“Dutch” in Greater Poland

by Zdzislaw Pentek- from GENS Towarzystwo Genealogiczno – Heraldyczne, Poznan

For centuries the inhabitants of the Netherlands have been famed for a skill unknown to other nations, namely that of draining and reclaiming submerged land. When the wave of reform movements in the Catholic church began to sweep across Europe in the 16th century, many, among them the self-declared Mennonites1, had to leave their native soil and emigrate to neighboring or even far-off countries to seek refuge.
The first Dutch began to pour into Polish territory circa 1526-27, as they have been located in the vicinity of Paslek in Eastern Prussia in 15272. It appears that this was a populace of wholly Dutch origin. From that time also dates the beginning of a massive exodus of people – described in the Republic of those days as olederski [Dutch, “Hollander”] – from the Netherlands and northern Germany. The colonization advanced in a southerly direction, along the line of the Vistula, and thus reached Saska Kepa in 1624. At the end of the 17th century the Dutch began to appear in the territory of Greater Poland [Wielkopolska].
The Dutch population settled on land on the basis of laws like that of Chelmno whereby they received about 0.5-1.0 lan [Trans. note –A lan was a unit of land, but its value varied; the most common lan, the Franconian, measured 23-27 hectares – 57-67 acres – which is presumably the size meant here]. The lease contract covered a period of 30-60 years, of which the first seven years were a “free period” (wolnizna). They were valued newcomers because of their high technical skills, among which their cattle-breeding was particularly advanced. Initially, for religious reasons, they formed a closed group, renouncing the use of force, guiding themselves by the principles of labor and duty and refusing to serve in the military. They were free peasants and in addition became the wealthiest group inhabiting the settlement3.

The Dutch began moving into the western part of Poland after the Swedish invasion, and the new waves that poured in ended up there almost exclusively. There ensued a steady mixing of the populace’s ethnic composition. At the beginning, the majority were unquestionably authentic Dutchmen; but then Germans from the area bordering Holland took their place. Then also came from northern Germany. A separate question is the immigration of people from the Silesia region, from southeastern Germany.
Research shows that around 40% of the total composition of the populace described as “Dutch” at the beginning of the 18th century were Poles. One can ask whether these were exclusively Poles who in some way found themselves within the framework of Dutch laws, or whether the blending of the real Dutch populace with the local population had reached such an extent that they began not only to speak in Polish but also to consider themselves as coming from Polish lands. By the 18th century, the Dutch populace was already exclusively Germans from the interior of Germany, Silesia or Pomerania.
In concrete source entries – mainly parish records – the clergy making entries described them as oledry, olendrzy, Hollander, Haulander, or inquilinus4.The expert on Dutch matters, Wladyslaw Rusinski, explains this partially by the fact that their services were used for clearing land, and in German hauen means “to cut down, mow.” He explains the word inquilinus [tenant] could signify a person of foreign origin, but the meaning of the word is broader and could well be used for someone local. Often alongside these entries was given an additional notation that this person is a colonist or oleder. With the help of source information we have learned that usually in the first generation, and often in subsequent ones, they married from within their own distinct ethnic group. It is often difficult to arrive at a correct spelling of their surnames. Alteration or distortion of the originally given name is no rarity. Ignorance of recent local residents is also indicated by the fact that the surnames or first names of ancestors, witnesses, and other persons are unknown. Slow assimilation, which seems to have proceeded fairly peacefully, favored the adoption of the local language, and later the formation in the group of a complete village and its inclusion in the life of the settlement.

At the end of the 18th century in Greater Poland there were about 28,000 living “Hollanders”, of whom we do not know the actual number of authentic Dutchmen because the new colonists who settled in the village, who worked at the same labor as the former Dutchmen and now were also building windmills, reclaiming fields and changing the courses of streams and other waterways, were immediately associated with the Dutch. The largest concentrations of “Hollanders” in Greater Poland were regions along rivers and the vicinities of lakes and swamps. Near the Warta their settlements were spread across the whole territory of the Greater Poland province of the time. They settled also between Wolsztyn and Nowy Tomysł, and occupied many of the smaller settlements, even those scattered far apart. Between some of them there was really no migratory movement, even though they enjoyed personal freedom. At the end of the 18th century there is a perceptible decline in the maintenance of their independence. The newcomers became Catholics, as opposed to earlier times when they were Lutherans or general dissenters.
First names, originally clearly of non-Polish origin, now become typical of Poland. One or two generations, more or less, were enough for the populace that had migrated to this land in the 18th century to be totally blended with the local populace and to lose wholly, by the third generation, all the traditions and customs they had brought with them. It is impossible to forget the historical events in Poland at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century when, under the influence of a number of migratory movements, people deeply conscious of ethnic separateness emigrated farther to the east of Poland, and later to Russia and Siberia. These conclusions are based in large part on the study of materials dealing with my own family, described in precisely these terms in the parish records of the village of Zabno. This family, which came to that village in the second half of the 18th century from lands that were certainly in Germany, found support from the landowner Jakub Bilinski, at the time the owner of a series of neighboring districts and a representative of Greater Poland’s nobility. Unfortunately the contractual document between seven families brought there and Jakub Bilinski has not survived. It was drawn up in 17785. Around that year, notes begin to appear more and more often in the parish documents about new people in Zabno. The family spread to the neighboring villages but remained within the limits of that same parish of Zabno. Even before 1850 there is evidence of a local element joining in its composition, and not just of that family that had arrived 70 years before. At first they worked in those special occupations that had been reserved for them since ancient times; then later they became peasants working for hire. It is another matter that in 1823, Prussian law eliminated all differences between the “Hollanders” and the local populace. Also evident is a clear decline in their cultural separateness.

In summary, the relationships of the “Hollander” populace in Greater Poland led to the result that over a very short period of time a known quantity of them underwent complete assimilation with the local populace. At the moment they ceased everyday usage of their own language in favor of the local language and customs they relinquished all of their own attributes of independence. This process occurred more quickly than usual because the whole group did not possess the skill of writing, did not have contact with other persons of their own former cultural circle, and, numbering as they did as an enclave of a few families, they turned out to be too weak to withstand the test of time. After all, it is not very probable that they ever intended to return to their former homeland.


1 The “Mennonites” are an offshoot of the Anabaptist sect which is considered heretical by the Catholic church. They were founded by Menno Simons (1496-1559), and originated in Frisia. They recognize two sacraments, adult baptism and the eucharist.

2 I excerpted information on the first appearance of a Dutch populace in Polish territory from Marcin Kamler’s article “Oledry” in Encyklopedia historii gospodarczej Polski do 1945 roku [An Encyclopedia of Poland’s Economic History up to 1945], Warsaw, 1981, vol. II, pp. 14-15. Compare W. Rusinski’s Osady tzw. “oledrow w dawnym woj. poznanskim [Settlements of the so-called Hollanders in ancient Poznan province], Poznan; 1939, Krakow 1947.)


4Ibid., and also Liber baptisatorum parafli Zabno, Liber copulatorum parafii Zabno, Llber mortuorum parafii Zabno [Zabno parish book of baptisms/marriages/deaths] in the Archdiocesan Archives in Poznan; Zabno parish microfilm no. 627 and 628.

5 Z. Cieplucha, Z przeszlosci ziemi koscianskiej [From the past of Koscian district], Koscian 1930, after Tabela Ogólna Ludnosci Pow. Koscianskiego z Tabel szczegotowych przez Kommissye Powlatowa [General List of the Populace of Koscian County, from the detailed Tables by the County Commission compiled in 1789 (from the Archiwum Glowne Akt Dawnych in Warsaw, syg. 163, nr. 5A).