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History & Culture

The Polish Immigrant in Detroit to 1914

Sister M. Remigia, Felician Sisters, O.S.F.


True culture consists riot in the destroying of the old but in the grafting of the new onto the life stem of the old. This truth is being realized at present more than ever, and the strong tendency in the United States towards racial prejudice and a contempt for anything foreign is giving way to keener interest, better understanding, and more sympathetic appreciation of the ideals, customs and traditions of the immigrant.

Detroit, like all great cities of the United States, is extremely cosmopolitan in character, since it was largely built up by immigrants and their immediate descendants who represent almost all the countries of the world. In 1870, 44.46(1) per cent of the population were foreign-born; in 1890, 39.69 per cent were foreign-born and 76.82 per cent were of white foreign stock;(2) in 1910, 33.6 per cent were foreign-born, while 74.03 per cent were of white foreign stock.(3)

Among these immigrants, the Poles formed an important group. They ranked third in number from 1880 to 1920, and second after that year.(4)

Many of the Poles were attracted to Detroit by the prosperity and increasing opportunity for gainful occupation presenting itself in the building of railroads, the paving of streets, and in the city's rapidly expanding manufacturing industries. Some came to the city because, immediately upon their arrival in New York, they had been hired by employment agents of certain manufacturing concerns.(5) Others, and these were in the majority, followed their relatives or friends who were doing well in Detroit and who were enthusiastic about their new economic opportunities. Then too, the Poles kept themselves well informed on the advantages and disadvantages of their respective localities; when industry began to lag in the East, many came to look for employment in the Middle West, mainly Detroit. Thus, a large number came from Pennsylvania because economic opportunities were more favorable in Detroit and the work was not as hard. Additional factors in this phase of Polish migration to Detroit were the establishments in the year 1871 of the Polish Catholic church and school (that of St. Albertus) in the city, and the erection in 1882 of the Motherhouse of the Felician Sisters in the neighborhood of this parish.

In Detroit, the Poles were few in number until the 1860's were well gone. Thereafter the growth was more marked with each succeeding decade. Judging from the estimates of the Polish authorities made in absolute numbers, the Polish population kept pace with the growth of the city. Based on these estimates,(6) the Poles constituted, between 1870 and 1910, from 17 to 19 per cent and, in 1914, 24 per cent of the population of Detroit.

The first Polish settlement was organized in the neighborhood of the first Polish Roman Catholic church, on St. Aubin and Canfield Avenues. In 1878 another Polish settlement was organized on the west side. Up to 1900, however, the Polish population was concentrated largely on the east side of the city; after this date it spread to the West, SouthWest, and North respectively, occupying about a fourth of the city's area.(7)

The arrival of the Poles in Detroit occurred during a period when the city was going through a process of industrialization and a great economic change. The 20-year period between 1840 and 1860 marks the transition in Detroit's economic activities from commerce to manufacturing. The growth in manufacturing before 1880 was slow but continuous; every succeeding decade, however, showed a considerable increase. (8) In the value of output of manufactures, Detroit advanced from the 19th place in 1880(9) to the 6th in 1910.(10)

The labor force used in large part for this industrial expansion was drawn from the Polish immigrants. Essentially rural people, unskilled in any trade, the Poles were forced to begin their occupational careers at the lowest level of employment. Nevertheless among the newcomers there was also a small percentage of nobles and of educated and professional men who, with rare exceptions, were obliged to seek occupational adjustment in the urban economy as unskilled laborers.(11) Thus the Pole became the "backbone" of Detroit industry and gradually displaced the German, an earlier immigrant, who moved up the scale into the preferred positions.


We find the Poles chiefly engaged in the stove works, in cigar and tobacco factories, in foundries, in machine shops, in construction work, and in packing houses.(12) Women, at first found mainly in the domestic service, in the bean factories, and in farm work, soon drifted to the cigar factories, the match factories, to hotels and restaurants, and to tailoring establishments.

Following the 1890's, a gradual rise in the social status of Poles from unskilled to skilled labor or to independent business activity is evident. While nearly all the Poles before 1890 could be classified as laborers,(13) in 1900, according to Federal statistics, the percentage of that group decreased to approximately 47 per cent.(14) Although not absolutely conclusive, these statistics show the general tendencies in economic life: the Poles were making their way into practically every field of economic activity; there were among them brokers, bookkeepers and accountants, commercial travelers, electricians, engineers, foremen, government officials, officials of banks and companies, and the like. In the professional fields the Poles had few representatives during the first two or three decades.

