The Germans from Russia
By Rev. William C. Sherman, Director of Newman Center and
Instructor in Sociology North Dakota State University
“Symposium on the Great Plains of North America”,
North Dakota State University, Institue for Regional Studies, Fargo,
ND, 1987, Pages 58-63
Catherine the Great is a name revered by some and cursed by others
in Eastern Europe but grizzled old settlers of many American Great
Plains villages speak of it with respect. The German-born princess
whose indomitable wiles made her the Empress of Russia for thirty
years found herself with massive tracts of new land acquired through
victory over Turks and Tartars. To stabilize and to develop these
lands to the steppes of the Caucasus, Crimea, Bessarabia and along
the Volga, Catherine turned to the German peasants of her homeland.
Seeking skilled farmers and artisans she made an appeal for colonists
in a famous Manifesto of 1762 which offered new settlers an attractive
set of guarantees, including: a grant of land to each family or
individual, complete religious and educational freedom, freedom
from certain taxations, a variety of loans and outright monetary
grants, freedom from military conscription and a limited self-government.
Cause of Migration
Unsettled political conditions extending from the Thirty Years
War (ended 1648) to Napoleonic times (1800) left many German provinces
in an impoverished state. In addition population expansion, shortage
of land, crop failures, unemployment, and religious tensions tended
to turn the German peasant farmers' interest toward emigration.
While many tens of thousands of families and individuals went west
to United States, other thousands from the provinces of Württemberg,
Baden, Pfalz, Elsass, and West Prussia went east in response to
the Russian invitation. The first migration started in 1773, going
to the Volga regions (about 450 miles southeast of Moscow) and later
groups responding to reiteration of the Manifesto by Russian authorities
went to the Black Sea area (starting in 1789) surrounding Odessa;
the Crimea and the Caucasus. The migrations continued in full force
into the first decades of the 19th Century.
Under the favorable conditions the settlements flourished and birth
rates soared. Four hundred thousand Germans lived in over one hundred
colonies in the Volga area by 1800. In southern Russia, 214 colonies
sprang up with a thousand daughter colonies-many of which were named
"Katharinetal" in honor of their first patron. Millions
of acres were acquired by grant or purchase. Though their numbers
had been decreased by emigration, there were still 600,000 Germans
on the Black Sea and possibly 2,000,000 in all of Russia at the
outbreak of the First World War.
German farmers broke the sod, drained the marshes, developed favorable
varieties of grain, garden, and orchard produce. They readily accepted
the native winter wheat. German Mennonite farmers played a major
role in making the Ukraine the granary of Europe, and have, of course,
been responsible for introducing the first American hard winter
wheat, the Turkey Red of Kansas. They were also responsible for
the early development of wheat production in much of the Canadian
"In their long wandering the German-Russians have three precepts
drilled into them. They are: never lose their religion; never to
lose their mother's tongue; and never to lose their nationality."
The Germans in Russia were able to maintain their blood, tongue,
and religion with little difficulty during the first half of the
19th century .They lived in their dorfs (villages) - ordinarily
rows of houses along a main street. A village church dominated the
scene, gardens and orchards were close at hand, community pastures
nearby and cultivated fields extended into the distance. A herdsman
would gather the village cattle in the morning all farmers would
journey out to their fields. Evening brought the laborers back to
The Success in Russia
Their peasant past and Russian village experience made ownership
of land the paramount value. Survival, status, and leadership depended
on it. As families grew there was a continual quest for new land.
Some farmers became very \wealthy, owning as much as 10,000 acres.
Crafts were of secondary value and the professions, arts, and higher
education of least importance. Illiteracy was widespread. The German
village of Elsass in the Ukraine was 89 percent illiterate in 1812.
Their neighbors in Mannheim were 78 percent illiterate. In nearby
Kandel and Selz, 72 percent of the populace was in a similar situation.
Later generations saw school develop, but quality varied with the
locality and, though high when compared with the Russian levels,
it was low by European standards.
The colonies were not self-sufficient. Lawyers, physicians and
others of the professional class often were of another ethnic group.
Jewish merchants from larger towns provided much of the business
contacts. The German trading system was geared to the regional needs.
Their produce, such things as grain, oats, and barley, was part
of the total Russian economy.
Yet they strove to be as culturally independent as possible. Their
allegiance and fidelity was to the German culture of the 18th and
early 19th Century, the time of their "auswanderung."
