Beginners Guide to Polish Genealogy
Once we have decided to join the thousands of others in beginning the journey back into the past history of our family, we ask ourselves “What should we do first? Where do we look for information? How do we get it?” This page will answer some of these questions and is designed for those just starting out on the paper trail. Following the steps outlined below will get you pointed in the right direction.
Research Right at Hand!
Cleaning Your House
The first place to begin your search is right at home. You should scour your attics, cellars, junk drawers and wherever else you keep those old papers, photographs, etc. By collecting old passports, certificates, medals, deeds and other items that you, your parents or grandparents have hidden away for safe keeping, you will unearth basic information which may lead you to record repositories and archives. Some of the types of materials you should be looking for at home include:
- Certificates of Birth, Marriage and Death
- Obituaries and Funeral Cards
- Naturalization Certificates
- Military Papers (induction, commendation and discharge)
- High School-College yearbooks
- Old pictures (even if you don’t know who’s in them now, someday you will)
- Membership records or membership cards from ethnic organizations
- Old letters from Poland
- Family Bible, which sometimes contains family names and information
After you have cleaned out your house, go do the same at your aunt’s, uncle’s, grandparents’ and cousins’ homes too!
Interviewing Family Members
Interview your entire family. Each member will remember different things which you can later piece together as a cohesive whole. If the family provides little or no information, try interviewing the families of old neighbors or friends. Be polite, but persistent! Let your relative talk, as sometimes their own recollections will jog their memory releasing long forgotten memories. Ask questions in the simplest of ways. If asking “who is your great uncle” does not work, try asking “who is your grandfather’s brother”.
If your relatives do not remember the name of their ancestral village in Poland, ask them if they remember anything about the place. Perhaps they can recall a nearby large city being mentioned or can recall physical features such as mountains or lakes. Ask what languages were spoken in the home. Such general information cannot determine a specific village name but you can narrow down your ancestral region. Also, such information can be enriching and can liven up your family’s history. Keep detailed notes. If you use electronic media, make sure to transcribe the conversation onto paper in the event CDs, computer files, tapes, etc. become damaged.
What may seem unimportant now may prove to be vital later on in your research. Learn the various towns and where your ancestors resided here in the U.S. Try to get exact addresses. You can use this information when searching in federal and state census records. Learn the names of the churches your ancestors attended. Those will be the churches you can write to for birth, marriage and death records, in addition to finding the cemeteries in which your deceased ancestors are buried. And do not forget to ask about stories that they remember with regard to their families. Whether it has to do with get-togethers or holidays – every detail is important!
Also, be aware that some of the stories your relatives told you may not always be factual and can contain distortions or omissions.
After examining and analyzing the information you have gathered, you should devise some sort of system to keep your information organized. One way of doing this is to keep family group sheets on which you can record the vital data on the various family units you discover. In addition to recording names and dates, you should also cite the source from which you obtained the information. As your search takes you out of the home to record repositories, it is a good idea to keep a log of what records you have examined and for what time period, posting both positive and negative results. Knowing that you did not find something in a particular location is just as important as knowing if you did. It is useful because years from now your memory may become fuzzy and you may not recall if you searched in a specific place for a specific record and may unnecessarily repeat all your work.
Forms for genealogical record keeping are available online or from many genealogical societies or bookstores which specialize in family history. Create a filing system. Make a file for each surname and town, village, or region you are researching. Put any information you find on that name or locality in the appropriate file for easy sorting and retrieval. Invest in a genealogy software program. Most are quite inexpensive and easy to use. Such programs organize all of our loose sheets of paper and notes, find possible inconsistencies in our data and create elaborate charts and reports.
The principal source of an initial family history inquiry is vital records. These documents, which contain information on birth, marriage, death, and chronicle the life events of an ancestor, can be housed in government offices, churches and archives. The place where such records are kept, what their inception date is, and who can have access to them varies from state to state and country to country. There is not as much uniformity in the keeping of these records as one would think.
