History of Poles in the United States

The history of Poles in the United States dates to the American Colonial era. Poles have lived in present-day United States territories for over 400 years—since 1608. There are 10 million Americans of Polish descent in the U.S. today, making it the largest diaspora of Poles in the world. Polish Americans have always been the largest group of Slavic origin in the United States.

Historians divide Polish American immigration into three "waves", the largest from 1870 to 1914, a second after World War II, and a third after Poland's independence in 1989. Most Polish Americans are descended from the first wave, when millions of Poles fled Polish districts of Germany, Russia, and Austria. This group is often called the za chlebem (for bread) immigrants because most were peasants in Poland who did not own land and lacked basic subsistence. Austrian Poles were from Galicia, unarguably the most destitute region in Europe at the time. Up to a third of Poles living in the United States returned to Poland after a few years, but the majority stayed. Substantial research and sociological works such as The Polish Peasant in Europe and America found that many Polish immigrants shared a common objective of someday owning land in the U.S. or back in Poland.[1] Anti-Slavic legislation cut Polish immigration from 1921 to World War II, but opened up after World War II to include many displaced persons from the Holocaust. A third wave, much smaller, came in 1989 when Poland was freed from Communist rule.

Immigrants in all three waves were attracted by the high wages and ample job opportunities for unskilled manual labor in the United States, and were driven to jobs in American mining, meatpacking, construction, steelwork, and heavy industry—in many cases dominating these fields until the mid-20th century. Over 90% of Poles arrived and settled in communities with other Polish immigrants. These communities are called Polonia and the largest such community historically was in Chicago, Illinois. A key feature of Polish life in the Old World had been religion, and in the United States, Catholicism often became an integral part of Polish identity. In the United States, Polish immigrants created communities centered on Catholic religious services, and built hundreds of churches and parish schools in the 20th century.[2]

The Polish today are well assimilated into American society. Average incomes have increased from well below average to above average today, and Poles continue to expand into white-collar professional and managerial roles. Poles are still well represented in blue collar construction and industrial trades, and many live in or near urban cities. They are well dispersed throughout the United States, intermarry at high levels, and have a very low rate of language fluency (less than 5% can speak Polish).[3]


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