Beyond the Big Water. Part 1: Reasons of the emigration.

There are not many direct sources about the emigration reasons. The motivation of the emigrants had never been checked on either of the borders, nor by the destination immigrant offices. The only reliable information  we have is from the memories, diaries, and letters, that have been passed down to family members.

The reasons given by authorities were: high level of birth rate, poverty, natural disasters, land fragmentation, lack of work and burdensome taxes causing liabilities.

A village in Galicia. Picture source: National Digital Archive

At this time (19th century) overpopulation was a huge problem all over Europe. In Galicia, before the serfdom was abolished (in 1848), people could not leave their villages. This regulation caused the fragmentation of land and the poverty was increasing in the following generations in those areas. There was an excess of manpower. The level of urbanization was low and the cities and industry were not able to give them enough jobs. Meanwhile, in 18th and 19th centuries, the industrial revolution began and some well developed, industrial regions in Western Europe and America started to appeal to people from countries with a lower economic growth, such as Galicia.

People from Galicia have migrated for centuries; many to Germany, to work in mines,  railway construction, or as a season workers during harvest time. They also migrated to larger cities, such as Lviv, the capital of Galicia, to learn a craft or to work in some large factory (however there was no big, heavy industry in this region). So the emigration to nearby European countries later developed into the large scale journeys to North and South America, where industrial jobs were plentiful.

In many cases there was something more than economic reasons.  The generations remembering the time of serfdom, saw the opportunity to leave the country as a symbol of freedom, and a demonstration of their own independence. There were also those who were trying to avoid the military draft, and of course there were some who were just searching for a new adventure.  Another important reason for leaving, was the example of the people who left earlier and blazed a trail.  The letters coming  from America were encouraging families to leave. The emigrants who could write, were presenting their life abroad in bright colors. Sometimes they even sent a dollar or two. The receivers who could not read, were asking the priests or teachers to read the letters, and sometimes half of the village gathered to listen the news from this  faraway land called “America”.

“I was receiving letters from my sister, my uncle and aunts from America. They were sending me also their photographs. They were so nicely dressed, I could not imagine that the simple workers could afford it. I pondered long time what a strange country it must be: America. Ordinary people look like some officials in Poland. The photographs showed that they were well-fed and what is more, they were sending money to their family. I compared it to the standard of living of workers in Poland: even my salary, which was relatively high, I would say 100 percent better than others.  After some deliberations I decided to risk my savings and  go to America, even just for sightseeing. Later I wanted to try my luck beyond the ocean and see this workers paradise. In case of failure I would come back home, but richer in experience” (a note from the emigrant’s memories).

We need to remember that Galicia was an incredibly poor region. It was conquered and controlled by the Austro-Hungarian Empire that viewed Galicia as just a far and distant borderland, located behind the Carpathian Mountains, without heavy industry and difficult to access. The only profits that it could provide, were taxes and military resources, such as soldiers. The hunger and the poor hygienic  living conditions were causing epidemics of cholera, typhoid, smallpox and tuberculosis . The treatments for these illness were usually performed by using centuries old homemade methods. In 19th century Galician villages, there were still healers, and also some kind of sorcerers relying on spells to heal the sick. Everyday life was still full of superstitions. As there were no doctors, the reason for death was just based on the observations of family members or maybe the local priest. In the parish church records, the column notating the reason for death was often empty or there were some general remarks like fever or rash.

Another reason for emigration was land fragmentation. When the father died, or was unable to work the farm, the land was divided between children. This process went on for many generations, and  because of this tradition, many of the farms became so small, that the land was not large enough to sufficiently feed the family farming it.

Living conditions were very simple. The cottages had thatched roofs made of straw and had no chimneys so the smoke was escaping through the cracks in the roof and windows. Whole families usually lived in one room, and in the winter the cows (if they had any) and chickens moved in with the family.

“We lived in the old house, there was one living room, without floor and with two small windows. There was a big furnace and the stove of brick which occupied most of the room. There were two beds made with the featherbed, closet, quern-stone [to grind cereals into flour], table and two benches. That was all. Our walls were covered with the pictures of saints, there was one that I was afraid of: with the souls burning in purgatory.  In our house there was also a storeroom and a stable for our cattle. The roof was thatched and it required the permanent reparation” (note from the emigrant’s memories)

Aga Pawlus
PolishOrigins Team


  1. My name is Andrew Olejarz. I was born in Wroclaw, in southwest Poland (Lower Silesia). My parents are Jan (John) Olejarz and Lucia nee Holek; grandparents: Marek (Mark) Olejarz and Maria nee Zarzyczna, and great-grandparents: Michał (Michael) Olejarz and Karolina (Caroline) nee Szkola; g.-g.-grandparent Józef (Joseph) Olejarz and Salomea nee Bury from the town Pruchnik in southwest Poland, near Jaroslaw, in formerly Galicia.
    I’m genealogist and member of Silesian Genealogical Association in Wroclaw. From 48. years I investigate and create Olejarz’s family tree (genealogical trees of Olejarz’s kins) from the town Pruchnik.
    I also analyse and create family trees of everything another Olejarz’s ancestries of our family’s ancestry from the whole Poland and from the whole World – in U.S.A., Canada, France, U. K., Australia, Germany, Ukraine etc.. I’ve known 46 of them.

    Best regards from Poland !
    Andrzej Olejarz.

  2. Thank you so much for publishing this. My dad’s family came from Galicia. We were told my grandfather had already served in the Austrian Army under Franz Josef and didn’t want to be drafted again as he had a wife, dghtr. & one on the way.

    My mom’s family also came from Poland, one grandparent from a farm near Krakow and one grandparent from the SW corner in a town called Grzimala, which was their last name. My mom’s family constantly sent huge packages back to Poland. My grandfather would go to bargain stores & auctions and buy 30-50 pairs of shoes & pack them up & send them to Poland. My mom’s wedding gown went there also. Everything was sent to Poland!

    They also wrote letters and received letters from Poland. My grandmother or my mother would keep up the correspondence. Oh how I wish I had a few of those letters and esp. the addresses! This grandma’s sister sent her son over to America. My grandparents sponsored him. His name was Lester Balinski. We called him Lesheck (Polish?). I was in early elem school & remember him. He cried the first time he was taken to a grocery store & saw all the food, esp. meat available. I attend his wedding to a local girl. He was a cake decorator at the one bakery in my home town. A few years later he & his wife moved to Chicago.

    So, your blog brought many happy memories to me 🙂 Thanks again

  3. To Andrea J: My grandfather also served in the Austrian Army and didn’t want to be drafted again! My family’s history is found on Polish Origins in my father’s memoir, “Polish By Heart”.
    It includes a picture of my grandfather in his Austrian uniform.

  4. My famlies came from the Lublin and Vilna areas. Conscription was a major issue. Both had to deal with the tsarist army. One grandfather served in St. Petersburg but was honorably discharged after catching pneumonia (about four months of service); the other was exempt from service because a horse bit off the tip of his trigger finger. Needless to say they were both happy about their situations. Unfortunately my great grandfather died in tsarist service (sickness).

  5. Very interesting series of articles on Emigration. I would like to find out if copies of Polish or Russian passports and ship records are available. I have the United States copies of Ship Manifests but nothing from the Poland side. My Dombrowski family emigrated from Maciejowa Szyja, Mazowieckie, Poland.

    Thank you,

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