East Prussia

This is a translation of excerpts from the article on East Prussia printed in the late-19th century Polish gazetteer Slownik geograficzny Krolestwa Polskiego. Remember that these articles contain information “current” when they were written, sometime after 1885 and before 1902.

by Adam Napieralski

East Prussia is a country, duchy and province… The habitat of the long-dead Prussian tribe comprises today’s province called East Prussia, which forms the northeastern part of the Kingdom of Prussia.  It lies between 53 degrees 8’30” and 55 degrees 53’40” North latitude and 36 degrees 59’6″ and 40 degrees 33’12” East longitude (Ferro) . [Translator’s Note-This article uses an archaic meridian system based on Ferro (Hierro) of the Canary Islands, long the westernmost point known to Europeans. Ferro lies at about 18ÄW by the system now accepted as standard, so to arrive at approximately the correct longitude subtract 18 from the figures given in this article. As best I can tell, the latitude figures are correct as given.]  To the north it borders on the Baltic, to the east on Kowno and Augustow gubernias, to the south on Augustów and Plock gubernias, and to the west on West Prussia.  It includes: so-called Old Prussia, the lands that belonged to the Duchy of Prussia created by duke Albert after the dissolution of the Teutonic Knights; Warmia, i. e. the powiaty of Olsztyn, Brunsberg, Licbark and Reszel; Sambia, i. e., the area surrounded by the Dejma and Pregola rivers, the Baltic Sea, Kuryjska and Fryska Bays; the northern part of Lithuania; and Masuria, i. e., southern Gabin district.  Although these names are not recognized officially, they still persist and are generally used more than the official ones.

Surface Formation. East Prussia lies on the great German-Slavic plain… The Baltic-Ural Heights, here called Eastern Prussian, run along the highest points at Kernsdorf, 317 m., 15 km. south of Ostróda, and in the Szeski hills, running along the border of Olecko and
Goldap powiaty and reaching a height of 313 m.  There are other significant elevations northwest of Ilawka, such as the so-called Stablack (216 m.) between the Pasarya and Lyna rivers, and the Sambia heights, in places falling abruptly 60m., with the peaks of Galtgarben (110m.) and Rombinus (75 m.), between Tilsit and Ragneta on the right bank of the Niemen.  Of the lowlands the most important ones are the fertile plains on the Niemen, with numerous meadows, and the Tilsit lowlands between the Rusa and Gilia rivers.  Both are sheltered from floods and ice by strong dikes and are crossed by numerous canals in which excess water runs off. Lowlands also extend above the Pregola river.  Especially noteworthy are the so-called mierzeje [sandbars] which, like natural, sandy dikes, separate Kuryjska and Fryska Bays from the sea.  Kuryjska Bay [also called Kurskiy Zaliv or Courland Lagoon], 98 km. long and averaging 2 km. wide, belongs entirely to East Prussia, except for a few insignificant spots, and is a single, sandy dune; Fryska Bay, of which only the eastern part belongs to East Prussia, is not much different from Kuryjska Bay; it extends to the Pilawa Straits, dividing it from the Sambian peninsula.

Soil and produce. East Prussia has a variety of soils: frumentaceous on the Niemen, Pregola and Warmia, sandy on the seashores and sandbars and in the powiaty of Niborsk, Szczytno and Jansbork; and there are large marshes in Labiawa and Pilkally powiaty.  Of the whole surface of the province 73.5% consists of fields, gardens, meadows and pastures… The main crops sown here are rye, wheat, oats, and barley, and potatoes are planted; wheat grows mainly in the regency district of Królewiec and near Gabin; the best clover and grass grows on the Niemen’s plains.  Linen is cultivated in Warmia and near Tilsit.

The province has sizable wooded areas, of which 353,788 hectares belong to the government and 330,598 to gminas and private owners, for a total of about 18.7% of the whole surface.  The largest forests are in Jansborg powiat, the so-called puszcza jansborska, 98 km. long and 45 km. wide….

The province does not have ores or mineral coal; lignite is found on the sea, but in insignificant quantities.  East Prussia does, however, possess large deposits of peat, mainly in the marshes on Kuryjska Bay and on the northern flank of the East Prussian heights. A specialty of the province is amber, which is gathered on the sea shore, or in the sea, where it floats in chunks on the surface, or is brought up from the bottom of the bay by boats built specifically for that purpose.  Amber is also dug up along the Sambian shore. 1,350 quintals of amber were collected in 1875, at a value of 1,145,000 marks.  It is processed for the most part on the spot; but sizable shipments are sent abroad in raw form, mainly to Vienna.

Climate. East Prussia exhibits the features of a northern maritime climate, frequent variability and an abundance of precipitation.  It often begins to freeze in October, and in November snow falls; the winter, with its sudden temperature changes, lasts till April, and nightly frosts sometimes occur till May.  Spring is short, usually cool and wet; in summer rain falls often and fog covers the seashores… The growing season lasts on average 4 to 5 months.

Occupations, industry, trade.  The largest number of the populace is employed in agriculture, conducted sensibly; 40.5% of the whole fell into that category in recent years.  16.1% work in mining, metallurgy, industry and construction; 5.6% live by trade; and 37.8% by other professions, including laborers, (9%).  Besides farming the inhabitants extract peat, which is used almost everywhere, especially by the poor.

