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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 emigrate.

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 to pay.

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 21, 1889.

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 other farmers.

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 their wells.

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 melt snow.

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 Eureka.

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 a shirt.

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 records.

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 76 (Ed.).

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.)

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