Buffalo Polish Pioneers
Research History Buffalo Polish Pioneers
History & Culture
Buffalo's Polish Pioneers
It is more difficult to write the history of Buffalo's Polish pioneers than of its first Italian or German settlers. In the case of the latter, the gathering of material is easier, because Germans and Italians came to Buffalo regularly in one interval of about thirty years, beginning to immigrate to this area first as individuals, then in small groups, and after a number of years in crowds. The pattern of Polish immigration appears to be somewhat different. Some Polish names are mentioned during the early period of the village of Buffalo but they soon disappear. The same happens with a few other Polish pioneers who came to Buffalo and left the city, going probably farther west after only a few weeks or months of living here.
The forerunners of Polish permanent settlers began to appear in the rapidly growing city of Buffalo about 1850, but they seem to include only Jewish people from the Russian dominated part of Poland. We may, therefore, consider the year 1870, or perhaps a few years preceding it, as the point which really marks the beginning of permanent Polish settlement in this area. These immigrants were the true pioneer founders of Buffalo's Polish community and builders of the Polish cradle on the east side of the city.
The first Pole usually mentioned in connection with Buffalo is Pieter Stadnicki, claimed by some to be one of the founders of the city of Buffalo. He was supposed to have personally assisted Joseph Ellicott in making the first survey of the streets of the future city. Rev. Waclaw Kruszka, a Polish American historian, accepted this story about fifty years ago, and others repeated it after him. However, we have not been able to verify this claim through research; we could not find any proof that either Pieter or his brother, Jan Stadnicki, ever visited America or lived in Buffalo. We have found only that at the turn of the nineteenth century the firm of "Pieter Stadnicki & Son" was well-known for its speculation in American securities and lands; it was located in Amsterdam, Holland, and later became famous as the greatest stockholder in the "Five Houses". Joseph Ellicott named two streets in the Village of Buffalo after Stadnicki and Busti, but neither of these men ever lived here, according to available extant records. Buffalo's Polish historical memoir, Księga Pamigtkowa Zlotego Jubileuszu Osady Polskiej i Parafii Św. Stanislawa B. i M., 1873-1923, contains interesting stories about early Polish pioneers and settlers that give leads for research; but in many cases these stories differ from the official records of the state and federal censuses and the City Directories, and verification is not possible. On the other hand, we should also take into consideration the contemporary statement of John J. Henderson, a commercial editor of the Buffalo Daily Courier, who on February 23, 1856, stated as follows: "It is admitted on all hands, and we have every reason to suppose, that the Census of the city has not been accurately taken. In every ward there are families, who were never called upon..." Therefore, we are not always obliged to take the records of the censuses as final.
Other alleged Buffalo Polish pioneers include Count Komorowski, Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz, Major Mogilski, Captain Bzowski, Krzyzanowski, Kazimierz Stanislaw Growski, Henry K. Glowacki, Grabowski, Chaplain Sebastian Szczybury, and Grzegorz Bniski. The claims regarding them cannot be verified, or only tenuously and tentatively.
The name of Count Komorowski is connected with the early Holland Land Company and the surveying of the Village of Buffalo. That Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz made a journey to Niagara Falls was inferred from his poem:
In boundless savannahs, where man never strayed
Amid woods, that nen'er echoed the axe's keen blade
In the foaming abyss, where the clouds of bright stream
Round the falls of the roaring Niagara gleam.. .
It is now known that Niemcewicz, an aid-de-camp of Kosciuszko, sojournend in the United States from 1797 to 1807, and that he visited Niagara Falls in October 1805, but there is no proof that he visited Buffalo.
Major Mogilski was supposed to live in Buffalo about 1834, selling history books written by Joseph Hordynski of Boston. Captain Bzowski is said to have come to Buffalo in 1833 and to have lived for many years on Fillmore Avenue among the Poles. He supposedly died in 1896. But he may be considered a legendary figure, because in 1896 Polish newspapers were published in Buffalo, and his name would undoubtedly be mentioned in them. However, his name is nowhere to be found, and he cannot be verified.
Dr. Francis E. Fronczak claimed that "for a time there lived in this city" Krzyzanowski, who may be identified as General Wladimir Krzyzanowski. At the age of thirty-six, he was authorized to organize a regiment of infantry in 1861 and later, during the Civil War, became a brigadier-general of the New York volunteers by brevet of March 2, 1865. After his discharge, he was supposed to have lived in Buffalo. There is no proof that he ever lived in this city.
