Part 1 – between 1850 and 1890

In the period between 1850 and 1890 there occurred a very large exudes of people from Central Europe and Silesia to the Americas in the Western Hemisphere.  This paper will attempt to explain just what caused this movement – what the conditions were in Silesia when  they left and what conditions they met in their new home across the sea.

From as early as the 1600’s Polish people had lived in America.  There were Polish artisans at the Jamestown Colony in 1608. There were two notable Polish Generals who helped win America’s Revolutionary War – Thadeusz Kosciuszko and Casimir Pulaski.  Many schools in America are named after these two military strategists.  In the centuries that followed, up until 1929 there are estimates that as many as three and a half million Poles immigrated to the United States.   This wave of emigration is broken down into three phases – the colonial period (1608-1830); the political period (1830-1850); and the economic period (1850 – 1929). 

This story is about Poles who left Europe at the very end of the political period and at the start of the economic period – in other words from 1850-1890.   It is about a specific group of people who came from a handful of small villages along the Oder/Odra River near the large city of Opole.    These villages were Popielow, Stare Siolkowice, Chroscice, Kaniow, Kup, Falkowice,  Dobrzen Wielke, and Narok.  By far the greatest numbers came from Popielow and Stare Siookowice. These villages were already hundreds of years old.   Siolkowice, the largest, was founded and appears in documents from the early 1200’s. 

The villages that  they left are north of and downriver from the major city of Opole.  Opole is the capital of the Province/Voivodeship of Opole to which they belong.  Most are also part of Opole County. The Administrative/Gmina offices, similar to our city hall, for most of these villages are in Popielow.  These villages are located on the most western part of Upper Silesia.  The villages just to the west of Popielow are part of Lower Silesia. 

These Silesian villages had existed from the early 13th Century and their names appear in documents from that time.  The Popielow Gminy (County) crest bears a date 1286 on it. 

There is an interesting story (tradition) that tells how the villages came to be.  There was an escape by prisoners from the castle dungeons in Opole.  After this the Prince and his entourage were travelling  along the East bank of the Oder River to Brzeg to  meet with the prince who lived there.  On the way they found a small settlement  hidden from the river by a large forest. To their surprise these people were the prisoners who had escaped from the Opole Castle.  They had built cottages and were farming the land.  The Prince was impressed with their  diligence and released them from the rest of their sentences and allowed them to remain there.  When they were found several of these men were sowing grain and so the name Siolkowice was given to this village.  In the language Siolkowice means “to sow”.

The people that left Silesia for North America organized Polish settlements or colonies (Polonoia) in Western Wisconsin near the Mississippi River.  These settlements were centered in Trempealeau County and their names are North Creek, New City, Elk Creek and Independence.

At the same time that these people were leaving, another group of Silesians were leaving another village near Opole in the same county.  The name of this village is Pluznica Wielka and it is located about 30 miles southeast of Opole. These emigrants left Silesia and ended up in South Texas near San Antonio.  The village they settled in is named Panna Maria and is known to be the 1st Polish settlement in the United States.  More about this story will appear later in this paper.  Our Trempealeau County Silesian settlements are considered the 2nd oldest Polish settlements in America.

There were many reasons why these people left their beloved homeland.  At the time the country of Poland did not appear on the European map.  It had been divided several times in the century before between Poland’s powerful neighbors Austria, Russia and Prussia.  After this land grab by Poland’s neighbors the villages where these people lived fell under the rule of what was then Prussia.  Prussia would soon morph into the German Empire.

These indigenous Silesians had always considered themselves to be Polish but had not been ruled by Poland for over 600 years.  Instead, they had been ruled these many years by first Bohemia, then Austria, and now Prussia.  They had always stubbornly held onto their  Polish  language, customs and  loyalty to Poland.  Their language was a Silesian dialect that was mostly Polish with some German and a little Czech mixed in.  The name given this language was “wasserpolnisch” meaning watered down Polish.  Another name for this dialect of the Polish language is Schlesich. This was basically the language that these pioneers brought with them to Wisconsin.  No doubt (150 years later) it has changed much from how it is spoken now back in Silesia.  This is the language still spoken in many of the homes in present day Silesia.  But in schools, businesses and government offices the “high Polish” language is required.  Many of the citizens in these villages now also speak German.  Today, English is taught in their schools so many young people there can now speak three languages – Polish, Silesian and English.

When Prussia under Frederick the Great took over Silesia in the mid 1700’s he started a program to “Germanize” the area.  Prussian/German settlers were encouraged to move east into Silesia, and they did.  At the same time the Prussians encouraged the native Silesians to leave the area for other parts of Europe at first and then later to America. Many left the area for the Prussian heartland and others moved to the east which was then ruled by Russia.  To accomplish this Prussians began making life very difficult for the native people.

Prussian rule had brought much hardship on the Polish peasants in the area.  The Prussians began to treat the area as a colony to be ruled and exploited for the benefit of the Prussian Empire.

The authorities appointed Germans to almost all local offices so the region came under almost total Prussian rule.  Almost all of the wealthy landowners and government officials were Germans.  Even the Catholic clergy was being replaced by Germans.  These native Silesians were almost all Catholics and had been since the late 900’s. Many of the new German/Prussian settlers and these new officials coming into the area were Protestant.

At the very beginning of Prussian rule the new German Protestants and native Catholics got along peacefully.  The Prussian authorities slowly began to suppress the Polish/Silesian culture, language and religion.  However, when Otto von Bismark became the new Prussian Chancellor things became very difficult for the native Silesians.  Bismark put into place a drastic plan to try to eradicate the Polish culture and religion in Silesia and replace it with everything German.  He was Protestant and had a very strong dislike for Catholics and the Papacy. 