Religion and national pride made intermarriage with Russians a rare
phenomenon. When schools were established, the language was German.
The folk music was German, religious customs were German, family
structure was German. The village and the homestead (hof) arrangements
were also German of the type "niedersaxon.” The three
or four generations of Russian living gave them a special folk consciousness,
a long-lived sense of group adherence. Though a minority, they felt
they were a "superior class" in the Russian countryside.
But as one would expect, the almost idyllic political conditions
of the first decades of settlement could not last. The Russian masses
were increasing in cultural sophistication and had a population
expansion problem of their own. Local resentment began to crystallize
against these alien folk who held themselves aloof, occupied some
of the best farmlands and were comparatively well off. In 1861,
Tsar Alexander abolished serfdom and created 20,000,000 freemen.
Stealing from the more prosperous Germans became rampant. Friction
between Orthodox and German religious authorities increased. Local
juridical privileges were curtained.
Privileges Abolished in 1871
Finally, in 1871, the special privileges of the Manifesto of 1762
were abrogated; Germans now were bound by much the same laws as
the Russian populace. Increasingly they fell prey to unscrupulous
politicians. A forced program of Russianization slowly got underway.
The Russian language began to invade German schools. But most oppressive
of all, the Germans were now subject to conscription.
A spirit of unrest swept through the villages. Word of free land
in the Americas had already reached the colonies and groups made
plans to leave. At first, emissaries were sent to find suitable
locations in the New World. Then land was sold often at great loss
and, openly or covertly, little bands of families began to depart
going to Atlantic ports at Bremen or Hamburg or Black Sea ports
such as Odessa.
Reliable figures are hard to come by, but an estimated 150,000
Russian-Germans were in Canada by 1900. Hundreds of thousands eventually
went to Latin America and likewise to the United States.
According to the latest figures as compiled by Karl Stumpp in Die
Russlanddeutschen, Zweihundert Jahre Unterwegs, Freilassing in Bayern,
1966, there were 1,700,000 Germans living in Greater Russia in 1914.
This figure excludes four areas in Poland and Bessarabia (then a
part of Romania, but now a part of Soviet Russia) p. 26. The tragic
story of this almost two million people who" remained in Russia
in 1914 when the outward flow was stopped has never been told completely:
German armies, Russian reprisals, Bolshevik mobs, mass deportations,
and starvation were their lot. With the German invasion of Russian
in 1941, the entire Volga German population (400,000) was sent into
Asiatic Russia. The Crimean and Caucasus Germans were moved the
Some recent figures, the 1959 Census, place the number of Germans
in Russia as high as 1,600,000, with by far the greatest portion
in new Asiatic settlements. The Black Sea German settlements no
longer exist, a few Germans are in the Volga area, the rest are
scattered in settlements from the Urals to the Pacific, with concentrations
in the interior near the border regions of Afghanistan, China and
Stumpp gives further statistics for 1940 (p. 30 et passim). He
finds 400,000 in the U.S.A., 200,000 in Canada and 30,000 in Mexico.
South America had 407,000 with 250,000 in Brazil and 150,000 in
Argentina. This 1,937,000 in the Americas is probably a conservative
figure and today's count may be double or even triple this amount,
for these were a prolific people. Indeed, large families are a hallmark
of the German-Russian life, observers everywhere made note of it.
A study of the 1930 Census data of South Dakota finds their families
the largest of ail national groups. An Ellis County, Kansas, study,
before the turn of the century, found over nine children in the
average German-Russian family. The fertility ratio in 1960 at Mandan,
North Dakota (predominately German-Russian) exceeded that of any
of the state's other major cities.
Settlement in North America
1873 brought the first major waves of Germans to the Great Plains
States. First to Nebraska and Kansas (Volga Germans) then to Texas,
Oklahoma, the Dakotas and Montana. A Mennonite advance party stopped
in Fargo, (Dakota Territory) in 1873 after looking at land in Manitoba.
Railroad officials showed them land in the Red River Valley. Mennonite
skill at farming and internal religious controls made them the most
desirable of all German-Russian immigrants. An attempt was made
in Congress to set aside homestead limitations to enable them to
settle in large compact units but the measure failed. Canada gave
them a more favorable reception and received eventually 70,000 Mennonite
immigrants. In the United States Mennonite settlement was most extensive
in Kansas and Oklahoma.
