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A Gift From Heaven: German-Russian Immigrants in the US State of Kansas

Ein Geschenk des Himmels: Russlanddeutsche Einwanderer im US-Bundesstaat Kansas

Von der ORNIS Redaktion

By the ORNIS Editors, October 2004

Translation from the original German text to American English by Alex Herzog, Boulder, Colorado


Berlin (ORNIS) -- Gunfighter James "Wild Bill" Hickok was supposed to have the lives of a few dozen men on his conscience when he became police chief of Hays City, although his time of fame was long gone by then. His eyesight was no longer perfect, and so it happened as it must: during a shoot-up with a gangster he had accidentally killed one of his own deputies. Consequently he had been chased out of his office and out of the city of Abilene, and there was a price on his head for anyone who found him, dead or alive.

Thus there was only one place left for a pistol carrying hero like Hickok to go -- Hays City, at the time the most disreputable place far and wide, a hotbed of buffalo hunters, railroad workers, vagabonds and desperados of all kinds. One bar after another, innumerable dance shacks, all disreputable, entirely to the taste of "Wild Bill" and others who landed and often met an inglorious end here.

That was 1867. No one in those days would have bet even a penny that in ten years Hays would become a reputable place of commerce -- and a destination for Germans from Russia who would use it as a base to find new homes. The military garrison of Fort Hays, which for a long time had suffered the same ill reputation as that of the city, and had provided supplies to numerous garrisons in the West and Southwest, had become surplus and was therefore closed down. The state of Kansas had entered a difficult situation. Months of drought had decimated the harvests, and a grasshopper plague did the rest. No wonder that many people left Kansas to seek their home elsewhere or to find work in the cities. The timing for new settlers was therefore just right, especially if they knew something about agriculture and were willing to spend a little money as well.

In the span of six years, 12,000 Germans from Russia immigrated to Kansas. In 1874, the first 800 reached their destination after a long five weeks of travel via Odessa, Hamburg, and New York. The first groups of immigrants were Mennonites from South Russia -- who the prior year had sent out a fact-finding commission to Kansas to locate land for settlement, to determine the quality of the soil, and to begin price negotiations.

The chief of the immigration office at the time was Carl Bernhardt Schmidt, a German from Saxony who had come to Kansas in 1868 and had become an employee of the Santa Fe Railroad Company. Several railroad companies had acquired land which they now wanted to sell in larger or smaller parcels to new settlers. Wherever a railroad track had been laid, prices for neighboring land would rise quickly, and the railroad companies sued these circumstances to finance their push to the West.

For the Santa Fe Company, Carl Bernhardt Schmidt was a gift from heaven. He, who by now had established good contacts with colonies of the Mennonites, initiated numerous business transactions between the railroad company and the settlers. The Santa Fe Company had apparently come very close to financial ruin, and the more than $332,000 the German-Russian settlers had shelled out within the first three years are said to have saved the company from ruin. In expectation of further business, the company for several months transported whole colonies of immigrants, including their belongings and provisions, to their destinations, at no cost.

Kansas Pacific, another railroad company, gave German-Russian traders a 50 percent rebate for transporting their goods. Land for churches and schools were donated to the colonists, and the railroad companies provided free shelter for immigrants on their way to their new settlements. When the Mennonite community from Alexanderfeld in South Russia arrived in Kansas, a railroad company constructed two large buildings in the city of Newton for the new arrivals to spend the first winter in.

Business people could not wish for better customers than the German-Russian settlers: they paid cash, wasted no time in tough bargaining, and consistently made large purchases --extensive acreage instead of small parcels, whole herds rather than individual animals, and the entire contents of warehouses changed owners.

The new settlers, at least the first immigrants from South Russia, did not arrive in America unprepared -- and they did not come without money. Not rarely land holdings in their old home had comprised a hundred hectares or more per family -- on average three times as much as Germans in the Volga region usually cultivated. Many colonies had employed a large number of Russian and German-Mennonite farm laborers. In itself, that would certainly not have been a reason to move away and to begin a new life on another continent.

Reasons for emigrating had become far more than merely economic. True, the price of wheat, given the increasing competition from the US, had dropped drastically after 1840 and had brought the colonies great difficulty. Additionally, the Russian government had taken away many a privilege it had granted earlier, e.g., the exclusive license for brewing beer. And overall, in the opinion of the Mennonite communities, the authorities had begun to become involved in too many of their matters -- for example, via the decree concerning land distribution, according to which well-to-do colonists had to cede arable lands to "land-less" communities.

