Published: Pathways & Passages volume 24, number 2, summer 2008.
Many researchers become acquainted with the monumental work „Słownik geograficzny Królestwa Polskiego i innych Krajów Słowiańskich” [Geographical Dictionary of the Kingdom of Poland and Other Slavic Countries] early in the research process. Since we have many new members who are just starting their research, however, we are featuring certain basic sources for beginners.
While pursuing our passion for genealogy and embarking on the path to the discovery of forgotten ancestors and places that they lived, we frequently wonder about the places they were from. What it was like? What views and vistas did our ancestors see as they made their way daily from home to field or to visit a neighbor? How big was the village? How many people lived there? Were the farms large and profitable or small and poor? Was there a church or cemetery in the village? Or a school, or train station? What about the estate of a local noble, where our ancestors may have worked to supplement their income?
Answers to many of these questions can be obtained from the Słownik geograficzny. This unique work was created in the years 1880-1902. The entire dictionary is comprised of 15 volumes, most numbering approximately 900 pages. Thus we have at our disposal tens of thousands of pages full of priceless pieces of historical data from the time period when our ancestors left their native land.
In this monumental work, we will find descriptions of, among other things:
- All localities found in the Kingdom of Poland;
- Significant localities found in the Baltic provinces and the western and southern parts of the Russian Empire
- Provincial capitals, post offices, telegraph offices and railroads in the provinces of the European portion of the Russian Empire;
- Most of the principal places in West and East Prussia, The Great Duchy of Poznań and Prussian Silesia with special emphasis on the Slavic names of the localities, many of which were “Germanized” at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries;
- Detailed information on the hydrography and toponomy of the area covered by the Słownik.
Most of the enumerated places contain the following broad categories of information:
- Statistics (population figures)
- Social and economic structure (schools, religion, industry, transportation, trade)
- History (establishment of the locality, major historical events, changes of owners)
Note that extremely small places will have minimal information.
In the Słownik, we can learn the then-current civil and ecclesiastical administrative structure. This is important for us as researchers because it enables us to easily find the parish to which our ancestors belonged and simultaneously the place where the parish registers are kept.
Special attention was given by the authors the form the place names took, providing the polish version when appropriate. The authors viewed this as an intellectual and patriotic obligation. The name of the place is like a banner which indicates the link between a person and the territory from which he and his clan descended. The place name was in fact a sort of historical and political statement. A person’s birthplace is inexorably linked to his identity. We are connected to our birthplace by a tether. It may stretch far and long…. but it never breaks.
Names if places in certain areas were changed frequently, especially by Germans, who felt that changing a place name would speed up the Germanization of the lands they occupied. If a place was known by multiple names in various languages, it appears under its Polish name but variant names will appear in the entry. In some cases, the entry appears separately under both the Polish and non-Polish names. For example, information on the town of Ełk can be found under the Polish name Ełk, and the German name Lyck. Therefore, while searching in the Słownik, we should do research under every version of a place name of which we are aware. In accordance with the advice of the Słownik’s editor, we should follow any paginal references (of the “see also” types) and search all possibilities to obtain all possible information on a given locality.
Because of the sheer size of the work, numerous abbreviations were used to lessen the bulk of the volumes. These abbreviations may seem incomprehensible for us at first glance but we should not be overly concerned as the authors provide us with a fairly comprehensive list of them on pages 13-14 of volume 1. For example cz. = część (part); dz. = dziesięcina (a tax levied on the peasants representing ten percent of their income to be paid to the church; ew. = ewangelicki (Evangelical,); Gal. = Galicja; gm. = gmina (district); jarm. = jarmark (fair, market); mr. = mórg (a unit of land measure). In earlier times a completely different system of weights and measures was utilized. On page 17 of the first volume of the Słownik, advice is given on “translating” and calculating these measures into more modern terms. The American researcher may also need to employ further calculation to change these ancient measures into a comprehensible North American context.
