Iwona's Sources - Passport Policy 1830 -1930

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Permits, Restrictions, and Archival Sources

I have been asked many times about archival sources for passport records from the period of the Great Emigration. Most often genealogists hope to nd such documents in Polish archives—especially those who have not found their ancestors on ship passenger lists and would like to know when their ancestors left their homeland. In the course of several years’ research work I have found no centrally compiled indexes or lists dealing with passport records. In general there are no such indexes, or if they do exist, they are in rather rudimentary form—documents compiled by the local administration of a particular district [okręg] or township [gmina]. To find such sources one must have either a lot of luck or time and patience—better yet, all three!

Let us take as an example the records of the gubernia of Kalisz, records from a large area, centrally kept and covering the territory of an administrative unit of the Russian partition. These records consist of many sections, each of which has its subdivisions, and they contain topics with as many as several thousand units. In this case one must refer to the subinventory for a given topic.

Even the choice of which specic collection to search in is not so obvious. You have, for instance, Wydział wojskowo-policyjny [Military Police Department], Nadzor nad ludnością [Population Supervision], Ruch emigracyjny [Emigration Trafc], Ruch graniczny [Border Trafc], Referat przesiedleńczy [Migration Report]—all these seem worth checking. If you decide on the one entitled "Ruch graniczny,"? and you look at the number of units, the inscription says "3105-9432."? In other words, there are over 6,000 documents!

The situation would seem much better in the case of small gminas. Their collections of archival records are not so massive; but on the other hand, the chances that the kind of records desired exist are not so good. Thus in the Lomża branch of the State Archives, in the inventory for the gmina of the city of Lomża, I found a list of "Osób upoważnionych do przekraczania granicy"? [Persons authorized to cross the border] in the catalog under the heading "Zarząd powiatowy F-5709"? [County administration F-5709], in which the surnames are listed of persons suspected of a desire to emigrate, and of the more afuent among them.

Another example is a fragmentary report from Suwałki dated 30 September 1845, records entitled "Raport Komendantów poczty o wymianie zbiegów"? [Report of Postmasters on the Replacement of Runaways], no. 5-6.

If you wish to search for such entries you must take into consideration several facts. First and foremost, emigrants did not have to possess passports to set off for America; because of the restrictive passport policy of the partitioning powers, Polish emigrants crossed the border illegally. Secondly, for travel across the border local authorities—the local wójt, for instance—issued provisional passes or permits more often than they did actual passports.

In regard to the unexpected wave of emigration, the individual partitioning powers introduced more or less restrictive regulations, depending on the extent of emigration.

The first wave of emigration, in the years 1830-1840, was not ignored by the authorities of the individual partitions. Thus the Galician authorities issued a decree dated 24 March 1832 stating that anyone who left the country without the required permission would lose his property if he did not return after 10 years, or after 5 years if he left with his whole family. Only after 30 years had passed did Austria-Hungary issue new statutes, dated 21 December 1867, which allowed greater freedom of emigration but with limitations for men subject to military duty. It did, however, stipulate that those older than 33 were not subject to this statute.

Stricter regulations were applied in the Russian partition, where from 1834 on military service lasted 25 years—and this was an important reason for ight across the ocean. The Russian authorities treated emigration as a crime, and as the phenomenon intensied they restricted issuing passes for border trafc and metryki [vital registry documents], which had become the documents most requested by emigrants.

The Prussian authorities took the most effective actions, and transported illegal emigrants caught on the border back to their place of residence under police escort, and subjected them to special supervision. (The authorities of the Kingdom of Poland reacted very quickly; they also intensied border control, and handed persons of draft age and Jews over to authorities for punishment.) But it was also in Prussia, beginning in 1845, that the rst legal Komitet do Spraw Emigracji [Commission for Emigration Affairs] began to operate, encouraging emigration to America. It required that those wishing to emigrate have a passport and 170 dollars, that they be 18-40 years of age, and that they be in a good state of health.

In the 1850s the police of the three partitions introduced limitations on emigration between the partitions, mainly in regard to those who were eeing military service or legal punishments.

As the extent of emigration increased, the regulations of the individual administrations changed. In Galicia raids were usually conducted, most often at railroad stations. Agents posted there observed the travelers, and if there was even the slightest suspicion of illegal emigration they seized the persons suspected and turned them over to police commissioners. Their documents’ legality was checked, as well as their nancial means and their status in regard to military service. The most carefully watched stations were in Dębica, Tarnów, Kraków, and Oświęcim.

Agents of the Prussian police were active in the 1890s, even in seaports, and seized those suspected of trying to leave the country. From 1870 so-called przepustki przygraniczne [border passes] were in use, issued by wójts, but only those who lived in the buffer zone of the borders were eligible. These were 8-day tickets used by those who lived in localities no more than 21 versts [about 22 km. or 14 miles] from the border; in 1897 their validity was extended to 28 days. But a plague of corruption favored illegal emigrants. Wójts and border ofcials could be satised with a few rubles and a bottle of vodka.

