The Story of the Jones Island Kaszube Fishermen

Connecting Wisconsin to the Rest of the World:

The Jones Island Kaszube Fishermen’s Saga Returned Home to Poland in 2017

From left to right: Janina Kurowska, curator Wejherowo Museum, Professor Emerita Anne M. Gurnack, Thomas Fopke, director Wejherowo Museum.

From left to right: Janina Kurowska, curator Wejherowo Museum, Professor Emerita Anne M. Gurnack, Thomas Fopke, director Wejherowo Museum.

Our FWHS Board Member, Professor Emerita Anne M. Gurnack, has devoted years of research and presentations to a fascinating connection between Poland and Wisconsin. This not only included research in Milwaukee, but also work in Poland with Thomas Fopke, director and Janina Kurowska, curator of Wejherowo Museum in Poland. They bonded together to tell the saga of the Kaszube Fishermen.

Anne presented exhibits and talks here in Wisconsin, but on September 25, 2017 the story of the Kashubian Jones Island fishermen who emigrated in the late 1870’s from the Hel Peninsula to Jones Island Milwaukee, Wisconsin returned home to Poland. On that day, a presentation took place at the Museum in the village of Wejherowo, a Pomeranian region of Poland. The exhibit resulted from a partnership, established in early 2017, between the Milwaukee Public Library and the Wejherowo Museum, resulting in a careful study of materials to use. Materials chosen included over 150 photographs. For many years the saga of the fishermen had been forgotten or only remembered by local descendants still living in Milwaukee.

jones island favorite photo

In the mid-nineteenth century Poland was no longer a sovereign nation, causing economic and political pressures that encouraged many inhabitants of Poland to leave their homes and emigrate to other places of the world. Many were Kazubes who lived on the Hel Peninsula in villages in the Pomeranian region, including many fishermen dominated by Prussian influence, that affected religious, governmental, economic, and educational dimensions of their lives. Valentin Struck visited the United States in the 1860’s and discovered Jones Island, adjacent to the city of Milwaukee. When he returned home he encouraged neighbors, friends and family members to move to the United States and settle there. Jones Island had been named after a ship builder who inhabited the area many years prior to Struck’s arrival. Shortly thereafter, groups of Kaszube fishermen arrived on Jones Island and quickly developed a prosperous fishing village. In a few years’ time there were 1600 inhabitants there, mostly Kaszubes but also including some Germans and Norwegians.

The Struck Family, and grocer Jakub Muza, managed to initiate the settlement families who thought the land was free or believed that they had purchased certain parcels. The complex issues related to deeded ownership and rights to this property would soon be called into question by groups including the Illinois Steel Company and the City of Milwaukee.

Jones Island -Kasube fishermen edited

Settlers experienced discriminatory behaviors by mainlander Milwaukee Polish immigrants who had arrived there previously. Dating or marriage to a Kaszube person from Jones Island was considered undesirable by the city’s Polish dwellers, and fisherman’s families continued to be treated as undesirable residents as they attempted to establish their new homes on Jones Island. But the fishing village itself thrived despite hardships.

The neighboring Illinois Steel Company considered the fishermen “squatters.” The steel company initiated over eighty lawsuits with the intent of removing these “illegal settlers” from their homes. A few of the lengthy lawsuits were won by the fishermen through the defense of “adverse possession,” meaning that were able to prove they had inhabited their property for twenty consecutive years. Eventually, some financial settlements were arranged. By the 1940’s all the Jones Island inhabitants had moved on to make way for the new harbor and the sanitation plant. Many years later in the 1970’s, Milwaukee named a small area on the island “Kaszube Park” where fisherman descendants meet each year on the first Saturday in August to celebrate their heritage. Milwaukee Mayor Barrett declared September 25th “Jones Island Fisherman Day,” and a copy of this proclamation was also presented to the city of Wejherowo.

Jones Island certificate

In summary, the story of these daring Jones Island Kaszube fishermen has now returned to their homeland in Poland, and through the tireless efforts of Anne and so many here and abroad, the “fisherfolk” from this Milwaukee settlement will not be forgotten.


Posted in News | 1 Comment

One Response to “The Story of the Jones Island Kaszube Fishermen”

  1. Holly M says:

    It’s good to know about the Jones Island Kaszube fishermen. I love reading books/articles like this. Getting to know the past is a treasure for me.

Leave a Reply