Original Immigrant Project

The history of the Polish people in Winona traces back to a hearty group of immigrants who usually came from a small area in northwest Poland called Kashubia in the late 19th century. Our Museum has a record of many of these people but sadly we don’t have a comprehensive list. More importantly we know only small part about who these people were and how they lived their lives.

The Original Immigrant Project is an attempt to fill in many of the blanks in our current knowledge.  At a minimum we are hoping to build a complete list of Winona’s original Polish immigrants.  Ideally we would like to create a short, publicly available biography of each person.

In many respects this project is an experiment. It’s purpose is to test a hypothesis that information about people who lived in the past isn’t always lost as it is dispersed. When a person passes away, objects and stories about the person are usually passed on to a small group of heirs. Those individuals eventually pass on and again objects and stories are passed to another generation. Currently we are 5 or 6 generations removed from the small group of Winona’s original Polish immigrants and the stories about their lives and the objects they treasured has probably been dispersed among hundreds of people.

It is probably that some of this information has been dispersed so finely that it is now just dust blowing in the wind. Sadly some of this information exists only in our worlds garbage dumps.

However a significant portion probably still exists in storage boxes, drawers and remote corners of our minds that we rarely visit. We know the information is important and that it shouldn’t be destroyed, but we are never quite sure what to do with it.  This project is an attempt to free that information and make it available to the rest of the world.

For example, do you have an old letter tucked away from your grandfather? Perhaps you have his wedding photograph or a family portrait? Maybe you have some old newspaper clippings where he was mentioned or your grandmothers chair or wedding ring. Or maybe all you have is the memory of a story one of your grandparents told to you as a child.

There is usually a reason we keep these memories and objects. Attached to these items are often stories that give us an indication of who these people were which in turn gives us an indication of who we are and where we came from.

This project is an attempt to pull this diaspora of information back together into a complete story.  It will take time, but we would like to create a short biography about each of these people to help future generations understand a little about their past.

The traditional way to do this is to hire professional researchers who would scour the landscape to find the information we are seeking. Unfortunatly this is an expensive process and it isn’t always even that successful.

Instead we are deploying some recently developed tools that we are hoping those interested in the lives of these original immigrants can use to collect and analyse the information needed to build these biographies. The first tool we are providing is a software package called Ushahidi (pronounced oo-shah-hee-dee).

Ushahidi is a powerful piece of software with a fascinating history. The software is usually used as a crisis management tool in areas where there has been severe political or social unrest or where a natural disaster has occurred. In many respects it is a tool to manage history in the making.

In our case we are attempting to use this tool a little in reverse by using it to rebuild the story of an event (in this case the life of a person) that has already occurred. What Ushahidi is very good at is collecting snippets of information from a large group of people in a chaotic environment and using it to figure out what is happening and how others can help.

The software is actually quite simple. What it does is collect a series of small reports about what multiple individuals see or know about something that is happening and make that information available to those who might be able to help. In a crisis situation people are asked “what did you see happen” and, critically, “where and when did you see it happen”. These reports are often sent in the form of a text message (since this is often the only form of communication available) although they can also be sent via email or through a form on a website (the method we will be using).

In our case there is fortunately no crisis occurring but the type of information we need to collect and analyse is essentially the same. We need to find out from multiple people and answer to the following questions:

What do you know about any event that happened to one of Winona’s original Polish immigrants?
When and where did this event occur?.


What is needed is for people to tell others any story (or stories) they know about an original immigrant in a specific format.  These stories don’t have be be particularly grand or by themselves even that interesting.  Quite the contrary.  It is the mundane facts and stories about these people’s lives that we are most interested in because these are the items that are often valuable in figuring out who the person was but are rarely recorded.

For example, you might have a hammer that belongs to your grandfather.  When you were given the hammer you were probably told something like “this hammer belonged to your grandfather, he was a carpenter”.  The important story that needs to be told in this situation is simply “he was a carpenter”.

This little piece of information already tells others a lot about your grandfather.  But it also gives others a clue about where to begin looking for other information about your grandfather.  For example, someone may notice his name in old building records for a local church or government building.

Once you know this, suddenly your grandfathers story becomes much more interesting.  Not only can you tell your children that their great-grandfather was a carpenter, you can also point to examples of building he helped to construct.  Combine this information with 10 or 15 other “mundane” stories and suddenly you have a lot to say.

Ushahidi at its core is simply a program designed to help people “report” an event.  In our case individuals can fill out a report on anything they might know about one of Winona’s original Polish immigrants.  The process is similar to filling out an email only a little more structured.

Each person submitting a report will be asked the following:

1) Who is the original immigrant the report will be about?
2) What happened in that person’s life that you want to report?
3) When did it happen?
4) Where did it occur?
5) Do you have any documentation (articles, letters, pictures) that you can share that would confirm your story (e.g. a picture of your grandfathers hammer)?


Each report that is submitted will be reviewed (mainly to weed out spam) and then publicly posted on our website for others to review and comment on.  Eventually we are hoping that over time (and this may take years) we will accumulate enough reports to build a relatively accurate biography for each of Winona’s original Polish Immigrants.

If this experiment is successful and we being accumulating a significant number of reports, we will install software similar to that used on Wikipedia.  This software will allow people to create and edit the biographies we would like to see created on an ongoing basis.  This process would be similar to how Wikipedia articles are built.

Please note that you don’t necessarily need to be related to any of the Original Immigrants to file a report.  You simply need to know something about them.  Perhaps you worked for a local business and there was a legend that was always told to new employees about one of the Original Immigrants.  You might also stumble across a story while researching another topic.

If you are particularly interested in one or more Original Immigrants you might consider actively researching these people.  A good place to start might be the Winona Newspaper Project.  This free resource likely contains thousands of stories about many of Winona’s original Polish immigrants that can be accessed from the convenience of your own home.

Our Museum also has many records in our archives, but please understand that much of it is in rather fragile condition and can’t be shared with the public on a regular basis.  There are long term plans to digitise and make it available, but at this time we don’t have the resources to begin this process.

If there is something in particular you would like to see made available and you have the skills and willingness to convert it to a useful digital format (usually by photographing and indexing the resource), please send us a message.  We would love to discuss anything you might have to offer.

While we are trying to make every effort to make this process as easy as possible, we understand that not everyone is technically savvy.  Because of this we are planning to provide some short seminars to help bring people quickly up to speed.  Please watch our calendar for a schedule of these upcoming events.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.