Westward Expansion

Alexander Bielaski
Felix Wierzbicki

  • Abraham Lincoln

Polish migrants played an important role in the ‘Westward Expansion’, the 19th century movement of settlers, agriculture, and industry into the west of America. This was accompanied by a spectacular development of cities and transport infrastructure, particularly railways. The expansion began with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 and was fueled by the Oregon Trail and the California Gold Rush. Overall, the development was justified by a shared belief in “Manifest Destiny”. Alexander Bielaski (1811-1861) was a Polish-American engineer who worked on the development of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (reporting marks B&O) and the Illinois Central Railroad (reporting mark IC), which is sometimes called the ‘Main Line of Mid-America’. B&O was the first common carrier railroad and the oldest in the United States. IC is a key railroad located in the central United States. Bielaski fought in the November Uprising (1830-1831), which aimed to restore Poland’s independence. Russia eventually crushed the uprising and Bielaski was forced to flee to the United States. Apart from working in the railway sector, Bielaski supervised the construction of the Florida Ship Canal. He took measurements and topographic photographs in Florida, working in fierce conditions during the war with the indigenous Seminoles. He settled in Springfield, Illinois where he befriended Abraham Lincoln. Even after Lincoln had been elected president, he spent evenings sitting with Bielaski on the latter’s porch discussing the political situation in the country and international affairs. In 1861 Lincoln gave Bielaski a commission in the Union Army following the start of the American Civil War (1861-1865). Bielaski perished at the beginning of the war in the Battle of Belmont. His grandson A. Bruce Bielaski served as director of what would become the Federal Bureau of Investigation from 1912 to 1919. He was the second director of the FBI.

The California Gold Rush was the largest gold rush in the history of the US. It began in January 1848, when gold was found in California. The news that gold had been discovered brought around 300,000 people to California from the rest of the United States and abroad. The influx of gold into the money supply reinvigorated the American economy. The sudden population surge also allowed California to quickly push for statehood. During the Gold Rush, Felix Wierzbicki (1815 –1860), a Polish-American, physician, soldier, and writer came to California. He was born in Volhynia, Ukraine. He fought in the November Uprising (1830-1831) and migrated to the US after the defeat. He initially settled in Illinois. He enlisted in the US Army and participated in the Mexican-American War (1846-1848). After this, he moved to San Francisco, California. In 1849, Wierzbicki published in the city the first English language book printed in California, which was titled “California as It Is and as It May Be, or A Guide to the Gold Region”. The book offers an excellent description of the culture, peoples, and climate of the area, including a survey of agriculture and hints on gold mining. The work gained great recognition and the entire first edition quickly sold out. As a result, reprinting was necessary and the book was extended by two chapters. In California Wierzbicki continued his medical practice. He co-founded the first medical society in the state, which was simply called “The Medical Society”. Wierzbicki died in 1860 in San Francisco and was buried there. His remains were later reinterred at the San Francisco National Cemetery. Due to its comprehensive content and pioneering character, Wierzbicki’s book remains one of the most important works in the history of American California.