by William F. Hoffman, 8 Terrace Dr., Bethel, CT 06801-2102, e-mail: email@example.com
Polish-Americans trying to trace their
roots are often reduced to shaking their heads and moaning "Why can’t
these guys just speak English?" As a linguist, of course, I find this
attitude rather narrow-minded—what would translators like me do if everybody
spoke English? Yet I must admit I understand the feeling. Even the simplest
records seem infested with terms that either don’t appear in dictionaries,
or, if they do, have definitions that leave you scratching your head and
Some of the worst offenders appear when you
try to decipher something as simple and obvious as the name of the place your
ancestor came from. Again and again you run into terms such as okrąg
and ziemia and obwód and gmina. With commendable zeal
you turn to a dictionary; but when you discover that they all seem to mean
"district" in English—well, it is enough to make you forsake
genealogy and take up something less painful, perhaps bee-keeping or
To be fair, Polish is no worse than any other language in this regard. Imagine trying to explain to a Pole what a "shire" is, why hillbillies live in a "holler," or why in Louisiana a county isn’t a county, it’s a parish...
The problem is, languages are not created from scratch by precise, logical scientists determined to make each word concise and unambiguous. They develop "on the run," as people come up with terms that serve as verbal shorthand for the political, geographical, economic, legal and cultural circumstances of their daily lives. Since those circumstances vary from one place to the next, it’s understandable that the terms for them don’t always translate easily.
Civil Administrative Divisions: Forty Words That All Mean "District"
It’s not too difficult to get a handle on
the terms for the largest administrative divisions, such as województwo,
"province"—any decent map shows the provinces, and functionally
they equate reasonably well to our states. In ancient times a województwo
was the territory ruled by a wojewoda, literally
"war-leader" often rendered with the Latin term palatinus
(thus we also see palatinatus for województwo). Once you have
encountered the term for the same thing used by the Russian Empire (gubernia),
or the German terms Land or Provinz, it’s not difficult to keep
them straight. But what, is, say, a powiat?
The short answer is, a powiat was
much like our "county." And they will be again — the powiaty,
abolished in 1975, are being restored as part of an administrative reform,
effective at the beginning of 1999. (But of course they will not have the
same borders they had before 1975; they’ve been redrawn from scratch — surely
you didn’t expect otherwise? You can find a map that shows the new powiaty at http://www.mapapolski.com.pl/; just click on a specific province to get a map showing its individual powiaty.
At any rate, the powiaty are the
units into which the województwa were/will be subdivided, much as our
states consist of counties. But this answer is too simple; if you really want
to understand what role the powiat plays in the scheme of things,
Bronisław Chlebowski provided a good explanation of this in the article he
wrote for the entry "Powiat" in the late-19th-century
gazetteer Słownik geograficzny Królestwa Polskiego i innych krajów
słowiańskich. I believe it’s worth translating and quoting in its
Powiat: in [Latin] documents also districtus, regio,
an administrative region encompassing a certain number of administrative
units known as gmina’s. Both in the Kingdom of Poland
and in adjacent provinces this division is primarily of administrative and
political significance. Other districts [okręgi] of greater or
smaller size (judicial, educational, electoral) have been created in relation
to other functions of governmental life, but they are usually based on powiat
In our past the powiat originally
appeared as a judicial district, concentrating in itself the interests of the
landed class, which was, naturally, noble. The ancient divisions of the
country into ziemie [plural of ziemia,
"land, district"] had been based on certain natural boundaries
which separated and protected them, but often also on communality of the
distinct physical features of a given territory (Kujawy, Łeęczyca, Podlasie),
with which certain features of living conditions, as well as economic,
social, and often also political relations, were connected. When the union of
a certain number of ziemie gave rise to a central princely
authority—primarily a military and judicial authority—along with the organs
of that authority there had to come about a division of the land into
regions, called "castellanies," since that organization’s main
purpose was to keep the border gród’s [fortified
military camps] in good defensive condition. The centers of these
regions, the gród’s, were situated mostly along the ziemia
borders and especially national borders, so this division was not
advantageous for administrative purposes.
As the royal authority lost its original
character as a source of military leadership, there appeared on the one hand
the starosta’s, as administrators of royal estates and
representatives of the police and judicial authority, and on the other hand
the sądy ziemskie [courts of law deciding disputes between nobles
as well as between nobles and commoners], as an expression of the state
and region’s emancipation from the authority of the princes.
With the development of manorial farmsteads
came growth in material wealth, and the szlachta [nobility]
began to develop political ambitions. The old princely institutions, their
representatives, and the administrative divisions associated with them lost
significance to the developing interests and institutions of the szlachta—which,
in view of the increased population, required new divisions with new centers.
