Many family traditions of descent from a noble ancestor turn out, on investigation, to have little foundation in fact. Members of the nobility did not emigrate in as large numbers as other social classes.
Their emigration was generally caused by political events, such as the partitions and unsuccessful uprisings, in contrast to others whose motivations were usually economic.
Also, contrary to prevailing opinion, it was not customary to disown members of noble families for unacceptable behavior. Thus, traditions of an ancestor being erased from all records are unfounded. Illegitimate children, while not entitled to noble status, were often recorded (although the father may not have been named) and can be found in the vital records.
All nobles were equal before the law. The nobility comprised over 10% of the Polish population.
Membership in the nobility was mainly hereditary, although members of the middle class were occasionally ennobled and some foreign nobles joined Polish ranks.
Authorizations of nobility underwent major reforms after the Polish partitions. The three partitioning countries each introduced new rules. All three required nobles to own land, and Russia and Austria distinguished between lords and knights (Austria conferred the titles of prince and count on nobles and baron on knights). In 1782 Austrian Poland established the “register of proven noble ancestry” in Lemberg (Lwów), which granted noble status and enforced nobility regulations. In Prussia Polish heraldic affairs were under the jurisdiction of governmental agencies in Berlin. From 1855 verification of nobility was handled by the Heroldsamt.
After 1815, during the period of the Congress Poland, there were some reversals. Privileges of the nobles that had been in force before the partition were partially restored. In 1836 a heraldic office was established to prepare an armorial of coats of arms proven to be legitimate, but the project was never completed. In 1870 all heraldic affairs were transferred to St. Petersburg. In 1921 the constitution of the Republic of Poland abolished the noble class and its titles.
Because of frequent false claims to nobility, families had to legitimize (provide documentary proof of) their nobility. Rich sources of information about nobility include judicial court proceedings and land records. Information is also available from some private archival collections at the Archiwum Akt Głównych, Archiwum Akt Nowych in Warsaw; the provincial archive of Kraków; and many other provincial archives.
If your research in the original records of Poland indicates that your ancestor was actually of the noble class, there are additional records that will be helpful in your research. Although some original records (such as the grant of nobility) are still in existence, you can adequately accomplish most nobility research in secondary sources, including published or manuscript genealogies of noble families. The noble class has been anxious to preserve their identity. This has led to the publication of many noble lines of Poland. Several publications are available to help you trace a noble family. Some of the most important are:
Leitgeber, Sł''awomir, Polska szlachta i jej herby'''''(Heraldry and genealogy of noble families of Poland). [s.n.], 1970–73. (FHL book 943.8 D6l; film 0897006, 0873838-9, 1181536.) This series consists of 41 sections in 5 volumes.
Korwin, Ludwik.Szlachta Polska pochodzenia ż'ydowskiego (Polish nobility of Jewish extraction)'''. London, England: [s.n.], 1975 (Film 1045233.)
Frank zu Döfering, Karl Friedrich von. Alt österreichisches Adels Lexikon. (Lexicon of old Austrian noble families). Wien: Frank zu Döfering, 1928. (FHL book 943.6 D56f; film 1440774 item 1.) This book provides old Austrian noble families for areas of Poland, Austria, and Hungary.
The Family History Library has collected many records of noble families, which are listed in the Family History Library Catalog under:
POLAND - NOBILITY
POLAND, (COUNTY) - NOBILITY
POLAND, (COUNTY), (TOWN) - NOBILITY