According to legend, Augustów owes its origin to the first tryst between King Zygmunt August and Barbara Radziwiłłówna. To commemorate the event, the king is said to have ordered the foundation of a town at the place of the meeting.
The settlement began as a centre on the trading route between Lithuania, Prussia and Crown Poland, situated by a crossing of the Netta river. In 1526 King Zygmunt the Old granted a privilege to Jan Radziwiłł permitting the location of an inn at the crossing of the Netta on the road from Grodno to Prawdziska. To realize his dream of a strong urban centre on the Polish-Lithuanian-Prussian border, King Zygmunt August decided to found a town there. Town privileges based on Magdeburg Law, being the formal legal basis for the town’s existence, were granted by the king on 17 May 1557 in Vilnius. The town’s name and coat of arms alluded to its founder. August’s town received a coat of arms displaying the king’s initials (SA) and the letters PR (Poloniae Rex).

  King Zygmunt August, the last of the Jagiellonians, great-grandson of Władysław Jagiełło, son of Polish King Zygmunt I (the Old) and the Milanese princess Bona Sforza. He was born on 1 August 1520 in Cracow. When he was just two years old, his foresighted parents succeeded in having Zygmunt August recognized as the Grand Duke of Lithuania. On 20 February 1530 Zygmunt August was crowned king of Poland. This was the only “vivente rege” election (one taking place within the lifetime of the reigning king) in Poland’s history.
Bona, an ambitious and power-hungry woman, directed her son’s education in such a way as not to give him a thirst for power, thus retaining greater influence for herself.
According to his father’s wishes, the young Zygmunt’s first wife was Elisabeth Habsburg. The wedding, serving to strengthen the political alliance with Austria, took place on 6 May 1543. Bona was opposed to the match from the start, making every effort to keep her son away from his young bride. Elisabeth died on 15 June 1545, a few days after her dowry had been paid to Zygmunt August. A year earlier, in October, with the persuasion and assistance of the Radziwiłłs, Zygmunt had gained the Lithuanian throne.
  Zygmunt August met his second wife while Elisabeth was still alive. The romance between the young king and Barbara Radziwiłłówna lasted for several years. Under pressure from the Radziwiłłs, it ended with a secret marriage in the summer of 1547. In Crown Poland the marriage to Barbara was considered a misalliance, and demands were made for its annulment. The battle for recognition of his marriage changed Zygmunt August diametrically, from a reckless youth into a responsible ruler.   In April 1548, following the death of his father, Zygmunt August ascended to the throne of Poland.
Following fierce struggles and polemics with the nobility, the magnates and his own mother, the king succeeded in having Barbara crowned on 7 December 1550. She died less than six months after her coronation. Her coffin was taken to Vilnius, and the king accompanied his beloved on her final journey, which lasted three weeks. The coffin would be placed in a church overnight, and the local priest would conduct a mourning service. The queen was finally laid to rest in the chapel of St. Casimir’s Cathedral in Vilnius, alongside the sarcophagus of Zygmunt August’s first wife.
  In 1553, wishing to prevent an alliance between Moscow and the Habsburgs, Zygmunt August decided to marry Catherine of Austria, the sister of his first wife. Several months after the wedding, on learning that the queen’s pregnancy was faked, Zygmunt August claimed that his wife was infertile. From that moment on the king tried, unsuccessfully, to have the marriage annulled.
  The reign of Zygmunt August represents the peak of the Republic of the Nobles, in spite of the fact that in the history of the Polish Crown there had never before coincided so many varied and significant problems as occurred in the years 1553–1557. The situation was in the balance concerning the fate of the Ruthenian lands, the duchies of Baria and Rossano, the Russian and Hungarian crowns, and influence in Livonia. The fate of the Reformation in Poland, and of the reform of the state, was being decided. The monarch’s great political and oratorical skills, his knowledge of the law, his cunning (inherited from his mother) and his consistent adherence to principles of religious tolerance assured Poland of internal peace. At the same time the last Jagiellonian ruler enjoyed wide popularity and respect among the nobility, which enabled him to carry out reforms in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.
  Following many years of efforts, Zygmunt August brought about the Union of Poland with Lithuania at the Lublin Sejm of 1569. From that time onwards the Republic of Two Nations was to have a common Sejm, Senate, royal elections, currency and foreign policy.
Overcome with the desire to have children, Zygmunt August ordered that Barbara Giżanka, the attractive daughter of a wealthy townsman, be brought to him from her convent. Barbara, like the king’s first beloved, enjoyed his great favours. In September 1571 Zygmunt August’s greatest dream came true when Barbara Giżanka gave birth to a royal daughter. Several months after that Catherine of Austria died. The king, happy and convinced that he would still father an heir, began preparing for a marriage with Barbara. However fate determined otherwise. On 7 July 1572, exhausted by a serious disease, the king died at his castle in Knyszyn. The death of Zygmunt August ended the rule of the Jagiellonian dynasty, opening a new chapter in Poland’s history.
Based on “Zygmunt August – Life of the Last Jagiellonian” by Eugeniusz Gołębski