Casimir Stanislaus Growski, was born on March 5, 1813, in St. Petersburg, Russia. A descendant of an old Polish family, he served under Prince Radziwill in the Polish Uprising of 1830 and in 1834 came to the United States. He lived for a while as an assistant engineer on Lake Erie and then went to Canada where in 1870 he became naturalized and constructed the International Railroad bridge at Buffalo. His whereabouts in Buffalo are unknown.
Henry K. Glowacki was born in 1816 in Poland. Imprisoned in 1830 in Trieste, he came in 1834 to Batavia. He studied law and, as a partner of Joshua L. Brown, practiced law until his retirement in 1879. His connection with Buffalo can be traced through the marriage of his adopted daughter, Elizabeth, to Buffalo's attorney, Le Roy Parker, but we have no proof of his living in Buffalo. Grabowski's story is given in the Album edited in 1906. It can not be verified at all. Frank Grabowski, a laborer living at 35 Spruce Street, is mentioned in the City Directory of 1878, but we can not identify him further.
On a Black Rock cemetery there was supposedly a grave of a Polish chaplain, Sebastian Szczybura, who died about 1840. The grave has not been found. The pages of Buffalo's City Directories list some residents whose names may be Polish, but we have not been able to verify whether the persons were all really Polish or only some of them. In 1835, Constance Strzelecki, a painter for R. G. Buchanan, lived at Niagara near Main Street. In 1837, at Sheppard's music store, there lived a teacher of French, Pierre Kowalewski.
The City Directory of 1840 contains the names of Anthony Giesz, a brewer and cooper, who had a home on Main Street and of a laborer, Christian Stucki, working at the Eagle Furnace Co. There still exists the possibility that some of the above mentioned persons may have been born in Poland, instead of in Germany, Russia, or Bulgaria.
An early Buffalo newspaper, The Western Star, notes on July 23, 1834, that two Polish exiles named John Hiz and Gregor Sadlowski, officers of the Polish army, arrived in Buffalo. They were among soldiers exiled to America by Austria, and were desirous of employment as soon as they learned the English language. The note ended with an appeal to the citizens of Buffalo to be grateful to the countrymen of Kosciuszko. How long Hiz and Sadlowski stayed in Buffalo and if they were able to find some opportunity to make a living is unknown, but the City Directory had no record of their residing in the city. They probably moved west after a brief stay.
Another Buffalo newspaper, The Daily Commercial Advertiser, on September 29, 1835, carried a notice about another Polish immigrant, August Wengierski. According to this notice, a meeting of young men of the city was to be held in the room of Wengierski and Zuboff on Monday evening to make arrangements for Mr. Wengierski's Dancing School. Wengierski began his residence in Buffalo in the month of July. He lived at 268 Main Street (No. 1 Kremlin Block) with James D. Sheppard, a dealer in musical instruments. The same newspaper noted on October 1, 1835, that Mr. A. Wengierski, during the past six months has been encouraged to offer his services in dancing and waltzing to the gentlemen and ladies of the city. He intended to introduce such favorite figures as the Cracovian, Gavote, Spanish dances, Hungarian Gallopade, and others. The cost of the course of sixteen lessons was $6.00. Wengierski left the city during some weeks for New York City and returned again to resume his instructions in French language. The City Directory of 1835-36 verifies his name and residence in Buffalo.
The above immigrants who have some connection with early Buffalo or with the later development of the city consist mostly of upper class Poles who came to these shores seeking freedom and a new way of life. This way of life was extremely difficult for some, as we can see from the recollections of a woman who lived in the 1830's in Troy and made this observation about a group of Polish gentlemen: "Ragged, but aristocrats beyond all concealment, working at the cobbled paving of the streets, with bleeding fingers. A few days later, one of these gentlemen, after gazing pitifully at his torn hands, drew a revolver and shot himself".
We are now coming to the first forerunners of the Polish pioneers, those who came in the interval of twenty years between 1850 and 1870. Their arrival is recorded both in the Federal and State Censuses of this time. According to the Federal Census of 1850, there lived in Buffalo thirty-four residents who were born in Poland; but all of them, judging by first names — Rebecca, Pelis, Mahan, Abraham, Solomon, Samuel, Barnett, Handura, Barnard, Isaac - were Jewish people who came as pedlars, clothiers, merchants, and grocers, and not as laborers. They were locally called "Hoch-Polish", and probably immigrated from Russian Poland for economic reasons or to evade military service. The names of the immigrants who, according to the City Directory, started to arrive in Buffalo in 1847 were Caroline Frank, Newman Jacobs, Samuel Litcher, Barnard Litchinstren (Litchenstein), and Money Fridenberg.
