and failings, he had also brought his virtues. Clannish, suspicious, dour and unforgiving when oppressed, he was contemptuous of fine language, given to smoldering hatreds and bursts of violence that could explode in alcoholic frenzy. But he was also painfully honest and self-reliant, and he knew how to bide his time. The peasants picked huckleberries on the hills behind the coalpits, scratched gardens into the wasted soil, raised potatoes, cabbages, and onions. They kept pigs, chickens. They were deliberate and watched what other people did. They raised large families in which everybody worked; grandparents went to work at dawn beside their children and grandchildren, and, with them, tumbled into bed long after sunset. The children were the first wealth of the Polish family; the larger the family, the more work it could do, the more money it earned. Penny by penny, dollar by dollar, the money went into savings; the savings bought land. Within ten years of their arrival in America, thousands of Polish immigrants were buying abandoned and depressed farms all over the Northeast: little hard patches of earth on the outskirts of the great industrial cities and soil that had been ruthlessly worked in Long Island, Connecticut, western Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York.

Citizenship papers seemed magical to them as both exit visas from a dispossessed ethnic minority and entry permits into the American nation, so they formed social clubs and political clubs to prepare themselves for naturalization examinations. Then they began to organize to secure a living wage and working conditions fit for human beings, and suddenly, through the 1880’s, 1890’s, and well into the twentieth century, such places as Hamtramck, in Michigan, Pittsburgh, and the Pennsylvania coal fields of Shenandoah in Schuylkill County and Scranton and Wilkes-Barre in Lackawanna County (where the peasants made up three-quarters of the labor force) were bloody union battlefields as antilabor citadels fell one by one. Poles bought and then converted blighted slum property into that purely American phenomenon: the clean, safe, and orderly Polish neighborhood, with its churches and social institutions, where cleanliness could give godliness a chance. Within thirty years, Polish home-ownership in the United States exceeded that of any other ethnic immigrant group. When they found that American schools and churches humiliated them, they built more than nine hundred Roman Catholic parishes and more than eight hundred schools of their own, including eight institutions of higher learning. Slowly, step-by-step, as laboriously as the construction of a coral reef, the Polish peasants created their own civilization in America: Polonia , it was called.

For most of them, this long journey from the life and customs of Polish village society, through the purgatory of American mines and mills, to a sense of worth, identity, and economic independence, took all of a generation, often two. Along the way, the American experience taught them in those generations what a thousand years in Poland had often failed to accomplish: that they were Poles, and could take pride in the fact. They learned to know the heroes, history, and legends of their past; they named streets after Pulaski and Kosciuszko, and gave the name Warsaw to a town in Illinois; they worshiped such native Polish artists as Ignacy Paderewski and Wanda Landowska; during World War I, they flocked to join the Polish army and fight the armies of the German Kaiser; they created their own Polish-language newspapers, Zgoda (“Harmony”), Ojczyzna (“Fatherland”), Pielyrzym Polski (“The Polish Pilgrim”), and innumerable others.

The creation of Polonia was a triumph of endurance and determination, but it must be said that it was, in its own fashion, a ghetto—and like all ghettos it had a self-centered, inward-looking culture and its own imprisoning bars. The peasant’s vision was confined to what he could reach, or what instinct told him, and it took its price in creative and intellectual backwardness. Intelligent but untrained young minds were forced, by their parents’ drive for safety, to stay within such limits as those peasant parents were able to comprehend, and to them, a narrow middle-class horizon of material security and success seemed like the farthest edge of all possible human aspirations and dreams. It would take the third generation to break out of this spiritual and intellectual confinement.

When the escape came, it was nearly complete. Today, the Polish peasant in America has largely disappeared as a clearly identifiable class. The immigrants’ children and grandchildren have spread through every level of American life—not only among the working class, but among educators, doctors, lawyers, millionaires, industrialists, politicians, and clergymen. Fewer than five hundred thousand of the ten to twelve million Polish-Americans are fluent in Polish; the swift and swelling tide of a changing world was against old values and traditions. Yet they remain a vital-and energetic community of Americans, of many talents and considerable material resources, whose voice is only now beginning to be heard. One national characteristic which all Poles seem to share, no matter what their era, social origin, or intellectual level, is a spirit of restlessness and curiosity which makes them unable to accept any limitations on their possibilities which they do not voluntarily impose upon themselves. This quality gave the New World a special meaning to the Polish peasants of a century ago; it is a legacy their grandchildren can cherish today.

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