  The town was looked after in the king’s name by a Vogt appointed by the monarch. Among other things he saw that the law was obeyed, royal orders carried out and taxes collected. The town had its own government and judicial authority. Full citizenship of Augustów was granted to every owner of a plot within the town’s borders who took the civic oath.
The town, as well as 130 włókas of land, received numerous privileges, including the weights and measures revenue, two annual fairs (at the New Year and on St. Peter’s Day), and two weekly market days (Saturday and Thursday). Wishing to encourage new settlement in Augustów, Zygmunt August granted residents exemption from taxes (for the first 10 years after the granting of town privileges).
Augustów’s rapid development was undoubtedly assisted by the settlement of large numbers of craftsmen. Numerous guilds were established, by such trades as bakers, butchers, cobblers, blacksmiths and wheelwrights. The speed of the town’s development is indicated by the fact that as early as 1564 Zygmunt August awarded it a further 74 włókas of land. The king granted Augustów a monopoly on the brewing of beer and the making of honey and vodka, forbidding those activities in the neighbouring royal villages.

Włóka (or łan) a measure of land equal to 30 morgs (about 16.8 hectares).

  The building of the town from scratch in the włóka reform period determined its layout and made Augustów one of the best-planned Renaissance towns in Poland. A layout typical for that period was used, with a rectangular central marketplace and streets meeting at right angles. In parallel to the marketplace a square was laid out where a church was built.

Włóka reform: an agricultural reform introduced in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania at the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries. It was chiefly based on the conversion of former obligations into rent, which was dependent on the size and quality of land holdings. The włóka was introduced as a new unit of land measurement. The reform led to the spread of the three-field system, to which peasants were obliged to adhere.

  Public buildings and municipal services were located next to the marketplace. The main position was occupied by the town hall, which included a courthouse, porter’s lodgings and a prison in the cellar. The second important building in the town was the church. Of the first church, burnt during the Tatar invasion of 1656, nothing more is known. Its successor burnt down in 1766 along with the presbytery buildings, the church goods and most of its liturgical books.

