People of Polish ancestry first came to prominence in American life during the Revolutionary War. The colonies’ battle for independence from Britain fired the imagination of adventurers and freedom fighters from around the world, and more than 100 Poles came to fight on the side of the rebels.
Two of them—Count Kazimierz Pulaski and Tadeusz Kósciuszko—had experience in the independence struggles of their homeland and were recruited by Benjamin Franklin to help lead the fledgling American army.
Both played pivotal roles in the colonists’ victory and were hailed as heroes of the new republic. Towns and counties throughout the U.S. now bear their names, and Pulaski Day celebrations are held every year in Polish American cities. The Polish people’s own fight for independence was less successful, and their national identity came under harsh attack.
By the 19th century, the ancient state of Poland had been conquered and divided up by three imperial powers—the Russian, Prussian, and Austro-Hungarian empires.
Although they were separated by distance and political barriers, Poles were unified by a belief in their own independence, in their freedom to worship as Roman Catholics, and in their distinct identity as a people.
The difficulty of maintaining this identity under hostile imperial regimes led many Poles to seek freedom overseas. The first permanent settlement of Polish immigrants in U.S. sprang up on the Texas plains, where a few hundred men, women, and children from Silesia founded the town of Panna Maria in 1854.
The small farm community grew and thrived, and soon more and more Poles were making their way to the shores of America. At the turn of the 20th century, Polish immigration exploded. Imperial repression, land shortages, and chronic unemployment made life more and more untenable for the Poles of Europe, and as the 19 th century waned they left for America by the thousands, then by the hundreds of thousands.
Exact numbers are difficult to come by, given the many different routes Poles took to the U.S., but the 1910 census found more than 900,000 new immigrants who spoke Polish. After World War I, Poland regained its independence, and immigration began to slow. Even so, it is estimated that more than 2 million Poles had immigrated by the 1920s. Not all intended to stay.
Many of the earlier Poles were known as za chlebem, or “for-bread” immigrants, who came planning to earn a nest egg and return home. Whatever their intentions, most Polish immigrants ended up remaining in the United States.
However, they still kept one eye on their homeland and passionately guarded their language, faith, and sense of themselves as Poles. As Poles poured into the country, they came together in communities that preserved many aspects of the Polish way of life. Most Polish immigrants had come in search of a decent livelihood, and so were drawn to the areas of the country where good work was available.
In Poland, owning land had been a great source of pride, and many Poles struck out for farm country, founding agricultural towns in the mid-Atlantic states and New England. The Great Lakes region reminded some recent immigrants of home, and Polish names soon dotted the maps of Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan.
America’s cities were the destination of most Poles, however. Heavy industry had played an aggressive role in recruiting throughout Europe, and new Polish immigrants were drawn to jobs in the factories, steel mills, slaughterhouses, and foundries of the U.S. industrial belt.
Chicago, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Milwaukee, Detroit, New York, and Cleveland became anchor cities of the new Polish communities, and Polish was spoken in the mines of Appalachia and the Alleghenies.
Wherever they settled, Polish immigrants went about building communities that were fiercely committed to the preservation of their national heritage and culture. A national network of Polish-language newspapers, social clubs, and, eventually, radio and television stations helped keep the Polish language alive.
Parochial schools were built within walking distance of every Polish neighborhood, and more than 900 Polish Catholic churches were founded. Polish music, dance, literature, and folklore were all kept alive through many decades in an English-speaking land.
Polish American communities might be widely scattered, from Krakow, Wisconsin, and Wilno, Minnesota, to Bucktown in Chicago and Cleveland’s Fleet Avenue.
However, Polish Americans always made it clear that, while they were citizens of the United States, they were also loyal to Polonia—the community of Poles worldwide. That loyalty was galvanized by the dark decades of the Second World War and by the Cold War tensions that followed it.
Millions of Poles in Europe perished or lost their homes during World War II, and thousands fled the Soviet takeover of Poland that followed it. Polish Americans opened their homes to any refugees who were able to escape, and they once more agitated for their country’s freedom.
When that freedom finally came with the fall of the Soviet Union, countless family reunions took place, as European Poles met long-lost relatives and Polish Americans set foot on Polish soil for the first time.
Today, Poles are moving to the United States again, as a generation newly freed from foreign domination seeks its fortune overseas. They find a country shaped by the achievements of the Polish Americans that came before them, such as the poet Czeslaw Milosz, the conductor Leopold Stokowski, the baseball player Stan Musial, and the politicians Barbara Mikulski and Edward Muskie.
New Polish American communities are now rising up in New York, Detroit, and Chicago, sometimes occupying the same city blocks as their predecessors did a century before, and keeping the spirit of Polonia alive.