Genealogy is the organized and documented study of an individual family. To find your Polish ancestors and their place of origin in Poland, it is necessary to build a bridge from yourself through your parents and grandparents to that place.
Begin with yourself. Write down the vital statistics of your life and add copies of its documentation where possible. For instance, when and where were you born, in hospital, at home, or more interestingly, in an emergency in a taxi, a boat or a plane. What doctor attended your mother? What schools did you attend? What places did you work? When and where did you meet your spouse? When and where did you marry? Do you have a marriage certificate? Can you attach a copy to your genealogical records?
Repeat this information for your parents if you can, and for your grandparents. Then interview any relatives to fill in the missing statistics. Ask to see old photographs of the family and note when and where the photos were made. Names and addresses of portrait photographers found on the original framing can sometimes provide clues to town names or cities that your relatives have forgotten. From clothing styles, there may be a clue to dates.
The census files from 1790 to 1920 are rich sources of information. From 1850 to modern times, the head of household listed all persons living there and frequently provided relationship data as well. The 1890 census which might have been the best source for Polish immigrant information was lost in a fire. Only fragments of the veterans’ listing in 1890 remain.
Census records for Poles before 1920 usually show the place of origin as Prussia, Russia, or Austria which reflects the partition of Poland in the late 1700’s. These Poles were Polish in spirit, but they came from territories taken over by other nations. Occasionally a Pole would claim to be from Prussia when he was not, since those from the German region were reputed to have more skills and education.
Catholic church records can be very helpful because of their permanence. A closed church facility deposited its records with either the nearest Catholic church or with the chancery. Protestant or Jewish records are also excellent when you know what faith your forefathers practiced.
When possible, tape an interview with your older and/or interested family members. Take along a copy of whatever charts you have made so that you may ask specific questions to fill in the blanks. If your relative wanders away from your question, you may gently remind that person about what information you need, but also you may have taped an interesting family story which can serve as a clue to further research. A tape may be replayed to better understand a name or a date long after your visit is over. Do take extra batteries and tape. Remember to thank your family member for reminiscing with you.
Try to learn if your Polish ancestor was a naturalized citizen. Voting lists exist. Naturalization applications may have specific information about towns of origin in Poland. These records are kept by the National Archives Service. Death certificates in the early years of this century required an estimate of length of stay in the U.S. This can be a clue to when your family entered this country. Follow up by checking passenger lists. It may require an extensive time commitment unless an exact date is known. Relatively few of these lists are indexed.
If a Polish village or town name is found, it may be difficult to locate on a modern road map. Try a Polish gazetteer. The town could be one of several of the same name. It helps to know if this town was near a city, or in Galicia. Prussia, etc. Sometimes the gazetteer will indicate the parish which serves a particular town so that a letter addressed to the pastor of the church in that town will provide baptismal or birth information when you write. The Church of the Latter Day Saints — Mormons — are an excellent source for such information. Their teams photocopied records both civil and church in Poland in about 1970. They were permitted to copy records 100 or more years old, so that the last records copied in the first effort were those of 1870.