  The wooden buildings of Augustów which existed until the end of the 18th century were typical of agricultural towns and villages. The single-storey houses of the townspeople, covered with shingle or straw, were turned with their sides facing the street, while further back stood pigsties, stables and granaries. Barns were situated on Stodolna street (now called Zygmuntowska).
Augustów was an open town with no system of defensive walls, but access to it was made difficult by the river and the surrounding lakes and marshes.
In the late 16th and early 17th centuries, the only town larger than Augustów in the voivodeship (province) of Podlasie was Bielsk, then the capital of the voivodeship. In the first half of the 17th century the number of settlers in Augustów was constantly increasing, and these were mostly Polish. Before the Swedish invasion the town had a population of around 2800, mainly Polish and Ruthenian settlers. In Augustów, as in other royal towns in Podlasie, Jews were prohibited from settling permanently.
The town’s rapid development, as in the case of many towns in Podlasie, was interrupted by war. In 1656 Tatar raiders, allied to hetman Wincenty Gosiewski, entered the town and burnt down the church, the town hall and many of the other buildings. About 500 residents of the town were taken into slavery. Further defeats exacerbated the town’s decline. The plague which attacked Augustów in 1709–1711 wrought havoc among the townsfolk, while the great fires that broke out in the town in 1738 and 1766 caused huge destruction to its buildings. In the second half of the 17th century, following a period of decimation of the population caused by the march of armies and disease, Jews began to settle in Augustów. In 1763 they received the right to build a synagogue and school in the town and to found a cemetery outside its boundaries. This period saw constant growth in Augustów’s population.
The main activities of the people of Augustów were agriculture and the transporting of goods by river from Minsk to Gdańsk and Toruń. These goods included timber, potash, tar, furs, leather and grains. Goods were also transported from Gdańsk and Toruń to Minsk. The development of trade relations was interrupted by the Swedish wars and epidemics, reawakening only at the end of the 18th century. Augustów gradually picked itself up after its decline, becoming the third-largest town in Podlasie behind Białystok and Tykocin, and the largest town in what is now referred to as the Suwałki region.

Potash: potassium carbonate obtained from the ash of burnt timber (from leafy trees), used mainly in glass manufacture.

  Augustów’s fairs attracted merchants from such places as Lipsk, Rajgród, Suchowola, Białystok, and even Gdańsk and Lvov. The most important fairs were those of St. Anthony (13 June), St. Peter (29 June) and St. Bartholomew (24 August). Augustów was the largest horse trading centre in the region. At the end of the 17th century it was also the most important local centre for trade on the border between Poland, Lithuania and Prussia. Sadly it later ceased to play the role of a major long-distance and foreign trading centre which it enjoyed in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.
The first partition of Poland placed Augustów in the province of East Prussia. Aiming to develop the town economically, the Prussians built salt and tobacco warehouses there and opened a customs office.

  Following the Treaty of Tilsit in 1807, Augustów became part of the newly-formed Duchy of Warsaw.
On the retreat of Napoleon’s armies in December 1812, the bridge over the Netta was crossed by Napoleon himself, with his decimated troops. He took advantage of a short stay and rest in the town.
Augustów next became part of the new Kingdom of Poland in 1815. In the new administrative division of the regions, a province called Augustów Voivodeship was created, with its capital in Suwałki. The residents and authorities twice attempted to have the capital moved to Augustów, but without success. The main reason for this failure was the lack of suitable buildings to serve as government offices and homes for officials.

  The 19th century saw the town develop thanks to, among other things, the building of the Augustów Canal, the Warsaw–St. Petersburg road and a railway line. The opening of a railway from Grodno to Varena, built primarily for military purposes, made transport cheaper, and thus led to economic growth. Crafts also developed in the 19th century, as they had already done under Prussian rule. The most used services were those of carpenters, cobblers, bricklayers, tailors, butchers and joiners. The most profitable profession was that of baker. Brewing also brought large profits; in 1799 the town had 21 drinking houses and 18 distilleries. The economic growth brought new settlers to the town, seeking employment and improved social status. When the economic role of the canal turned out to be less significant than had originally been anticipated, the rate of economic growth slowed.

  World War I and the Polish-Bolshevik War brought about changes in the size and composition of the town’s population; in particular there was an exodus of Jewish and Orthodox residents.
In the interwar period the town enjoyed gradual growth, helped by the reopening of the sawmill in 1919, which exported products to Britain, Belgium, Spain, Denmark, Morocco, Egypt and other countries in Africa and elsewhere. In the 1930s the thriving plant employed close to 560 workers.
Thanks to determined action on the part of the town’s citizens and authorities, in the mid-1930s high-class hotel accommodation was provided in the area. In 1935 the Officers’ Yacht Club, which could receive 200 guests, was opened.