The powiaty, the centers of which are towns concentrating the varied
affairs of the landowners, suited these ambitions and needs. Some of the old
castellan gród’s disappeared as they lost significance, others became
the nuclei of urban settlements and centers of political life of the powiaty.
The old ziemie were divided into powiaty.
The new division was not based on a law
regulating judicial, political and administrative relationships for the whole
country, but rather sprang up slowly on the basis of the conditions of szlachta
life. The ziemia courts, originating in the 14th century, increased in
relationship to the growth of the nobles’ possessions, which required the
creation of smaller districts. For administrative purposes (the collection of
taxes) the division into powiaty, along with the ecclesiastic
divisions (parishes), served as a basis.
The most important factor, however, which
gave the powiat the character of an autonomous part of the
governmental organism, was the development of sejmiki [regional
councils, as contrasted with the national Sejm or congress] in the
16th century. Both political life and the institutions and divisions
connected with it sprang up first in Małopolska [Little Poland, roughly
the southeastern part of modern Poland] and Wielkopolska [Great
Poland, roughly the northwestern part of modern Poland] and spread from
there to the other provinces.
Just as the gród courts of law
continued to exist and function alongside the ziemski courts, similarly
the okręgi [districts] did not cease to exist, but rather functioned
alongside the powiaty and bore the ancient names of the ziemie.
[Bronisław Chlebowski, Vol. 8, pp. 888-889].
Chlebowski has given us a lot of
information here. He has told us what a powiat is, what a gmina
is—basically a smaller, rural administrative unit—and what an okrąg
is (plural, okręgi: a district set up for overseeing courts,
education, conscription, etc). But, more important, he gives us the context
in which these divisions were created.
It is essential to understand that when the
history of Poland as an entity began, it was a rather sparsely-settled
country, much of it heavily wooded, and most settlements that existed
developed within the walls of a fortified military camp known as a gród
(this same root appears in Russian place names, e. g., Leningrad,
and also as the Russian word for "city," gorod). The
administrative districts of the time were referred to with the term ziemia,
and in records dating back to the 14th-15th centuries we often see that
institutions such as courts of law were characterized as either ziemski
(of a ziemia) or grodzki (of a gród).
But gradually Polish society developed into
one divided mainly into two classes. One class was the szlachta
or nobles—typically armed men on horseback, subject to the summons of their
overlords to ride to the defense of the land. For their service they were
given ownership of the soil and its produce, so that they could fight as
needed without worrying about having to earn a living. But obviously they
could not work the land—they had to be free to go fight invaders at a
moment’s notice. If the nobles were responsible for raising crops, and an
enemy invaded, they might fight off the enemy, only to return home to a
So another class developed, the peasants [włościanie
or chrześcijanie or kmiecie], who
were bound to the soil owned by the szlachta and did the actual work
of farming. Most of Poland’s population fell into one of these two
categories; there were craftsmen, townsmen, freedmen, and such, but they were
a comparatively small percentage of the population, at least during Poland’s
Eventually the nobles realized that the
more of their land peasants were working on, the more wealth would be coming
in. So if the nobles owned wooded areas, and had more peasants than were
needed to work existing farms, the nobles told some of them to go make
clearings in those woods and create new revenue-producing settlements there.
This not only increased the nobles’ wealth, it also led to population growth
and shifts in where that population was concentrated. The grody and ziemie
had not been located with such conditions in mind and were not well
situated to deal with them; so powiaty arose to meet the need, and gminy
developed as subdivisions of the powiat.
In the context of other activities such as
running courts of law, schools, conscription boards, etc., the political
authorities would set up an okrąg, sometimes called an obwód (both
come from words meaning "circuit, circle"). These were created and
their jurisdiction defined in terms of their functions, much as in America a
school district or water district may be created with no particular
correspondence to county lines.
When Poland was partitioned, three
different empires took over the administration of the regions they had
seized. Often the divisions they created followed the Polish ones fairly
closely: the German Kreis usually corresponds reasonably well to the
Polish powiat, as does the German Gemeinde to the Polish gmina.
Under the Russian Empire the uyezd functioned much as the powiat had,
and the gmina differed little from the Polish gmina. Vital
records in the Kronland of Galicia—the part of southeastern Poland and
western Ukraine seized by Austria—are usually in Latin, and such terms as districtus
seldom cause anyone too much trouble.
Of course, nothing’s allowed to be too
easy. There are plenty of terms one does encounter in post-partition records that
can bewilder you. Still, if you understand the pre-partition set-up in
Poland, you stand a better chance of making sense of what has happened since.
