I Don't Know Where in Poland My Ancestors Were From!
In order to search for vital records in Poland, you must know the name of the town where your ancestor was born, married, or died. Knowing your ancestor was from Poland is not nearly enough information to obtain a copy of a birth or other type of record. You have to know the town or parish name as well as its geographic location.
Where can you find this info?
Send away for a death record, if you don't already have it. Try funeral home or cemetery records. Obtain a copy of your ancestor's Social Security application, if your ancestor was American. Census records often provide the Polish partition your ancestor's town was in. While this doesn't list the town name, it does narrow down your search to approximately one third of the country. A civil marriage record may also provide this information as well. If your ancestor immigrated to the U.S. after 1906, you will find a town name on the passenger manifest. U.S. naturalization records (especially those from the twentieth century) often list an exact place of birth.
Church records are a good source for the name of the town. If your ancestor was married after immigrating to the new country, the marriage record may provide the name of your ancestor's parish or birthplace in Poland. Be sure to obtain the baptismal records for all of your ancestor's children born in the country of immigration (if necessary). Don't assume that because the parents' places of birth were not listed on one record, they won't have been listed on any of the other children's records.
A more complete list of sources is discussed on the following pages:
For more information on locating your ancestor's passenger manifest and naturalization record, visit the Immigration and Naturalization page.
Now that you know the name of the town, how do you locate it in Poland?
Well, this can be difficult, especially since you may find as many as a dozen towns with the same name scattered throughout Poland. You will need to know the name of the province where the town is or was located. It is no different than needing to know in which state (province, shire, etc.) you were born before you can send away for your own birth certificate. You do not need to know the current name of the province; the former province name will do very well and in fact is more helpful. Keep in mind that you may find that when your ancestor listed Warsaw as his place of birth, he very likely was referring to the nearest major city or the name of the province rather than the exact town of his birth. This has proven true in countless instances. This practice is similar to someone who lives in a suburban community saying that he is from Philadelphia, because the name of his town of residence is relatively unknown to out-of-towners. Any of the resources listed in the section above may have this information.
Once you have the name of the province (either former or current), you will need to consult a map. You can visit one of the online map web sites (see our FAQ page) or check in an atlas. Sometimes, you will be fortunate enough to have ancestors from the only town with that name in the province. Other times, you will find more than one town in the province with that name or two-word town names that have your town's name as part of it. In this case, you will need to dig a little deeper.
Some clues to finding the right town can be relatively simple. If your great grandparents were married before emigrating from Poland and they were born in different towns, the odds of these towns being very near each other are strong. A hundred or more years ago, there were very few long-distance courtships (if any). Couples from different towns who married were most likely members of the same parish, so their towns would have been within commuting distance (by horse, carriage, or foot, of course). Therefore, you should look for the towns that are near to each other.
If your ancestors were from different parts of the country, it's very likely that they were not married in Poland. And of course, this makes it a little more difficult to determine the right towns. You'll need to obtain as many records in their country of immigration as it takes to determine where the town was located in Poland. Many times, when you look at all the evidence you have gathered and compare it, you can come to a reasonable conclusion.
What if you can't find a town in present-day Poland with the name you've found?
Here are a few possibilities: Your ancestor's town may be too small to show up on any maps. In this case, you will need to consult a Polish gazetteer (such as the Slownik Geograficzny or the SPIS). What is a gazetteer? Well, a gazetteer is along the lines of a directory. It lists each town and the names of the governmental divisions above them. The Slownik Geograficzny, published between 1880 to 1902, lists a description of each locality, the district it belongs to, the name of the community, the parish name, and a few other details. The SPIS lists the name of the locality and what it is (i.e. town, village, community, etc.), the next larger administrative unit, the county seat, the province, the post office, the railroad station, and the vital records office. You can access these gazetters at your local LDS Family History Center. To search the Slownik Geograficzny online, visit the Dom Polonii site. Click on Słownika Nazwisk Współcześnie w Polsce Używanych and enter your surname of interest in the text box. The results displayed will be the number of persons in Poland in 1990 with that surname. A list of the number of persons with the surname in each province (if any) will also display (for example - Wa:125). The province names are abbreviated, and a list of province abbreviations can be found by clicking on Tutaj znajdują się objaśnienia skrótów.
Another possibility is that the town is no longer in Poland. The eastern part of Poland was taken away after World War II and was distributed amongst Belarus, the Ukraine, and Lithuania. Some minor boundary changes occurred along the southern border, where small parts of Poland were turned over to Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic). Try looking in surrounding countries for your ancestor's town if you can't find it in Poland.
A third possibility is that the town was absorbed into another town sometime after your ancestor's birth (or other event). In this case, you will most likely find the town listed in the either the Slownik Geograficzny (requires DjVu to view the contents) or the SPIS.
You've gotten every document you could find and none of them provided the information you need!
Have you talked to relatives? Obtained your ancestor's employment records? Found fraternal society's records? Somewhere you have to find that name you need. If you really have gotten every conceivable document that could have listed your ancestor's exact birthplace, then you're stuck -- maybe.
Do you remember hearing what language your ancestor spoke? If he spoke German, he was probably from the Prussian or Austrian partition of Poland. If you recall hearing your ancestor mention that he could speak Russian, it was likely that he was from the Russian partition, since Russian was the official language there. If you remember your grandfather telling you how the family once made a pilgrimage to the Shrine at Czestochowa when he was a child, he probably didn't live very near the city. If your grandmother once told you how the Cossacks rode through her village, she lived in Russian-occupied Poland. If your great grandmother used to tell your mother about her childhood growing up on a farm, she probably lived in the country rather than a large city.
Did your ancestor live near a river? In a mountainous area? In a city? These little clues can tell you where your ancestor didn't live. If your ancestor lived in or near the mountains, don't look for his town of birth in a plains area. If he was a farmer, don't look for him in a major city. If your grandfather had to cross a river to reach the Shrine at Czestochowa, don't look for him in a town that doesn't have a river between it and Czestochowa. Well, you should get the idea by now!
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