Friday, February 02, 2007

The Trail of the Polish Emigrants in Michigan, Part 1

The Trail of The Polish Emigrants in Michigan, Part 1
by Dr. Stephen Wloszczewski from Poles in Michigan, Vol. 1

[First Emigrants - The Kashubs - First Traces of Polish Settlements in Michigan - Andrew Kaminski Marries in Detroit in 1846 - Polish Volunteers in the Union Army - Father A Wyszowski in 1835 - Interesting Conversation of Father Kruszka with Texas Schoolchildren - First Polish Settlements - Historical Sources for Michigan Poles]

There were fewer Poles in the State of Michigan in the very beginning of its existence - in the 18th century - than in New Holland on the banks of the Hudson, or in Pennsylvania. Contemporary Polish settlers had not yet advanced towards the Great Lakes.

However, after the Napoleonic Wars, in the 19th century, Michigan began to attract Polish emigrants. They began to settle Detroit itself, although, at that time, our present metropolis was a small town with only a few hundred small houses, several larger dwellings, and a few thousand inhabitants.

The first Poles to reach Detroit were Kashubs and Pomeranians. They were sea-faring folk following in the footsteps of their German neighbors already emigrating to America in large numbers.

Among them were some Silesians as well as Prussian Mazurians, mainly Protestants. Restless, adventurous, young noblemen or townsmen from Poland's Western Provinces or Eastern border were rarely found among these first settlers, except where larger groups of warrior patriots drifted over to America, forced to leave the Old Country because of the defeat of a conspiracy or political compromise in a national insurrection.

It is now impossible to establish the exact number of the first Polish settlers in Michigan, and especially in Detroit. However, some traces of them have been found by such persistent researchers as Dr. C. Barzyk, Maria Remigia Napolska, Sister of the Order of Felicians, Vincent Smolczynski, and others.

Those old Polish settlers of the early years of the 19th century were certainly good Catholics, since Poland was "Semper Fidelis." The faded records of the oldest Catholic churches in Detroit were the very sources which could be used to trace the names of some of these settlers. Sister Napolska and Dr. G. Barzyk believed so, and they were the first to knock at the door of the oldest Catholic church in Detroit - St. Anne's, once a French church.

Some Polish names were recorded there. Typically Polish names occur as early as 1808, 1817, 1820, 1823, 1834, and 1837 in the old parish registers of baptisms. Alongside appear names which might be of Polish origin, but were misspelled in the records.

Under the date of July 13th, 1846, an entry can be found in St. Mary's, the oldest German church. This was a note of the marriage of Andrew Kaminski to Christine Gibels. Two years later the baptismal register displays a notice of the christening, on October 15th, of twin boys - Andrew and Stephen born to this couple.

Owing to the industrious research of the three above named scholars and of some others, such as Mieczyslaw Haiman and Father Waclaw Kruszka, the greatest amount of personal data found was about this same Andrew Kaminski, a soldier of the 1831 Polish uprising of whose life I shall write in another article.

In the oldest Polish cemeteries - in Parisville near Port Huron, and at Posen near Alpena - there are graves of those who were born toward the end of the 18th century, and who arrived in America between 1820 and 1830. They must have stopped at Detroit, which represented an important junction in the St. Lawrence River's waterway system.

The so-called Prussian Mazurians - Polish Protestants from East Prussia - were probably wandering in the direction as early as the very beginning of the 19th century. German influence was strongest among them, and the fashion of emigrating to America, then prevailing in Germany, set an example for them. Father Waclaw Kruszka, in his monumental memoirs ("Seven Times Seven Years" - two volumes) describes his accidental meeting with the purely Polish Mazurian Protestant settlements in Wisconsin.

Recruiting agents of the growing industrial concerns, especially of the railway trusts, were already extending their tentacles toward Europe. Philip Jasnowski, a Detroiter of the 1850's, a good cabinet-maker, must have been signed by one such recruiting agent, probably in England. Thus, in New York, about which the contemporary Polish life centered at this time, the State recruiting agents directed Polish emigrants to the Middle West. Alexander Bielawski, who later became a close friend of President Abraham Lincoln, for example, was recruited in New York and commissioned to work on the construction of railroads in southern Illinois.

Mieczyslaw Haiman, after a thorough search of historical documents (see his "History of Poles in the Civil War", published in 1928), found the names of 36 Poles who joined the Union forces in the State of Michigan alone. This number of typically Polish names figures in the "Annual Report of the State Adjutant-General." There must have been many more Polish volunteers with German or misspelled names who cannot be traced with the help of this list, but who hailed from the same State.

Finally, the "Catholic Almanac" informs us that Father A. Wyszowski visited Detroit from time to time between 1835 and 1847. He must have been ministering to a flock of Poles centering in Detroit and vicinity.

Look for Part 2 of this article for its conclusion.