The Gottlieb Dockters: German-Russian Hostelers
of Emmons County*
Iseminger, Dr. Gordon L. "The Gottlieb Dockters: German-Russian Hostelers of Emmons County." Heritage Review 14, no. 1: February 1984, 4-8.
Gottlieband Salomea Dockter and their seven children arrived in the
German-Russian settlement of Dakem in Emmons County three months before
North Dakota became a state on November 2, 1889. Emmons County had
been organized only six years before, on November 9, 1883, and was
as yet sparsely settled. A sea of grass stretched to the horizon in
all directions and settlers guided themselves across this inland sea
by taking bearings on piles of buffalo bones or stones. Although hardly
deserving being designated as a town, it was little more than a polling
place, Williamsport served as the county seat. Eureka, South Dakota,
the nearest source of supplies, lay 40 miles to the southeast. Under
the best of conditions, trips to Eureka required three days -- in
deep snow and with oxen, eight days.
Gottlieb and Salomea Dockter were born in Neudorf, South Russia,
near Odessa on the Black Sea. Gottlieb, born on September 8, 1842,
had been orphaned at the age of seven. According to law, the government
was obligated to educate and train orphans and Gottlieb was thereby
enabled to obtain an appointive office, a position similar to a
clerk of courts in the United States. Salomea Job was born on May
14, 1849. She also received an education and was confirmed in the
German Lutheran Church at age 15. Two years later, on November 19,
1866, she and Gottlieb were married.
Gottlieb became a trader of cattle and farm produce and owned and
operated a farm of about 75-80 acres. The Dockters lived in comfortable
circumstances at Neudorf and became the parents of 12 children,
seven of whom survived. In 1889, however, Gottlieb and Salomea left
South Russia for Dakota. Many reasons prompted their decision to
Jakob, the eldest son, had been born in the fall of 1868 and in
1889 would be 21 years old and subject to conscription by the Russian
army. Gottlieb, the second son, would also soon be 21. Service in
the Russian army was not a pleasant prospect for Germans. Enlistments
were long, discipline was harsh, pay was low, and promotions difficult
to obtain. With the two older sons in the army, farming operations
would also have been seriously hampered.
Land hunger was another reason prompting the Dockters to emigrate.
Expansion of farming operations at Neudorf was becoming increasingly
difficult as land rose in price and as sellers became scarce. The
Dockters, moreover, had five sons and custom and family pride dictated
that at their marriage each be provided with land.
Finally, the Russian government, like those in western Europe,
began in the 1870s to centralize and unify the country by requiring
that the Russian language be taught in the German schools and that
records be kept in Russian. These requirements were construed by
the German-Russians as a betrayal of the promises and guarantees
that had been held out to them five generations before when they
had left their homes in Germany to settle in South Russia.
There was no compulsory military service in the United States.
Also attractive was that millions of acres of land lying west of
the Mississippi River were available free or at very little cost
under the terms of the Pre-emption, Homestead, and Timber Culture
Acts. The United States also offered German-Russians the very freedoms
they believed were being denied them in South Russia.
Most German-Russians were poor, some almost penniless, when they
left South Russia. Gottlieb Dockter was an exception. He had been
a substantial farmer and before leaving Neudorf he sold his land,
machinery and livestock. Anticipating difficulty emigrating with
two sons nearing military age, the Dockters engaged the services
of a Jew who aided them in their departure. The cost was high. The
Dockters believed, however, that sparing their sons from having
to serve in the Russian army was worth the price they had to pay.
From Odessa the Dockters took a train to Germany where they boarded
a ship bound for New York. The trip took nine days and the entire
family, with the exception of eight-year-old Martin, was seasick
the entire time. Martin was convinced that he was spared seasickness
because he refused to eat anything except some pickled herring that
he got from an old man whom he called "grandpa."
The trip by train from New York to Dakota Territory took three
days and the Dockters arrived in Eureka on June 15. Eureka in 1889
was at the end of the Chicago, Milwaukee and Saint Paul Railroad
and was the closest one could get by rail to Emmons County. Although
founded only in 1887, Eureka would soon become the greatest primary
wheat market in the world.
