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
Hays City, although his time of fame was long gone by then. His
was no longer perfect, and so it happened as it must: during a shoot-up
gangster he had accidentally killed one of his own deputies. Consequently
had been chased out of his office and out of the city of Abilene,
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
go -- Hays City, at the time the most disreputable place far and
hotbed of buffalo hunters, railroad workers, vagabonds and desperados
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.
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
down. The state of Kansas had entered a difficult situation. Months
had decimated the harvests, and a grasshopper plague did the rest.
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
In 1874, the first 800 reached their destination after a long five
travel via Odessa, Hamburg, and New York. The first groups of immigrants
Mennonites from South Russia -- who the prior year had sent out
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
a German from Saxony who had come to Kansas in 1868 and had become
of the Santa Fe Railroad Company. Several railroad companies had
land which they now wanted to sell in larger or smaller parcels
settlers. Wherever a railroad track had been laid, prices for neighboring
would rise quickly, and the railroad companies sued these circumstances
finance their push to the West.
For the Santa Fe Company, Carl Bernhardt Schmidt was a gift from
He, who by now had established good contacts with colonies of the
initiated numerous business transactions between the railroad company
settlers. The Santa Fe Company had apparently come very close to
ruin, and the more than $332,000 the German-Russian settlers had
within the first three years are said to have saved the company
from ruin. In
expectation of further business, the company for several months
whole colonies of immigrants, including their belongings and provisions,
their destinations, at no cost.
Kansas Pacific, another railroad company, gave German-Russian traders
percent rebate for transporting their goods. Land for churches and
were donated to the colonists, and the railroad companies provided
for immigrants on their way to their new settlements. When the Mennonite
community from Alexanderfeld in South Russia arrived in Kansas,
company constructed two large buildings in the city of Newton for
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
made large purchases --extensive acreage instead of small parcels,
herds rather than individual animals, and the entire contents of
The new settlers, at least the first immigrants from South Russia,
arrive in America unprepared -- and they did not come without money.
rarely land holdings in their old home had comprised a hundred hectares
per family -- on average three times as much as Germans in the Volga
usually cultivated. Many colonies had employed a large number of
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.
price of wheat, given the increasing competition from the US, had
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,
opinion of the Mennonite communities, the authorities had begun
involved in too many of their matters -- for example, via the decree
land distribution, according to which well-to-do colonists had to
lands to "land-less" communities.
The Mennonite communitas feared that they would lose their social
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
the country of their birth. Orthodox Mennonite believers feared
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
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,
United States. For the time being, the Russian government was still
accommodating and did not impede emigration -- that was to change
later on. During
early 1870s, the American Congress had released eight million hectares
land for sale, with the aim that the land be opened up in an organized
that railroads be built. This even became news as far away as Russia.
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
were suddenly no longer just postponed when the Russian government
Mennonite communities the opportunity to settle on the Amur River
Siberia, with an offer of free land, relief from taxes, and exemption
military service. To be sure, Bernard Warkentin, along with a group
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
emigration to North America carried more risks than those for the
Mennonites. Their route passed through Bremen to Baltimore and from
a cross-country trek to new settlement areas. Immigrants were usually
individuals or individual households. Rarely did they comprise entire
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
sale of grain, just to be able to afford the travel cost of 200
family. All these circumstances also caused their arrival to be
winter months. On top of it, the railroad companies were not offering
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
of 1875 and reached Topeka, the capital city of Kansas, toward the
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
County, while others eventually obtained the right to pieces of
working free land tracts, fencing them in, and later simply registering
for them ("homesteading"). This was very common in pioneer
there were land tracts without owner.
By the end of 1875, about 1200 Germans from the Volga region in
mostly Catholics, had settled in the rural Ellis and Rush Counties,
and to this
day these counties represent the highest number of Kansas residents
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
anymore. The Germans from Russia lived self-sufficiently in their
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
American ways and the English language were therefore slow to take
especially since the German-Russians (from their Russian days) had
well on their own while living in regions where other languages
were spoken. In
1875, David Goertz published the first German-langauge newspaper
-- at a time when newspapers were still an unknown commodity in
of Kansas. Other papers followed, among them the "Courier,"
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
along their own specific kind of wheat and, with it, had initiated
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
which they developed their land, constructed and maintained sturdy
-- churches, schools, private and commercial houses -- overcame
drought, and irrevocably tied their fate to this part of their new
During the 2000 US census, of the 2.6 million residents of the state
Kansas, as many as 868,801 persons reported to have German ancestry,
persons designated their ancestors as having come from Russia. Among
various ethnic groups of the territory, those of German ancestry
form the largest
contingent. During the census of 1990, 22,887 residents of Kansas
to be German-speaking, and 893 persons reported to be speakers of
(Copyright ORNIS, October, 2004)
Our appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translation
of this article.