Among the early professional men were: Dr. Anthony Kaminski, Dr. Walter K. Kwiecinski, Dr. S. L. Wyszynski, Dr. J. Ilowiecki, Dr. S. Lachajewski, and Dr. B. Pasternacki, physicians; Dr. Peter Wesolowski and Dr. Stanislaus Lazowski, dentists; Dr. M. Kozakowski, Dr. W. K. Kwiecinski, druggists; N. L. Piotrowski, Emil Niedomanski, and August Cyrowski, lawyers; J. Derdowski and Dr. J. Ilowiecki, journalists; L. Janicki and J. Zielinski, musicians. The development of a professional class within the group is in some measure an indication of the intellectual advance made by the Polish immigrants; the professional class also contributed to an improved cultural life.

Undoubtedly the advancement to a higher social and economic status was more substantial in the decade and a half before the War. Statistical data, however, is not available for comparative study.

The Pole, in Detroit as elsewhere, manifested very little interest in labor organizations. The percentage of organized Polish labor was uncommonly low. Out of a Polish population of 300,000 in the state of Michigan in 1911, at best only 5,000 were union men.(15) There were several factors responsible for this condition, but the most important reasons were the urgent necessity of being employed and the instinct to save. These made the Pole unwilling to enter into labor disputes which, in his opinion, involved a loss of time, or to join labor organizations like the American Federation of Labor which charged a higher fee than he could afford to pay.(16)

To draw the Pole into the orbit of organized labor the Polish press advocated the creation of union locals to be composed exclusively of Poles with their own administration.(17) This idea was carried into action in 1911, when the carpenters and joiners organized a Polish local of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America.(18)

Having established a home and accumulated an amount of surplus capital, the more enterprising Pole turned to industrial and commercial pursuits. Of the industries the most important were tailoring, brewing, baking, and the tobacco industry. Beginning with one tailoring shop in the 1860's and one grocery store in 1872, the Polish business, industrial, and commercial enterprises in 1907 numbered approximately 611.(19) In 1914 there were 2,500 of them.(20) The figures quoted here include principally small business enterprises; as a rule, Poles were not prominent in big business ventures before 1914.(21)

With the improvement of the economic position the Pole had likewise widened the scope of his political activities. Formerly his interests were centered chiefly on the problems and conditions of his mother country. After 1890 the Detroit Pole showed more active participation in American political life.(22) He was drawn into alignment with the Democratic Party to remain overwhelmingly democratic until 1914, although the business and professional men began to shift to the Republican ranks in the 1890's.

Still, on several occasions the Poles had proved that they did not follow blindly the dictates of the democratic ward bosses. In the local election of 1895 they voted for the republican candidate for mayor and for the democratic candidate for alderman,(23) while in the national election of 1896 the Poles supported the democratic presidential candidate, but a republican candidate for governor.(24) In general, the Poles favored the civil service reform, sound money, the popular election of the United States senators,(25) the extension of the principles of direct government,(26) the postal savings system,(27) honest and economical city administration,(28) and municipal ownership of street railways.(29) They opposed prohibition,(30) immigration restriction,(31) monopolies,(32) and the commission form of government for Detroit.(33)

The first Pole to be elected to a public office in Detroit was Felix A. Lemkie (Lemke) as Justice of Peace in 1876. According to the records of the Common Pleas Court, he held the office for 47 years. In the 80's Adolph Jasnowski was elected to the State Legislature. In the 90's we find the Detroit Poles in the following elective and appointive offices: aldermen, members of the board of estimates, city physicians, county physicians, United States pension surgeon, members of the board of public works, members of the board of health, in recorder's court, in justices' court, tax receivers, water board commissioners, constables, register of deeds, assistant prosecuting attorney, and members of the board of education.

Traditionally loyal members of the Catholic Church, the Poles in America continued to reflect their deeply religious spirit in the new environment. The Polish family was marked by stability and unusual faithfulness between husband and wife. An analysis of the Wayne County Chancery Records corroborates the fact that divorce was practically unknown among the Detroit Polish immigrants even in the most trying circumstances until American surroundings made themselves felt.(34) The deeply religious spirit was further reflected in the traditional observance of social customs and holydays. The very form of the daily salutations: "God be with you," "Praised be Jesus Christ," are the outward evidence of the central place occupied by religion in the life of a Pole.