Bismark’s program was known as “The Kulturkampf”, meaning cultural struggle.  Drastic measures were put in place regarding the Catholic religion that the natives had lived under for some 900 years.  Many new laws were enacted that put the church almost under complete control of the Prussian government.  The Jesuits, Franciscans and the Dominicans were dissolved or driven from the country. Many seminaries were closed.   The government took charge of the training and placement of the clergy.  Many parishes and villages were without a priest.  Some bishops were imprisoned or were forced to flee.   Marriage was made a mandatory civil ceremony and was removed from church control.  The native Silesian language was being replaced in schools and churches by the German language. This religious discrimination became one of many reasons for leaving Silesia for the New World.

Another reason for the mass exodus was the desire to have their own land and become successful farmers.  At the time there was not enough land available for most of the population.  The Prussians were buying all of the land because they had the money to do so.  The population at the time was growing at a rapid pace.   The farms that the Silesians owned were very small.  Most owned only about four acres or a few more.  Very few owned 20 or 40 acres of land. Those that did were considered wealthy but still had a hard time making a living from this farm.  The farms were usually passed on to the eldest son and the rest of the large family had no opportunity to farm.  The peasant farmers did own small plots of land behind their cottages on which they could grow gardens or small orchards to provide food for them.

Up until now the people who did own farm land had their fields set up as narrow strips scattered here and there outside the villages.  But in 1848 the Prussian authorities put in place a land reform policy called “The Separation & Integration of Lands.”   The land was surveyed and redistributed to the larger farmers in much larger plots which were all in one location. However, these new parcels were offered to only 39 farmers.  The vast majority of the people still had only their tiny parcels of land next to their cottages in the village.

All of the farmers lived in the villages. The barns and farm buildings were attached to their homes.  In fact, it is still like this today but the farms now have more acres.  Every morning the village herdsman would walk through the village blowing his horn.  He would then pick up all of the cattle from the village and take them out of the village to the common grazing pastures.  In the evening he would return and leave the cattle with the owners.  This was the practice for hundreds of years.  But now under the Prussian rule, the common grazing lands were sold to German colonists and the people had to take their cattle on the other side of the Oder River to graze.  Since there was often flooding along the Oder, it was at times impossible to take the cattle there.   The farmers would then be forced to graze them on the former common pastures but the Germans now owned this land and conflicts were numerous. 

Suspendisse blandit ligula turpis, ac convallis risus fermentum non. Duis vestibulum quis quam vel accumsan. Nunc a vulputate lectus. Vestibulum eleifend nisl sed massa sagittis vestibulum.

As more and more German/Prussian settlers came into the area, the common forest lands near the villages were sold by the government to the newcomers.  For centuries the native peoples had used these large woodlots to gather firewood to heat their homes and cook their food. The forests were also a source of abundant mushrooms and berries that made up a large part of their diet.   Now they were unable to use these resources and many conflicts with the rulers resulted.  There was one major incident in which several villagers of Siolkowice were arrested for cutting down some popple trees near the village.  A trial was held and some of the men were sent to prison. 

Taxes paid to the Prussian/German authorities in Opole were very high.  They had to be paid monthly.   If the peasants did not have the money to pay the tax , government collectors would come into their modest cottages and remove whatever they could find that was  of equal value to the amount due. 

Children were required to attend school until the age of fifteen or sixteen.  After that they were required to spend a certain number of days working each month on the estate of the Prussian rulers near Opole.  The former Piast Castle in Opole, now managed by the Prussian authorities, owned a large farm of some 300 acres.  A story told by one of the first Polish settlers to Trempealeau County (Sam Filla) reported in an article in the Whitehall Times that after he had finished his school days he was sent to work on this farm.  These young laborers were paid with a small percentage of the food produced.

Suspendisse blandit ligula turpis, ac convallis risus fermentum non. Duis vestibulum quis quam vel accumsan. Nunc a vulputate lectus. Vestibulum eleifend nisl sed massa sagittis vestibulum. Vestibulum pretium blandit tellus, sodales volutpat sapien varius vel. Phasellus tristique cursus erat, a placerat tellus laoreet eget. Fusce vitae dui sit amet lacus rutrum convallis. Vivamus sit amet lectus venenatis est rhoncus interdum a vitae velit.

Suspendisse blandit ligula turpis, ac convallis risus fermentum non. Duis vestibulum quis quam vel accumsan. Nunc a vulputate lectus. Vestibulum eleifend nisl sed massa sagittis vestibulum. Vestibulum pretium blandit tellus, sodales volutpat sapien varius vel. Phasellus tristique cursus erat, a placerat tellus laoreet eget. Fusce vitae dui sit amet lacus rutrum convallis. Vivamus sit amet lectus venenatis est rhoncus interdum a vitae velit.

Suspendisse blandit ligula turpis, ac convallis risus fermentum non. Duis vestibulum quis quam vel accumsan. Nunc a vulputate lectus. Vestibulum eleifend nisl sed massa sagittis vestibulum. Vestibulum pretium blandit tellus, sodales volutpat sapien varius vel. Phasellus tristique cursus erat, a placerat tellus laoreet eget. Fusce vitae dui sit amet lacus rutrum convallis. Vivamus sit amet lectus venenatis est rhoncus interdum a vitae velit.

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