Terms Seen in Place Names
So much for terms designating political and
administrative divisions. There is another kind of term connected with place
names that causes many researchers trouble. Certain words show up again and
again in place names, so often that researchers can’t help but realize they
meant something specific, and it might be helpful to know exactly what. Terms
appearing in the names of many villages and settlements include: Budy,
Huta, Kąty, Kolonia, Kuźnica, Łazy, Ligota, Majdan, and Wólka.
At this point another entry written by Bronisław Chlebowski for the Słownik geograficzny becomes helpful: the one on Wola:
Wola, in Latin libera villa, libertas, a
name given to agricultural villages, appearing as early as the first half of
the 13th century and constituting a separate category of settlements, by
comparison to others, in terms of the populace used to settle them and the
freedoms they were granted. The need to make use of empty wooded lands
belonging to princes, clergy, and knights, along with the growth in numbers
of free men, the end of the slave trade, and the decreasing inflow of
prisoners of war, brought about the founding of villages with free populace,
either Poles or new arrivals from other countries, mainly Germans. These
settlers were given plots of land and exemption for a certain number of years
(up to 20) from all rents, fees, and taxes, and in most cases separate
institutions and charters based on German law. That free villages (Wola’s)
existed based on Polish law is attested by the fact of their conversion to
German law. Thus, for instance, in 1328 Władysław, Prince of Dobrzyń,
conferred Chełmno law on Wola and other villages in Dobrzyń ziemia (Kodeks
dypl. pol. II, 658). In 1363 King Kazimierz transferred the villages of
Chothow and Wola, property of Krzesław, from Polish law to that of Środa (Kodeks
Małop. III, 168)
An important indication as to the populace
used to settle these villages is given by a Latin-language document which
"Boliziarus dux Polonie" issued in 1255 to the monastery in Ląd:
"We have granted [to the monks] the freedom to locate a new free village
between the river called Wirbec and their monastery, which is to be called Libera
villa and is to be populated by Germans or free Poles with full German
law" (Kodeks Wielkop. No. 331, 600). In a document from 1325 that
village is called "Wolany alias Villa Gerlaci." Here we learn that
it was founded on land of the village of Dolany and populated by German
settlers. It is mentioned in a 1255 document endowing the monastery in
Krzyz|anowice: "Volia, which in the vernacular is called Grochovisko"
(Kodeks dypl. pol. I, 75). We also encounter this Wola in an act of
endowment for the monastery in Zawichost in 1257. In Silesia and adjoining
parts of Wielkopolska [Great Poland] and Małopolska [Little
Poland] such settlements were called by the name Lgota or
Ligota. A document from 1369 mentions a Wola and Ligota near
each other, in the vicinity of Z|arnowiec (Kodeks Małop. III, 229)
Wola’s appear most frequently during the 14th century in areas of
northern and eastern Małopolska and the eastern borderlands of Wielkopolska,
in the 15th century in Mazovia, Podlasie, and Ruś Czerwona, and finally
extended as far as Volhynia. The name Wola sometimes disappeared,
superseded by the original name of the area, or sometimes it changed its
second part along with a change of owner or connection with a nearby
settlement. As the differences were gradually erased between free people and
those bound to the soil, the name Wola came to mean a newly founded
settlement, and one therefore free from taxes for a certain period, just like
Nowa Wieś [which means literally "new village"].
Also used in the same meaning was the name Wólka [a
diminutive form, literally a "little wola"]. [Bronisław
Chlebowski, Vol. 13, pp. 774-775].
In this passage Chlebowski again comes
through with information not only on the meaning of the terms, but also the
economic and political situation that caused such names to get started. The
nobles’ efforts to augment their income led to the creation of many new
villages and settlements, and the names of those places often reflect their
origins. Thus Wola, Wólka, Łazy, Ligota, and Nowa
Wieś are all names for newly-founded agricultural settlements which were
exempt from taxes until they’d had a chance to get off to a good start.
The term Kolonia applied to new
settlements formed by subdividing large stretches of land belonging to folwarki
[manorial farmsteads]. At one time the kolonie were most often settled
by foreigners, especially Germans or Dutch—we see the term olędry,
from German Hollander, used for such "colonies." In records
the term kolonista was once applied mainly to those immigrants, but
after the abolition of serfdom it came to be used for Polish farmers, too.
Most of the other terms I mentioned—Buda,
Huta, Kąty, Kuźnica, and Majdan—involved wooded areas initially
settled to generate revenue by producing something other than crops. The
ready availability of wood was a key factor in their operation, so clearing
the trees first was not necessarily part of the process, as it was in setting
up a wola or łazy. Now, centuries later, all the woods may
have long since been cleared away and used up, and yet the villages that grew
out of these settlements may still bear names from these terms.
