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Historical Geography of Poland - ATPC

Heritage: History Library



In researching Polish ancestors it is important to understand what the boundaries of Poland were at a given period in time. Poland's geography has been redefined many times. Unless you understand these basic changes, it can be confusing to understand why your why your Polish ancestors who immigrated to another country would declare their country as; Germany, Prussia, East Prussia, Russia, Austria or Hungary. Your ancestors answer were politically correct, but it did not necessarily reveal their ethnic origin. They were of Polish descent, but they were caught up in the boundary changes associated with Poland's political history. They lived in an area that was not longer under Poland's control. In certain periods of history, Poland didn't even exist as a country.

Map Current Poland
Reference: Current detailed map of Poland.

Brief History of Poland and It's Geography
You may be familiar with the current map of Poland (above). It is useful reference if you are trying to determine an area were someone is living in Poland today. However, it may not be a good reference for locating where your ancestors may have come from in Poland. This section will help to understand why.

TABLE 1: Comparison 1660-1870

In 1660, Poland's territory was quite extensive, stretching far beyond the area of today's Poland. Note the difference is mainly in the eastern and southeastern regions. Poland controlled major portions of Russia and Hungary that included Galicia.

Map 1660 vs Poland 2001

In 1864, Poland was non-existent as a country. The territory that was once known as Poland was controlled by Prussia, East Prussia, Russia and Hungary. This is commonly referred to as the Partitions of Poland (explain below).

Map 1864 vs Poland 2001

View 1914 Europe Map 1919 Poland (end of WWI)

A Quick Comparison:

As a quick understanding of how much Poland has changed compared to today's map, take a look at Table 1 which has an white outline of the current map overlay on that specific period. In 1660, Poland's territory was significantly larger than it is today.

Origins and Early History:

Viewing Origins and Chronology of Events of Poland may be help prior to reading this section.

Historians believe that the area comprising Poland today, was settled by the Slavic tribes as far back as 2,000 B.C.. In the 800's, several of these Slavic groups banded together which was then Polane. It was one of the largest of the groups in the area at that time.

Poland's First King:

In the middle 900's, Prince Mieszko I ruled over most of the land along the Oder and Vistula rivers. His son, Boleslaw I would become the first King of Poland in 1025 [View: 1025 Map]. Earlier, he had conquered the land areas of what is today; Poland, Czechoslovakia, Eastern Germany, and Russia. His reign as King was short, he died that same year. Several periods of turmoil took place over the next hundred plus years. It wasn't until the middle 1100's before control was established again in the territory. The area was divided into different sections with each having it's own noble leader.

In the century that followed, the area was subjected to more turmoil. Poland was invades by different peoples that took control the land. Poland would not be unified again until Casimer the Great, the last of the Piast monarchs, came on the scene. He reigned from 1333 to 1370 and during this period established a strong central government. Casimer would also stress cultural development of the Poles during this period.

Poland's Empire:

In 1386, Queen Jadwiga of Poland married Wladyslaw Jagiello, the Grand Duke of Lithuania. This would establish Jagiello as the reigning King of both Poland and Lithuania. Poland still remained largely a self-governing entity during his reign. Jagiellonian Kings would continue to rule Poland for nearly 200 more years. [View: 1402 Map] During the time of these monarchs, Poland was able to expanded it's territory, economy, culture and political development. It was during this period that the first national parliament of Poland was establish in 1493. The Polish empire would reach it's peak in the 1500's controlling a large portion of central Europe, including the Ukraine and other Russian lands. In 1569, Poland and Lithuania was brought under one parliament.

Poland's Decline:

In the middle 1500's, the Jigiellonian monarchy would end up relinquishing power to the nobles that dominated the parliament. With the death of the last Jagiellonian monarch in 1572, new kings were elected by these nobles of the parliament and a period of Poland's decay would begin. Several foreign Kings were elected and this leadership was ineffective. Rivalries set in among the nobles and wars took their toll on the economy. In 1548, a Ukrainian rebellion resulted is the lost of this territory. In 1655, Sweden gained control Poland's Baltic region. Several wars with Turkey ensued. All contributing to the decline of Poland's significant empire.

Partitions of Poland:

The is a significant period for many doing genealogy of Polish ancestors. Beginning in 1772, then in 1793, and again in 1795, the territory of Poland was parceled out to the primary powers bordering it's territory, namely, Prussia (Germany), Austria, and Russia. Between 1795 and 1918, Poland would no longer exist as a country.

