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Image courtesy the David Rumsey Map Collection
Poland has had a rough history: centuries of war, deadly invasions and subjugation from foreign powers. Among the most devastating events in Polish history were the three Partitions of Poland in the late 18th century. Beginning in 1772, Poland’s neighbors Russia, Prussia and Austria seized Polish land, effectively wiping Poland from the map of Europe for the next 120 years. On this day (January 23) in 1793, Russia and Prussia finalized the second of the three Partitions: Russia seized western Ukraine and Lithuanian Belorussia, while Prussia acquired Greater Poland and part of Mazovia. The rest of Poland’s territory was annexed by its neighbors in 1795.
The map above (created in 1814) shows Poland’s pre-1772 boundaries with colored sections that highlight which countries had dominion over Polish lands after the Partitions: pink for Prussia, green for Austria and yellow for Russia. In addition to providing the boundaries of each partition, this detailed map also provides clues about how each partition classified the newly acquired land. For example, the Prussian partition distinguishes between East Prussia (the area along the Gulf of Dantzig), and West Prussia (the area between Prussia and East Prussia).
Knowing which partition your ancestor’s town resided in is crucial for finding records, as the government ruling each partition (Prussia/Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia) was responsible for creating and storing records. Record availability, format, coverage and even language will vary based on which country was in charge of your Polish ancestor’s region. Gazetteers will help you identify the name of your ancestor’s hometown, plus how that name changed over time and which Partition it was part of. FamilySearch.org has an excellent collection of Polish gazetteers.
For more on the Partitions of Poland and how to identify and research your Polish ancestors, see Lisa Alzo’s book The Family Tree Polish, Czech, and Slovak Genealogy Guide.