Chlebowski does such a good job explaining
things, I might as well quote his entries on these terms as well:
Buda, plural Budy [literally "shed"]: a general geo-topographical name for settlements in
forests or founded on former wooded areas cleared of trees. Originally buda
just meant the residence of a settler in the forest, and in hunters’
terminology a shelter of branches serving to hide the hunter from the prey
for which he was lying in wait. When settlements whose inhabitants earned
their living from hunting, bee-keeping, distilling pitch, and other such
industries, began to be converted into agricultural settlements, they might
retain their original name, although the shelters gave way to huts. We find
places named Buda most often in the area of ancient Mazovia (the gubernia"s
of Warsaw, Płock, and Łomz|a), although we encounter the name all over the
lands of ancient Poland, in connection with Mazovian colonization. Compare Ruda,
Majdan, Huta, etc. [Vol. 1, p. 439].
German Hütte, a structure set up to produce either metal from the
appropriate ore, or else glass. The name indicates that German settlers
spread this branch of industry among us. Huty were always established
in forests, in order to draw income from large wooded areas. In addition to
the general name Huta, such a settlement usually bore a second name,
from the name of the village on whose grounds it was built, or more rarely
from the name of its founder. As a means of exploiting forests the huta represents
a certain step forward over buildings and majdan’s. A hucisko is
a site on which a dismantled huta once stood. [Vol. 3, p. 229].
are settlements established in woods for the purpose of exploiting them by
producing potash, glass, pitch, staves, etc. So they correspond to buda’s,
majdan’s, huta’s, kuźnica’s, and łazy’s. [Vol.
3, p. 943].
Kolonia, a name for small settlements created by dividing
large areas of manorial farmsteads into smaller sections of a dozen or more mórgs,
acquired by peasants or by immigrants from neighboring German provinces. In
earlier times this name was also applied to villages consisting of small
Dutch or Romanian settlements... Near larger towns these settlements were
usually named for their first owners, e. g., near Warsaw [Kolonia] Elsnera,
Ewansa, Mintra, Detkensa, etc.; in rural areas they usually are named for the
villages on the territory of which they were created. [Vol. 4, p. 267].
Kuźnica, a name for settlements that grew up around
factories, much more numerous in the past than they are presently because the
cheap price of wood made the existence of small-scale factories feasible.
Thus today this name attests only to the existence of factories in places
that do not have conditions that allow them to exist in this kind of
industry. Compare Kuźnica in the Grand Duchy of Poland. [Vol. 5,
were areas of farmland obtained by burning off the bushes and trees covering
them; settlements founded on such areas often received this name. [Vol. 5,
Turkish expression designating an enclosed four-sided space used as a
fairground, a site for military exercises, or a gathering place. In Polish
camps the majdan was what they called the open central space where
knights gathered to share the booty equally. From this the name came to be used
for the campsites of forest workers, who set up their budy in a closed
quadrilateral. These campsites often became the beginnings of villages
founded in cleared forest areas; the name Majdan could then pass to
the village as well. Majdany differ from budy in that they
served as gathering point for a larger number of workers, which made it
necessary to set up some sort of administrative and judicial authority,
whereas budy were usually individual forest settlements. Majdany were
founded in order to exploit the wealth contained in the forests by melting
down tar, burning coal, etc. They usually took their names from the estates
to which the forests belonged. The majdan plays the same role in
wooded areas on the right bank of the Wisła up to the Bug and Narew as the huta
plays in areas on the left bank. [Vol. 5, p. 908].
In case you’re wondering just how common
these terms are in Polish place names, I did a quick count in the index of
the Euro-Atlas Polska, Atlas Drogowy. (Note that in most cases the Słownik
geograficzny lists far more places by each name, but I only counted those
that bear the names now and are big enough to appear on 1:200,000 maps).
There were 88 places bearing the names Buda, Budy, or Budki, or
those names plus a second component, e. g., Budy Zaklasztorne
(literally, "the sheds on the other side of the monastery"), to say
nothing of the 6 Nowe Budy’s ("new sheds"). There were 94 Huta’s,
2 Hutka’s, and 5 Hutki’s, as well as 46 Kąty’s, and 41 Kuźnica’s.
There were 78 Majdan’s, 7 Majdany’s, and 3 Majdanek’s
(including the section of Lublin where the Nazis set up a concentration
camp). As for the agricultural names, there were 115 places called Nowa
Wieś, another 43 with Nowa Wieś plus a third name, 259 Wólka’s,
33 Łazy’s, 35 Ligota’s, 13 Lgota’s, 343 Kolonia’s,
and almost 400 Wola’s.