For example, in Connecticut, vital records are only open to researchers who hold a valid membership card in one of the state’s legally incorporated genealogical societies, such as ours. There are no exceptions to this requirement. Records in Connecticut as well as the rest of New England are kept principally at the city or town level. In contrast, most record keeping in other parts of the United States is done at the county level. Each state also has duplicate records generated by the towns and counties at the State level (but not always for the same time period).
In Pennsylvania and other states, marriage records are housed in Marriage License Bureaus at the Country Court House and are open to the public, but most birth and death records are held at another repository. Vital records are not always housed together in the same place. New York state imposes date restrictions on which records can be used (i.e.: they must be 50 or 75 years old, depending on the event).
The key point of this section is to remember that each state has its own laws with which you should become familiar before writing to or visiting a record office.
While vital records can yield large amounts of information, they do have their drawbacks. In many cases, the Polish surnames (as well as first names) of our ancestors are twisted beyond recognition and the geographical information we need in order to go back across the ocean is lacking. In many cases, these deficiencies can be remedied by consulting the records of a Polish parish, as a Polish speaking clergyman would have recorded names and places correctly.
To locate a Polish parish in the locality where your ancestors lived, you can consult The Catholic Directory, an annual publication listing the addresses of all Roman Catholic parishes in the United States. Similar directories are published for other denominations. If you have no success, contact us as we have compiled a listing of such parishes.
Access to the baptismal, matrimonial, and death records of a church is at the discretion of the records custodian, frequently the pastor. However, the records from some Roman Catholic dioceses have been filmed by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS or The Mormons) including Newark, Chicago, and Buffalo, all centers of large Polish populations. Some of these records are also on-line at FamilySearch. (See below for information on LDS sources)
Deeds and Mortgages
One of our ancestors’ first goals in the United States was to purchase a home and plot of land they could call their own. Records of these transactions are carefully recorded in Town Halls and County Courthouses throughout the region. As with vital records, each state may exhibit a variety of places where these records may be located. While parentage or birthplaces are lacking in such records, they provide us with ownership and financial data.
Many state and local governments maintain offices of Veterans Affairs which may contain data on an ancestor’s military service. In some states, veterans who locally filed copies of discharge papers were entitled to certain tax abatements. Also check records of the state Adjutant General archival collections or state archives. Access to more recent discharge papers may be restricted.
Probate Records and Wills
Even if your ancestor did not have a will, he or she may have a probate file which can yield unexpected finds such as the names and addresses of brothers and sisters or parents in Europe. In some states, probate court districts are contiguous with county boundaries. In other states, such as Connecticut, the state is divided into probate court districts. Investigate the judicial structure of each state which interests you prior to writing for any files. Older probate records may have been transferred to a state archival facility.
These printed lists of residents usually list the householders name, occupation and address. In 1922 or so, names of spouses were also included. Some directories list dates of death and if a person moved, what city, state or country he moved to. Directories of this sort, which used to be published annually, can usually be found at a local public library or a State Library. Many have been digitized and can be viewed on sites such as Ancestry.com. As always, be careful with the spelling of Polish first and last names.
In many states, voting records are destroyed after 5 or 10 year period. However, in other localities, especially in New England, older records may have been preserved at the places of their creation, usually in a Town Hall, or may have been transferred to a State Archive or local historical society.
Obituaries and Cemetery Records
Obituaries often contain a wealth of information both of the deceased and of their survivors such as birthplace, birth dates, alias, addresses, etc. In the late 19th and 20th centuries, many newspapers only carried very brief one line accounts of a person’s passing, unless the person was prominent or died in an accident or in some other way which would warrant greater news or coverage. In some large metropolitan areas, such as New York City, obituaries and death notices, to this day, only represent a fraction of the deaths which occur. Don’t forget to check the obituaries of a local Polish language newspaper as well.
Because they are a valuable source, our society has maintained a collection of obituaries compiled by members dating from 1984 to the present from newspapers mainly in Connecticut, Rhode Island, Arizona, New Jersey, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Delaware.