What little leisure the Detroit Pole had after a crowded weekday's work, he spent in reading for study. Although the newspaper was a common source of information, it never superseded the book, which the immigrant bought for himself or borrowed from the public library.(35) For 1898 the Detroit Public Library gives the circulation of Polish books as relatively the largest.(36) Of the 40 per cent of books circulated among foreign groups in 1914, the Polish group held the second place. (37) The Detroit Pole read history, books on travel, poetry, drama, religious works, popular scientific works and general literature. The historical novel was the favorite type of fiction, and Sienkiewicz the most popular novelist.(38)

Besides reading, the Detroit Pole frequented lectures specially arranged for popular enlightenment two to four times a week, These lectures, sponsored by the Polish Seminary, by organizations like the Towarzystwo Przyjaciól Oswiaty, the Sokols, and the Aurora, were given on such varied subjects as: American system of government, world commerce, history, aviation, physiology, physics, hygiene, the science of government in general, American citizenship, travel, and literature.(39)

Eager to perpetuate in their new environment the rich religious and cultural traditions of their homeland, to preserve their language, to guard against the denationalizing and demoralizing of youth, to promote education and health, to give aid to the capable who aspired to positions of prominence, to promote commercial interests, and to help the needy, the Poles founded religious, dramatic, literary, singing, musical, educational, gymnastic, political, occupational, and benevolent societies. Many of these associations were local in character; others were branches of larger national organizations of which the most important were the Polish Roman Catholic Union, begun in Detroit in 1873, which in 1913 numbered for Detroit 1,948 members in 13 local societies,(40) and the Polish National Alliance with 58 Detroit societies as members in 1914.(41)

Another important factor in the organized life of the Detroit Polish immigrant was the Polish-American press. Between 1874 and 1914, 13 journals were published: Gazeta Polska Katolicka, Gazeta Narodowa, Pielgrzym Polski, Prawda, Gwiazda, Apostól, Niedziela, Swoboda, Polonia, Wolne Slowo Polskie, Dziennik Polski, Ognisko Domowe, and Rekord Codzienny.(42) Their history, most often one of great difficulties, is a record of devotion to the Polish culture and language.

The press has always been a means of enlightenment, and, not without exception, of moral uplift. The Polish press was instrumental, to a large extent, in stirring up interest in naturalization,(43) and it has helped to build Polish solidarity in this country. Were it not for the Polish press, the average Polish immigrant would have been entirely isolated from the political, intellectual, and social life of America.

Between the years 1870 and 1914 the Poles of Detroit supported totally or partly, at enormous material sacrifices, 16 Polish institutions: 11 Roman Catholic churches and, connected with them, 11 parochial schools with an enrollment of 10,946;(44) one Dom Polski; one home for orphaned girls; one religious teaching order with a normal school; and one theological seminary.

Closely linked with the development of these institutions is the name of the Reverend Joseph Dabrowski, one of the foremost spiritual, social, and educational Polish leaders in America.(45) It may be rightfully said that he has done more than any one Pole for the preservation of the Faith and the national integrity of the Poles in this country.(46)

Father Dabrowski was instrumental in laying the foundations of the first Polish religious community in this country when, in answer to his appeal, five Felician Sisters arrived in 1874 and established their headquarters in Polonia, Wisconsin. In 1882 the Motherhouse of the Order was transferred to Detroit where also a home for orphaned girls, and a normal school for aspirants to the religious life (the first Polish institution of higher learning for women in this country) were erected. In Detroit, to the year 1914, the Order supplied 115 teachers for more than 8,000 pupils in 9 of the 11 Polish parochial schools.(47)

Another, and undoubtedly the greatest, service of Father Dabrowski to this cause was the establishment of the SS. Cyril and Methodius Seminary in Detroit in 1885. The Seminary began its work with a faculty of three and a student body of five,(48) which by 1910 had increased to 326 with 16 professors on the faculty.(49) In the first 25 years of its existence, the Seminary provided the Polish parishes in America with about 140 priests(50) and with a contingent of intelligent and capable Catholic lay leaders.(51)

While loyal and devoted to the land of their adoption, the Poles of Detroit, as elsewhere, clung tenaciously to the long and revered Catholic cultural heritage which they had brought with them. Their Polish American organizations, press, churches, and other institutions, served as the bulwarks of the old culture, as well as aids to their adjustment by easy steps to the American way of life.


