The Silesians who came to the United States were primarily from the southeastern part of the region, usually known as “Upper” Silesia. The most important city of Upper Silesia is Opole (in German, Oppeln). There is a Silesian group that settled in South Central Minnesota (near the Iowa border) who emigrated from “Lower” Silesia.
Around 990 AD, Silesia was taken over by the Kingdom of Poland. Its inhabitants embraced the Catholic faith and learned to use the Polish language. Bohemia obtained control of Silesia in 1335. Austria took over Silesia and Bohemia 1526. In 1742, Silesia became part of the Prussian empire. It remained under Prussian (after 1872, German) control until the end of World War One in 1918. Despite all these changes, the Silesians retained their Catholic faith, and continued using the Polish language, although with some Czech and German elements.
Caught between the Slavic and Germanic cultures, Silesia experienced great demographic changes throughout the 20th century. At the end of World War One, the new Polish nation fought with German private armies for control of Upper Silesia. In 1923, the League of Nations resolved the war with a public referendum, in which 60% of Upper Silesians voted to be part of Germany. Under the Third Reich, Silesia was forcibly Germanized. After World War Two, Upper Silesia became part of Poland again. Germans were driven out by the Communist government to make room for ethnic Poles who had been displaced by the Soviet Union’s expansion west. Today, most Upper Silesians claim Polish nationality. However, they take great pride in their Silesian culture and they speak a form of Polish strongly influenced by German and Czech, locally known as “Silesian.”
By the middle 19th century, Silesian peasants were poor and extremely disaffected. Although they had been liberated from serfdom in 1807, they were still virtually bound to the land. They could no longer pay the rent on their farms by laboring on the lord’s manor. Instead, they had to pay rent in cash – which was very hard for impoverished farmers to acquire. It was a struggle to stay even, much less get ahead. They were grudgingly allowed to practice their Catholic faith, but otherwise German rule was harsh. For instance, Silesian men were still compelled to serve three years in the Prussian army, followed by many years in various types of reserve units.
In the middle 1850s, agents from German shipping lines were traveling throughout Upper Silesia, encouraging peasants to try their chances in North America. The prospect was daunting. But the Silesians yearned for a chance to become successful farmers in a free land, and emigration started. The first Polish colony in the United States was Panna Maria, Texas, founded by Silesian settlers in 1854. Unfortunately, southern Texas was not a good fit for Silesian farm folk, and the colony did not thrive. The American Civil War drastically reduced immigration, and when Silesians resumed coming to the United States in the late 1860s, they settled on America’s northern frontier: Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Learn More about Silesia
Silesians to Minnesota
Learn about where Silesians settled in Minnesota and immigrant life in Minnesota.