We also have thousands of cemetery inscriptions from over 500 Polish and non-Polish cemeteries throughout the Northeast region of the United States. Many of these have been digitized and searches can be conducted on our website.
Libraries with Large Polish Collections
- Central Connecticut State University, New Britain, CT
- Harvard University, Cambridge, MA
- New York Public Library, Slavonic Division, New York, NY
- University of Pittsburgh, PA
- Yale University, New Haven, CT
The contents of school records, such as IQ testing or grades, is usually not public information. However, some school districts maintain school census records and other similar materials which may assist you in tracking down information on an ancestor. Yearbooks and lists of graduates are also informative sources. Digitized yearbooks can be found on Ancestry.com.
Records of Polish Organizations
National, fraternal organizations, such as the Polish Roman Catholic Union of America (PRCUA), the Polish National Alliance (PNA) and other similar insurance type entities, required applications. Write to the national headquarters as to the availability of such records.
Not all fraternals have retained their older records. Some have been indexed and the indexes placed on line. An index to the records of the PRCUA can be found at www.pgsa.org. Our society has the original paper records of some of the PRCUA files.
There are several bodies of records kept by United States government offices which can assist you in gathering further data on your family. These include:
Since 1790, a census was taken in the United States every ten years. Due to privacy restrictions, the latest available census is that for 1940. Most of our Polish ancestors arrived here between the 1880’s and the outbreak of World War I. Thus, the most valuable census returns for a researcher tracing a Polish family will be those of 1900 to 1940. (The 1890 census was nearly totally destroyed in a fire, only fragments remain.) Census returns typically list the head of the household, and all other persons both related and non related, residing there. Information we can learn from census records includes age, sex, address, citizenship status, birthplace (state or country as specific locations in Poland are NOT provided); home ownership, and year of arrival in the United States, (in many cases a guess and not completely accurate).
This body of “federal” records have come under federal jurisdiction only since 1906. Before that time and in some instances for decades after, the process of naturalization (e.g. becoming a United States citizen) was a duty performed by state and local courts. Because of the multi-jurisdictional nature of these records, you may have to do some hunting to track them down. They may be located at State Archives, National Archives branches or still in the court where the naturalization took place.
There were several important documents created during the naturalization process, two of which were:
Declaration of Intention – filed after a minimum of three years residence in the United States in which the immigrant declares his intention to become a citizen. Information on post 1906 records should give birthplace, name of the ship which carried the immigrant to the United States, its port of departure and date of arrival.
Petition for Naturalization – able to be filed two years after the Declaration. This document contains a wealth of data. In addition to the information on the declaration, the names, dates and places of birth of children are also listed, depending on the time period. The petition number is of great importance as these records are filed by petition number.
In recent years, the National Archives branches have been removing naturalization records from Federal Courts. Some courts have kept the indexes to these records while the records themselves have been transferred. Make sure you have determined the location of the index and have obtained all petition numbers before going to do research at any Archive. In some states, naturalizations performed by state courts have been centralized in State Archives and not federal (i.e.: Massachusetts). Most Connecticut naturalization records from both state and federal courts are located at the National Archives branch in Waltham, Massachusetts.
Although immigrants were eligible to file for and complete the naturalization process five years after their arrival, most waited years, if not decades, before filing. Some courts have indexes to naturalizations on their websites. Paid sites such as Ancestry.com have substantial holdings of records of this type. Also check county court sites as some counties have indexed and digitized records from their county.
Another interesting point is that prior to September, 1922, wives automatically became citizens along with their husbands/fathers and will have no naturalization papers of their own prior to this date. If your ancestor never became a United States citizen but was alive in 1940, you may be able to locate the document they filed as part of the mandatory yearly registration of aliens (Alien Registration Act).
A partial index to alien registration records can be found on the National Archives website. This information is not complete, however. Further information on Alien Files can be found here.
Ships Passenger Lists
As with naturalization records, details of passengers debarking at United States ports were under the control of various governmental jurisdictions. Earlier records, referred to as Customs Lists, are much more sparse information wise than later Immigration Passenger lists.