Fishing is important for the province’s inhabitants.  Those who live by the seashore are employed in fishing, catching primarily the best varieties of fish, such as salmon, cod, and flounder.  No less developed is fishing in both bays, where they catch the famous Kuryjski eels, as well as on the Niemen and the lakes of Masuria.  They deliver a sizable portion to large cities; smoked and pickled eels go primarily to Russia and the western German provinces.  Crabs from the lakes of Masuria are in demand as far away as France.

There are numerous distilleries, and some of the aqua vitae is consumed locally, some sent to Szczecin and Berlin.  No less numerous are breweries, brickyards, mills and sawmills; the most significant ones are on the Lyna river in Welawa and Frydlad powiaty, on the Pregola, in Wystruc powiat, and on the Niemen in Ragneta powiat, as well as along the banks of the Niemen and on the lakes of Masuria.

Paper mills and tar-paper factories produce very good products and send sizable shipments of them abroad, especially to England. The province has a lot of foundries and machinery factories, even in the smaller localities, and the agricultural machinery, gear, etc. they produce go almost exclusively to satisfy the province’s needs and are not in demand in foreign markets. The foundries and factories in Krolewiec and Tilsit enjoy the greatest popularity, delivering steam engines, locomotives and ships to faraway places. The numerous tanneries, dye-works, printers, wood-distillers’ works, workshops for ship construction, and factories for candles, soap, tobacco, carts and musical instruments satisfy the local inhabitants’ needs.

Trade in East Prussia, significant even in the most ancient times, developed by the Hanseatic League and the Teutonic Knights, is still sizable; but as Krolewiec merchants’ reports for recent years indicate, their heyday has passed; even Krolewiec, which was supposed to become a powerful business center and take over the role of Gdansk, has lost its hopes for a splendid future.  In addition to Krolewiec, there is considerable trade in these cities: Klajpeda, Tilsit, Wystruc and Brunsberg.  Among the items traded are: mineral coal, salt, lime, cement, gypsum, lumber, iron, naphtha, produce, linen, hemp, cotton, tea, coffee, rice, tobacco, sugar, syrup, [cooking] oil, wool, hides, furs, cod-liver oil, soap, china, glass, butter, cheese, herring, cloth, etc.   Shipping provides employment mainly in Krolewiec and Klajpeda. 726 steamships and 1,698 sailing ships arrived at Pilawa (Krolewiec) in 1875; 731 steamships and 1,585 sailing ships departed… Numerous boats cruise the rivers and lakes; on the Pregola alone 11,000 were counted, and 3,767 landed at Klajpeda….

Population.  Poles, Lithuanians and Germans live in East Prussia.  In 1875 Poles were 18.39%, Lithuanians 8.11%, and Germans 73.48%.  German is spoken up to a line drawn from Ostróda to Lec, although Poles live in some places there; below that line Polish is spoken.  According to German statistics, 80-90% of the population in the villages is Polish, whereas the German element is more numerous in the cities. The Masurian towns of Wilebark and Pasymin are an exception-they are pure Polish.  As for religion, the inhabitants of almost the entire regency district of Gabin are Protestant; Protestants predominate in Krolewiec district, but almost nothing but Catholics live in Warmia, and they are quite numerous in the powiaty of Niborsk, Ostroda, Szczytno, also in Krolewiec and Klajpeda.

History … The Great Elector Frederick William took advantage of Poland’s critical situation during the war with Sweden [1655-1660] to free himself of his allegiance by the treaty of Wehlau, confirmed in Oliva in 1660.  His successor, Frederick, with the Emperor’s consent, declared the Duchy of Prussia a kingdom, and was crowned in Królewiec in 1701.  From that point on agitation began against the Polish element.  In his order dated 2 March 1724 the king prohibited Poles from settling in Prussian Lithuania, and in an order dated 24 March he forbade using Samogitians, Jews and Poles for colonization.  The greatest defeat for the Polish population of Ducal Prussia was the division of Poland, by which Frederick II regained all the territories formerly ceded in the Peace of Torun [1466], except for the bishopric of Warmia, and Gdansk and Torun; he acquired those two cities in the second division.  From these regions, with the exception of Warmia, West Prussia was created, and East Prussia was created from Warmia and all the other territories of Prussia.  From the land acquired in the third partition, South Prussia or New East Prussia was created; but in 1807 by the Peace of Tilsit that area had to be ceded to France, which created a free city of Gdansk district, and the other territory was incorporated in the Duchy of Warsaw.  After Napoleon’s fall Prussia seized Chelmno and Michalowo districts.  In 1824 East and West Prussia were united as one province, but on 1 April 1878 they were once again divided into East and West.

After the collapse of the Commonwealth the germanization of the nobility and Polish settlements became only a matter of time, especially because Prussian policy toward Poles took a distinctly hostile direction.  Slowly the Polish language disappeared from offices, courts, and schools.  To speed up germanization, the Polish intelligentsia, i. e., the nobility, was removed; toward this end Schoen, the chief administrator of Prussia province, expropriated Polish citizenship in arrears after the French wars with interest on loans taken out in the Krolewiec landszafta [land credit society].   He gave credit advances to Germans brought from other provinces to buy Polish property up for sale.  Thus the nobility disappeared in Prussia.  The people, deprived of their leaders, either became germanized or, even if they preserved their language, lost a sense of connection to their motherland…

Source: Slownik Geograficzny Krolestwa Polskiego – Warsaw

Submitted by: This translation, by William F. Hoffman, first appeared in the August 1996 issue of “Rodziny, The Journal of the Polish Genealogical Society of America” (Feb 1999).