For example, we can see that on Polish łokieć – converts to 2 Polish feet, which in turn equals 0.8099 arszynas which in modern terms is 0.576 meters. Of some of the other common measurements, one Austrian łokieć equaled 0.77755 meters and one wiorsta was 1066.78 meters. If mathematics was not one of your favorite subjects in school, we now have computers and calculators to help us convert these ancient measurements to a system we can better comprehend. As can be seen from the above, measures could be regionalized. They depended in part on ancient regional traditions but also were later influenced by the partitioning powers who introduced their own laws and systems and superimposed them on the Polish system. But that in itself is a topic for another separate article.
The gathering of information for the Słownik required an incredible amount of effort and organizational talent. Some of the information came from official government sources, museums, and printed sources. Nevertheless, many private individuals, including academicians, geographers historians, ethnologists, etc., contributed material from their native areas.
At this point, we should mention something about and express out thanks to the chief editor and compiler of the work, Filip Sulimierski. He was born in Sieradz in 1843. His father, the owner of the estate Brzeski on Drabia died four months before Filip’s birth. His mother, Bibianna nee Dziewianowska, was left a widow with four children to rise. And she was assisted in this task by her husband’s large family in Sieradz. As was common at that time, in noble families, the first education a child received was done at the estate, and Filip was no exception. After completing high school in Piotrków, Sulimierski enrolled in the Szkoła Główna in Warsaw, which awarded him a Master’s degree in mathematics in 1866. During the course of his higher education, he began writing articles of a geographical and scientific nature which were published in the weekly Wędrowiec. After completing his studies. He worked for that publication, of which he became the owner from 1870 to 1883. He was also a contributor to various important newspapers, periodicals such as Gazeta Polska, Tygodnik Ilustrowany, and Kurier Warszawski.
As the editor and publisher of Wędrowiec, he established and extensive network of contacts in the worlds of journalism and academia as well as among the readers of his periodical. These contacts proved to be invaluable during the process of compiling the Słownik. Sulmierski himself edited the first five volumes of the series, covering the letters A-M, but his sudden death from a heart attack in 1883 put an end to his editorship. He is buried at the Powązki Cemetery (section 177, row IV, grave 5).
Several of Sulmierski’s colleagues continued his work and completed the series. Notable among them were Bronisław Chlebowski (1846 – 1916), a participant of the January Insurrection, a historian of Polish literature and professor, and Władysław Walewski, a noble and philanthropist. The financial backing for the series came from Witold Zgielnicki, who was a initiator of the Mianowski Fund. A portion of Zgielnicki’s income, which he received from his extensive holdings in Russian oil fields, was earmarked for this fund, which supported intellectual pursuits and funded prizes for works in the arts, literature and science – a sort of Polish version of the Noble Prize. The seizing of Russian oil fields by the Bolsheviks put an end to the “Polish Nobel”, as no further income was generated for this purpose.
Fortunately, the Słownik was already completed before this seizure took place. Each volume of the original Słownik was printed in small portion and a dozen or so of them constituted one volume. Later, these smaller units were consolidated into the larger volumes with which we are familiar. The original Słownik was sold only to subscribers. In 1977 the publishing house Wydawnictwo Artystyczne i Filmowe decided to reprint 800 copies of the original Słownik to make it more available to scholars and interested parties. Another 1000 copies were printed in 1986. The Słownik is now available on CD (https://www.biblioteka.okay.pl/oferta.html) or can be viewed on the internet at https://dir.icm.edu.pl/pl/Slownik_geograficzny. The internet version includes a search engine which will provide a list of entries themselves plus a list of entries in which the locality is mentioned. In 1995, an index to the surnames contained in the Słownik was compiled by Szymon Konarski and published by DiG publishers.
Below are two sample entries from the Słownik, one brief, the other more extensive. In the latter, there are terms that have no real one-word translations. In many of these entries, words which were comprehensible to the world in which they were found are no longer comprehensible in our world. Conversely, how would you explain a laser printer or washing machine to someone who lived in the 1600s? The reality of our times simply no longer matches the way of life of four centuries ago.
Kłodnia, Kłodawa, German Klodnia, estate in Chojnice, located in woody and sandy area, 1 mila [about 7.6 kilometers] from the railway station in Czersk. It has 2916 mórgs, 19 buildings, 5 houses, 65 Catholics. At a short distance from the village, on the agricultural plain to the north, eight old stone tombs were found 50 years ago; they were later destroyed. The parish church and post office are in Czersk. There is a school in the village. The owner of the settlement was a certain Kliński.