(1) Ninth Census: Population, I. 386.
(2) Eleventh Census, 1, clxii.
(3) Thirteenth Census: Population, II, 948.
(4) "Poles Exceed Germans Here," Detroit Free Press, 88 (Wedn. Oct. 4, 1922), 13, Col. 1.
(5) "Zawiedzeni i oszukani imigranci," Dziennik Polski, 6 (Fri. Jan. 15, 1909), 4, Col. 2.
(6) X. W. Kruszka, Historia Polska w Ameryce, XI, 169 and I, 116; Chancery Archives: Reports of St. Albertus and St. Casimir parishes for 1882; Album pamiatkowe parafii sw. Wojciecha, n.p.; E. H. Dunikowski, Wsród Polonii w Ameryce, 54; J. Okolowicz, Wychodztwo i osadnictwo polskie przed Wojna Swiatowa, 38; Dziennik Polski, 8 (Sat. Oct. 7, 1911), 2, Col. 2; 9 (Thurs. May 7, 1914). 2, Col. 3.
(7 ) Americanizing a City, 5.
(8) A. E. Parkins, The Historical Geography of Detroit, 311.
(9) Eleventh Census. Manufactures, xxxi.
(10) Thirteenth Census: Manufactures, 84.
(11) C. D. Cameron, "Detroit's Two Thousand Nobles," Detroit Saturday Night, 21 (Jan. 15, 1927) 8, Col. 2.
(12) "Dobra nowina dla robotników," Dziennik Polski, 4 (Fri. Dec. 20, 1907). 1-4, Col. 7; Personal interviews.
(13) J. 0. Curwood, "An Ethnographical Study of Detroit," The Detroit News-Tribune, 68 (Sun. Aug. 21, 1904), 4, Col. 3.
(14) Twelfth Census: Special Reports, Occupations, (computation).
(15) T. Kozak, "Unie robotnicze i zawodowe, a Polacy," Dziennik Polski, 8 (Thurs. Dec. 28, 1911), 2, Col. 3.
(16) "Odezwa do Polskich robotników w Detroit i okolicy," Dziennik Polski, 9 (Tues. Apr. 12, 1912), 4, Col. 1.
(17) T. Kozak. loc. cit. 2, Col. 4-5.
(18) "Unia zawodowa cieslów i stolarzy," Dziennik Polski, 8 (Mon. Nov. 20, 1911), 2, Col. 2. 
(19) W. Smolczynski, Przewodnik adresowy i historia osady polskiej w Detroit, Michigan., 205-239.
(20) "Gdzie wasza polskosc i sumienie," Dziennik Polski, 11 (Fri. Aug. 7, 1914). 2, Col. 2.
(21) "O handlu i przemysle polskim w Detroit," Dziennik Polski, 4 (Tues. March 26, 1907), 2, Col, 1.
(22) "All Planned! Stewart Campaign Running Regularly. A. L. M'Lead and Governor Pingree Discuss the Poles," The Detroit Tribune, 61 (Sun. Mar. 28, 1897), 12, Col. 5.
(23) "With a Whoop," Detroit Free Press, 61 (Wed. Nov. 6, 1895), 1, Col. 3.
(24) The Polish Vote," The Detroit Tribune, 59 (Sun. Nov. 3, 1895), 5, Col. 1-2.
(25) "Wybór senatorów przez lud." Dziennik PoIski, 3 (Fri. Aug. 7, 1906), 2, Col. 3.
(26) Dziennik Polski, 1 (Fri. Aug. 5, 1904), 2, col. 2.
(27) "Pocztowe banki oszczednosci," Ibid., 8 (Fri. Aug. 18, 1911), 2, col. 1; 3 (Tues. Aug. 28, 1906), 2, col. 2.
(28) "Dopominaja sie reformy," Ibid., 1 (Wed. May 24, 1904), 4. col. 1; 1 (Mon. May 23, 1904), 2, col. 1-2; "Bacznosc obywatele glosujacy," Ibid., 7 (Fri. July 8, 1910), 6, col. 2; 7 (Sat. Nov. 12, 1910), 1, col. 4.
(29) "Mityng w sprawie kolei elektrycznej," Ibid., 3 (Tues. Oct. 9, 1906), 4, Col. 3.
(30) "Z ruchu prohibicyjnego," Ibid., 3 (Tues, Mar. 24, 1908), 4, col. 1; "Co to jest prawo prohibicyjne, którego wprowadzenie zalezy od wyboru i jakie za soba skutki pociaga," Ibid., 7 (Sat. Febr. 26, 1910), 2, col. 1-4.
