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The origins and legacy of Minnesota’s Polish community

Polish Americans are an enduring presence in a state popularly known for its Scandinavian and German populations.

historical photo of parade float
Polish children in traditional dress appeal for aid to Poland, ca. 1918.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

Polish immigrants and their descendants settled in Minnesota in both urban and rural communities. They came to the state in several distinct waves from the 1850s to 2004. Early Polish immigrants were mainly farmers and industrial laborers, but their descendants and later waves of immigrants from Poland hold a wide range of occupations. They have made numerous and varied contributions to the economy and culture of Minnesota.

Polish Americans are an enduring presence in a state popularly known for its Scandinavian and German populations. Poles first came to Minnesota Territory in the 1840s, and Polish migration to the state continued in waves until the 1990s and 2000s. By 2010, Minnesotans claiming Polish ancestry numbered over 260,000, or about 1 in every 20 residents. Poles settled throughout the state, with large concentrations in the Twin Cities, Winona, Duluth, and central Minnesota. Although the earliest Polish immigrants were most likely to be farmers and laborers, Poles in Minnesota have made many contributions in the professions, academia, the arts, and business, and remain a vibrant part of the state’s cultural and ethnic history.

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The Polish immigrants to Minnesota came from a land at the heart of many of the modern era’s fiercest political conflicts. Poland is located between Germany to the west, Russia to the east, and the Baltic Sea to the north. In the early 1600s, Poland was one of the largest countries in Europe. It had a unique constitutional monarchy with a strong parliament that allowed for an unusual degree of ethnic and religious diversity. In addition to ethnic Poles, the country was, until World War II, home to one of the world’s largest Jewish communities, as well as many Germans, Ukrainians, Belarusians, Lithuanians, Scots, Rusyns, Tatars, and others.

By the 1700s, the Polish Commonwealth fell into political decay under the influence of foreign powers such as Russia. Despite efforts at the internal reform, between 1772 and 1795 Poland was partitioned between Russia, Prussia, and Austria and ceased to exist as an independent country. Throughout the nineteenth century, a series of unsuccessful revolts sought to restore the nation’s independence, resulting in increased repression and social and economic upheaval.

Poles who settled in Minnesota in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries came with an experience of having been colonized by powerful neighbors who often placed severe restrictions on Polish cultural and religious expression. The first significant groups of Poles to come to Minnesota arrived from Prussian (later German) occupied regions of western Poland, such as Silesia, Poznan, and Pomerania. These regions were the most economically advanced sectors of Poland, but the largely Catholic Poles from the German partition were also subject to a systematic campaign of Germanization and attacks on their Catholic faith. A second group of Poles came from Austrian-controlled region of southern Poland, called Galicia, which included the northern section of the Carpathian Mountains. Galicia was the most economically backward region of Poland (and one of Europe’s poorest areas) but enjoyed a higher degree of cultural autonomy. Poles also arrived from the Russian partition of Poland, the largest of the three sectors. Although this region was a gateway for Russian trade with Europe, it was the scene of three major revolts against Tsarist rule, and its population endured widespread repression.

Large-scale migration of Poles began in the 1850s from parts of Prussia/Germany and continued through the 1890s. By the late 1870s, even more Poles began coming to the US from Austria-Hungary, and they were joined by migrants from Russia by the late 1880s. By the turn of the twentieth century, a flood of Polish migration reached American shores, peaking in the years before World War I.

Poland regained her independence at the end of World War I, which coincided with increasing American restrictions on immigration from eastern and southern Europe. In 1939, Poland was invaded by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. The country’s centuries-old Jewish population was nearly wiped out, and millions of Polish Christians were murdered or driven into exile. Following World War II, Poland again became a colonial subject—this time of the Soviet Union, which imposed communism by force. Many Polish refugees from Nazism and communism came to the US and to Minnesota during the Cold War years. Following the collapse of communism in Poland in 1989, economic migrants from Poland once again sought opportunity in America, with some finding homes in Minnesota. As economic conditions at home gradually improved, and after Poland entered the European Union in 2004, Polish immigration to the USA (and Minnesota) declined to a steady trickle.

Early Communities

The first Pole to come to what would become Minnesota may have arrived as early as late the 1840s or early 1850s. Groups of political refugees who fled the failed November Insurrection against Russian rule in 1830/31 or the Revolutions of 1848 ended up in St. Louis or Illinois and may have journeyed north by steamboat to St. Paul. By 1858, a group of Poles from the Kashubian region near the Baltic coast settled in Winona, creating Minnesota’s first Polish community.

