In grade school, most of us learned that Columbus discovered America, although now we know he was not the first European to see the Western Hemisphere. We remember studying about the English settlement in Jamestown, the Pilgrims and the Civil War. Tucked into a chapter between westward expansion and World War I, we read about the wave of immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe at the turn of the 20th century.
Between 1880 and 1920, millions of young men, and later their families, came from Poland to the United States to work in coal mines, steel mills and factories. Polish immigrants were among the largest groups to settle in Pennsylvania, and by 1900, 50,000 Poles lived and worked in Pittsburgh. They helped to build a great industrial economy.
Poles have a longer and more dynamic history in America than commonly known. Noteworthy contributions by Polish-Americans have become all but lost among the diverse ethnic groups that populate America. Because October is Polish-American Heritage Month, I'd like to tell a little more of the story.
We all know about the settlement of Jamestown in 1607. But the English colonists were not the only Europeans to disembark from the ships and step onto the shores of Virginia. Polish artisans were among the intrepid newcomers. The Poles included a glassblower and woodworker -- occupations necessary to the survival of a fledgling 17th-century colony.
More than 100 years later, Jakub Sadowski, an adventurer and fur-trader who lived in Ohio, spent some time in the Pittsburgh area in 1729. Sadowski and his sons were among the first Europeans to explore Kentucky. It is said that Sandusky, Ohio, is named for him.
Tadeusz Kosciuszko was a Polish-born army officer and military engineer who fought in the Revolutionary War. Not only was he a great leader and friend of George Washington, he designed and supervised the construction of West Point. His contemporary, Kazimierz Pulaski, recruited by Benjamin Franklin, served as a brigadier-general in the Continental Army. Killed at the Battle of Savannah in 1779, when he was 34, he is known as the "father of the American calvary."
In 1854, after a grueling nine-week journey by ship, rail, wagon and foot, 100 Polish families established the first long-term Polish settlement in the United States. Father Leopold Moczygemba led them to a location near the San Antonio River in Texas. They named their new community Panna Maria (Virgin Mary). In a few years, they built a church and school, and when the Civil War erupted, they incurred Southern wrath because of their Union sympathies.
Wlodzimierz Krzyzanowski, a Polish military leader, engineer and politician, had taken part in the uprising against Prussian occupation of his homeland. Coming to America in 1848, he worked as a civil engineer and surveyor and was instrumental in the westward railroad expansion.
He supported Lincoln for president in 1860 and enlisted in the Union Army in 1861. Krzyzanowski then sought out Polish immigrants as volunteers. Within a short time, he was leading the 58th New York Volunteer Infantry, officially recognized by the Army Register as the "Polish Legion."
In all, more than 3,000 Poles enlisted in the Union Army, with some fighting at Gettysburg. In July 1863, Krzyzanowski and his men were among the forces that repelled the assault by Confederate military on East Cemetery Hill.
During most of the 19th century, the United States had few female doctors and no hospitals dedicated to women's health. Maria Elizabeth Zakrzewska, a Polish midwife, immigrated to the United States in 1853 and completed another round of medical training here. Zakrzewska moved to Boston and founded the New England Hospital for Women and Children, which trained female doctors. She also established the first school for nurses and opened her institution to black women, graduating the first black nurse in 1879.
Thousands of Poles came to Pittsburgh in the latter part of the 19th century, found jobs in the mills and established Polish Hill. In 1873, about 200 Polish families came together to form the St. Stanislaus Kostka Beneficial Society. Within 20 years, the grand St. Stanislaus church on Smallman Street, designed by Pittsburgh architect Frederick C. Sauer, was dedicated. Today, it's on the National Register of Historic Places, just a small part of the Polish-American legacy.
Carol Moessinger (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Robinson resident and the author of "A Woman's Role," a novel about second-generation Polish-Americans. It's to be released by Assent Publishing this month. First Published October 19, 2013 8:00 PM