  Due to Augustów’s great popularity, the League for the Support of Tourism decided to build a modern tourist centre there. Growing interest in the town as a tourist destination meant that sailing trips for tourists were organized. In 1938 a total of 15 000 people visited the town. In the interwar period it was known as the “Venice of the North”, and visitors included President Ignacy Mościcki, Józef Beck and Edward Rydz-Śmigły.

  Due to the growing status of Augustów as a tourist town, in the summer season of 1936 a special first-class fast train from Warsaw, called “Lux-torpeda”, was brought into service.
The town became ever more popular as a centre for water sports, which led the Polish Sailing Association to make plans for the European Sailing Championships, which were to take place on Necko lake in August 1939.
The town’s image was influenced enormously by the stationing there, from 1921 onwards, of the 1st Krechowce Uhlan Regiment. The soldiers played an active part in town life, including by keeping the cemetery in good order and building a stadium. They were liked and respected by residents, who were proud to have such an elite cavalry regiment stationed in their town. Cultural cooperation took place between the townspeople and the soldiers and officers. On state holidays the regiment would march in grand processions, and the barracks area hosted traditional horse parades, equestrian competitions and cavalry fighting displays.

The 1st Krechowce Uhlan Regiment (with Colonel Bolesław Mościcki as its patron) was one of the longest-established cavalry units of the Second Polish Republic. It originated from the Puławski Legion which fought alongside the Russians from 1915. It gained fame at the victorious battle of Krechowce on 24 July 1917, from which it takes its name. It was the only unit in the history of Poland which in a single day successfully resisted forces representing the three partitioning powers. The regiment fought heroically in the September Campaign of 1939, surrendering only on 5 October in the vicinity of Kock. Re-formed in 1942 in the corps of General Władysław Anders, it distinguished itself in the Italian Campaign of 1944–1945 (Monte Cassino, Piedmont, Bologna).

  The outbreak of the Second World War set back the development of the town and the region for many years. During Soviet occupation several thousand residents of Augustów and surrounding towns and villages were taken away in goods wagons to distant parts of the Soviet Union.
As a result of German action in the region, younger locals were taken to Germany as forced labourers, and arrests and mass executions took place. The most tragic fate awaited the Jews of Augustów. In the executions, carried out from the first days of the occupation, around 1500 Jews lost their lives. The remainder, together with those from surrounding towns and villages, were forced into a ghetto established in Baraki district. The Jewish cemetery was destroyed, and the gravestones used to build roads. In July 1942 the ghetto was liquidated and its residents taken away to Treblinka.
Augustów slowly recovered from the destruction of wartime. The lack of tourist infrastructure in the post-war period and strong competition from the resorts of the Warmia and Masuria regions meant that the town did not play a significant role in tourism and holidaying. The two hotels built in the interwar period had been destroyed in the fighting. Only at the end of the 1950s did intensive development begin in the area of services and tourism. Ten years later Augustów was again one of the most important tourist centres in Białystok Voivodeship. A great contribution to the attainment of this strong position came from the Polish Sightseeing Association (PTK). The organization’s first action was to open the Tourist House by Necko lake. PTK activists ran sightseeing trips around the region. The first ships appeared on the Augustów lakes in the 1950s, and in 1956 the Masurian Sailing Enterprise began regular tourist cruises. Augustów’s revival led to the building of several hotels and restaurants, including Janusz Laskowski’s famous and extremely popular Albatros restaurant.
In the 1970s two sanatoriums were opened within holiday centres. On 14 October 1993, in view of the climate and the discovery of therapeutic mud deposits in the region, the Minister of Health and Social Welfare officially granted Augustów the status of a health resort.

Therapeutic essential oils and phytoncides produced by conifers serve to kill bacteria, normalize blood pressure and heart rhythm, and benefit the respiratory system. In Augustów treatment can be obtained for circulatory disorders, rheumatism and motor diseases. The town currently has one operational sanatorium, called Budowlani.

Text by Beata Żukowska, based on “Augustów – a Historical Monograph” by Jarosław Szlaszyński, Andrzej Makowski

Small Project Fund „Lietuva – Polska” 2007 - 2013