Describing Place Names in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth 1569-1795

When genealogists enter the names of the locations where events in their ancestors’ lives occurred, they are faced with the dilemma of how to enter place names so as to unambiguously identify the locations in both space and time.

To accomplish this task, the genealogist must decide how much information is required to unambiguously identify a place. Is city and country enough, or must one enter other administrative subdivisions? In America, genealogists generally accept that most places can be accurately and unambiguously identified by specifying city, county, state, and country.

Genealogists must also decide whether to enter the name of the place as it was known at the time of the event, or the name of the place as it is known today. Entering place names as they are known today is the easier option, but this choice suffers from the downside that, if place names change in the future, the information in the genealogical database will be outdated. Entering place names as they were known at the time of the events described provides the advantage of historical accuracy and provides the reader with a richer understanding of the historical conditions described in the genealogy.

Efforts to achieve this goal of identifying places as they were known at the times of the events described can be a difficult task because borders throughout the world have changed repeatedly throughout the history of civilization.

Genealogists researching Polish ancestors may be able to trace their families to the time of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (1569-1795). At the time it existed, the Commonwealth was officially known as Królestwo Polskie i Wielkie Księstwo Litewskie, interpreted as the Kingdom of Poland and Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and was colloquially known as Rzeczpospolita, meaning Commonwealth or Republic. In 1967, Paweł Jasienica coined the name Rzeczpospolita Obojga Narodów (The Commonwealth of Both/Two Nations) in his three volume work by the same name, although this name was not used at the time the Commonwealth actually existed.

The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was split into several different types of administrative divisions including provinces (singular provincia, plural prowincje), voivodeships or palatinates (singular województwo, plural województwa), lands (singular ziemia, plural ziemie), and districts (singular powiat, plural powiaty).

To make matters even more complex, the borders of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth changed somewhat over time as the Commonwealth gained or lost territory.

In general, the Commonwealth after the Union of Lublin in 1569 encompassed Korona Polska (the Polish Crown), Wielkie Księstwo Litewskie (the Grand Duchy of Lithuania), and several fiefs and dependencies. Within the Polish Crown there existed two provinces: prowincja wielkopolska (Province of Greater Poland) in the northwest of the Commonwealth, and prowincja małopolska (Province of Lesser Poland) in the south. The Grand Duchy of Lithuania is also referred to as prowincja litwa (Province of Lithuania) and is located in the northeast of the Commonwealth.

Each province was divided into województwa (voivodeships).

After the Union of Lublin in 1569, prowincja wielkopolska (Province of Greater Poland) was composed of the following województwa:

województwo brzeskokujawskie (Brześć Kujawski Voivodeship)
województwo chełmińskie (Chełmno Voivodeship)
województwo gnieźnieńskie (Gniezno Voivodeship)
województwo inowrocławskie (Inowrocław Voivodeship)
województwo kaliskie (Kalisz Voivodeship)
województwo łęczyckie (Łęczyca Voivodeship)
województwo malborskie (Malbork Voivodeship)
województwo mazowieckie (Masovian Voivodeship)
województwo płockie (Płock Voivodeship)
województwo pomorskie (Pomeranian Voivodeship)
województwo poznańskie (Poznań Voivodeship)
województwo rawskie (Rawa Voivodeship)
województwo sieradzkie (Sieradz Voivodeship)

After the Union of Lublin in 1569, prowincja małopolska (Province of Lesser Poland) was composed of the following województwa:

województwo bełskie (Bełz Voivodeship)
województwo bracławskie (Bracław Voivodeship)
województwo czernihowskie (Chernihiv Voivodeship)
województwo kijowskie (Kiev Voivodeship)
województwo krakowskie (Kraków Voivodeship)
województwo lubelskie (Lublin Voivodeship)
województwo podlaskie (Podlaskie Voivodeship)
województwo podolskie (Podole Voivodeship)
województwo ruskie (Ruthenian Voivodeship)
województwo sandomierskie (Sandomierz Voivodeship)
województwo wołyńskie (Volhynian Voivodeship)

After the Union of Lublin in 1569, Prowincja Litwa (Province of Lithuania) was composed of the following województwa:

województwo brzeskolitewskie (Brest Litovsk Voivodeship)
województwo mińskie (Minsk Voivodeship)
województwo mścisławskie (Mstsislaw Voivodeship)
województwo nowogródzkie (Nowogródek Voivodeship)
województwo połockie (Polotsk Voivodeship)
województwo smoleńskie (Smolensk Voivodeship)
województwo trockie (Trakai Voivodeship)
województwo wileńskie (Vilnius Voivodeship)
województwo witebskie (Vitebsk Voivodeship)

In turn, each województwo was divided into ziemie (lands) and powiaty (districts), but a detailed tabulation of these smaller divisions is beyond the scope of this article.

