Our Polish Heritage

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Last month’s Polish Heritage article referred to a time that the country of Poland did not exist on the map. For almost 150 years (1772 – 1918) the territory was seized by, and partitioned between, Russia, Prussia and Austria in a series of negotiations in 1772, 1793 and 1795. The neighboring countries took over Poland, imposed their own forms of government and attempted to dissolve what our ancestors knew as their Homeland. Since serfdom was the social order throughout most of this time period, our Polish ancestors, the peasantry, were oppressed not only by foreign entities but also by their own countrymen, the nobility. Throughout the decades Poles resisted and rebelled many times.

Two specific rebellions against Russia that failed, the November Uprising (1830) and the January Uprising (1863), sparked waves of emigration. The first Poles to leave the territories governed by Russia, Prussia and Austria were the elite, including military, clergy, and intellectuals. More pertinent to most Polish Americans, however, was the January Uprising that failed in 1863. One result of that victory of the Russians over the insurgents was the abolition of serfdom in the Russian Partition, giving the peasants more freedom of movement and the ability to own land.

Although the Prussian and Austrian Partitions had abolished serfdom in 1807 and 1848, respectively, the exodus of peasants to North and South America did not begin until 1864. At that time, the Poles in the Russian Partition were particularly motived to leave their occupied homeland. Their native language had been banned and schools, universities and Catholic churches were being closed. Additionally, there was not enough land for the peasants to sustain their families and, unlike in the Prussian Partition, the Russians had hampered the industrial revolution, limiting alternate sources of income.

On the other hand, land and jobs were available in the United States and other countries, so 35 years after the elite, the peasants from the three Partitions started to leave their homeland in 1864 and continued into the 1910s when World War I erupted and Poland regained its independence. However, since the nation of Poland did not exist, our forefathers had to declare Russia, Prussia or Austria as their official place of birth on passenger manifests and other documentation. Poles began to arrive in Suffield in the 1880s. Do you know when your ancestors arrived and which nationality they declared when they got here?

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