The state census of 1855 shows sixty-six and that of 1865 shows 126 Polish-born immigrants, but all except one were Jewish. The lone exception could be traced as the first Polish Catholic pioneer of this city. He was Martin Stephanowski, forty-seven years of age, laborer, owner of a frame house ($1,100.00 value), married to Barbara, forty-five years of age. They had four children : Wenzel sixteen years old, Joseph twelve years old, Albert seven years old, and a daughter Mary aged five years, all of whom were born in Poland. Martin Stephanowski was a peasant not able to read or write. He learned to be a cooper and came to Buffalo in or a little before 1864 and lived on Camp near Genesee St. In 1866, he moved to a new location on 242 Monroe Street, between William and Peckham, and earned his living as a cooper. He raised his children, and a few years later in 1875, Joseph became a cooper like his father and Albert became a cigar maker. The State Census taker of 1875 enumerated him as born in Austria. Probably Martin Stephanowski came from the Austrian part of Poland and, living among the Germans of the fifth ward without any contact with his countrymen who had just started to come to the city, he told the census taker that he was an Austrian-born immigrant. In the same census, his children, Albert seventeen years old and Mary fifteen years old were reported as born in Erie County, as allegedly born in the United States. Martin Stephanowski died about 1880 and his son, the cigarmaker Albert, lived with James, also a cooper, at 242 Monroe Street. Joseph Stephanowski owned a house on 19 Camp and the widow, Barbara, was mentioned as the owner of the house at 327 Monroe Street. In 1889 Joseph purchased another house on 714 Broadway and in 1889 moved to 312 Watson Street. Thus, the story of Stephanowski seems to make him the actual forerunner of the scores of Polish people who in a short period suddenly appeared in Buffalo and settled in the vicinity of the present St. Stanislaus Parish and its surroundings.
The City Directories of 1860 to 1862 record Rev. John Zawistowski. In 1861-1862 he was listed as pastor of St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church on East Street near Amherst. In 1863 Rev. Ignatz Zawetawsky was listed as living at Mulberry above Goodell Street. The 100 Anniversary Book, 1849 to 1949, of St. Francis Xavier Church listed Rev. John I. Zawistowsky as its pastor from Jan. 21, 1859, until July 5, 1861. To him is given the credit that in 1859 the parish was incorporated under the title "The German Roman Catholic St. Francis Xavier Church of Black Rock Dam". He blessed the small cemetery and added a small steeple to the church. He also bought a new church bell, which was blessed by Bishop Timon. The Liber Baptisorum of the parish records his first signature under Jan. 30, 1859, and his last under June 1861. Rev. J. I. Zawistowsky later left Buffalo and died in May 1889 (place unknown) at the age of sixty-seven. But Rev. John Zawistowsky cannot be regarded as the first Catholic Polish pioneer of this area, because he lived here only a short time.
Before we start to recall the story of the first Polish settlement in the city of Buffalo, we must know the reasons why and how the Polish im-migrants, who already for a number of years were settling in Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, Toledo, Cleveland and other cities of the West, decided to make their home in Buffalo.
Scattered families were already in Buffalo about the year 1870, since there lived in the vicinity of Saint Mary's Church on Pine and Broadway, and on Ash, Walnut, Spruce, Sycamore, Genesee, and Carroll Streets among the predominantly German population about thirty Polish families. The majority of these Poles attended Saint Mary's Church. As their numbers increased, Rev. Jacob Nagel, the first assistant of St. Mary's Church, informed the Polish people that henceforth every Sunday at 8:00 a. m. a Mass would be said for them by one of the Jesuits in a chapel adjoining St. Michael's Church; furthermore, Bishop Ryan on his visit to Rome would try to obtain a Polish priest for the Buffalo's Poles. There was, however, no organization to unify these immigrants until the ar-rival on December 8, 1872, of Rev. Ivannef Maria Gartner, a priest of Bohemian nationality. During his stay of several days, Rev. Gartner held church services for the Polish immigrants, confessed them and preached a sermon in broken Polish. His advice to them to organize themselves was realized on December 12, 1872, when the St. Stanislaus Society was founded; it became the nucleus of the future Polish parish and Buffalo's first settlement. After the departure of Rev. Gartner, the Polish immigrants continued to attend church services in St. Michael's chapel. As no Jesuit there knew the Polish language, August Berendt, a layman, read the Gospel and made important announcements. Casimir Wojtkowski and Ignacy Celmer were members of the choir. The members of St. Stanislaus Society soon began to think seriously of building their own church and sought for an appropriate site in the populated Buffalo area. Rev. Jacob Nagel advised the society to build a church beyond St. Ann's Parish, in a then undeveloped area of the city where the streets had recently been mapped out.
