American history is built on immigration, and Poles have long had a strong, contributing presence. From the earliest days to the modern era, Polish immigration to the US has been strong.

Today, there are millions of Poles and Polish descendants living across the country, but how did this all begin? Let’s explore the history of the Polish population in America. We’ll discuss the key points in history, as well as how this impacts the living Polish descendants today.

When did Polish immigrants come to America?

Polish Americans have existed as long as Northern America has been colonized. As the earliest Poles settled, their descendants were joined by later Polish immigrants, who often came in key waves. This is closely tied not only to the situation in America but also to the economic and political landscape back in Europe.

Key events include the breaking up of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1795, World War I, World War II, and the Cold War. Polish life was greatly impacted and, through these times, Polish American immigration waxed and waned accordingly. However, it would be unfair to say that it ever stopped.

The American War for Independence

Polish immigrants have been noted in America as early as 1608, along with many other European nationalities. Consequently, when the American Revolution occurred in 1775, lasting until 1783, many Poles were involved. Most notably, Warsaw-born Casimir Pulaski played a key role in the war, saving the life of George Washington. He and fellow Pole Tadeusz Kościuszko are well-regarded to this day.

In 1870, there were an estimated 50,000 Polish Americans and Polish immigration to the United States had only just started.

Pre-World War I: 1870-1914

In the decades before the outbreak of the First World War, many more Poles came to the New World. The promise of a new life, as well as work opportunities, saw many choose to leave their home country. Such people settled across the country, working in industrial trades, and by 1914 it’s estimated that there were 2 million Polish Americans.

Post World War II: 1941-1989

Immigration from Poland to the USA grew in activity after the Second World War. Those who could leave Poland for several reasons. Whether it was to avoid the political situation, the economic hardships, or poor farming conditions in their homelands, many chose to come to America. This generation of the American-Polish community differs from the previous waves, in that most were unable to return home.

Post-Soviet: 1989 to today

After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Polish People’s Republic, as Poland regained its independence and national identity, many Poles began to travel again, looking to find new opportunities. Around 1.3 million left Poland in the 1980s alone, but there has been a steady flow of new Polish immigrants to America.

This was also supported by changes in American policy, most notably the Immigration Act of 1990, which helped admit immigrants from 34 different countries, including Poles.

During this period, many Polish American immigrants chose to join already established Polish neighborhoods in cities such as Chicago, Detroit, and New York City.

How large is the Polish American community today?

Today, there are at least 8 million Polish Americans, according to 2021 census data.

There are many Polish American communities where the influence of Polish culture can be felt quite strongly. In the likes of New York state, for example, you can find the village of Pulaski which, whilst not a Polish neighborhood, is named after the famous Polish general. Elsewhere, Chicago is home to an estimated 821,000 Polish Americans, representing both recent Polish immigrants to America and the descendants of some of the earlier Polish migrants. The windy city is even considered by many to be the largest Polish city outside of Poland itself, thanks to its high Polish-American population.

The true number, however, could be much higher. It’s estimated that there are around 20 million descendants of Polish immigrants around the world. Because Polish Americans are not officially recognized at birth – even though, in most cases, the Polish government considers their Polish citizenship a birthright – many may not be aware of their true heritage.

Does the Polish American population speak Polish?

Whilst in many waves, the first arrivals spoke Polish, and Polish influence may still be strong, today’s American-Polish population mostly does not speak Polish. This is because many have been born in the US and have grown up speaking English. A census in 2011 found that only around 600,000 spoke Polish, compared to 820,000 in 1980.

For many Americans of Polish descent, they may be the 2nd or 3rd generation born in the US. As such, the awareness of Polish culture, and even the Polish influence in their family and community, may not be as strong as it was generations ago.

Still, it’s estimated that 350 languages are spoken in the US, with Polish often ranking around the 13th to 15th based on the number of people speaking it.

Benefits of Polish heritage

Due to the widespread immigration of Poles and their integration into many communities, many Americans are of Polish descent and have a Polish grandparent or great-grandparent. More than just ancestry, your American Polish roots have a lot of benefits.

For Poles that left the country after 1918 – in other words, after the founding of the Second Polish Republic – Poland still recognizes their status. As long as those individuals did not renounce their Polish identity, they and their descendants can be considered Polish citizens under Polish law.

This means that you may be able to apply for Polish citizenship. Doing so not only recognizes your heritage, connecting you to your Polish roots, but it also gives you many of the same benefits Poles have as EU citizens. This includes the right to live in the EU, as well as visa-free travel rights to over 150 countries.

And don’t worry – you can retain full dual citizenship, with both a Polish and American passport!

To find out more, you can take our free quiz based on your existing family knowledge. If you have a Polish parent, grandparent, or great-grandparent, you may qualify!

Are you by any chance of Polish origin? Find out if you are eligible for EU citizenship by taking the test below:

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