Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Poles first began to settle in the Great Plains in the 1870s, and today their Polish American children and grandchildren are found throughout the region, both in identifiable ethnic communities and as individuals. Although the first permanent Polish community in America was established at Panna Maria on the Texas Gulf Coast in 1854, significant Polish immigration to the United States did not begin until the 1870s and continued until the passage of laws in 1922 and 1924 reducing immigration from eastern and southern Europe. Polish immigration resumed after World War II with the arrival of war refugees and veterans of the Polish army. The liberalization of immigration laws in 1965 restarted a small trickle of immigration, which grew with political upheaval in Poland in the 1980s and continued with renewed economic immigration in the 1990s.

Prior to significant Polish settlement in the Great Plains, the region was visited by only a few Poles. One was Karol (Charles) Radziminski, a political refugee from the failed 1830–31 November Uprising against Russian rule in Poland, who joined the U.S. Army and served along with several dozen fellow Polish refugees in the Mexican War. After the war, Radziminnski helped explore and map parts of Texas and Oklahoma and assisted in the demarcation of the new U.S.-Mexican boundary. Like many Europeans, Polish visitors to America were strongly attracted to the West. Among the most famous of these visitors was the Nobel Prize–winning author Henryk Sienkiewicz, who traveled parts of the Great Plains in the mid-1870s and met with Lakota Indians.

Major Polish settlements in the Great Plains began in the 1870s in central Nebraska and eastern North Dakota. The central Nebraska colonies were formed in Howard, Greeley, Valley, and Sherman Counties as a planned colonization effort of the Polish Roman Catholic Union of America, a Chicago-based fraternal association, and the Burlington and Missouri River Railroad Company. Beginning in 1877 the colonies were advertised in the Polish-language papers as similar to the blackearth regions of Ukraine. Leaders of the organization envisioned the Nebraska colonies as a potential Polish oasis where immigrants could be delivered from the perils of the industrial cities. Lack of resources, and Polish immigrants' preference for wage-labor jobs in the factories and mines of the East and Midwest, frustrated these plans, but the Nebraska colonies nevertheless attracted significant settlement in more than a dozen small Catholic parishes.

Although sporadic colonization efforts among Polish immigrants continued into the 1920s, other major settlements, such as the communities in the Red River Valley of the North, were formed by the more gradual process of chain migration. Beginning first on the North Dakota side and later on the Minnesota side, Polish immigrants established about ten parishes, the largest being St. Stanislaus in Warsaw, North Dakota, founded in 1883. Small Polish farming communities were also founded in Kansas, Oklahoma, eastern Montana, and South Dakota. On the Canadian Prairies, Poles settled in Manitoba (where some 40,000 Polish Canadians were reported to reside by the 1950s), Saskatchewan, and Alberta and were often found among the more numerous Ukrainian Canadians.

Although most Polish communities in the Great Plains were agrarian, industrial communities formed as well, especially around extractive industries. Poles mined coal in Oklahoma, Colorado, and Alberta and smelted zinc in Oklahoma. In many cases, Polish miners came from Pennsylvania. The largest urban communities were created around meatpacking industries, especially in Kansas City and Omaha. By the 1930s the Polish community near the Omaha stockyards was estimated at about 10,000, grouped around three main Roman Catholic parishes, and was the largest Polish community in the Great Plains.

In the first and second generations of settlement, these scattered Polish communities in the United States were tied to the much larger Polish centers of Chicago, Milwaukee, and the Twin Cities through family bonds or via Polish-language newspapers such as Wiarus (The Faithful One), Rolnik (The Farmer), Gazeta Polska Narodowa (Polish National Gazette), Zgoda (Harmony), or Naród Polski (The Polish Nation). Omaha had the critical mass to support its own newspaper, Gwiazda Zachodu (The Western Star), which was published weekly from 1904 to 1945. In Canada the Gazeta Katolicka (Catholic Gazette) was published in Winnipeg after 1908. Winnipeg's Polish community, reinforced by World War II– era refugees, is home to the newspaper Czas (The Times).

After World War II, aside from a number of refugee priests who came to serve in Great Plains dioceses, there was little immigration to these Polish communities, although some postwar and Solidarity-era immigrants did settle in Dallas, Denver, Omaha, Calgary, and Winnipeg. The children and grandchildren of the earlier immigrants learned English, but in most of the small communities Polish continued to be used in the home and in church at least into the 1950s. The distinct Polish American culture created by the immigrants remains viable in some of the larger concentrations of settlement, as attested to by active Polish fraternal societies in North Dakota and the opening of a Polish cultural center in Ashton, Nebraska, in 2000.

See also: MEDIA: Immigrant Newspapers.

John Radzilowski University of Minnesota

Bernard, Richard M. The Poles in Oklahoma. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1980.

Niklewicz, F. Polacy w Stanach Zjednoczonych. Green Bay WI: n.p., 1937.

Radzilowski, John. "A New Poland in the Old Northwest: Polish Farming Colonies on the Northern Great Plains." Polish American Studies 59 (2002): 79–96.

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