Preferring not to move his family to Emmons County before he had
located a claim, Gottlieb purchased some rough lumber in Eureka
and hauled it to the school section where he and his two oldest
sons built a shack about 16 feet square. Although small and crude,
it provided shelter for the family while Gottlieb located and filed
on a homestead.
On the day following their arrival in Eureka, Salomea Dockter made
the acquaintance of a Mr. Siegel who had just purchased a carload
of cattle, many of which were milk cows. Siegel offered the Dockters
all the milk from the cows plus 75 cents per day to herd the cattle
on the school section. To Mrs. Dockter, this seemed like finding
a land flowing with milk, if not with honey, and for two months
she and the children herded the cattle and milked the cows.
From the cream, Mrs. Dockter churned enough butter to last the
family for a year. For some knitting she did for a woman in Eureka,
she was given two small pigs that when fattened on the skim milk
and butchered provided the family with their winter's supply of
meat. Besides the butter and the meat, Mrs. Dockter and the children
received $45 cash for herding the cattle for two months.
After searching for several weeks for a suitable homestead, Gottlieb
Dockter decided in August to file on the southeast quarter of section
18 in township 132, range 74 in Emmons County. His claim, about
12 miles east of the present-day Linton and about 1 V2 miles north
of Beaver Creek, was located at the point where the main Williamsport
to Eureka road intersected the trail leading from Logan and Mclntosh
Counties westward to the Missouri River.
After selecting his homestead and returning to Eureka, Gottlieb
went to Aberdeen where he purchased a carload of milk cows and oxen.
He kept five milk cows and six oxen for himself and sold the rest.
Unaccustomed to American ways, Gottlieb unfortunately neglected
to take a note for the amount due him and the buyers cheated him
out of his money. In Neudorf, a man's signature on a receipt was
proof that he had contracted an indebtedness that he was obligated
Before leaving Eureka, Gottlieb purchased two farm wagons, a breaking
plow, a disc, a mower, a few pieces of furniture, and a team of
horses. The shack was torn down and the lumber loaded on the wagons
and hauled to the homestead.
Like many German-Russian emigrants to Dakota, the Dockters settled
on their homestead too late in the season to break any sod and plant
a crop the first year, but they did put up hay for livestock feed
and for fuel. They next dug a 16.foot deep well and curbed it with
rock taken from the prairie. Only after these tasks were finished
did they begin work on a house. Until the house was completed, the
family lived in the wagon boxes over which heavy cloth had been
stretched to provide shelter from the weather. And it was in a wagon
box that Mrs. Dockter gave birth to Eva, her 13th child, on September
The Dockter's first house and barn were constructed as one unit.
Built entirely of sod, the building was 14 feet wide and 58 feet
long. The roof was constructed of wooden rafters and boards and
then covered with sod. Floors were of earth, but that of the house
was of packed clay that was swept each week with a mixture of clay
and water to give it a new surface. The Dockter family was more
crowded in their portion of the building than their livestock. Ten
people lived in an area 14x28 feet that was divided into two rooms.
From Eureka the Dockters had brought four chairs, a wardrobe, and
a cookstove. The rest of the furniture they made themselves. For
heating, they built a "Russian" stove into the wall dividing
the two rooms. The stoves were fuel- ed with wood gathered along
Beaver Creek, twisted hay, and cow chips.
In 1890, Gottlieb and his sons broke 20 acres of sod and seeded
flax. Unfortunately, 1890 was a drought year and there was no crop.
The family suffered no real want, however. Some money remained of
that brought from Russia, they had milk cows, they sold butter,
and they had wild game and fish. And, as almost all German-Russians
did during the early years, they picked up buffalo bones from the
prairie and sold them.
When German-Russians arrived in Dakota the buffalo was gone, but
their bones lay so thick on the prairie that in places it was impossible
to drive a wagon through them without crushing the larger ones.
During the early years, before the land was settled, a wagonload
of bones could be picked up in a day. By 1890, however, the bones
were more difficult to find and it sometimes took a week to fill
a wagon. One of the older Dockter boys would take the wagon and
oxen and three or four of the younger children and drive out on
the prairie. Each child had a large sack into which he gathered
the bones. When his sack was full, he returned to the wagon and
emptied it. Buffalo bones were taken to Eureka and sold or traded
for flour and groceries. The bones were shipped east, reduced to
carbon black, and used in the process of refining sugar.
