Poland Historical Geography

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Class and Handout[edit | edit source]

To completely understand the effect of historical geography on the genealogical records of Poland, it is essential that you watch this online class and download the accompanying handout.

Historical Geography[edit | edit source]

The name of the place your ancestor came from, the province, or the country may have changed several times.

This section describes the changes that have taken place in Poland. This information will help you find records in the FamilySearch Catalog for the place your ancestors lived. This section will describe the jurisdictions used in the catalog.

Poland was formerly part of Prussia, Austria, and Russia until 1918, when it became an independent nation. Record-keeping practices and political jurisdictions were determined by the country controlling the specific area of Poland. Over time administrative districts have been reorganized, their names and boundaries changed, and local place-names changed. You may need to determine previous boundaries and jurisdictions to locate your ancestors’ records. Gazetteers and histories are helpful sources of information about these changes. The Polish partitions and the two world wars contributed greatly to the administrative changes that took place in Poland. After World War II, and Germany’s occupation of Poland, ended in 1945, Poland’s borders shifted considerably. The Soviet Union took territory in the east and Poland gained territory from Germany in the west.

In 1975 Poland changed its administrative system, increasing the number of provinces from 22 to 49. In 1999 the provinces were again rearranged from 49 to 16. Most records refer to the older provinces and place-names. After a strike at the Gdansk shipyard in the 1980s, a solidarity movement began and for the first time a labor organization was recognized.

The events that took place following the strike eventually led to the fall of the Communist government in Poland.

Sources about boundary changes are found in the Introduction to the FamilySearch Catalog under:





The historical atlases described in the Maps section in this outline contain maps depicting boundary changes, migration and settlement patterns, military actions, and ethnic and religious distribution.

Poland Historical Geography - Research tutorial at FamilySearch


Who is a Pole and Where is Poland?
Poland emerged in the 10th century and for 400 years after was fairly stable territorially. Most of the population was Roman Catholic and Slavic-speaking, with a few Germans. After 1386 Poland and Lithuania united, forming the Rzeczpospolita or Commonwealth. This commonwealth soon included Jews, Tatars, Armenians, Germans, Ukrainians, Luthuanians, White Ruthenians (Belorusians), and Czechs.
Poland became a nation of territory rather than ethnicity. After 1795, when Poland was partitioned out of existence, the chief factor identifying one as a Pole disappeared. Rising nation states, such as France, had time to assimilate no French ethnic groups into their population and develop a strong sense of nationalism. Poland however was dismantled before this could really occur. Instead people remained more strongly identified with their individual ethnic groups.
The same thing occurred in the late 1800s and early 1900s when many immigrants arrived in the United States from Poland. They usually settled and associated with fellow Jews, Russian Orthodox, or ethnic Germans. Only Roman Catholic ethnic Poles who spoke Polish were usually identified as Poles in the United States.
Poland as it stands today is smaller and lies much further west than its 14th century predecessor. This is the result of two main events, the First and Second World War. After the First World War Poland’s borders were defined using a combination of the 14th century borders, and the inclusion of only areas that were majority of the population was ethnic Poles. After the Second World War, the Soviet Union claimed much of what had once been Poland, and Poland received large amounts of territory from Eastern Germany.
Source: Rodziny Summer 2006 P.11-16, 943.8 D25p, V. 29 no 3