As one moves closer to World War I, the amount of information required on the lists increases. At the height of information gathering (i.e. post 1907), these lists contained the name, (be careful, you need your ancestor’s original name in their native language. There were no Lotties, Chesters or Tillies leaving Poland), place of birth, age, marital status and last foreign residence of each passenger.
Also required was the name of the passenger’s closest relative in the country of origin and the name, address and relationship of the person to whom the immigrant was traveling. Many of the names are misspelled in the original lists and in the online indexes at the Ellis Island website.
Each port had its own set of lists. The most frequent ports of entry for Polish immigrants were New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Boston, although New York by far processed the most passengers. Frequent ports of departure were Hamburg and Bremen in Germany; Rotterdam, Holland and Antwerp, Belgium. Most passenger lists have been digitized and are widely available on line. Consult Ellis Island Website, SteveMorse.org and Ancestry.com. Beware of bad spellings of both first and last names. Also note that the indexes on these sites are not identical!
Some early military records of both officers and enlisted men are housed at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. More recent military records can possibly be obtained by writing to:
The National Personnel Center
Military Records Facility
9700 Page Avenue
St. Louis, Missouri 63132-5100
Please note that due to a catastrophic fire at this location in the 1970’s, many records were burned. As noted earlier, many veterans of both the United States and Polish Armies filed copies of their discharge papers with local governmental bodies for tax abatement purposes. Check at your town hall or country courthouse.
WWI draft records are on line at Ancestry.com and other websites and include men who were ages 18-45 during the registration period (1917-1918). The WWII “Old Man’s” draft cards for men born between 1877-1897 are also online. Some WWII records for younger men are also online at Ancestry.
The records of WWI General Haller’s “Blue Army,” an army of soldiers comprised of Poles residing in the United States and Canada, have been deposited in the Polish Museum of America in Chicago and have been indexed by several Polish genealogical societies in a collaborate effort. (www.pgsa.org)
The original application for Social Security contains the address at the time of the filing, birthdate, birthplace, parents’ names and birthplaces, and place of employment. Original applications for Social Security have been microfilmed and a search of them can be made by writing to the Social Security Administration (SSA) and making a Freedom of Information Request. Details and forms can be found on the SSA website.
The Social Security Administration has also released its decedent file (called SSDI) which contains death data on persons who died between 1940 to present. The earlier portion prior to 1962 is rather spotty, however. The index is available on line at various sites including FamilySearch.org and Ancestry.com. A more recently released database of social security applications which supplements the SSDI (and contains more information than the SSDI) can be found on Ancestry.com.
Because of Poland’s turbulent history, the nation’s administrative jurisdictions have changed many times over the past 300 years. In the late 1700’s, the Polish Commonwealth, one of the largest countries in Europe, was divided between her neighbors in a series of land partitions which eventually wiped the country off the map of Europe. Polish lands in the west were seized by Prussia, eastern lands were absorbed into the Russian Empire, while Austria took the region southeastern Poland known as “Galicia”. Each of the partitioning powers rearranged internal provincial and county boundaries, and in some cases, renamed towns and villages.
After Poland regained independence in 1918, new provinces were created. After World War II, another internal reorganization took place and again in 1975. The current reorganized boundaries were instituted in January of 1999.
In view of all these changes, it is necessary to study the historical geography of the region of Poland where your ancestors lived. Boundaries of dioceses also underwent modification and change, the most recent being in 1992. It’s important to trace the various ecclesiastical jurisdictions under which our ancestors lived as the changes may have affected the location of the records. Several gazetteers (lists of place names) will help you findyour ancestral village.
A word of caution – Polish place names repeat frequently and there may be 10 pages of localities named Dąbrowa, for example. You’ll need more precise information, gleaned from American records, to determine which locality is yours.
- Skorowidz Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej, 1934 – Covers the territory of the interwar (1918-1939) Polish Republic, including areas now in Western Belarus and Ukraine.