(31) "Nominacja T. Roosevelta," Ibid., 9 (Mon. June 24, 1912), 2, col. 2-5; "Walka imigrantów," Ibid., 9 (Tues. May 14, 1912), 2, col. 2.
(32) "Oredzie prezydenta," Ibid., 1 (Wed. Dec. 7, 1904), 2 col. 1; 7 (Thurs. Jan. 6, 1910), 2, col. 1.
(33) "Niefortunny projekt Mayora Thompson," Ibid., 4 (Wed. Jan. 6, 1909), 4, col. 2.
(34) Wayne Country Chancery Calendars, vols. 1-5 and 23; "Rozwody u Polaków;" Dziennik Polski, 1 (Thurs. Dec. 22, 1904), 2, col. 2.
(35) The credit for the introduction of Polish works into the Detroit Public Library is given to Peter J. Leszczynski, in 1889. "The Winners," The Detroit News-Tribune, (Thurs. Oct. 31, 1895), no. 20,467. 5, Col. 3.
(36) Niedziela, 9 (Mar. 16, 1899), 176.
(37) "Pocieszajacy objaw," Dziennik Polski, 11 (Thurs. Apr. 9, 1914), 2, Col. 2.
(38) In America the trilogy of Sienkiewicz had several editions each of several thousand copies. Almost all the novels of the prominent Polish writers were also reprinted. S. Osada, Prasa i publicystyka polska w Ameryce, 14; "Nowe polskie ksiazki w detroickiej bibliotece," Dziennik Polski, 8 (Tues. Aug. 15, 1911), 4, Col. 2.
(39) Niedziela, 5 (Dec. 12, 1895), 800; 5 (Dec. 19, 1895), 816; 6 (Dec. 12. 1896), 800.
(40) K. Wachtl, Dzieje Zjednoczenia P. R. K. w Ameryce, passim; 65 lat Zjednoczenia Polskiego Rzymsko-Katolickiego w Ameryce, 20-22.
(41) W. Fundament, Polski przewodnik handlowy i towarzyski miasta Detroit, 157.
(42) lbid., 62; X. W. Kruszka, Historia Polska w Ameryce, V, 5, 6, 50, 57, 63; C. D. Cameron, "Detroit's Foreign Language Press," Detroit Saturday Night, 20 (Fri. Mar. 6, 1920), 10, col. 2-3; S. Osada, op. cit:, 24-25, 28-29; "Zarys dziejów powstania prasy polskiej w Arneryce," Rekord Codzienny. 20 (Thurs. Nov. 30, 1933), 26, col. 3-5; Almanach jubileuszowy Seminarium Polskiego, 30; Historia Seminarium PoIskiego, 37-38; "35 Years of Service," Dziennik Polski, 35 (Sat. May 27, 1939), 5, col. 1.
(43) Wayne County Records: Pull Papers, 1847-1914.
(44) Compiled from School Records, Diocesan Archives, and the volumes of the Catholic Directory.
(45) Rev. A. Syski, Ks. Józef Dabrovvski 1842-1942, 114, 212.
(46) Most Rev. M. J. Gallagher, "Letter to the Friends of SS. Cyril and Methodius Seminary," Almanach jubileuszovvy Seminarium Polskiego, 21; A. Card. Hlond, "Letter to the Right Rev. A. Klowo, Rector of the Polish Seminary," Ibid., 223.
(47) Felician Sisters Community Archives: Detroit, Chicago. Buffalo, and Lodi; Historia Zgromadzenia SS. Felicjanek, passim.
(48) Historia Seminarium polskiego w Detroit i Orchard Lake, Michigan, 10, 13.
Ibid., 20. Ibid., 32.
(49) Ibid., 20.
(50) Ibid., 32.
(51) Ibid., 34, 36.


This article is reprinted from Polish-American Studies, Vol. II, No. 1-2,  January-June 1945, with permission from the Polish-American Historical Association.

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