Nowa Cerkiew German Adelig and Koenigl. Neukirch bei Konitz, knightly estate and church village, in the district of Chojnice. There is a post office in the village. The telegraph office and railway station are in Chojnice. The school in the village. The Evangelical Lutheran parish is located in Chojnice. Registry precinct Lotyn. The estate includes 273.7 ha of farmland, 5.04 of meadows, 68.98 of pasture, 23.55 of forest, 8.1 of wasteland, 4.87 of water, 384.24 ha altogether; 17 buildings, 5 houses, 66 inhabitants, 43 Catholics, 23 Evangelicals. The village has 3487.85 morgs of farmland, 126 buildings, 69 houses, 520 inhabitants, 395 Catholics, 123 Evangelicals. The local parish, belonging to the Tuchola deanery, had 1975 souls in 1884. The church under the patronage of Mary Magdalene was renovated in 1763. There is a sobriety brotherhood functioning at the church, founded in 1859. The parish includes the following towns: Nowacerkiew, Kłodawa and Kłodawka, Eulalin, Jeziorki, Kruszki, Młynek, Muehlhof, Jasno, Okole (German: Konigortek), Klonia, Parowa, Zarzecze, Suszek, Kosowaniwa, Chwarzno, Żukowo, Przyżarcz, Mrówieniec Wielki and Mrówieniec Mały, Białebłoto (German: Weissbruch), Techowa Karczma (nonexistent today), Lotyn, Jakubowo, Sternowo, Nicponia, and Gramkat; the following places belong to the filial church in Pawłowo: Pawłowo, Pawłówko, and Lipienica. Catholic schools in 1867 were only in Nowacerkiew and Kłodawa. The village, together with the village council, were both founded under the German law in 1326 by Człuchów Commander, Teodoryk v. Lichtenhain (See: Odpisy Dregera in Pelplin). In 1648 Siedlecki was paying in Nowacerkiew 2 florens and 16 pence per one inhabited włóka (~30 morgs) and 2 gardens. According to Trebnic’s report from 1653, Nowacerkiew belonged to Człuchów district. The church has burned down recently and was replaced by a new, wooden one. The sacristy, also wooden, was not finished at the time. There were 2 gardens by the rectory. The rectory included 4 włókas of land. The rector was partially taking care of this land himself, and rented the other part out. There were 10 gburs (wealthier peasant), formerly 15, and they were obligated to render 2 bushels of rye as part of meszne tax ( a tax paid to the church for saying Masses). The manor, at that time occupied by Korytowski (in 1695 Osiecki), paid 3 bushels of rye. There were 3 gburs in Lotyn, they paid 1 bushel each (per semiduos modios), the manor – 5 bushels. In Żuków, there were 6 properties, partially devastated, however, they were paid 6 bushels. Jeziórki (1 property) paid 3 bushels of rye and 3 of wheat. There were 4 gburs in Kłodawa, looking to the manorial farmstead of Powałki, and 4 at the farmstead. Jeziórki gae 1 bushel of rye and 1 of oats, formerly there were 18 peasants. The devastated properties were divided between gburs and there was a law suit over the Mass tax. The mill belonging to Jeziórki paid half a bushel of rye and the same amount was paid by another named Szusk (Suszyk in 1695, it no longer exists). The administrators of the church were Jan Boerman and Marcin Domach, the pastor was Jan Magnuszewski. Borc, in his “Echo Sepulcharis” enumerated also the following pastors in the 18th century: Wawrzyniec Bekierton, Wojciech Wolnicki, Andrzej Achowicz, Adnrzej Dunin, Adam Smierzycki (Smierzycius), formerly in Goręcin: Wojciech Buława, Maciej Żaliński. In the 18th century: Stanisław Łącki from Borzyszki, Józef Michał Trzebiatowski, Szymon Mieliński, Antoni Marceli Montawski, and Marcin Borek who renovated the church so that he was named the second founder.