On October 1, 1608, twelve years before the Pilgrims landed in Plymouth, the first Polish settlers arrived at Jamestown aboard the English ship Mary and Margaret, for the purpose of establishing a glass industry in the colony.
Founded by Christopher Newport and Captain John Smith on the northeast bank of the Powhatan River, Jamestown was the first permanent English settlement in North America. The new colony initially consisted of a wooden fort built in a triangle around a storehouse for weapons and other supplies, a church and a number of houses.
By the summer of 1607, Newport went back to England with two ships and 40 crewmembers to give a report to the king and to gather more supplies and colonists. But under the leadership of John Smith, famine, disease, caused from drinking contaminated water, and conflict with local Algonquian tribes soon brought the colony to the brink of failure.
Upon his return, Newport found that the effects of the lack of skills amongst the original colonists, combined with Native American attacks, had quickly reduced the original settlement to only 38 survivors. And after expanding fortifications, rebuilding shelters and placing armed men to defend crops, Newport departed again for England in April 1608.
Urgently needed supplies were gathered, as well the first non-English settlers, recruited as skilled craftsmen, commissioned to help develop and manufacture profitable export products. Among these additional settlers were Polish glass makers, who had been hired at the request of John Smith to establish a new glass making industry in the New World.
The first Polish settlers
On October 1, 1608, following a journey of approximately three months, the Mary and Margaret landed at Jamestown and the Polish settlers first set foot on American soil. Two of them were identified in historical documents as “Robert, a Polonian” and “Mathew the Polander.”
Upon their arrival, the Polish settlers built a furnace and began manufacturing glass products, which were the first made-in-America products that were exported to Europe. In fact, the Poles contributed greatly to the establishment of the new settlement as they were not only experts in manufacturing glass, but also pitch, tar, and other products necessary for the success of the new colonies.
But despite the fact that their contributions were vital to the settlement, the Polish settlers did not enjoy the same rights as the Englishmen. And when they were denied participation in the first Virginia Assembly, held in July 1619, the Polish workers organized the first labor walk-out, which is recognized as the first strike in the Americas.
The newly formed House of Bugesses quickly acknowledged the vital role of the Poles in the settlement’s well being and granted them the same voting privileges as those enjoyed by the English.
The arrival of the Polish settlers in Jamestown is commemorated annually by Polish Americans across the United States on October 1, which also marks the beginning of Polish American Heritage Month. The 400-year anniversary of the Jamestown strike was also widely celebrated in 2019.
But the role of Polish settlers has at times been exaggerated by Polish American activists who tend to glorify the strike as the beginning of organized labor, the agreement to enfranchise the Poles as the origin of American democracy, and the very presence of the Poles in Jamestown as the launching of cultural diversity.
With an estimated 9.15 million self-identified Polish Americans, representing about 3% of the U.S. population, Poles are today the eighth largest ethnic group overall in the United States. One of the most notable in size of the urban Polish American communities is in Chicago and its surrounding suburbs, which bills itself as the largest Polish city outside of Poland.
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