The Mennonite communitas feared that they would lose their social and economic autonomy, especially now that earlier exemption from military duty was to be ended as well. For all these reasons it was primarily the prosperous landowners who took the lead in the emigration movement.

For many, religious grounds surely became a convincing argument for leaving the country of their birth. Orthodox Mennonite believers feared pietistic influences from Western Europe, which had led to controversies in the 1850s and 1860s and to the breakup of some commentates. So, in case of conflict or other reasons, the founding of daughter colonies and finding new places to base their existence on certainly corresponded with Mennonite tradition.

Many possibilities were explored: Canada, Brazil, the Near East, and the United States. For the time being, the Russian government was still accommodating and did not impede emigration -- that was to change later on. During the early 1870s, the American Congress had released eight million hectares of land for sale, with the aim that the land be opened up in an organized way and that railroads be built. This even became news as far away as Russia. In fact, to German-Russian emigrants, the North American region had for some time ceased to be a no man's land.

During the mid-1860s, plans for moving to the other side of the Atlantic were suddenly no longer just postponed when the Russian government promised the Mennonite communities the opportunity to settle on the Amur River in Eastern Siberia, with an offer of free land, relief from taxes, and exemption from military service. To be sure, Bernard Warkentin, along with a group of people, undertook an inspection trip to Siberia, but he returned disappointed: agriculture that could subsist from sale of its products was practically impossible there, since there were neither roads for transportation nor anyone within reach who would buy the products. Besides, it was thought that conditions for resettling in North America would not be any more difficult than those of a cross-continent transport to undeveloped Eastern Siberia.

Germans in the Volga region must have thought similarly, although their emigration to North America carried more risks than those for the South Russian Mennonites. Their route passed through Bremen to Baltimore and from there on a cross-country trek to new settlement areas. Immigrants were usually individuals or individual households. Rarely did they comprise entire church communities. Also, they were not as well equipped, had modest sums of money, and traveled at an unfavorable time of the year.

During the emigration year 1875, most were still awaiting the harvest and sale of grain, just to be able to afford the travel cost of 200 dollars per family. All these circumstances also caused their arrival to be during the winter months. On top of it, the railroad companies were not offering the same favorable conditions to the Volga-Germans as for the Mennonites.

The first group of Germans from the Volga had come from Katharinenstadt ([much] later to be called Marxstadt). They had begun their journey in October of 1875 and reached Topeka, the capital city of Kansas, toward the end of November. Since for many of them the land prices offered by the Santa Fe Company were too steep, many acquired land tracts from Kansas Pacific in rural Ellis County, while others eventually obtained the right to pieces of land by working free land tracts, fencing them in, and later simply registering a claim for them ("homesteading"). This was very common in pioneer regions where there were land tracts without owner.

By the end of 1875, about 1200 Germans from the Volga region in Russia, mostly Catholics, had settled in the rural Ellis and Rush Counties, and to this day these counties represent the highest number of Kansas residents with ancestors who were Germans from Russia.

By the end of the 1880s, the arrival of immigrants slowed considerably -- only rarely did larger groups or entire colonies or church communitas arrive anymore. The Germans from Russia lived self-sufficiently in their settlement areas, which often comprised large territories, with compact village settlements, where the people were largely immune to external influences and were thus able to maintain their language and culture, at least into another two generations.

American ways and the English language were therefore slow to take hold, especially since the German-Russians (from their Russian days) had done very well on their own while living in regions where other languages were spoken. In 1875, David Goertz published the first German-langauge newspaper in Halstadt -- at a time when newspapers were still an unknown commodity in many cities of Kansas. Other papers followed, among them the "Courier," "Volksfreind," Staats-Zeitung," "Zur Heimath," and "Freie Presse."

German-Russian settlers contributed decisively to making Kansas a center of agriculture. It has frequently been reported that the immigrants had brought along their own specific kind of wheat and, with it, had initiated a genuine boom in agriculture. While other settlers came and went or wandered sporadically from county to county, the perhaps most significant contribution by the German-Russian immigrants to the state of Kansas was the persistence with which they developed their land, constructed and maintained sturdy buildings -- churches, schools, private and commercial houses -- overcame periods of drought, and irrevocably tied their fate to this part of their new homeland.

Postscript: During the 2000 US census, of the 2.6 million residents of the state of Kansas, as many as 868,801 persons reported to have German ancestry, and 17,734 persons designated their ancestors as having come from Russia. Among the various ethnic groups of the territory, those of German ancestry form the largest contingent. During the census of 1990, 22,887 residents of Kansas reported to be German-speaking, and 893 persons reported to be speakers of Russian.

(Copyright ORNIS, October, 2004)

Our appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translation of this article.

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