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How to locate my ancestors' place of origin?

How to locate my ancestors' place of origin?

Some details pertaining to the history of particular provinces are accessible by clicking on their names


At the beginning of our genealogical research the only information available as a source is very often a name of a town or village where our ancestor is said or supposed to have originated from. The precise identification of this locality is crucial. This identification will lead us to the name of the district and parish of the locality.

The place names in today's Poland have changed frequently during the last 200 years. Most locations in the former provinces of Silesia (Schlesien), Pomerania (Pommern), Brandenburg & East Prussia (Ostpreussen) kept their German names until 1945, but now they are no longer used. As the new Polish names are not necessarily even similar, one cannot avoid using special geographical dictionaries and gazetteers to learn the current name for a given town.


In the Province of Posen and in West Prussia (Westpreussen) both Polish and German names were used in the records during the 19th century. Generally in West Prussia, German names were used predominantly and the Polish ones only occasionally in the Catholic church records. In Posen, some of the Polish names were only slightly Germanized and often used until 1919, but the general rule, in the decades before 1919, was that more and more Polish names were gradually changed to German. As in West Prussia, the Polish versions were still in use in the Catholic church. The German names were sometimes direct translations, and sometimes they were spelt similarly. In many cases no apparent similarity exists. After 1919, Polish names were restored in the areas which were returned to Poland. Sometimes new Polish names were invented - usually when a location didn't exist prior to the partitions, i.e in the 18th century.


There are no particular problems with the place names in Congress Poland and Galicia - in most cases their Polish form remained unchanged or only slight modifications in their spelling occurred. The official Russian versions of the place names in Congress Poland and the Western gubernias of Russia (formerly Polish) usually differed only in spelling - those differences reflected both the necessity of transliteration from the Latin alphabet to the Cyrillic and some phonetic differences between Polish and Russian. The same concerns the differences in contemporary spelling of those names in Polish, Belarussian and Ukrainian.


After 1918 and 1945 some place names were changed in the areas then in the Soviet Union.


It should be stressed that the present Polish place names are sometimes different even from their own Polish versions from the 19th century - due to the evolution of the language itself. Nevertheless, those changes are usually relatively small.


Please note: Place names were often written down by immigration officers in German, French or English-speaking countries. Their form as it is read now may often be subject to many errors in interpretation. In many cases, it is doubtful which name is mentioned in the old documents. Also in oral tradition the names could easily change throughout the generations.


A very good way to pinpoint a town within Poland is a ShtetlSeeker search. It's a site which matches the place name you provide to a huge database of towns in Central Europe by its spelling and sound. It usually returns you several choices with the geographical position. ShtetlSeeker is not capable of finding everything, of course, but it's always worth trying.


A subsequent obstacle in precise location of a given town or village is the identification of the administrative unit or parish to which it belonged. The administrative division of the territory of Poland was never stable. The problem of the state boundary changes is discussed in another section. On Rafal Prinke's pages you can also find the pre-1795 administrative division of Poland. Here I describe the system of administrative division within the countries that governed the present Polish territory in the 19th century.


In Prussia, each province was divided into several (2 to 4) Regierungsbezirke and then into districts. The typical number of districts was 20-40 for a province. For our purposes, it is most important to find the district to which our location belongs. The system of district towns was rearranged several times but it became fixed about 1890. A typical district included about 10-15 parishes (of course the precise number was dependent on the population and its religion). The district was divided into 100-300 Gemeinden (communities), each of which included usually one individual village, sometimes together with a few small hamlets or isolated houses. Larger manors also constituted seperate communities.


In Austria (Galicia), the territory of the province was divided into districts and communities. The latter comprised several villages.


In Russia and the Congress Poland there were no "provinces" of the same type as in Prussia or Austria. The territory of the country was divided into gubernyas ("governments") which had no real autonomy. The area of Western Russia which belonged to Poland prior to the partitions consisted of the following guberniyas: Courland, Vitebsk, Kaunas (Polish and Russian: Kowno), Wilno (Lithuanian: Vilnius), Grodno, Minsk, Mohylev, Volhynia, Kiev & Podolia. The Kingdom of Poland was initially divided into six gubernyas (Warsaw, Plock, Kielce, Lublin, Kalisz and Suwalki). In 1867, their number was increased to ten and the seats of the new gubernyas were Lomza, Siedlce, Piotrków (Russian: Petrokov), & Radom. The guberniyas were divided into communities of a size similar to that in Galicia (i.e. much larger than those in Prussia).


The administrative division didn't usually match with the parish boundaries of any of the religions. A typical Roman Catholic parish or Lutheran community in an area where a given religion was well represented comprised about 10 villages. The Byzantine (Greek) Catholic (in Galicia) and Eastern Orthodox (in Russia and Eastern parts of Congress Poland) parishes were usually smaller and comprised 1-4 villages. With rare exceptions (esp. new parishes created in developing cities) the parish system was stable throughout the 19th century, unlike the state administrative systems.


As Poland won its independence in 1918, the administrative division of its territory was unified. The gubernyas and provinces were replaced by voivodships (Polish: "województwo"). The system of districts and communities was generally maintained, although some boundary shifts and other reforms were sporadically introduced until WWII. After the Second World War the newly acquired provinces of Germany were also incorporated into this system (hence, new voivodships were established in Olsztyn (German: Allenstein), Koszalin (Köslin), Szczecin (Stettin), Zielona Góra (Grünberg), Wroclaw (Breslau) and Opole (Oppeln). This was again entirely changed in 1975, as a new system of small voivodships (fourty-nine) was invented and the districts were abolished. The new system practically ignored all the historical connections and existence of traditional regions. Fortunately, in 1999, the system of 16 voivodships mostly reflecting historical boundaries and connections was re-established.


The history of administrative systems in Poland is very complicated, yet it helps in searching for the records necessary for genealogical research. Another section is dedicated to that issue.

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