Polish Ohioans

From Ohio History Central

Numerous Ohioans are descended from Polish ancestors. Today, Polish Ohioans continue to enhance Ohio's cultural and social landscape.

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, millions of immigrants migrated to the United States of America, hoping to live the American Dream. Before the American Civil War, most immigrants arrived in the United States from Great Britain, Germany, and Ireland. By the 1880s, the home countries of immigrants began to change. Many of the new immigrants to arrive in the United States came from Eastern European countries, like Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia, rather than from Western European countries, like Great Britain, Ireland, and Germany.

In 1860, 328,249 immigrants lived in Ohio. These people accounted for fourteen percent of the state's population. By 1900, the number of immigrants in Ohio rose to 458,734, but the percentage of the population that was foreign-born declined to eleven percent. Most of these immigrants in 1900 came from Germany, Great Britain, and Ireland, yet a growing number of Eastern Europeans were also migrating to the state.

In 1900, fewer than ten thousand Polish immigrants resided in Ohio. By 1920, their numbers had soared to 67,579 people. Most of these Poles settled along Lake Erie, especially in Cleveland, where they found low-paying jobs in factories, worked as day laborers, or extracted stone from quarries. Other Poles served as strike breakers during the 1880s. More successful immigrants established businesses that supplied their fellow Poles with traditional Polish products. In Cleveland, the Polish immigrants tended to settle in their own communities, preferring to live among people who shared similar cultural beliefs and spoke the same language as they did. By the late 1800s, Cleveland claimed three Polish communities—Warszawa, Krakowa, and Jackowa. Most of the Polish immigrants were followers of the Roman Catholic Church. In Cleveland, which had forty-nine thousand Polish citizens by 1918, the Poles established their own Catholic Church.

Polish immigrants congregated together partly out of camaraderie but also out of fear. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many native-born Americans feared outsiders. Some of these people objected to the immigrants' religious and cultural beliefs, while others believed that the foreigners would corrupt the morals of United States citizens. These people also contended that the quality of life within the United States would decline, as there were not enough jobs to employ the millions of people migrating to America. Many native-born Americans hoped either to limit immigration or to force foreigners to convert to American customs and beliefs. The leaders of this movement were the Progressives of the late 1800s and the early 1900s. To accomplish their goals, the Progressives implemented numerous reforms, including settlement houses, which taught foreigners American practices. The Progressives also called for laws that would either limit or ban the cultural practices of recently arrived immigrants. It would take several generations before the immigrants became truly accepted by the vast majority of white Ohioans.

Unlike other eastern European immigrants, such as the Hungarians, Ohio's Polish population did not experience a major increase during the twentieth century. Political turmoil in Europe, especially during World War I and World War II, prompted groups like the Hungarians to immigrate to the United States in large numbers. These events, however, did not have a similar impact on the Poles. With the Cold War's outbreak, most Poles also could not escape from their communist-controlled country. This does not mean that Polish culture did not flourish in Ohio. The Polish communities established in Ohio during the late nineteenth century continued to flourish, although in the past several decades, Ohio's traditional Polish communities began to lose their cohesiveness. As other Ohioans became more tolerant of the Poles, many Polish communities began to disintegrate. Many Poles moved into other communities, while non Poles began to infiltrate the traditionally Polish neighborhoods. This does not mean that Ohio's Polish population has lost its ties to its traditional cultural beliefs. Hungarian Ohioans continue to participate in various social and cultural groups that serve to promote Polish beliefs and customs.

See Also


  1. Van Tassel, David D., and John J. Grabowski, eds. The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996.