It is important to note that in this area large tracts of land belonged to a member of St. Mary's Parish, a German, Joseph Bork, who was an enterprising man, a real estate speculator, city treasurer, commissioner of deeds, and later one of the presidents of Buffalo's Catholic Institute. St. Mary's Parish was a German congregation organized by the Redemptorist Fathers. The pastor of the church, Rev. Elias Fred Schauer CSSR, and Joseph Bork concluded that the surest means of attracting Polish immigrants, who were passing in large numbers through Buffalo to the West, would be a Polish church and school, because the Poles were unwilling to live where there were no priests of their nationality and no religious services or instructions in their language.
In the meantime, Rev. Ivannef Maria Gartner went to Rome where he chose a young Polish student of theology to be the first priest of the Polish people in Buffalo. Rev. Gartner handed his young protege, John Pitass, 124 dollars in gold for travel expenses. The latter arrived in New York on May 8, 1873, and on May 12 reached the Suspension Bridge which is at present the area of Niagara University. In a few days, Rev. John Pitass received all of the minor orders and was ordained to the holy priesthood on June 7, 1873. The next day, on Holy Trinity Sunday, he said his first Mass with the assistance of his friend, Rev. Karl Lang-ner, and in the afternoon attended the meeting of St. Stanislaus Society at which Father Pitass organized a parish under the patronage of St. Stanislaus B. M., enrolling eighty-two families.
Only the Germans, not the Irish nor the French, helped Father Pitass during the initial stages of the organization of the parish and the first colony for Polish people in Buffalo. At that time, the German-born population of the city numbered about 27,000 inhabitants. Their number, including the two generations born in the city, totalled about 50,000 and they outnumbered all other ethnic groups, including the Irish. The Redemptorist Fathers, Joseph and George Bork, Henry Vogt, the German people and societies took an active part in the dedication of St. Stanislaus Church on January 25, 1874. Joseph Bork, who at that time owned the land from Smith Street east to the Belt Line and from Howard Street north to Broadway, donated to St. Stanislaus Parish the piece of land Peckham Street between Townsend and Wilson Streets, the site on which the church was erected.
As the Polish immigrants continued to flow into Buffalo in ever-increasing numbers, building their houses in the vicinity of their church and spreading fast over the surrounding area, they had occasional fights and misunderstandings with the Germans who considered them as intruders or as enemies from the old country. The humiliating nickname for the Poles used by Germans was "Polacks-Modacks", but the Poles had means and ways of defending themselves. In a few decades, the Polish colony became not only huge but also grew into a consolidated island of Polish nationality and a Buffalo stronghold. Loyal to their adopted land, the Polish people continued also to cherish their ancient ancestral and religious traditions.
The names of the first forerunners of Buffalo's Polish community can be found in the City Directories, in the original returns of the Federal and State Censuses, and in the community's historical memoir, Książka Pamiątkowa Żlotego Jubileuszu Osady Polskiej i Parafii Sul. Stainsława B. i M., 1873-1923. The year of their arrival to Buffalo, as indicated in the memoir, may be put inparenthesis. Jan Berendt was never recorded either in the City Directory or in the Censuses of the time; but Theodore Berent, a carpenter living on 249 Walnut Street, was recorded in both of them, starting with the year 1875. Others like Joseph Beresniewicz (died in 1894); Jan Bielicky (or Bylicki) (died in 1882); Grzegorz Bniski (died in 1882); Ignacy Celmer (died in 1880) and his wife Francisca; Walenty Gorski (before 1878); Franciszek and Antonia Gosielewski (before 1870); Nikodem and Jan Hordich (1874); Stanislaw Jazwinski (1872); Eva Johnson (1872); Maria and Walenty Kaptur (1873); Jan Olejniczak (1873); Josef Prajs (1873); Jakob and Hieronim Rozan (1872); Jan and Katarzyna Rozek; Wawrzyn Rybarczyk (1871); Wojciech Rybarczyk (1874); Eugenia Slivinski (1872); and Wawrzyniec Szczepanski -- none of these was recorded in the Censuses or in the City Directories at the time of their supposed coming Buffalo, though some were listed years later.
