First Polish Community in USA
by Arthur A. Wagner
October 3, 2002
Which was the first Polish settlement in the U.S., Panna Maria, Texas, or Parisville, Michigan? That is a thorny question because their founding was almost simultaneous.
The late Harry Milostan, a Mt. Clemens attorney, made it one of his life goals to establish that Parisville was the first Polish settlement in the U.S. He preached that gospel to any audience, including me when I first met him. His book, "Parisville Poles: First Polish Settlers in the U.S.A.?" (Mt. Clemens: MASSPAC, 1977) was published under the pseudonym Natsolim.
He gets to the point of his book on page 92, where he states that the first Michigan settler of Polish ancestry was F. Susalla, who registered a claim or deed on September 16, 1854, allegedly three months earlier than the founding of Panna Maria. He also claims that Polish settlers (he uses the term Polanders) had been in Michigan since 1850, when they began to clear some farm lands. On p. 112 he states that the first Poles in Michigan began arriving in 1848, many by way of Canada. He cites an article in the journal, "Sodalis" (Orchard Lake, Ss. Cyril & Methodius Seminary, January, 1955), which also alleges that Parisville was the first Polish settlement in the U.S. and gives Fr. Leopold Moczygemba’s arrival date in Texas as 1852.
Here is another part of his argument: Poles in Michigan began to receive land grants in 1857, but to earn these, they had to have lived on the cleared land for five years, hence since 1852. However, since the land grant law had not been enacted until 1862, this does not constitute documentary proof.
On p. 121, he adds support from several authorities. Fr.Waclaw Kruszka ("History of Poles in America", 1907, Vol. XI, pp. 144-166; [a later edition: Milwaukee, 1937-translations into English 1993-1998 and ongoing]) claims that St. Mary’s Church, Parisville, is the oldest Polish parish in the U.S. Milostan gives a well-detailed summary of Fr. Kruszka’s remarks beginning on p. 120. Milostan also lists the Felician Sisters’ history as supporting Parisville as first in 1852 (p. 156ff.)
Another rare source is "Poles in Michigan" (Vol. I-there never was a Vol. II-Detroit: The Poles in Michigan Associated, 1953). In an essay, Dr. Steven Wloszczewski also cites Fr. Kruszka, who is adamant that the Parisville Poles were here first and outnumbered the Texas group. These Pomeranian Poles came to Michigan directly from Poland through Canada in the 1850s-1860s and settled in Paris, later renamed Parisville. By the way, many of them had German or misspelled names, according to Miecislaw Haiman in his "History of Poles in the Civil War", so documents can be misleading if one looks only for Polish names.
Wloszczewski also claims that the two oldest Polish cemeteries in Michigan, that of Parisville and Posen, include the names of Polish persons born in the late 18th century and arriving in the U.S. between 1820-1830.
According to him, "The first Polish rural settlement in Michigan still in existence [Parisville] was founded in the period 1850-1860." Posen, the first in Northern Michigan, was founded in the 1870s. Similarly, "The first Polish town quarter probably began to rise in Muskegon in the years 1830-1840." Poles began to arrive in large numbers in Detroit 1850-1860.
The same anthology has another relevant essay, by Rev. Joseph Szarek, "The Oldest Polish Village in Michigan: Parisville-The Glory of Its Pioneers." About 1950, Rev. Szarek officiated at the deathbed of a Polish woman nearly 100 years old who had been born in an Indian teepee in the Parisville area. Her parents had just arrived and had not yet built their home. The Indians were friendly to the Poles, who had helped them with food during a harsh winter. He also asserts that the Poles arrived in Huron County in smaller groups before 1850. These references were found in Fr. Moczygemba’s parish records; he served at Parisville 1889-1890. Rev. George Pare’s history, "The Catholic Church in Detroit," (1950), states that Fr. Constantine Dziuk, pastor of St. Mary’s Parisville 1926-1931, learned by a tradition of the town that a few Polish individuals had arrived as early as 1848 and merely squatted on the land, not knowing how to go about purchasing property. Pare also cites Fr. Kruszka, who gives the date of origin as 1852. As to the question of the Homestead Act not being in effect yet, Rev. Szarek states that the Huron County Tract Book lists the purchase as occurring in 1856 and the transaction was made under the terms of an earlier act for settling swamp lands (1850), which required a 5 year residency and improvements.
In the most recent book about Michigan Poles, Dennis Badaczewski shows that the 1762 marriage of Francis and Genevieve Godek, at St. Anne Church, Detroit (both founded 1701) indicates the first Poles officially listed as residents of Michigan ("Poles in Michigan," series title: "Discovering the Peoples of Michigan," East Lansing: MSU Press, 2002). Badaczewski also lists Parisville as the first Polish settlement in Michigan (Huron County, Paris Township), Poles purchasing land in 1856. His source is Allan Treppa, "Parisville: Michigan’s First Polonia" in an anthology: "A Wind Gone Down: West Running Brook," Lansing: Michigan Dept. of State, 1978.
However, Badaczewski states that Parisville was preceded by Panna Maria, 1854. He also claims that Parisville has virtually disappeared, but this may be an exaggeration. There is a new church and a log cabin museum in the town, although many farmers in the area have retired.
What to conclude from these bits and pieces? Obviously, there have been many Poles who settled in various parts of the U.S. decades before Panna Maria (going back to Jamestown, 1619, or perhaps earlier, to Jan of Kolno). However, to convey a mythic impression, the settlement had to be predominantly Polish and rural; both Panna Maria and Parisville met those criteria. Their founding was virtually simultaneous, but some historians give the edge to Parisville. If you follow the arguments of Kruszka, Milostan, and others, you will lean toward Parisville. The Michigan Poles in the Thumb worked heroically to clear parts of the virgin forests and swamps to develop rich farmland. Unfortunately, they had few to narrate their saga. Records have been destroyed in three fires: devastating forest fires in 1771 and 1881, and the conflagration that took their church in 1974. Thus, the legendary story of Fr. Moczygemba leading a flock of Silesian farm laborers to Texas took on the aura of an epic-even though his followers were disappointed in the arid land they found and some soon fled to Nebraska.