Polish Quarter of San Antonio


By: Allen Kosub and Regina Tolley Kosub

Type: General Entry

Published: August 31, 2021

Updated: August 31, 2021


In 1854 immigrants from Polish Upper Silesia came to San Antonio. Local newspapers reported their arrival. They came without the organization or financial support of an empresario. While many moved on to create the rural Polish communities at Panna Maria, Bandera, and St. Hedwig, some remained in San Antonio and became craftsmen, merchants, tradesmen, and laborers. They bought lots and built homes in an area called “Beckville” in East San Antonio’s Fourth Ward.

Through the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, this robust cultural community came to be recognized as San Antonio’s Polish Quarter. A common language and shared customs drew Polish families to the Quarter. It became the urban center for outlying rural Polish communities; a place where they came to sell their produce and trade for staples. By the end of the nineteenth century, the Polish Quarter was made up of homes, a church, at least three saloons, nine stores, several wagon yards, commission merchants, meat markets, a bottler, and many other businesses, all owned and run by Poles

Polish migration to North America, from its earliest days, was largely confined to individual émigrés or exiles from Poland. Compared to the later nineteenth-century Polish migrations to Illinois, Wisconsin, New York, and Michigan, the migration to Texas from Polish Silesia was miniscule. The Polish migration to Texas in the mid-nineteenth century, however, was the first known instance of an en-masse Polish immigration that created permanent Polish communities in the United States. The Polish communities of South Texas enrich the Polish American narrative with their experiences in the American West. The Civil War, Reconstruction violence, and participation in ranching and cattle drives add unique chapters to the Polish American experience.

More than any of the rural communities, the Polish Quarter placed the Polish immigrants in close contact with other cultural groups and hastened assimilation into the fabric of American life. From their arrival in 1854, Poles were incorporated into San Antonio’s narrative. They took part in the 1860 U.S. federal census, declared their intention to become U. S. citizens, registered to vote, and built homes, businesses, a church, and a school. Some recorded their cattle brands showing that their cattle grazed at the Alamo. Most sought employment in the community trades and became a significant labor force in San Antonio’s economy.

The Polish immigrants were Roman Catholic. Records of baptisms and marriages show that the immigrants who first came to San Antonio associated themselves with San Fernando Church. After the Civil War, in 1866 missionary priests from Poland came to Texas and worked among the immigrants to organize distinct Polish parishes with new church buildings, schools, and cemeteries. In San Antonio, St. Michael’s Parish was established; a church and school were built on South Street near the center of the Polish Quarter. 

The community was active in local politics and chose two of their own as Bexar County commissioners. Many of the men and women from the Polish Quarter worked at factories and businesses in San Antonio. George Holmgreen’s nearby iron foundry, that later became Alamo Iron Works, was a major source of employment for the Polish Quarter. In 1902 Sunset Railroad Station was built next to the Polish Quarter. To accommodate travelers, Theo and Veronica (Zaiontz) Felix, the children of Polish immigrants, demolished their nearby Zaiontz Store on Commerce Street and built the Fairmount Hotel, one of San Antonio’s architectural treasures. In the early twentieth century the Polish Quarter also was home to the short-lived Nowiny Texaskie a Polish-language newspaper that began publication in 1914.

In 1939 Claude Stanush (according to his obituary, born fifty feet from the site of the HemisFair Tower of the Americas), at the beginning of his career as a celebrated journalist, novelist, and screenwriter, wrote for the San Antonio Light about the Polish Quarter: “It is estimated that there are about 500 Poles of Old World extraction living in San Antonio. Though farmers by tradition, these Poles are urban in their lives and most of them are engaged in the iron industry”.

The Polish Quarter disappeared under San Antonio’s twentieth-century efforts at “urban renewal” especially during the acquisition of property for the HemisFair location during the 1960s. HemisFair Plaza, the Alamodome, and Interstate Highway 37 cover it. Its businesses, church, school, and homes are gone. Only a few relics of the community were spared among the new structures that were built for HemisFair in 1968. A Texas Historical Marker commemorating the Polish Quarter was erected in HemisFair Park in 2016.

Archdiocese of San Antonio: Diamond Jubilee, 1874–1949 (San Antonio, 1949). T. Lindsay Baker, The First Polish Americans: Silesian Settlements in Texas (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1979). Galveston Weekly News, November 7, 1854. Historical Marker Files, Texas Historical Commission, Austin. San Antonio Ledger, November 7, 1854. San Antonio Light, January 22, 1939; December 8, 1946. Silesian Profiles Committee, Panna Maria Historical Society, Silesian Profiles II, Polish Immigration to Texas 1850s–1870s (Panna Maria, Texas: Panna Maria Historical Society, 2004).

Categories:
  • Architecture
  • Historic Districts
  • Business
  • Peoples
  • Poles
Time Periods:
  • Antebellum Texas
  • Civil War
  • Reconstruction
  • Late Nineteenth-Century Texas
  • Progressive Era
  • Great Depression
  • Texas in the 1920s
  • World War II
  • Texas Post World War II
Places:
  • Central Texas
  • San Antonio

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Allen Kosub and Regina Tolley Kosub, “Polish Quarter of San Antonio,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed July 03, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/polish-quarter-of-san-antonio.

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August 31, 2021
August 31, 2021

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