- Spis Miejscowości Polskiej Rzeczypospolitej Ludowej, 1967 – Reflects the pre-1975 administrative division of the country. This gazetteer is of special importance simply because the Mormons have largely used the provincial and country boundaries of the time period to catalogue their collection of Polish microfilm.
- Wykaz Urządowych Miejsc w Polsce, 1980 – Reflects the country’s administrative divisions from 1975 to 1998. In addition to the above mentioned sources in Polish, the partitioning powers also published similar gazetteers.
- Kartenmeister.com is an electronic source which converts German place names to Polish and vice versa.
- Detailed Polish military maps (1918-1939) can be viewed at www.mapywig.org.
- Genealogical Gazetteer of Galicia (in English).
A number of European gazetteers can be found online as well as in digital library collections. Enter the name of the gazetteer in which you are interested in a search engine to see if it has been digitized.
Research in Poland
STOP! If you do not have the exact birthplace of your ancestor, you cannot do research in Poland. The name of a province or nearby large city is not sufficient. Many American researchers labor under the illusion that an archivist in Poland can tell them where their ancestor was born. This is false! YOU must tell the archivist where your family originated so that they can consult the proper records. Once you have determined your family’s birthplace, you have several options.
Church of Latter-day Saints (LDS/Mormons)
Personnel of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS or The Mormons) have microfilmed vital records of many Roman Catholic, Greek Catholic, Jewish, Lutheran and Orthodox congregations. For the most part these records were housed in State or Diocesan Archives. The bulk of these records were filmed in the 1970’s and extend to records 100 years old or more at a time (e.g. 1870). A second filming was done later and those records may extend past 1870. A catalogue of available records can be consulted at the FamilySearch website. The LDS microfilm rental program has been discontinued. Records can be searched on from either your home computer or more likely at an LDS Family History Center.
You must search for the locality where the records were created (i.e. parish or Jewish Registration District) which may or may not be the name of the place where your ancestors were born. Many Polish records, however, have not been filmed or digitized and can be found in the places listed below, if extant.
Polish State Archives
Poland, like the United States, has a principal National Archive (in Warsaw) and branch archives located throughout the country. Research can be done by mail. A successful inquiry should be concise and specific (and in Polish). Vague and ill-formed requests will result in your request taking more time to complete and thus higher fees.
Addresses of the branch archives can be found at the following website http://www.archiwa.gov.pl Most of Poland’s archives have published guides to the holdings of their respective repositories. Many of these publications can be found at our Archive and Resource Center.
You can also search the state archives holdings of vital records registers on the website using the PRADZIAD database (which is slated to be shut down and replaced by szukajwarchiwach.pl). Thousands of pages of Polish vital records registers have been digitized and can be consulted at no cost at that site.
Vital Statistics Offices (Urządy Stanu Cywilnego or USC)
These district level offices are supposed to contain records less than 100 years old. However, at times they may contain older records. Our Resource Center has a list of USC holdings for the 1880-1939 period. Due to privacy laws, the USC office may require documentation or notarized statements from you before any research is conducted in more recent records. Records are released generally only to direct line descendants. Currently USC offices retain birth records less than 100 years old and marriage records and death records less than 80 years old.
All of Poland’s Roman Catholic Dioceses have archival repositories whose collections of vital records vary from excellent to poor. The archives of the Archdioceses of Poznan and Bialystok have, for example, large collections of parish records, while those of other dioceses are sparse or intermittent. Records from non-Catholic churches or from Jewish congregations in many cases are housed at State Archival repositories as the congregation which created them no longer exists. If the congregation is still functioning, contact can be made directly. Access to the records at religious archives are at the discretion of the archivist and according to regulations established by each dioceses.
Many parishes retain their records and have not forwarded any of them to any other state or church archival repository. Access to records at this level is entirely at the discretion of the pastors, whose predisposition to genealogical research may vary from enthusiastic encouragement to a flat refusal.
Our Resource Center can provide you with the addresses of the state, religious and parish archives as we have quite an extensive collection of materials related to this topic.
