Buffeted by history, Poland can be a challenging place to trace your ancestors. Here's how to rev up your research and put your Polish heritage in high gear.
Because of Poland's troubled past, finding and reading records in the old country can be a nightmare. For example, if your ancestors lived in eastern Poland, records from 1868 to 1917 will be in Russian. Records from 1808 to 1868 generally should be in Polish. As for western Poland, controlled by Germany while Russia ruled the east, records generally will be in German or Latin (the language used by the Catholic Church), although you may find some in Polish. And what of Galicia, the part of the partition ruled by Austria? Most records will be in Latin, although some will be found in German and Polish.
The present is almost as confusing. Poland had 49 wojewodztwo, or provinces, until a January 1999 reorganization. There now are 16. In another complication, the old provinces frequently had a city with the same name as the province; that's no longer the case.
As in much of European research, knowing the precise city or village in which your family lived is essential, for either civil or church records. If you don't have a clue based on family legends, interviews or documents, you may be in for a lengthy, perhaps ultimately unsuccessful, search. Without clear, concrete knowledge that a particular record for your ancestor exists, you'd be better off spending some time researching at your local Family History Center at www.familysearch.org/Search/searchfhc2.asp or consulting some of these Web sites before booking your flight to Poland.
Some records simply no longer exist, especially if your ancestor came to the United States by ship. Hamburg and Bremen, both in Germany, were the most popular ports of exit for Poles during the major emigration period. Records are available for those who left from Hamburg; check out www.hamburg.de/LinkToYourRoots/english/welcome.htm for a database of 5 million people who passed through the port. The bad news is that twice as many Poles left via Bremen, and those records were destroyed by the German government due to lack of space and by Allied bombing during World War II. A few Poles left via Belgium and the Netherlands; records for those ports are sparse.
You may be in the same boat, pardon the pun, when it comes to checking passenger lists. From 1820 to 1882, only the passenger's name, age, sex, country of allegiance, destination and occupation had to be recorded. Even after that date, the passenger's hometown or place of birth didn't have to be noted. Still, there can be clues in learning who else was on a particular ship: your ancestor's brother? mother? eventual spouse? Watch for similarly spelled names, or names appearing immediately before or after your ancestor on the list.
While Poles and others streamed into the United States through Ellis Island starting in 1892, a significant number also entered before then at Castle Garden in New York City (see www.nps.gov/cacl/) as well as Baltimore, Boston, Philadelphia and New Orleans. For tips on tapping all those records, see a genealogist's guide to tracing immigrant and ethnic ancestors.
Because the Polish migration began relatively early, finding a paper trail on your ancestor's arrival also can be difficult. Naturalization records became the purview of the federal government in 1906; before that, immigrants filed their intent to become citizens in a variety of courts, sometimes near the city where they arrived. Actual naturalization usually didn't come for another couple of years. In some cases, those early documents list nothing more than name, country of birth or allegiance and date of application. When you look for records prior to 1922, you're most likely to find information about male ancestors; women automatically became citizens if their husbands were or became citizens.