Though Poles first emigrated to what is now the United States in 1608, most arrived in the largest wave between 1870 and 1914. Polish Americans have always constituted the majority of immigrants of Slavic origin in the United States. Finding the birthplace of a Polish ancestor can be troublesome, however, given that no sovereign Polish state existed from the partitions of the late eighteenth century until the end of the Great War. As a result, most Poles who emigrated to the United States around the turn of the century were identified as being from either Prussia, Russia, or Galicia (Austria).
To find communities in Poland prior to the Second World War, reference staff have often relied on a set of topographic maps prepared by Poland's Wojskowy Insytut Geograficzny at 1:100,000 scale in the 1920s-30s. The set consists of approximately 480 sheets, often published in up to four editions per sheet. The set also includes coverage of parts of the neighboring states of Lithuania, the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, and Nazi Germany, including East Prussia. Place names in this series usually appear by their Polish spellings. The set is filed in the Geography and Map Division under LC call number G6520 s100 .P6.
There are numerous gazetteers to search for place names in Poland, and several are listed in the Eastern European box on the Gazetteers page under Reference Resources within this research guide. Possibly the most comprehensive is the fifteen volume Słownik geograficzny Królestwa Polskiego first issued in the 1880s and reprinted in the 1970s. While exceptionally informative in geographical and historical information on Polish communities, it does not identify a location's latitude or longitude. Furthermore, all entries are in Polish, a deterrent to non-Polish speakers but an inspiration to those who wish to fully engage with their Polish roots. Nevertheless, we possess a good source for geographic coordinates, that being the JewishGen Gazetteer External, which covers modern Poland and parts of lands once ruled by Poland, i.e., Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine. When uncertain of the current location of a Polish community, researchers may find it helpful to search for place names under all of Eastern Europe, and then select the entry under Poland nearest to the likely coordinates.
Almost as convenient to use is the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency's GEOnet Names Server External, which is the official repository of standard spellings of all foreign geographic names. Researchers should keep in mind that searches in GEOnet Names Server for place names in Poland must be limited to those communities currently within the modern Republic of Poland. On the other hand, searches for towns and villages once part of Poland but now in Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine must be limited by their respective countries, owing to the changes of borders in the twentieth century.
As our search example, let us use the famous historical city of Toruń, situated on the right bank of Poland's most important river, the Vistula. First settled in the eighth century, it was enlarged by the German Order of Knights in the 13th century. Toruń (then known as Thorn) became an important commercial center, and over the centuries was fought over and ruled by Knights, Poles, Prussians, and Germans. Though of modest size today, the city retains a beautifully preserved medieval center. Over the centuries Toruń has achieved a sort of cosmological status, for it is the birthplace of astronomer and mathematician, Nicolaus Copernicus, whose revolutionary model of the universe displaced the earth from its center and vicariously launched Toruń into renown. For no other reason, Toruń is worth exploring.
The easy to use JewishGen Gazetteer External informs us that Toruń is located at 53° 1′ N, 18° 36' E. To locate a map of Toruń as it appeared in the 1920s as part of the Second Polish Republic, let us consult the set of maps prepared at 1:100,000 scale by Poland's Wojskowy Insytut Geograficzny. The graphic index to the set is illustrated below. Each rectangle on the graphic index covers a sheet within the series.
From our gazetteers we know that Toruń is located at 53° 1′ N, 18° 36' east of Greenwich. Like other large-scale maps produced in several European nations, those in Poland employed as their prime meridian the island of Ferro, which lies 17°40' west of the Greenwich meridian. Thus, we need to add 17°40' to 18°36', which gives us 36°16' east of Ferro. Remember that there are 60 minutes to a degree and that our base number is 60, which means we are using a sexagesimal system of counting. Therefore, adding 40' to 36' give us 1 degree and 16 minutes, and by carrying the 1 and adding it to the 17 and 18 we arrive at 36°16'. Or, we can consult the table for converting geographic coordinates from Greenwich Prime Meridian to various other meridians (PDF, 8.1 MB).
The alert researcher will notice that the graphic index below has been annotated by hand to denote longitude by the Greenwich meridian, which is the one we use to find Toruń. Moving east along the top of the index to approximate position of 18° 36' east brings us to column 27, and moving down column 27 to latitude 53° 1′ brings us to row 36.
On this particular set of maps the sheets are organized and numbered by row and column. Appropriately, sheet 36-27 is titled Toruń.
Patrons encountering difficulty in using the graphic index to find a specific sheet can use the coordinate to sheet number index for sets of topographic maps of Austria-Hungary, Germany, and Poland (PDF, 812 KB). Keep in mind that the sheet index use the Greenwich Prime Meridian in listing longitudes on Polish maps. In the case of Toruń, which is located at latitude 53° 1′ north and 18° 36' east of Greenwich, we search for the territory encompassed with range of latitude 53.00 - 53.15 and range of longitude 18.20 - 18.50, which brings us to sheet 36-27 within the Polish series of maps.
We request the 1926 edition of sheet 36-27, which depicts the city of Toruń and its environs near the bottom center of the map, situated on the east bank of Poland's Vistula River, and lying at 53°1′ N and 36°16' east of Ferro.
In the enlargement below we notice a bit more of Toruń's immediate features. Among them are the river, the outlines of the medieval city with its numerous churches, adjacent towns and villages, houses, forests and cultivated fields, railroads, roads, submerged lands, and relief.
Gratefully, Allied and German bombing overlooked Toruń during the Second World War, thereby sparing its heritage, which dates back to the 8th century, and reaffirming its former prominence in the Hanseatic League. Both are exhibited in its variety of architectural styles, exemplified by its cathedral and churches, defensive walls, leaning tower, and gothic houses.