Most helpful is our collection of Diocesan Guides which list each parish in the diocese and the villages which belonged to the parish. Certain number of the guides also provide brief histories of the parish and other pertinent data.
In the post-Communist era, the availability of Polish telephone books has greatly improved. Our Archive has directories from approximately half the provinces. The directories assist in learning whether anyone is listed with your surname of interest in your ancestral village or region. We also have directories for the cities of Wilno (Vilnius), Lithuania and Grodno in Belarus.
Surname Distribution Directories
Our Resource Center houses a ten-volume set of books which lists each surname in use in Poland at the time of their publication (1990). Each entry provides the number of adult bearers of each surname and the distribution of the surname by province. This material is also available online at herby.com.pl. You must use Polish diacritical marks to get optimal results.
Another popular surname distribution site is nazwiska-polskie.pl
Records from Poland may have been written in Polish, Russian, German, Hebrew or Latin. If planning a visit to search for relatives in Poland, knowing the language will help you immensely in exchanging stories with your family. Enroll in a Polish course at your nearby University or Adult Education Center.
Several translation guides written specifically for genealogists are available for Polish, Russian, Latin and German. Further information on these publications can be obtained at www.langline.com.
In reality, a knowledge of the language is useful at the inception of the research process in the U.S. to help you identify misspelled names or effectively search ship passenger lists.
Our Society also offers high quality language instruction both live and on line. Check the events section of our website to learn about current course offerings.
The sooner you begin learning the language, the better!
Selected Online Resources
Polish Online Records
As noted above, the Polish State Archives has begun digitizing many of the birth, marriage and death records in its possession. These materials can be found at www.szukajwarchiwach.pl. Please note that there are no indexes.
The website www.genealodzy.pl contains indexes to some vital records compiled by volunteers from the Polskie Towarzystwo Genealogiczne (PTG). Once on the main page of the site, click on “geneteka” and then on the map which appears. You will need to know what province your ancestral place of origin is currently in. The site also includes a forum (in Polish) where you can learn about record sources and current happenings in the field of Polish genealogy. You can also register at no charge and post your surnames of interest on the site.
There are also several sites containing digitized records from former Polish territory now in Belarus, Lithuania and Ukraine.
The website www.agad.gov.pl/inwentarze/testy.html contains many digitized registers from the Archdiocese of Lwów, now in Ukraine. Digitized materials from Lithuania can be consulted at www.epaveldas.lt/home.
Connecticut State Archives
231 Capitol Avenue
Hartford, CT 06106
Delaware State Archives
121 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. North
Dover, DE 19901
Massachusetts State Archives
220 Morrisey Boulevard
Boston, MA 02125
New Hampshire State Archives
Archives and Records Management
N.H. Department of State
9 Ratification Way
Concord, NH 03301
New Jersey State Archives
Department of State Building
225 West State Street
P.O. Box 307
Trenton, NJ 08625-0307
New York State Archives and Records Administration
New York State Education Department
Cultural Education Center
Albany, NY 12230
Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission
Pennsylvania State Archives
350 North Street
Harrisburg, PA 17120-0090
Rhode Island State Archives
337 Westminster Street
Providence, RI 02903-3302
National Archives – Northeast Region
380 Trapelo Road
Waltham, MA 02452-6399
National Archives Northeast Region
201 Varick Street
New York, NY 10014-4811
National Archives Mid Atlantic Region
900 Market Street
Philadelphia, PA 19107-4292
National Archives and Records Administration
700 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20408
Polish State Archives
Belarusian State Archives
Central State Historical Archives of Ukraine-Kyiv
Central State Historical Archives of Ukraine-Lviv
Lithuanian State Historical Archives
Going Home: A Guide to Polish-American Family History Research by Jonathan D. Shea
Avotaynu Guide to Jewish Genealogy by Sallyann Amdur Sack and Gary Mokotoff, eds.
In Their Words: A Genealogist’s Translation Guide.
Volume 1: Polish; Volume 2: Russian, Volume 3: Latin, Volume 4: German
by Jonathan D. Shea and William F. Hoffman