In 1891, the 20 acres that had been broken the year before were
seeded to wheat. Twenty acres of new breaking were seeded to flax
and corn. Crops were good in 1891. Wheat and flax yielded about
22 bushels per acre and the corn made good feed. Harvesting was
done with a self-rake reaper that cut the grain and dropped it in
piles that were bound by hand (harvesting the next year was done
with a binder). In 1891, the Gottlieb Dockters had been married
25 years and it was in that same year that Salomea gave birth to
her 14th child, a daughter who was named Emma.
German-Russians were a devoutly religious people and one of the
traditions they brought to America was their devotion to their church.
The church kept them together and helped preserve their culture
and language. There were no churches in the Dockter neighborhood
so worship services were held in their home. A minister from Mclntosh
County sometimes visited the congregation, but in his absence Gottlieb
conducted the services, read from the book of sermons, and led the
prayers. A church was later built of stone and clay, 10 miles east
and two miles south of the Dockter homestead.
School was of less importance to German-Russians than their church.
They believed that young people should be taught how to work with
their hands rather than learn what was inside books. A school was
eventually built near the Dockters, but their children did not attend
very much. They remained at home and worked on the farm and for
Among the things that were strange to German-Russians in Dakota
were Indians. Indians seldom harmed or molested them, but German-Russians
in both Dakotas lived near Indian reservations and were often upset
by reports that Indians had gone on the warpath and had left the
reservations bent on killing and destruction.
The great Indian scare in Emmons County occurred in the fall of
1890, the year of the Messiah Craze and the year in which Sitting
Bull was shot and killed. When the rumor spread that the Indians
had left Standing Rock Reservation, panic-stricken settlers fled-some
to Ashley in Mclntosh County, some as far east as Ellendale in Dickey
County, and still others as far south as Eureka in South Dakota.
Many loaded what possessions they could onto their wagons and, to
keep the Indians from getting it, threw their flour and meat into
Gottlieb Dockter was in Eureka when news of the rumored Indian
uprising reached the town. As frightened settlers began arriving,
Gottlieb expected his family to be among them. They were not, so
he hurried home, worried that he would find the members of his family
killed and scalped. To his surprise, no one had heard the rumor
and everyone was calmly going about his work.
German-Russians in South Russia had experienced almost all of the
natural disasters they would face in.Dakota -- droughts, prairie
fires, cyclones, hailstorms, grasshoppers, and gophers -- but not
blizzards. Winters in the area of the Black Sea were mild. Grapes
could be grown. Farmers could be in their fields by February. Exposed
to a Dakota winter for the first time, many German-Russians were
not certain that they would survive until spring.
Winters were especially bad when they came early, before people
had secured adequate supplies of food and fuel. Winter arrived early
in 1891, with a blizzard on October 28, and nearly all of the settlers
in the Dockter neighborhood were caught without their winter provisions.
The Dockters shared the 1500 pounds of flour they had on hand, but
even this amount was not enough to last until spring.
This winter was also marked by heavy snowfall. A huge drift covered
Dockter's house, except for the chimney, and extended to a point
high up on the slope of a nearby hill. Because the windows were
covered by snow, the Dockters were forced to keep a kerosene lamp
burning during the daytime. The well was located in a draw between
the house and a hill beyond and during much of the winter it was
covered by as much as 25 feet of snow. To obtain water for themselves
and for their livestock, the Dockters were frequently forced to
Not only had the winter arrived early,. it also lasted late into
the spring of 1892. During Easter week the Dockters ran out of food
and Gottlieb was forced to hazard a trip to Eureka for flour. Because
the weather was threatening and the snow so deep, Gottlieb loaded
only 500 pounds of flour on his wagon. Even this small load proved
too much for the horses, however, and he was forced to leave sacks
of flour with settlers along the way until he had only one sack
left. Struggling through a blizzard, Gottlieb arrived one night
at the home of Markus Weigel in western Mclntosh County. His team
was exhausted and Gottlieb was nearly frozen. The blizzard was so
bad that it would have been foolhardy to go on even with fresh horses.
