Poland Genealogy

Historical Background

During the period from 1796 to 1919, Poland did not exist as a separate country. Poland was divided between and ruled by three countries (empires) - Austria, Prussia, and Russia. The language and content of records will vary according to which "partition" a particular Polish locality was in during this period. Between the two world wars (1919-1939), Poland re-emerged as a large independent nation, whose territory extended all the way from the Poznan area in the west to the Wilno (Vilnius) area in the east. In the interwar period, Poland included significant parts of what are today Lithuania, Belarus, and western Ukraine. Poland was occupied by Germany during the Second World War. Following the defeat of the Nazis, Poland came under the jurisdiction of the Soviet Union. Its borders were shifted westward, so that it gained territory from Germany in the west and lost territory to Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine in the east.

Ethnicities and Religions

Poland was home to people of diverse ethnicities in the 19th century: Germans, Jews, Poles, Ruthenians (Lemkos). These people also had diverse religious practices. While the Poles were Roman Catholics in general, many Germans were Protestants, and the Ruthenians (Lemkos) of the southeast were Greek Catholics. The upheavals of the Second World War changed the ethnic and religious makeup of Poland dramatically, such that its ethnic and religious minorities were greatly reduced, leaving the population relatively homogenous as Polish Roman Catholics. Most of the Jewish population died at the hands of the Nazis (as did millions of ethnic Poles). German-speaking people moved out of Poland to Germany after the war (such as in the province of Silesia/Schlesien, which was in Germany before the war and in Poland after the war). The Ruthenians (Lemkos) were largely forcibly resettled in the new western areas of Poland and in Ukraine.


The record keeping systems differed in the three partitions of Poland. However, the most important records kept for most of the population in all three partitions were church/religious records (Roman Catholic, Greek Catholic, Protestant, Jewish). Generally, toward the end of the nineteenth century, the civil authorities began to keep records of births, marriages, and deaths. Church records in Poland are found in both state archives and church archives, and many church records are still in local rectories. Some records of German-speaking Protestants were brought from Poland to Germany and deposited in German archives. Many church records from Poland were microfilmed by the Family History Library. Sometimes church records were taken to the Civil Registry Offices in Poland. Generally, the Civil Registry Offices in Poland hold records that are less than 100 years old. Many church records and other records from Poland have been destroyed in the wars of the twentieth century. The locations and dates of missing records can be haphazard. Where church records survive, they can date back to the 1600s.


A map can tell a thousand words. The history of Poland is also a history of changing borders and jurisdictions. For the genealogist this can be very important and at the same time very confusing. These maps were first created to help clarify these border changes for use in a Polish research outline for the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. A variation of these will be published in the Polish Research Outline at the Family History Library. Anyone interested should get a copy of that research outline, too.

If you find corrections or errors on these maps, feel free to let us know.

Anyway we hope these maps are helpful to you:

  • The late 1700s was a crucial time in the history of Poland as it was cut up and subdivided among Prussia, Russia, and Austria in three stages. These maps show how Poland looked prior to the first partition in 1772, and then at the each of the subsequent partitions (1772 - 1st, 1793 - 2nd, 1795 - 3rd). I have included an outline of present-day Poland and some of the cities so you can see how these compare to each other.
  • These maps show how Poland changed during the period it was under Napoleonic rule (Duchy of Warsaw), Congress Poland or Kingdom of Poland (within the Russian Empire), and Independent Poland (after 1921).
  • These maps show the county borders as of during the period 1921-1939 before the eastern counties became part of Poland and as they are referred to in the 1934 gazetteer, as the counties were listed in the 1967 gazetteer which is used as a standard for listing places in the Family History Catalog, and as of 1999.

It is particularly interesting to see these maps reflect the history of the Prussian states of Pomerania, East and West Prussia (Preußen), Posen, Schlesien, and Brandenburg. There are quite a few things which might also be interesting to others seeking some knowledge of this area:

  • From doing research in Pomerania (Pommern), it was thought the Germans in these areas went back very early 11th-13th century and were predominantly Protestant. This is really only true for Pomerania, Brandenburg, and East Prussia. These areas were settled by Germans very early and were predominantly Lutheran (Brandenburg 94 percent, Pomerania 97 percent, East Prussia 86 percent Lutheran in 1880). On the other hand it was not until the partitions of 1772-1795 that Prussia gained territories of Silesia, Posen, and West Prussia and started settling these new territories with Germans. By 1880 under half of the population of Silesia and West Prussia and a third of the population of Posen was Lutheran. Although there were many of Germans who settled these states, they were primarily Polish regions prior to the partitions and had a high Polish population subsequently.
  • Not only was there an East and West Prussia, but there was also a South Prussia (territory Prussia took in 1795). This was in the central part of Poland and was incorporated into the Duchy of Warsaw in 1806 and became part of Congress Poland in 1815. During the brief time it was in Prussian control, many Lutheran Germans made settlements in this area. Some of the Germans in this area remained when it came under Russian control, while others moved further east into Volhynia in Western Ukraine. When times got harder for those German in the late 1800s, many joined the Black Sea Germans, west back to Germany, or came to America. There is a very useful tax list for West Prussia in 1772-1773 available on the Internet!
  • The map showing how the borders of Poland shifting west after World War II is very interesting. It always seemed particularly wrong that Germans were kicked out of their homes and became refugees in Germany, but notice all of Poland that was lost to Russia. There were Polish refugees from this area that needed a place to live. The borders of the entire country shifted westward.
  • The border of the Pale of the Settlement which was the territory where the Jews were concentrated in central Europe, was the same boundary of the old Poland-Lithuania Commonwealth prior to 1772. Some good Jewish maps can be found in the newly published Jewish Research Outline at the Family History Library. Visit the Jewish Records Indexing Project

If you found these maps helpful, check out some of the other maps on our site of Romania, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary.



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