With this understanding of the administrative divisions of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the genealogist may specify a place name as follows:

name of city or village, voivodeship, province, nation, or
name of city or village, voivodeship, nation

for example:

Szwelice, Masovian Voivodeship, Province of Greater Poland, Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, or
Szwelice, Masovian Voivodeship, Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth

or, if one prefers to write the place name in Polish:

Szwelice, województwo mazowieckie, prowincja wielkopolska, Królestwo Polskie i Wielkie Księstwo Litewskie, or
Szwelice, województwo mazowieckie, Królestwo Polskie i Wielkie Księstwo Litewskie

From a practical standpoint, the name of the province is redundant, since none of the voivodeships overlap or occur in more than one province. The name of the province can be omitted for brevity, without significantly diminishing the specificity of the place name.

If the ziemia (land) or powiat (district) is known, adding that information to the place name can further refine the location for the reader, but identifying the correct ziemia or powiat often requires the use of a more detailed map of the Commonwealth than is commonly available.

By providing accurate place names as they were known at the time of the events described, genealogists can enhance their work with a richer understanding of the world in which their ancestors lived.

Other articles in this series:

  • Describing Place Names in the Duchy of Warsaw 1807-1815
  • Describing Place Names in the Kingdom of Poland 1815-1816
  • Describing Place Names in the Kingdom of Poland 1816-1837
  • Describing Place Names in the Kingdom of Poland 1837-1844
  • Describing Place Names in the Kingdom of Poland 1844-1867
  • Describing Place Names in the Vistula Land 1867-1915
  • Copyright © 2009 by Stephen J. Danko

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    5 Responses to Describing Place Names in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth 1569-1795

    1. Lisa says:

      Thanks for taking the time to write out this explanation of Polish place names and how you’ve chosen to record them, Steve. I, too, have struggled with these same questions, only for Hungarian/Croatian genealogy. Recording the locations as they were named at the time our ancestors lived is certainly the more accurate and meaningful route. It brings out the importance of understanding history, which is so important in gaining perspective on the lives of our ancestors.

      Lisa
      100 Years in America
      Small-leaved Shamrock
      A light that shines again
      Carnival of Irish Heritage & Culture

    2. Steve Wainer says:

      Hi Steve,

      A great “small” book with lots of maps about Eastern Europe is “The Palgrave Concise Historical Atlas of Eastern Europe”. While it doesn’t exactly clear up the whole history of Eastern Europe ( nothing can ), it’s abundance of maps over time make it a great resource. I’d highly recommend it.

      Steve

    3. RENARD CHROBAK says:

      I’M STILL LOOKING FOR MY FOLLOWING SURNAME FAMILIES FROM DUBIECKO, DROHOBYCZ, OR HUTA, JAWORNIK, BACHORZ, BURA-BURY, CHROBAK, STADNIK, FRANKO, TWORZYDLO, MITREGA, SZYBIAK, SZTUKA, SOWA PALYS, PLUTA, POLTORAK, GLOWACZ, GREGORZAK, GWIZDALA, SURA, KARNAS, KOCIUBA, SPINDOR, LICHOTA, PACZKOWSKI, PASZKOWSKI, TWANSKA-TWANSKI, PINKOWICZ,FRANCZAK, THEY WERE MOSTLY ROMAN CATHOLICS, SOME WERE GREEK CATHOLICS.

      ‘M JUST LOOKING FOR DATES AND PLACES OF BIRTH’S, MARRIAGES, DEATHS, OR EVEN DIVORCES.

      THANKYOU,

      I WOULD APPRECIATE ANY AND ALL INFORMATION ON MY SURNAME FAMILIES, AND MANY SPUCES FAMILIES THAT ARE STILL UNKNOWN.

      SINCERELY,

      RENARD R. CHROBAK

      rfchrobak@alltel.net

    4. Dennis Nilsen says:

      Dear Stephen,

      Thank you for posting this article.

      In it, you mention a detailed map of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Where would one find maps of, for example, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania during the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries?

      I know that my family owned an estate near Raseiniai (Rossieny), but would like to track down the particular ziemia and powiat!

      Thank you!

      Sincerely,

      Dennis

    5. Ania Zamecznik says:

      The following websites are wonderful for Historic Maps relating to Rzeczpospolita Polska – for an interactive overview of the changing borders: http://polmap.republika.pl/mapy.html – for a wonderful selection of ancient historic maps: http://lithuanianmaps.com/ – for some very detailed Military Maps of Polish Territories: http://polski.mapywig.org/news.php – for large sized printable historic maps: http://staremapy.org/mapy.html
      I hope this helps because I thinks this site is a great resource for those of us who are trying to reconstruct our family histories in areas where all trace of our ancestors has been obliterated by those who stole our heritage.

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