Finding Ancestral Villages in Poland

It can be difficult to find the ancestral villages of our ancestors in Poland. The first difficulty is finding documentation that even attempts to provide the place name. Some church records and immigration/naturalization records provide this information, but not always. The next hurdle is the spelling. The person who filled in the record probably did not have knowledge of the geography (or maybe even the language) to complete the record correctly. While we may have some familiarity with our own city or state, few of us know all the cities in all the states. So, the record keeper wrote the place name as it sounded to him. That's a challenge because the same or similar sounds can be spelled different ways in Polish. The trick is working back to the "correct" one. The next problem in locating the locale is getting the right one if there are multiple places of the same name-- and there often are. Ideally, we disambiguate a location by giving additional locations. For example, Lockport, Will County, Illinois pinpoints one city and distinguishes it from the Lockport in New York. So, to do the same thing in Poland, one might specify the village, powiat, and wojewodstwo. There are "official" designations that one can look up in a gazetteer, but we need to be mindful that people did not always know the official hierarchy and gave the name of a nearby locality. For example, I saw some villages said to be located in Jordanow powiat (around 1900) but have not found mention of Jordanow as having powiat status. Sometimes we find that the name of the village is given without any additional clues. If there's more than one village of the same name you may have to look at each of them. Another strategy to use might be to look for other family members known to come from the same village. Perhaps their records will reveal the detail needed to pinpoint village you seek. Having indexed many marriage records, I am amazed at how many names I recognize and can associate with a particular parish or neighboring parish. People were not as highly mobile as they are today, so the location can be narrowed down. Some Polish place names have changed to distinguish themselves from other same named localities. Dabrowa, as it was known is near Tarnow, and is today Dabrowa Tarnowska. Czarna near Sedziszow is now Czarna Sedziszowska. So, be flexible if the name in an old record doesn't exactly match its modern name. Sometimes there are villages with similar names near one another which are distinguished on maps by Wielki (or Duży) and Mały, or Stara and Nowa, etc. which occur before or after the name. For example, Jastrząbka Stara now goes by Stara Jastrząbka. Many times the record does not give the adjective as part of the name.
For example, there is a Stara Jastrząbka and a Nowa Jastrząbka but the record might just say Jastrząbka. The two villages while nearby are in different powiats. The specification of the powiat name could help tell which is which.

I want to discuss one important caveat in Polish place names. Powiat and former wojewodstwo names were usually derived from the name of a city. Which level of jurisdiction is given in the record? Many ancestors came from the province of Poznan but that doesn't mean they lived in the city of Poznan. It's no different than if someone says they're from New York. Do they mean the state or the Big Apple? It would not be uncommon for someone to give the name of a larger locality that someone else may have heard of rather than have to explain where some tiny village is located. For example, my grandfather's death certificate says he was from Krakow. In actuality he was from a small village closer to Tarnow. I know I played the same game when I was in Poland. When someone asked where I was from, I always said Chicago because everyone has heard of it.

When place names are given in some Polish records, the locative case is usually used rather than the nominative case one finds on maps. Where the nominative form of a place can be determined, it is used in the index. Otherwise the "best reading" of what it looks like is preserved. You may find West Prussia, ks. Poznań (province of Posen, Prussian occupied territory), kr. Poland (kingdom of Poland, Russian occupied territory), and Galicia (Austrian occupied territory). The powiat level when given is the name the county as it existed at the time the record was created. Due to restructuring of administrative levels, the names of the powiats have changed or their borders have changed. Records in the index that have the form "place name, pow. powiat name, POLAND" represent 21st century names and administrative levels. They were updated so you can more easily find them on a modern map.