In Russia the passport strictures were loosened somewhat; from 1892 on a deposit of 75 rubles was required from an adult, and 50 from a child—which did, however, rule out the poorest element of the populace. At the same time, encouraging emigration was a crime subject to punishment under articles 117-128 of the Criminal Code. In time there were more and more such articles. In addition, the authorities forbade issuing metryki without a real and urgent reason.

Toward the end of the 19th century, when the wave of emigration reached its greatest height, the partitioning powers introduced more and more restrictions—but the number of emigration permits issued differed more and more from the actual state of affairs. In the years 1886-1890 the Prussian border was closed to emigrants from Russia and Galicia. Issuing passports was limited to a minimum.

In mid-1893 the Galician governor’s Office issued a circular to all starosta Offices, instructing them to use all legal and moral means to keep people from emigrating without good cause. The campaign included wójts, gmina ofcials, clergymen, teachers, and military policemen. Agitators were caught and put under the jurisdiction of the courts. Starostas issued reports saying that it wasn’t agents who were causing continual departures from the country, but letters from family. Then the authorities decided to conscate such letters. It was much the same in Prussia and Russia. [Editor’s Note—If you’d like examples, consider the letters discussed in the article "Polish Immigrants’ Letters Home"? in the Winter 2001 issue of Rodziny. They were seized by Russian authorities, mainly in an effort to halt the flood of emigration].

In 1914 alone the Galician governor’s Office issued hundreds of circulars and directives to starostas and police commissioners on methods of checking the wave of emigration. In the spring of 1914 Austria-Hungary signed agreements with the shipping companies Austro-Americana, Norddeutscher Lloyd, and Hamburg American Line, with a prohibition on transporting persons age 17 to 36 (except for those who had ofcial papers).

Both sides in this conict kept trying new methods; for instance in the years 1870-1890 the newspaper Gazeta Lwowska printed articles that were intended to discourage emigration, giving false information on numerous ship sinkings and other catastrophes on the ocean.

In the 1890s there were many instances when people using rafters’ passports traveled up the Wisła through Toruń and Gdańsk and from there on to Hamburg.

All the methods used by the partitioning powers proved ineffective, however, and the Galician national court stated that the effect of these restrictions was that more persons emigrated without the required documents, and the scope of the corruption involved could not even be guessed at.

The situation changed radically after World War I, when Poland regained its independence. The government quickly decided on a new passport policy. This was due to several factors: the overburdening of the national treasury by high unemployment benets, the excess of extra people in the economy, the prospect of increased foreign trade, the activation of seaports, the development of the passenger eet, and the improved balance of payments thanks to money transfers coming in from America.

In 1919 the Państwowe Urzędy Pośrednictwa Pracy [National Labor Exchange Office] was created, under the Ministry of Labor, which provided assistance for emigrants as they left the country. It provided information on the possibilities of nding work and on earning situations abroad, and rst and foremost simplied the procedure for obtaining a passport (emigrants were exempted from all unnecessary formalities, including passport fees). These Offices even helped people get advances for the journey, exchange money, and obtain documents besides passports.

But it was at this time that the government of the United States introduced restrictions on immigration, and the Polish Ministry for Foreign Affairs reacted to these restrictions with new regulations. Thus statute no. 10 from 1928 prohibited issuing passports to persons who did not have guaranteed work in their country of destination. In practice applicants for emigration had to show work contracts or invitations from an employer. This did not, however, apply to family emigration.

The 1920s and 1930s saw a signicant decline in Polish emigration across the ocean, caused by the Great Depression in the United States, due to which the American borders were tightly closed against illegal immigrants. During this time the emigration trafc increased to new labor markets, mainly to France.

Until 1931 the Państwowe Urzędy Emigracyjne [State Emigration Offices] had jurisdiction over issuing permits for travel abroad; in 1932 the Ministry of Foreign Affairs assumed that jurisdiction. Access to their records is restricted for genealogical researchers, however, mainly due to statutes protecting personal data and establishing the condentiality of records less than 100 years old. In individual cases one can ask for information from the Naczelna Dyrekcja Archiwów Państwowych [State Archives’ Head Office] in Warsaw.


– Dodatek miesięczny do Przeglądu Tygodniowego: "Emigracja polskiego ludu do Ameryki,"? 1880
– "Drogi emigracji,"? Przegląd Socjologiczny, 1936
– Emigracja z ziem polskich, by Andrzej Pilch
– "Akta wynoszenia się mieszkańców do Ameryki,"? AGAD [Archiwum Główne Akt Dawnych, Chief Archive for Old Documents], 1845-1846
– Catalogs of the Polish State Archives

Iwona Dakiniewicz, Łódź, Poland genealogy@pro.onet.pl

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Last Updated on July 6, 2017