A Fresh Start: Stephen and Bronislawa Pawlak

#52 Ancestors Theme: Fresh Start

So very many times the millions of immigrants that came to America in the 18th through 20th centuries traveled and endured hardships to find a new home, a better life, a good job – to make a fresh start! Stephen Pawlak and his new bride, Bronislawa Nowicka were no different!

Stephen, also called Szczepan in his native language of Polish, was born in the village of Radlowek, Kries Inowroclaw-Zacod, Poland on 10 Nov 1877 to Michael and Catherina Pawlak. Bronislawa was born almost six years later on 29 Aug 1883 to Michal and Thecla Nowicki in the nearby village of Koscielec. On the 8th of July of 1904, Stephen and Bronislawa married in Koscielec, Poland at the local Catholic Church.

This part of Poland at this time period was actually under German political rule while other parts of Poland, designated as Russian-Poland, were also under German control. There was political unrest, social tensions and general uncertainty for the Polish peoples. According to family stories, Stephen had been drafted into the German army possibly for use as a translator as he could speak four languages including Polish, German, French and English. His real occupation was that of a carpenter like his father, Michael Pawlak.

They decided to travel to America and we can only guess at their real reasons to leave their homeland. Stories have it that they left on the pretense of taking a honeymoon but stayed in America, never to return. Bronislawa was pregnant with their first child on the journey to America which possibly made the trip a bit more difficult for her!

The immigration records for Stephen and Bronislawa reveal that they departed from Bremen, Germany on the ship “Gera” and state that they were bound for Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Now Bremen, Germany was about 420 miles away from their little village of Koscielec, so one wonders how they managed to travel to Bremen! Perhaps they traveled part of the way by rail or wagon. In 1900, the cost of a steerage ticket for one passenger was around $30.00, which would be about $900 today. The records also state Szczepan (Stephen) was 27 years old, a “joiner” (carpenter) from Germany, Hohensalza (now called Poznan). He carried more that $50.00 (about $1530 in today’s money) and traveled with his wife, Bronislawa Pawlak, age 21. They were steerage passengers and the Gera could carry 1900 third class (steerage) passengers!

On 26 Jan 1905, they finally arrived in the Port of Baltimore, Maryland. Bronislawa would later describe the cracking and creaking of the ship throughout the voyage. The ordeal must have been exhausting as the sea voyage took about 14 days and the conditions on the steamship were less than ideal. Steerage accommodations were crowded, dirty and poorly ventilated with hundreds of people sharing basically a large open space near the bottom of the ship. Illness was common.

Upon arrival at Locust Point in Baltimore Harbor, the immigrants were herded into “separation pens” and given a cursory medical inspection. Doctors checked for trachoma, a contagious eye disease, and for symptoms of serious illnesses that would require more inspection, hospitalization or deportation. Next, they were interviewed by government agents who counted and recorded the money they carried and then baggage was inspected and weighed.

They were not free to leave yet after all this! If the immigrant was planning to stay in Baltimore, he was placed in a final pen to await pick-up by friends or relatives as listed on his immigration card. Stephen and Bronislawa planned to go to Milwaukee to their sponsor’s home so they had to purchase a railroad ticket or collect a prepaid ticket and wait in a large waiting room for their train. They were not permitted to leave the facility except to board the train. They traveled on the B&O Railroad which had forged a business partnership with the North German Lloyd Steamship Line in Bremen, Germany. Immigrants could buy a ticket that included both passage on the ship and rail transportation to their destination in central United States. This is likely what Stephen and Bronislaw did.

On 28 January of 1905, after two exhausting days of train travel and immigration processing, Stephen and Bronislawa arrived in Milwaukee at the home of their sponsor, Michal Szndrowicz. A sponsor was usually a relative and provided a place for the immigrants to live and, in addition, had to be at least 18 years old and a U.S. citizen or permanent resident of U. S. Research on Michal Szndrowicz reveals that he was born in Poland in 1876 and lived in Milwaukee at 484 Bartlett in 1905 (Wisconsin State Census). I have not been able to find out if he was related to the Pawlak or Nowicki families but he was close to Stephen’s age and could have been a cousin or close friend.

Whatever the relationship to their sponsor, Stephen and Bronislawa did live with Michal and his wife and two young children for a while until they were able to find a house of their own on Becher Street in Milwaukee. There is so much more to their story but that will be for future posts. Stephen and Bronislawa went through quite an ordeal to get a “fresh start” in America! Thank goodness they did as they were the start of a large and still growing Pawlak family in Milwaukee and beyond!

Sources: The National Archives at Washington, D.C.; Washington D.C.; Records of the US Customs Service, RG36; NAI Number: 2655153; Record Group Title: Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, 1787-2004; Record Group: 85.


Wisconsin State Census, 1905. Microfilm, 44 reels. Wisconsin Historical Society, Madison, Wisconsin.

Ancestry.com. U. S. City Directories, 1822-1955 [database on-line]. Provo UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc. 2011

Find A Grave. Findagrave.com: Michael Szudrowica, Memorial ID: 103879684.

Dokument urdzenia: Birth record of Stephen/Szczepan Pawlak; recorded 17 Nov 1877.

Dokument urdzenia: Birth record of Bronislawa Nowicka; recorded 31 Aug 1883.

Smith, Eugene W. Passenger Ships of the World: Past and Present. Milwaukee Public Library, R387-S646, P. 2.

A grateful thanks to various Pawlak relatives for sharing information!