Jan Odojewski (1867), mispelled in the City Directory of 1870 as Odogewski and later Odojerowski, was a tailor and one of the earliest Polish pioneers who lived in his house at 156 William Street and in 1877 at 226 Pine Street. Mikolaj Sliwinski (1874) lived from 1876 as a laborer in the house on 46 Cypress Street. Leopold Smoczynski (1868), mispelled as Smitzenski, Smotchinski, and Smyczynski, lived from 1874 as a la-borer on 257 Fillmore Street and later moved to 284 Walnut Street. Michael Szanichrowicz (1872), also one of the early Polish pioneers, lived from 1871 as a tailor on 135 William Street. Kazimierz Wojtkowski (1875), mispelled as Casimo Woithowski, lived as a laborer on 197 Love-joy Street from the same year and later moved to 388 Broadway. John Wroblewski (1874) lived as a laborer in his own house on 123 Coit Street and later moved to Townsend and Peckham Streets. Jan Zulawski and his wife Julia (1873) were recorded in 1876, mispelled as John Zulewski, lived on Peckham and Townsend Streets. Joseph Kujawa (1866), first mentioned in the City Directory of 1877 under the name Kujawski, was a saloon keeper living on Peckham, corner of Townsend Street.
Andrzej Joziakiewicz (1861), who has been claimed as Buffalo's oldest Polish pioneer, was recorded in the City Directory starting with the year 1880; his name was mispelled as Andrew Josokewitsch. He lived as a peddler on 924 Smith Street, but later (1893) he moved to 21 Grimes Street. The Buffalo Evening News of April 19, 1913, carried his obituary. Joziakiewicz died at the age of 11T years as Buffalo's oldest resident and Polish immigrant, at the home of his daughter Mrs. Josephine Wojda on 35 Oneida Street Andrew Joziakiewicz was born in 1803 at Raczkow, in German occupied. Poland, and he served in the German army from 1826 to 1836. He fought during the Polish insurrection. According to the report, he came to Buffalo fifty-two years ago (1861) and was a resident here for more than a half a century; he was one of the founders of St. Stanislaus Church, though this could not be verified. His wife died four years later, reaching the age of 101 years.
The first records of St. Stanislaus Church for 1874 list the baptized, married, and dead people, and school children who received their First Holy Communion or who were confirmed; the parish roster contains 307 different Polish family names. These names comprised the greater part of the entire Buffalo's Polish population of 1875.
Some names of Buffalo's early Polish pioneers can be traced in the records of the first Polish St. Stanislaus Society from 1872 as follows: August Berent, Bielicky (Bylicki), Franciszek Boruta, Michael Boruta, Franciszek Brzucki (Brzucky), Ignacy Celmer, Thomas Flens, Antoni Gagas, Stanislaus jazwinski, Szymon Meczynski, Karol Nowak, Jan Rozek, Michael Sznichrowicz, Kazimierz Wojtkowski. The names of other pioneer parents are preserved in their children's school, First Holy Communion, and Confirmation records dated 1874: Jan Berent, Boleslav Dobrowski, Franciszek Flens, Franciszek Gosielewski, Andrzej Matuszewski, Walenty Nowicki, Jakob Rozan, Hieronim Rozan, Mary Sliwinski, Franciszek Sliwinski, Viktor Wroblewski and Mary Joziakiewicz. All of these records verify the supposed arrival of the parents to Buffalo at the time of their first listing.
During the first years following the arrival of Buffalo's Polish pioneers, as well as during the later immigration, living conditions were hard. The Poles found labor in the iron foundries and in the new ready-made clothing industry. They also worked as street laborers, bricklayers, and carpenters. Many of the homeowners were in the habit of taking additional lodgers to add to their meager income. There was a shortage of housing accomodations. Joseph Bork, assisted later by Henryk H. Vogt, tried to relieve the housing problem created by the steady flow of Polish immigrants. They constructed small wooden houses which sold at low rates and aided the city's efforts to house the immigrants in temporarily constructed barracks on Fillmore Avenue. At first, all the houses were similar one-story structures, but later with the initiative of George Bork, brother of Joseph, two-story houses were built. Even this did not solve the housing problem of the Polish newcomers who often were forced to live like boarders in miserable and unhealthy shelters. It was not unusual to find seventeen people living in a single room, fourteen square, so packed at night that it was impossible to open the door. As the tide of immigration rolled into Buffalo with a rush, newcomers were often sheltered in rooms six by six with four or five persons to a room.
How vastly different are the living conditions of the descendants of Buffalo's Polish pioneers — with their comfortable homes, roomy apartments, automatic heat and light, radio, television, and automobiles! The achievement of these people living only a few generations in Buffalo is remarkable. This growth and progress may be traced to the solid foundations laid at the beginning of the settlement by a man who was endowed with leadership and the ability to unite his people. Rev. John Pitass contributed greatly to the moral, cultural, educational and spiritual development of Buffalo's Poles, while his German friend, Joseph Bork, influenced their material development by his real-estate policies.
This article is reprinted from Polish American Studies, Vol. XXI. No. 2, July-December 1964, with permission from the Polish-American Historical Association.