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Polish settlement grew slowly but steadily over the next two decades. In the 1860s, Poles from Silesia settled in Wright County, near Delano, as well as in Morrison and McLeod Counties. By the 1870s, a small network of Polish communities had formed in rural central and southern Minnesota, created and sustained through chain migration. Most of these immigrants came from specific regions and even villages and arrived in Minnesota communities inhabited by neighbors and relatives. Polish immigrants who settled in Wells (Faribault County) came from the Silesian village of Syców. Silesian and Kaszubian communities in Minnesota retained a distinct regional identity, including dialect and customs. Silesians were often bilingual in Polish and German and spoke a local Silesian dialect. These communities often retained closer links to other Silesian or Kashubian settlements than to larger and more mixed Polish urban communities.

Beginning in the 1880s, a different type of settlement pattern brought Polish immigrants to rural Minnesota: planned “colonies.” As Poles flooded into urban centers such as Chicago, many leaders of the growing Polish community worried that factory work and the rough-and-tumble environment of burgeoning cities would weaken the morals and culture of immigrants coming from rural villages. Fraternal societies, such as the Polish National Alliance (PNA) and the Polish Roman Catholic Union of America (PRCUA), initiated efforts to resettle their compatriots from cities to rural areas. Touting the advantages of farm life, leaders of the PNA and other groups worked with railroad companies and Minnesota’s Catholic bishops to found a series of planned communities in Minnesota. Wilno (Lincoln County) began in 1882 and was promoted by PNA leaders and by the editors of the newspaper Gazeta Chicagoska (Chicago Gazette). The majority of settlers came from Chicago and LaSalle, Illinois, with a few from Pennsylvania, Nebraska, and other areas of Minnesota. Other planned settlements for Poles in the state included Sturgeon Lake (Pine County), and a series of small parishes in Kittison, Roseau, and Marshall counties.

Polish immigrants also began to settle Minnesota’s urban landscape. In 1872, Czechs and Poles jointly founded St. Stanislaus parish in St. Paul, but the two groups soon separated, and Poles formed their first parish in the Twin Cities with the creation of St. Adalbert in Frogtown in 1881. Poles were attracted to the city’s growing economy, which needed a steady stream of workers. Poles found jobs in meatpacking, light industry, and railroads, and Polish settlement expanded to East St. Paul as well. Within a few years, Polish immigrants also found homes in Minneapolis—particularly Northeast Minneapolis, with its growing milling industry. Holy Cross parish, founded in 1886, would become the largest Polish parish in the Twin Cities, spinning off four daughter parishes by World War I. Duluth also attracted a growing number of Polish immigrants who came to work as industrial laborers as well as on the city’s waterfront.

Prior to World War I, Poles established over fifty communities in outstate Minnesota in addition to large urban concentrations in Northeast and North Minneapolis and Frogtown and East St. Paul. They established almost fifty Polish Roman Catholic parishes along with several Polish National Catholic churches and one Missouri Synod Lutheran congregation. Poles in the Twin Cities, Duluth, and Iron Range towns like Virginia were primarily industrial laborers, though some held higher-skilled positions in manufacturing. In smaller, rural communities Poles were almost exclusively farmers. Winona proved something of an exception, where the Kashubian community combined wage labor in the city’s mills and small factories with farming. Rural communities were dominated by families with roots in German-occupied western Poland, though a few places, such as Sturgeon Lake, drew immigrants from the Russian-held sector as well. Early Polish arrivals in Winona, St. Paul, and Duluth were also from western Poland, but neighborhoods such as East St. Paul and Northeast Minneapolis attracted the majority of their Polish residents from Russian-controlled eastern regions of Poland and especially the Austrian-ruled highland regions of southern Poland.

Family and Community

Emigration from Poland was based on the need to sustain families. Early settlers in rural communities often came as family units, which in some cases included extended families, often a husband and wife with one or more children. Later immigrants and especially those who took jobs in Minnesota industries were more likely to come as single men or women, sometimes in peer groups from the same village or region. The typical wage-labor immigrant was a single male who came to earn as much money as possible through working long hours. Many intended to (and did) return to Europe after earning funds sufficient to pay off family debts or marry and start a family. Groups of single women also immigrated for wage labor, but during the early stages of immigration men usually outnumbered women.

Polish immigrants to Minnesota created families and culture that acted as a compromise between the life they had known in Europe and new realities in America. Home villages with their support networks of extended, multi-generational families were far away. Immigrant families, and especially immigrant women, had to recreate familiar cultural markers in a new and often difficult environment without the benefit of that network. In doing so, they created a new hybrid Polish culture in Minnesota and made their new communities a place they could call home.

The key to Polish community life in Minnesota was the establishment of a Roman Catholic parish. While Poland had been a land of many cultures and faiths, the process of immigration fueled the creation of separate identities. While many Jews came from the historic lands of Poland, only a handful identified as Poles, and thus they developed their own community institution as did the many Ukrainians, Rusyns, and Lithuanians who arrived in Minnesota. However, this process was gradual and not always straightforward. Immigrants from the Carpathian mountain regions included Poles, Slovaks, and Rusyns, and these groups often had much in common, including mutually comprehensible dialects. In Northeast Minneapolis Slovak immigrants attended the Polish parish of Holy Cross until the establishment of a separate Slovak parish of Saints Cyril and Methodius.

