Beginnings: From Kolomyia to Jamestown

John Smith
John Bogdan from Kolomyia

  • Pocahontas
  • Edith Wilson
  • Woodrow Wilson

People from the Eastern lands of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth were present in North America from the very beginning of the United States, which started as a number of English colonies. The first permanent English settlement in North America was established in Jamestown, Virginia in 1607. John Smith (1580–1631), an English soldier, explorer, colonial governor, and admiral of New England played a crucial role in the development of the colony. Since then, Smith has featured many times in American popular culture, including literature, art, and cinematography.

Before coming to America, he served as a mercenary and fought in the Romanian lands against various enemies who regularly switched sides. This includes Poles and Ruthenians from the Eastern lands of the Commonwealth. Smith allegedly killed and beheaded three Ottoman challengers in ‘single combat’ duels, for which he was knighted and given a coat of arms showing three Turks’ heads. However, he was later wounded in a skirmish with Crimean Tatars, captured and sold as a slave. He then escaped from the Crimea to the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. Smith described his experiences of the Eastern lands of the Commonwealth in his memoirs, which were narrated in the third person: “he went with a safe conduct to [..]

Rezechica upon the River Nieper, in the confines of Lithuania; from whence with as much kindness, he was convoyed [..] In all this his life, he seldom met with more Respect, Mirth, Content and Entertainment; and not any Governour where he came, but gave him somewhat as a Present, besides his Charges; seeing themselves as subject to the like Calamity”. In addition, Smith admired the high qualifications of local people in the field of logging and above all in the production of tar, which was used to cover roofs and seal buildings. It is not an accident that one of the first Poles or Ruthenians in America was Jan/Ivan/John Bogdan from Kolomyia in Red Ruthenia (Eastern Galicia, present-day Western Ukraine).

Bogdan was a tar maker who was also involved in shipbuilding. He apparently knew Captain John Smith, who praised the Poles for their diligence. Poles and Ruthenians also distinguished themselves in the fight against the Native Americans. The story goes that Bogdan and his companions saved the life of Smith, who fell into an ambush set by the Indians. Despite this, Smith did not only fight against the Native Americans but also befriended some of them. This includes Pocahontas (c. 1596-1617), the daughter of Powhatan, the head chief of a network of tributary tribes in Virginia. She contributed considerably to the survival of Jamestown. In 1616, Smith wrote a letter to the English Queen Anne in anticipation of Pocahontas’ visit to England: “at the minute of my execution, she hazarded the beating out of her own brains to save mine; and not only that but so prevailed with her father, that I was safely conducted to Jamestown”. Pocahontas eventually married tobacco planter John Rolfe. Numerous landmarks, places, and products in America have been named after Pocahontas. Her biography has become romanticized over the years, with some probably fictional aspects added to her story. She also became a popular subject in art, literature, and film.

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President Woodrow Wilson, seated at desk with his wife, Edith, standing at his side. First posed picture after Mr. Wilson’s stroke, White House, June 1920, Source: Wikipedia

Many people can trace their ancestry back to Pocahontas, including First Lady Edith Wilson (1872–1961). She was the wife of President Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) and served as the first lady of the United States from 1915 to 1921. Edith Wilson played an increasingly influential role in her husband’s administration following a severe stroke that he suffered in 1919. For the remainder of Woodrow’s presidency, she managed the office of the president and decided what matters of state were important enough to bring to the attention of her husband.

Woodrow Wilson is remembered fondly in Poland because he contributed considerably to the country regaining its independence in 1918. That same year he outlined in his speech on peace terms to congress the ‘Fourteen Points’, a statement of principles that he believed should be used during peace negotiations following the First World War. The thirteenth point stated that “An independent Polish state should be erected which should include the territories inhabited by indisputably Polish populations”. Interestingly, most of Poland’s territory during the interwar period was made up of parts of the former Eastern lands of the Commonwealth, which were mainly inhabited by non-Poles.