Before Polish immigrants arrived in New England they had already made it to the Jamestown colony in Virginia as craftsmen.
Over the centuries Polish immigrants came to New England in waves, the first from 1870 to 1914, the second after World War II and the third following Polish independence in 1989. By 1900, 9.3 percent of Polish immigrants in the United States lived in New England. That number increased to 10.9 percent in 1930. Only the Great Lakes and Mid-Atlantic states attracted more Polish immigrants.
Today, Massachusetts and Connecticut rank 10th and 11th in total population of people with Polish ancestry. Connecticut has the third densest population of Polish-Americans in the country, with 8.85 percent, behind Wisconsin and Michigan.
Poles have been soldiers and journalists, farmers and factory workers, priests and rabbis, entrepreneurs and entertainers. Tadeusz Kosciuszko and Kazimierz Pulaski were heroes of the American Revolution. Igor Sikorsky, who had Russian and Polish parentage, built a helicopter factory in Connecticut. Martha Stewart, nee Kostyra, built a business empire.
Some of New England’s most prominent politicians have Polish ancestry: Connecticut senator Chris Murphy, the late U.S. Secretary of State Ed Muskie and U.S. senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders. Red Sox icon Carl Yasztremski grew up on a potato farm and spoke fluent Polish, while the New England Patriots’ stars Stephen Gostowksi and Rob Gronkowski claim Polish ancestors. Paul Newman was part Polish; so is Steven Tyler, Aerosmith vocalist.
The 1st Wave of Polish Immigrants
Most Polish-Americans are descended from the first wave of immigrants, when an estimated 1.5 million fled poverty and starvation in Germany, Russia and Galicia. People called them the za chlebem, or ‘for bread’ immigrants, because most had neither money nor land. A large number were Jewish, escaping persecution.
They came to New England to work in the factories, primarily textile mills. They came in family groups and settled in neighborhoods with large Slavic populations. In Lawrence, Mass., for example, Polish immigrants arrived en masse at the turn of the 20th century.
In 1903, 600 Polish immigrants lived in Lawrence. That number more than tripled in seven years, to 2,100. They mostly worked in woolen and worsted goods manufacturing. Two years later, Polish women working at the Everett Mill shut down their looms and started the Bread and Roses strike.
When strikes in New Bedford’s cotton mills in 1894 and 1898 caused many workers to leave, Polish workers replaced them, though not as strike breakers. By 1910 several thousand Poles worked in the New Bedford mills — and they were still arriving.
Polish immigrants had large families, and the children often went to work in factories at a young age. Social reformer Lewis Hine photographed 14-year-old Philip Sowa at the Shoe Mill in Fall River, Mass., where he had applied to be a doffer. “Liked to go to school,” Hine noted in a caption to the 1916 photograph.
Another crusading photographer, unknown, photographed the overcrowded home of cotton mill workers in the Olneyville section of Providence. “Eight persons live in these three small rooms, three of them are boarders,” noted the photographer. “Inner bed-rooms are 9 x 8 feet, the largest room 12 x 12 feet. 23 Chaffee Street, Polish People. Property owned by the mill.”
Thousands of Poles came to Massachusetts to work in mills in Springfield, Chicopee and Holyoke. Many saved their earnings from factory work and bought cheap, abandoned farms in the Connecticut River Valley. They moved into old colonial homes and transformed the land viewed as useless into thriving onion and tobacco farms.
A Cold Welcome
They weren’t always welcome. A novel published in 1913, called The Invaders,described how people of English ancestry reacted to the newcomers. So did a 1933 article in New England Magazine titled The Pole In The Land Of The Puritan:
In the smiling country along the Connecticut river and included within Massachusetts, there was three decades ago possibly the most distinctive survival of early New England Puritan life. The first Poles came in the early eighties; many of them were attracted by glowing reports of returning Jews, who told of a land of boundless freedom and countless dollars. Soon the descendents of the Pynchons and the Chapins were marvelling at the expressionless Slavic faces, which looked as if flattened against a board at birth; at stunted figures that bespoke grinding toil; at the masculine forms of the women, that told of field-work beside brother and husband and domestic animal. To-day the Polish tide, swelled by continuous immigration and prolific births, is steadily rising in this old Yankee community. The Massachusetts section of the valley is the home of twelve to fifteen thousand of these aliens.
Catholics and Jews
Many of the Polish farmers were Jewish and settled on abandoned farms in Connecticut with the help of Jewish relief societies. Many Jewish families who fled persecution in Poland dreamed of owning a small farm. They ended up, though, in tenements on New York’s Lower East Side.
Those who made it out of the tenements tended to settle on Connecticut farms near other Jewish farmers, in Colchester, Norwich, East Haddam and Newtown.
Many other Polish immigrants belonged to the Roman Catholic Church. In 1889, Fr. Franciszek Chalupka founded a Polish-American parish in Webster, Mass., the first in New England. The parishioners of St. Joseph Parish raised money to pay for his seminary tuition. He later founded St. Stanislaus Parish in Chicopee.
Poles and other immigrant groups suffered high unemployment after the 1893 financial panic. Father Chalupka visited wealthy people door-to-door asking for money to buy food and coal. He is remembered today for saving the Polish immigrants of Chicopee.
The 2nd Wave
World War II created the second wave of Polish immigrants who escaped ethnic cleansing by Germany and Russia. Many Poles died in German concentration camps or Russian massacres. The Soviet government also deported millions of Poles to Siberia and other remote regions of the empire.
Between World War II and 1968, 140,000 Poles came to the United States. Poles escaping repression in Europe came from diverse backgrounds and social classes. Most, however, left their home for political rather than economic reasons. A good percentage belonged to the middle- and upper-middle-classes in Poland.
The bulk of the second wave of Polish immigrants arrived between 1948 and 1952. Some were former soldiers, some were relatives of Poles already living here and some arrived under the Displaced Persons Act.
When they arrived in the United States, they tended to seek white-collar and professional jobs.
Today there are 78 Polish-American parishes in New England, mostly in the Springfield-Hartford-Worcester area, but also in Boston, Fall River, and Manchester, N.H. Three dozen Roman Catholic churches in New England offer Mass in Polish.
New Britain’s Little Poland
Many of New England’s Polish neighborhoods have disappeared as Poles assimilated quickly. Not so New Britain’s Little Poland, a thriving ethnic community in central Connecticut. The neighborhood retained its Polish character since it started in 1890. The third wave of immigrants came to New Britain after Polish independence in 1989.
Polish-Americans from nearby towns in Connecticut bolster Little Poland’s population of 30,000. They can spend a day doing business completely in Polish, shopping, buying an airline ticket, getting a home loan, taking dance or driving lessons and ordering dinner. On weekends, thousands attend Mass at Sacred Heart Church.
On the last Sunday in April, Little Poland is thronged with visitors to the Little Poland Festival on Broad Street. It features crafts vendors from around New England, food and a live stage with folk dancing and live bands.
This story about Polish immigrants was updated in 2020.