“Why Can’t I Find Census Records for My Ancestors in Poland?”

In the Polish Genealogy group on Facebook, we often get questions from people wondering how they can find census records for their ancestors in Poland.  Most of us American researchers have come to rely on the census as a first step in researching our ancestors, and there are good reasons why we love it.  Census records provide a “snapshot” of our families at different points in time, revealing names, ages and relationships of family members, as well as other important details such as year of immigration, year of naturalization, how many children a woman had, and more.  Most importantly, the census has been digitized and indexed, which allows us to find our ancestors with relative ease, even when they migrate around the country.  It seems natural, then, that people would want to find similar records for their ancestors in Poland.  So where are these records?

The answer is a bit complicated, and depends on our understanding of the history of census-taking.  Censuses have been conducted since ancient times.  Remember the Census of Quirinius mentioned in the Bible, in which Joseph and Mary had to travel to Bethlehem to be counted?  Perhaps in recognition of the logistical problems of “no room at the inn” created by having an entire population move around, more contemporary emperors have conducted censuses by having enumerators go door to door, counting people where they lived.  The purpose of any census was usually to provide information for taxation and military conscription as well as statistical information about the population, which might include ethnic minorities living in a given area, languages spoken, religious affiliation, etc.  Here in the U.S., the census was mandated by the Constitution, and has been conducted every ten years since 1790.  However, since Poland did not exist as an independent nation from 1795 until 1918, there could be no “national census of Poland” during this time.  Rather, censuses were conducted at different times and in different places by the Russian, Prussian, and Austro-Hungarian Empires which occupied Polish lands.

In the Russian Empire, a large census was conducted in 1897, although it’s worth noting that this census was criticized for undercounting Poles and overestimating those with Russian ethnicity.  Similarly, the German Empire conducted a census in 1895, which was criticized for lowering the number of Catholics and ethnic Poles in German-occupied lands.  Many smaller-scale censuses were conducted (a nice summary of which can be found here), but in many cases, original returns have not survived, and only statistical summaries remain.  In addition to these governmental census records, some religious census census records survive for Poland.  Each Catholic parish priest conducted an annual census of his parishioners, which was called “Status Animarum” in Latin, or “Spis Parafialny” in Polish, an example of which can be seen here.  The original intent of these censuses was to allow the priest to verify that his parishioners were receiving the sacraments as appropriate, but these censuses eventually grew to include addresses and ages of household members.

The result of all this history is a patchwork of records that includes parish censuses, tax lists, population registers, conscription lists, etc.  Although some of these are available online (more about where to find those in my next blog post), there isn’t a huge impetus in Poland today to put these records online.  Why not?  Because Poles have something that’s arguably preferable to census records:  vital records.  Vital records are the ultimate source for documenting individuals.  Children might be born and they might die in between census years, but there will still be birth and death records to document them (hopefully!).  The Polish archives and genealogical societies have been going to great lengths to get more and more of these vital records digitized, indexed, and online.  One might ask instead, why we Americans haven’t made a huge push to get these vital records online.

Once again, the answer lies in the history.  Civil vital registration in America began slowly, and regional practices varied widely.  Town vital records exist for Massachusetts that date back to the 1600s, but vital registration didn’t begin in most parts of the U.S. until the mid-to-late 1800s.  It wasn’t until about 1920 that vital registration requirements were reliably enforced.  Prior to that, researchers must turn to church records to obtain births, marriages and deaths for their ancestors.  A national effort to digitize church records would be problematic in the U.S. because church records are not public documents, and churches are not required to hand them over to the state or make them public for any reason.  (Of course, churches will sometimes make records available to individuals if asked nicely and if a donation is offered.)

While we in America tend to think in terms of this separation of church and state, the same is not true in Poland, or elsewhere in Europe.  As I wrote previously, church officials frequently served as civil registrars throughout Poland, and parish record books were recognized as legal documents. The practice of making duplicate copies of church books for civil authorities dates back to the late 18th century across much of modern-day Poland, and these duplicate copies serve as our foundation for Polish genealogical research.  The greater availability of vital records relative to census records does require a bit of a shift in mindset for American researchers.  Instead of having a decennial snapshot of your ancestral family groups indicating the names of all the family members, researchers will have to discover those names through careful analysis of parish records.  Although more time-consuming, the result is ultimately more complete, as it will include any children who died in infancy between census years.

In many cases, Polish vital records themselves will provide guideposts to migrations of the family.  Marriage records will usually state where the bride and groom were born, and where their parents are living at the time of the marriage.   But what happens if a couple moves around during their childbearing years?  One might suspect such an occurrence if there is an unusually large gap (more than about 3 years) between births to a married couple in the records for a particular parish.  It’s times like this that indexed records can be very, very helpful.  In their absence, a researcher is often faced with the task of searching parishes in the surrounding area more or less at random, unless other clues are available which suggest where the family might have gone (e.g. a child’s godparent with the same surname as one of the parents is living in another local parish).  Still, what about those researchers who have no clue where in Poland their family originated?  Indexed vital records would certainly make life a lot easier for them, too.

At present there are a number of popular indexing sites available for vital records in Poland.  The most comprehensive and ambitious of these is Geneteka, which aims to cover every province within Poland today as well as offering limited coverage in areas that were once part of Poland but are no longer.  Other indexing efforts, such as Lubgens for the Lublin area, BaSIA and the Poznań Project for the Wielkopolskie province/Poznań area, the Pomeranian Genealogical Society database for the Pomerania region, and other, smaller efforts, are strictly regional and don’t aim to include full coverage of Poland.  The situation is very reminiscent of the way things were here in the U.S. in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when numerous small indexing projects existed for census records, prior to the completion of indexing efforts by Ancestry.com, FamilySearch, and others.  Although all these Polish indexing efforts are presently free and not behind a paywall, the sponsoring genealogical societies rely on donations to pay for servers and keep the records online.

At some point in the future, tracking your ancestors’ migrations through indexed records in Geneteka might be as easy as finding them in indexed census records in the U.S. Geneteka’s search engine is powerful enough to allow for some pretty great searching already, especially now that it’s possible to search using two different surnames (e.g. father’s surname and mother’s maiden name). New indexes (i.e. new parishes, registry offices, or new ranges of years for parishes or registry offices for which coverage already exists) are being added all the time, but the vast scope of this project — indexing over 300 years’ worth of records from every parish, synagogue, other place of worship, or civil registry office in an area of about 121,000 square miles —  means that it will take some time before coverage is even close to complete. So for now, the best approach is still to accurately determine one’s ancestors’ place of origin in Poland, using U.S. records, before attempting research in Poland, rather than hoping to get lucky with indexed vital records.

In my next post, I’ll review some options for those intrepid and hardy souls who still hope to find actual “census records” of one type or another for your ancestors in Poland.  Until then, happy researching!

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2016



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