The Polish Partitions, Revolts and Great Migration – My ancestral odyssey

Flag of the Polish November Uprising. Source: Wikimedia Commons

This post is the first chapter in a series I plan to publish on my Polish ancestry. It is linked to my main Puchalski/Pouhalski page which provides an initial introduction and overview.

The true story of how my Polish ancestors ended up in Ottoman Constantinople in the mid 19th century, has long been an intriguing mystery. My family has always said that my Great Grandmother, Christina Callus nee Puchalski, (aka Pouhalski), was born in Poland but had to flee with her family to Constantinople (Istanbul), during the Polish Uprisings. It was also claimed that she and her two sisters and a brother, were placed in an orphanage so that her parents could return to continue the fight.  New information has recently come to light which finally places my family’s story within the historical context of Poland’s difficult and fiercely fought struggle for independence and its national identity. Once again, it seems that my family recollections are not without substance after all.

Our story begins with the Polish Partitions…

Background to the Partitions of Poland

“The Polish national movement had the longest pedigree, the best credentials. the greatest determination, the worst press, and the least success.”

(Norman Davies, 1996).

A weak constitution and a civil war in Poland in 1768 made the country vulnerable to attack by its neighbours, the powerful states of Russia, Prussia and the Habsburg Empire. In 1772, each moved into Poland to take over some of its territory in an act that became known as the First Partition.

Territorial Changes of Poland 1772 by Esemono - Own work, Public Domain, Link

Territorial Changes of Poland 1772 by Esemono – Own work, Public Domain, Link

Despite efforts in Poland to strengthen their constitution and defend the nation against further incursions, two further Partitions were made in the 1790s which completely absorbed Poland into its neighbour’s territories and extinguished Poland as a sovereign state, a position it was not able to reverse until the end of World War 1 (Online Encyclopedia Britannica).


Territorial Changes of Poland 1795 by Esemono - Own work, Public Domain, Link

Territorial Changes of Poland 1795 by Esemono – Own work, Public Domain, Link

In 1807, part of Poland briefly re-emerged when Napoleon Bonaparte created the Duchy of Warsaw as an independent Polish state out of the Prussian part of Poland. This became the focal point for nationalist efforts to restore Poland’s former boundaries.

Polish lancers of Napoleon by J. Chelminski. Source: Pinterest.

Napoleon’s Polish lancers by J. Chelminski. Source: Pinterest.

The Code Napoleon was adopted in Poland and the French model imposed for its constitution. The Poles started to pin their hopes on Napoleon for the restoration of their homeland. Many were fervent admirers and Polish troops some of his most loyal legions. In fact, the Poles are the only people in the world to sing about Bonaparte in their national anthem (Nieuwazny, A, 1998)!

There is a story in our family that one of our Puchalski ancestors was a Count who fought and died for Napoleon in one his Polish cavalry legions at the Battle of Waterloo! The most likely candidate would be Theodore Puchalski senior, the father of my Great Great Grandfather, Theodore Puchalski, born about 1812.

There was indeed a Polish officer at Waterloo called Puchalski but his first name was Joseph and he was the Inspector of Military Hospitals (The Army of Grand Duchy of Warsaw)!

Polish lancers bearing a captured standard

Polish lancers bearing a captured standard

However there is another potential candidate referred to just as “Capitaine Puchalski”, who in the 1807 Dirschau campaign (on the west bank of the Vistula) was awarded the Legion d’honneur (D. Chlapowski, 1908). This Puchalski was a member of the Polish legion under Dombrowski, who fought with Napoleon in his earliest campaigns in Italy. Dombrowski was one of Poland’s most famous generals and a cavalry expert.  It would be fantastic if it could be confirmed the Capitaine was Theodore but it needs further research!

Unfortunately for the Poles, when Napoleon’s campaign in Russia failed, their own fate was sealed. After Napoleon’s defeat, 8 of the major powers met at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 to decide how Napoleon’s conquests would be divided among them. (These were Russia, Prussia, Austria, Great Britain, France, Sweden, Spain and Portugal). It was eventually decided that the Russian and Prussian areas of Poland would be given up to create the Congress Kingdom of Poland which was to be a nominally autonomous kingdom under Tsar Alexander I of Russia. The Duchy of Warsaw was made a separate kingdom under the sovereignty of the Tsar.

The First Polish Revolt 1830-1

In July 1830, a popular Revolt broke out in Paris. Despite Napoleon’s downfall, Poles still regarded the French as their allies so when Tsar Nicholas I sought to help suppress the Revolt by using his Polish troops, a secret society of cadets in Warsaw staged an uprising and attempted to assassinate the Tsar’s brother, Grand Duke Constantine, who was their Commander in Chief. This was the beginning of the Polish revolt know as the November Uprising of 1830.

The cadets had only partial success but their actions inspired others and the rebellion extended across the former Congress Kingdom of Poland as far as Belarus and Ukraine. Unfortunately for them, although the much smaller contingent of about 40,000 Polish insurgents fought some brave battles (among them many civilians and even women), they did not manage to capitalise on their gains and eventually the superior might of Russia crushed the Revolt, culminating in an attack on Warsaw in September 1831 which caused the insurgents to retreat to Prussia and finally to surrender (Encyclopedia Britannica).

The Great Migration

Meeting of Polish exiles in Belgium c. 1830 xylograph. Public Domain.

Meeting of Polish exiles in Belgium c. 1830 Xylograph. Public Domain.