Partition I - In 1772, Austria, Prussia and Russia took advantage of Poland's weakness and divided portions of Poland among themselves; Austria to the southern portions of Poland, Russian to the east and Prussia to the west. Nearly one third of Poland's territory was lost. [View 1772 Map]

After this partition, Poland took steps to try and stop it's erosion as a country. The constitution was changed, returning Poland to a monarchy. However, this was too little, too late.

Partition II - In 1793, Prussia and Russia took control of additional land from Poland. [View 1793 Map] In 1794, an uprising led to Thaddeous Koscieusko [View Bio] leading Polish sources in battle against Russia and Prussia in an attempt to regain their lost land. They were defeated.

Partition III - In 1795, Prussia, Russia and Austria divided the balance of what was left of Poland among themselves. [View 1795 Map] Poland no longer existed as an independent country.

Many of Poles would joined the forces of Napoleon I who was in battle with Austria and Prussia. It wasn't until 1807 that Napoleon was able to win control of Prussian Poland. He established the state of the Grand Duchy of Warsaw.[View Source] Unfortunately, Napoleon was defeated in 1815, and once again Poland would become stateless as Austria, Prussia and Russia regained the territories they had lost earlier. Poland would be allowed by the Russians to maintain a small self-governing Kingdom of Poland under their control.

Poles would continued to fight for independence resisting control. Several rebellions for independence were launched against Russia, Prussia and Austria. None were successful. In 1863, Russia's solution to this persistent problem was to try and destroy the Polish culture by declaring Russian the official language. Prussia would do the same in 1872, forcing Poles in the Prussian territory to use German as the basic language. The Poles struggle persisted and near the end of the century, they had successfully establish political parties in all three regions.

End of Partitions - After World War I, the partitions ended when in 1918 Poland gained status once again as an state. [View 1918 Map]. World War I provided Poles with a significant opportunity to win back their independence. Political leaders, Jozef Pilsudski [View Bio] and Roman Dmowski were activist in gaining Poland's independence. At the end of WWI, Pilsudski led Polish forces joined Austria against Russia driving them out of Poland/Russia territory by 1915. In 1916, Austria and Germany provided a small Polish kingdom under their protection. In 1917, the Polish National Committee was formed in Parish under Dmowski. This committee lobbied the allies for an independent Poland that led to Poland winning her independence and with Pilsudski become the first chief of state.

Treaty of Versailles:

In 1919, the treaty stripped Germany of a large portion it's eastern section and returned it to Poland. The port city of Gdansk was placed under the supervision of the League of Nations and became the free city of Danzig. The area included the land of Pomerania that runs along the shores of the Baltic Sea.

Poland was unsuccessful in reclaiming the land taken by Russia. In 1920, Poland and Russia would come to battle over the territory. A year later, in 1921, the Treaty of Riga came up with a compromise establishing a border that gave Poland a portion of this partition area in Russian control. (It should be noted in doing your genealogy that some towns had their name changed depending on the ruling country they were in and for what length of time.).

The following is extracted from the Treat of Versailles, Article 27, section 7 pertaining to the territory to be establish as Poland:

Article 27, 7.
With Poland:

From the point defined above to a point to be fixed on the ground about 2 kilometers east of Lorzendorf: the frontier as it will be fixed in accordance with Article 88 of the present Treaty; thence in a northerly direction to the point where the administrative boundary of Posnania crosses the river Bartsch: a line to be fixed on the ground leaving the following places in Poland: Skorischau, Reichthal, Trembatschau, Kunzendorf, Schleise, Gross Koscl, Schreibersdorf, Rippin, Furstlich-Niefken, Pawelau, Tscheschen, Konradau, Johallnisdorf, Modzenowe, Bogdaj, and in Germany: Lorzendorf, Kaulwitz, Glausche, Dalbersdorf, Reesewitz, Stradam, Gross Wartenberg, Kraschen, Neu Mittelwalde, Domaslawitz, Wedelsdorf, Tscheschen Hammer; thence the administrative boundary of Posnania northwestwards to the point where it cuts the Rawitsch-Herrnstadt railway; thence to the point where the administrative boundary of Posnania cuts the Reisen-Tschirnau road: a line to be fixed on the ground passing west of Triebusch and Gabel and east of Saborwitz; thence the administrative boundary of Posnania to its junction with the eastern administrative boundary of the Kreis of Fraustadt; thence in a north-westerly direction to a point to be chosen on the road between the villages of Unruhstadt and Kopnitz: a line to be fixed on the ground passing west of Geyersdorf, Brenno, Fehlen, Altkloster, Klebel, and east of Ulbersdorf, Buchwald, Ilgen,Weine, Lupitze, Schwenten: thence in a northerly direction to the northernmost point of Lake Chlop: a line to be fixed on the ground following the median line of the lakes; the town and the station of Bentschen however (including the junction of the lines Schwiebus-Bentschen and Zullichau-Bentschen) remaining in Polish territory; thence in a north-easterly direction to the point of junction of the boundaries of the Kreise of Schwerin, Birnbaum, and Meseritz: a line to be fixed on the ground passing east of Betsche; thence in a northerly direction the boundary separating the Kreise of Schwerin and Birnbaum, then in an easterly direction the northern boundary of Posnania to the point where it cuts the river Netze; thence upstream to its confluence with the Kaddow: the course of the Netze; thence upstream to a point to be chosen about 6 kilometres southeast of Schneidemuhl: the course of the Kuddow; thence north-eastwards to the most southern point of the reentant of the northern boundary of Posnania about 5 kilometres west of Stahren: a line to be fixed on the ground leaving the SchneidemuhlKonitz railway in this area entirely in German territory; thence the boundary of Posnania north-eastwards to the point of the salient it makes about 15 kilometres east of Flatow; thence north-eastwards to the point where the river Kamionka meets the southern boundary of the Kreis of Konitz about 3 kilometres north-east of Grunau: a line to be fixed on the ground leaving the following places to Poland: Jasdrowo, Gr. Lutau, Kl. Lutau, Wittkau, and to Germany: Gr. Butzig, Cziskowo, Battrow, Bock, Grunau; thence in a northerly direction the boundary between the Kreise of Konitz and Schlochau to the point where this boundary cuts the river Brahe; thence to a point on the boundary of Pomerania 15 kilometres east of Rummelsburg: a line to be fixed on the ground leaving the following places in Poland: Konarzin, Kelpin, Adl. Briesen, and in Germany: Sampohl, Neuguth, Steinfort, Gr. Peterkau; then the boundary of Pomerania in an easterly direction to its junction with the boundary between the Kreise of Konitz and Schlochau; thence northwards the boundary between Pomerania and West Prussia to the point on the river Rheda about 3 kilometres northwest of Gohra where that river is joined by a tributary from the north-west; thence to a point to be selected in the bend of the Piasnitz river about 1 1/2 kilometres north-west of Warschkau: a line to be fixed on the ground; thence this river downstream, then the median line of Lake Zarnowitz, then the old boundary of West Prussia to the Baltic Sea. 8. With Denmark:

The frontier as it will be fixed in accordance with Articles 109 to III of Part III, Section XII (Schleswig).

A complete text of the treaty is available at this link

World War II:

In August 1939, Germany and Russia signed a mutual non-aggression treaty [View Treaty]. The agreement secretly included their partition of Poland. On September 1, 1939, Poland was invaded by Germany, Great Britain and France declared war on Germany quickly thereafter. On September 17, 1939, Russia invaded Poland, but within a month they were defeated by the Poles. In 1941, Germany attacked Russia and seized all of Poland. [View 1939 Map] - [View 1942 Europe Map]

Poles would fight to free their homeland by joining the Allied forces and in Poland with the Polish Home Army. [View Poland Subject Links Library for additional references.]

At the end of the war, in 1945, Poland once again takes control of her country but under the dominance of the U.S.S.R. Poland wouldn't be truly free until the fall of the U.S.S.R.

Regions Associated with Poland
The following are the four primary regions that many Polish ancestors may have migrated from during the 1800s. The "Rough Location" is meant in relationship to the 1864 map shown which references the regions of Prussia, East Prussia, Silesia and Galicia.
Overlay of Poland 2001 on 1864 Europe Map

East Prussia: (Ostpreussen - German)

Galicia: (Galicja - Polish, Halychyna - Austria)

Silesia: (Schlesia - Polish, Slezski - Czech)

West Prussia: (Westpreussen - German)

Related resources:
  1. Past and Present Regions of Poland: Explanation of historical names and locations associated with Poland. - U. of Buffalo
  2. Additional map references are available in the Research/Maps Library.