Gottlieb was welcome in the Weigel's house, but they had no room
for his team. Got- tlieb cared too much for his horses to leave
them outside in the storm and finally persuaded Mr. and Mrs. Weigel
to move their stove and furniture out of the kitchen and allow him
to bring his horses into the house. Gottlieb never forgot the kindness
and made Weigels his stopping place on subsequent trips to and from
The Dockters made two shopping trips per year to Eureka, one in
the spring and another in the fall. Their wants were few and they
purchased only what they could not produce themselves flour, coffee,
sugar, cloth, kerosene, heavy underwear, shoes and overshoes. Goods
were comparatively cheap, with wheat selling for 70 to 90 cents
per bushel and flax for $1.25, but German-Russians frequently economized
even more by purchasing second-grade goods. Cloth for shirts and
dresses could be purchased for three to four cents per yard, 10
cents for the best quality. Better grade coffee was 15 to 20 cents
per pound. Arbuckle coffee, a cheaper grade was ten pounds for $1
(but it frequently contained small pebbles that had to be removed
before it could be ground). Top grade flour cost $2 or more per
hundred pounds, but second-grade flour was only half that much.
Good work shoes were between 50 and 75 cents per pair and men's
overalls were 50 cents.
With hard work and sacrifice, the Dockters prospered. A few years
after their arrival in Emmons County, they built a new house of
homemade clay bricks that was 50 feet long and contained a large
kitchen and two other comfortable rooms. A new barn with an ample
haymow was built of stone and clay to replace the smaller sod building
that had first been used.
The year after his arrival in the county, Gottlieb filed a timber
claim on 160 acres lying next to his homestead and he later purchased
320 adjoining acres from the Northern Pacific Railroad Company.
Gottlieb now owned a section of land which he and his family farmed
and he leased additional land on which to graze his livestock. At
onetime the Dockters had over 1,000 head of cattle, sheep and horses.
The Dockters were especially willing to assist those in need. Their
farm was situated at the crossroads of Emmons County, where the
Williamsport-Eureka road crossed the trail from the east to the
Missouri River, and over the years they provided hospitality, food
and shelter to hundreds of travelers. Those from the southern part
of the county on their way to Williamsport to transact county business
found the Dockter home a convenient stopping place. Settlers from
the northern part of the county on their way to Eureka to market
their grain or purchase supplies stopped because the Dockter farm
was the halfway point. Those going to the Missouri River from Mclntosh
and Logan Counties to cut timber or use the ferry between Winona
and Fort Yates also put up at the Dockters. The Doctkers' only payment
was the thanks and gratitude of those whom they had helped.
Beggars frequently appeared at the door and Mrs. Dockter always
tried to help them. "Better a crust of bread than to suffer
his bite," she would say. There were times, however, when
individuals tried to take advantage of the Dockters' hospitality.
When Mrs. Dockter believed that someone was not making enough effort
to help himself, she repeated the maxim, "Give a beggar a
horse and he will ride it to death." On one occasion she refused
a man's request for a shirt. After the fellow had left, however,
Mrs. Dockter had a change of heart and ran after him and gave him
Gottlieb Dockter became a naturalized United States citizen on
June l, 1897. He died November 17, 1901. His wife Salomea continued
to operate the farm with the help of her children for a few years,
then divided the land among them and retired. She died in Linton,
at the home of her daughter Eva, on April l, 1935. Gottlieb and
Salomea Dockter are buried in the churchyard at the Peace Congregation
in Mclntosh County, some 20 miles southeast of Linton, and not far
from the trail they followed as they made their way from Eureka
to Emmons County in 1889.
Reprinted with permission of Heritage Review.
* Material for this article was taken from the files on German-Russians
compiled by the Historical Data Project and located at the North
Dakota State Historical Society in Bismarck and from Emmons County
1.) Located in section 28, township 132, range 74 (Ed.).
2.) South Dakota (Ed.).
3.) The range was added by the editor based on the indicated distance
east of Linton.
4.) Williamsport was located in section 15, township 135, range
5.) Winona was located in section 5, township 130, range 79 (Ed.)
6.) Fort Yates (Sioux County) is located in section 13, township
130, range 80 (Ed.)