Thus began what is known in Poland as ‘The Great Migration’ which lasted between 1831-70.  Many exiles fled to the UK. As an interesting aside, Len Goodman, the celebrity judge on ‘Strictly Come Dancing’, appeared on BBC1’s ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ genealogy programme in 2011 and found out that his Great Great Grandfather, Wincenty Sosnowski, was one of the anti-Tsarist Poles who took part in the 1830-1 uprising and ended up in the UK in 1834 after a year in a Prussian prison!  The vast majority of emigres however, made their way to France. In total, it has been estimated that 6000 Poles became political emigres between 1830-70 (Zubrzycki, J. Wikipedia).

Among these exiles was my Great Great Grandfather, Theodore Puchalski. The evidence for this is contained in an almanac published in Paris in 1837 by the Comte de Tabasz-Krosnowski. The Count produced this important document to bear witness to all the Poles forced into exile.  In his introduction he says:

“Several thousand Poles vegetate in exile.  One day history and posterity will send their names. Today even our compatriots left on the native soil want to know the names of those exiles who did not shrink from this sacrifice. To snatch, to forget these martyrs of the most holy cause, to offer their names to the esteem of the nations and to the hope of the country, is the goal which I proposed to myself by publishing this historic Almanach or Souvenir of Polish emigration which contains the list of Polanais spread abroad.  And, above all, in France, in that noble France, which, in the midst of our disasters, remembered its old friendship, and extended to us protective arms. The warriors of the empire will here find brothers in arms emulated by their glory. Twenty five years have triumphed for the same cause on the same battlefield. We also owe a deep gratitude to the other nations, all rivaled with zeal for goodwill in welcoming the Poles. The difficulties which I have had to overcome in the execution of this and the lack of official documents, it was necessary to have recourse to the Poles themselves, but several of them for personal reasons did not wish to appear on this list….”

Paris 3 May 1837. (Translation excerpt c/o Google Translate).

The almanac is arranged by name, place of birth (where known), rank, unit and the town exiled to. There are many individuals with no rank cited suggesting they were civilians, including Theodore. He was exiled to Troyes in the Aube/Champagne region of France along with 30-40 others.

How can I be certain this Theodore was my Theodore? In truth I cannot be categorical but the circumstantial evidence fits with the stories we have inherited. Previous researches I have commissioned from the Russian State Archives have found no other person of this name during this period, suggesting that while the surname may be common, the combined first name and surname are not.

A Government in Exile – Hôtel Lambert, Paris

Prince Adam Jerzy Czartoryski c. 1830. Public domain.

Prince Adam Jerzy Czartoryski c. 1830. Public domain.

The Polish government in exile was based in the Hôtel Lambert in Paris and was established by Prince Adam Jerzy Czartoryski, its leader, with embassies in London and Istanbul. The Hôtel Lambert was a grand mansion townhouse, on the Quai Anjou on the eastern tip of the Île Saint-Louis, in 4th arrondissement of Paris, bought by Czartoryski in 1843. The Hôtel Lambert’s political agenda was in support of the liberal democratic principles of the 3 May 1791 Polish-Lithuanian Constitution and keeping the plight of the Polish cause on the international stage. It also became a safe house for emigres and dissidents. 

Hôtel Lambert, Paris, by Tangopaso (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Hôtel Lambert, Paris, by Tangopaso (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Hôtel Lambert also created a centre for the preservation and promotion of Polish culture. Key figures among the emigres were Frédéric Chopin, Zygmunt Krasiński, Alphonse de Lamartine, George Sand, Honoré de Balzac, Hector Berlioz, Franz Liszt, Eugène Delacroix, and Adam Mickiewicz. In fact, Chopin’s “La Polonaise” was composed expressly for the Polish ball held there every year (Wikipedia-Hotel Lambert).

Ball at Hotel Lambert, Paris, with Chopin playing and Prince Czartoryski observing. Teofil Kwiatkowski [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Ball at Hotel Lambert, Paris, with Chopin playing and Prince Czartoryski observing. Teofil Kwiatkowski [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Another important institution created by the exiles was the Polish Library in Paris. It was founded in 1838 and still exists today on the Quai d’Orleans, a short walk from the site of Hôtel Lambert. It also accommodates, next door, 3 small museums to Chopin, Mickiewicz and the sculptor Biegas. It houses over 145,000 books and many thousands of other important historical artefacts relating to Polish history and culture.

Polish Library, 8, Quai d'Orleans, Paris. By Cancre (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Polish Library, 8, Quai d’Orleans, Paris.
By Cancre (Own work) [GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

A Temporary Refuge

Many emigres such as Theodore did not stay in France. When in 1848, a series of revolutions swept across Western Europe, he and many of his compatriots, once again joined the cause in the hope that in the process, Russia, Prussia and Austria would be pushed back out of Poland and Polish national identity and culture restored. This will be the subject of my next post.

Further Information and References

Davies, N. (1997), Europe: a History, (New ed. 1997), Pimlico: London.

Nieuwazny, A. (1998), Napoleon and Polish Identity, in History Today, Vol. 48, Issue 5, 5 May 1998.

For an extensive and very good overview of Polish military history, this website is hard to beat:

Chlapowski, Desire,  Memoires sur les guerres de Napoleon 1806-1813. Traduits par M.M. Jan V. Chelminski et le Commandant A. Malibran. (3rd ed., 1908), Plons-Nourrit, Paris (N.B. This is a big file to download as it is the entire book in pdf, patience is needed as it can be slow)!