For the new immigrants, parishes were places of spiritual sustenance and much more. As centers of community life, they took on numerous cultural, social, economic, and political roles. Parishes were the focus of Polish immigrants’ most profound hopes and bitterest rivalries. For new arrivals living on the margins of American society, founding and sustaining parishes called for tremendous mobilization of human and material resources. Polish communities in Minnesota were filled with men and women working on small farms from sunrise to sunset or ten- to twelve-hour shifts in mills or factories, so the building of beautiful churches filled with color, music, and light reflected their aspirations to rise above their material circumstances and served as the stone and mortar roots that bound them to their new homeland. They contracted architects like Minneapolis’ Victor Cordella, an immigrant of mixed Polish-Italian ancestry, to create churches that blended east-central European and American elements into a new architectural synthesis.

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Parishes were centers of community organization. Polish immigrants were “joiners” who created hundreds of formal and informal groups. In addition to faith-based organizations such as rosary and altar societies and sodalities for men and women, parishes sponsored fraternal self-help organizations that provided death benefit insurance and participated in a range of cultural and religious activities. Even a small parish like St. Adalbert in Silver Lake sponsored three separate Polish men’s groups who dressed in historical garb to commemorate important patriotic anniversaries. Polish parishes also hosted bands and choirs, libraries and literary societies, theatrical groups, building and loan associations, sports teams, and numerous informal groups dedicated to a wide range of activities and interests. Many fraternal societies belonged to one of the national Polish fraternal organizations, such as the PNA, PRCUA, Polish Women’s Alliance, or Polish Union. Minnesota also had its own Polish fraternal: the Polish White Eagle Association, based in Minneapolis with a dozen local societies around the state.

By the 1970s, while parishes remained important centers of community life for Minnesota Polonia, a gradual movement of second- and third-generation Poles beyond the original neighborhood boundaries meant communities were less spatially defined and more based on individual interest and affiliation. Old organizations declined in membership while new organizations emerged. Groups like the Polish American Cultural Institute of Minnesota (PACIM) and the Polish Genealogical Society of Minnesota served an increasingly suburbanized English-speaking community, while Adam Mickiewicz Saturday School in Minneapolis taught Polish language and culture to the children of recent immigrants.

Immigration from Post-war Poland

Small numbers of Polish immigrants continued to come to Minnesota in the 1960s and 1970s. After the election of Pope John Paul II in 1978 and the rise of the Solidarity free trade union movement, the communist regime cracked down on dissidents, and a new group of political refugees left Poland in the mid 1980s. Many were educated professionals, and Minnesota’s strong economy attracted a number of these refugees who found positions in higher education and as engineers for companies such as 3M and Honeywell. The collapse of the communist dictatorship in Poland and neighboring countries between 1989 and 1991 opened the way for a new group of economic immigrants as well. Although cities like New York and Chicago attracted the largest number of Polish newcomers, Minnesota’s economy and family connections with previously arrived Polish Americans ensured a modest stream of Poles. This migration continued throughout the 1990s, though as Poland’s economy improved and migration to EU countries like England and Ireland became a possibility, the number of Polish immigrants declined.

Between Poland and Minnesota

Polish cultural life in America and in Minnesota began as a careful compromise between values brought from Europe prior to World War I and the new environment immigrants and their descendants encountered in North America. The result was a distinctly hybrid culture that often emphasized folk arts, including dance, which were accessible to Polish Americans but translated well to Americans beyond the Polish community. Waves of post-war emigres viewed this hybrid as too Americanized and emphasized elements of culture contemporary to the Poland they had left.

In both approaches, Poles made important contributions to the cultural richness of the Northstar state. Authors such as poet Wiktoria Janda and short story writer Monika Krawczyk wrote in English, but with a distinctly Polish American voice. Both women were leaders of the Polanie Club, a women’s organization that ran a highly successful publishing operation focused on making Polish customs accessible to Americans. The group’s cookbook, Treasured Polish Recipes for Americans, remained in print for fifty years. Among the many Poles who have made notable contributions to Minnesota art, Stanisław Skrowaczewski (d. 2017) was perhaps the best known. He served as conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra from 1960 to 1979, and as conductor laureate thereafter, and his interpretations of the work of Anton Bruckner are considered among the best in contemporary classical music.

Although no longer concentrated in geographically-defined communities, Minnesota’s Polish Americans continue to find ways to express and celebrate their culture and heritage. In 2009, the first annual PolishFest was held in Minneapolis, featuring music, food, crafts, and art. The Polish American Medical Society of Minnesota began in 2017 to bring together Poles working in the healthcare field, and PACIM created a literary fund to help introduce contemporary Polish authors to Minnesota. Since the creation of the first Polish community in 1858, Polish immigrants and their descendants find new and diverse ways to make Minnesota home.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.