The heaviest influx of German-Russians came after the most desirable
western lands had been settled, in the late 1880's and early 1890's.
It was from the middle and western portions of Dakota Territory
that they might make their choice. The Chicago, Milwaukee and St.
Paul Railroad pushed into this heartland area of the Dakota plains,
arriving at Aberdeen in 1881, Ipswich in 1883 and finally in Eureka
in 1881. Each of these successive terminals became a dispersal point
for the homestead seekers. Southeastern South Dakota counties received
German Russians in 1873; the next year they had moved into middle
South Dakota counties, From Aberdeen and Ipswich they distributed
themselves across the northern tier of counties. The first to appear
in the southern counties of future North Dakota seems to have been
Eureka, however, was the major railroad terminal point at which
tens of thousands of Germans from Russia were literally dumped on
the Northern Plains. This prairie goliath with its 42 grain elevators
and 32 commission houses was a funnel into which the wheat of the
Dakotas emptied. From its rail yards settlers fanned out by wagon
train to points almost as far north as the Canadian border. (Later
groups, of course, came directly from the Atlantic seaports over
the Great Northern and Northern Pacific railroads). In the 1930
Census, about 65,000 North Dakota residents had Russian- born parents
or were themselves of Russian birth. If one would include the grandchildren
of these hardy settlers, the number of those wit11 Russian origins
was probably close to 100,000, or at least 15 percent of the total
state population. South Dakota figures are estimated to be about
one-half of the North Dakota totals, perhaps 40,000 of German-Russian
stock in 1930.
The immigrants from Russia were for the most part in settlements
scattered throughout the south eastern counties of South Dakota
and in north central counties from Aberdeen west to Lemmon. In North
Dakota, the original German-Russian communities formed a triangle
with its western base near New England and in the east near Ellendale.
The apex was in Pierce and McHenry County near Rugby.
Ninety-eight percent of the Germans in the Dakotas came from the
Black Sea colonies, about two-thirds were Evangelical Protestants,
the rest were Catholic, with several thousand Mennonites. A comparative
handful stayed in Grand Forks, Mandan and Devils Lake to work on
the railroads and in allied trades; the rest were farmers.
(See the map of German-Russian settlements in the U.S.A. on Page
61. Data for the map was taken from the 1910 U. S. Census records.
Some Ukrainians and some Russian Jews are included in the census
totals for "Russian-born,” but their numbers are insignificant
in all but three or four counties. The map thus indicates the initial
distribution of the German-Russians. Present day studies show that
the concentrations still follow the original patterns and in deed,
the proportion of German-Russian stock has generally shown a substantial
increase. German- Russians form a large percentage of the rural
population of the Canadian Prairie Provinces but they are not, charted
Assimilation in the U.S. and Canada
The assimilation of the German-Russians in the Dakotas was not
a uni-dimensional process. It would be wrong to say simply that
their Americanization was slower or faster than their non-German
neighbors. There was a natural selectivity at work; here and there,
on various levels, the process of assimilation was speeded up, here
and there it was retarded. In the main it did, in fact, take a much
longer period than the customary three generation Americanization
This is not surprising, however, for other national groups migrating
to the American cities and countryside came directly from their
homelands, where they had been part 0£ a dominant majority
culture. Arriving in the United States; they found themselves a
lower class minority in unfamiliar surroundings. This often led
to a considerable degree of confusion and social breakdown. The
German- Russians, it must be remembered, came to the American scene
after almost a century of experience in living as a minority among
unsympathetic and even hostile neighbors. In some ways they may
be compared to the newly-arrived Jewish communities; they had already
fashioned certain defensive measures-attitudes, customs, and traits
that enabled them to be self sufficient in their prairie homes.
Second and third generation disorders such as divorce, alcoholism,
juvenile delinquency are at a minimum in German-Russian areas.
Historical circumstances had therefore fashioned in the German-Russians
a special sense of identity, a unique set of ideals and aversions.
These factors continually affected the adjustment of the first generations
in America. In addition, the ecological isolation of their Great
Plains settlements reinforced their exclusiveness and moderated
the trend toward Americanization. ,
They came to the prairies when the framework of social institutions
had already been quite well established. Counties had been set up
and many towns had been organized. Anglo-American political and
legal procedures were already in effect. Small numbers of knowledgeable
Scandinavian, Old American, Canadian, Scotch and Irish homesteaders
and merchants had already preceded them.
In many ways the Black Sea homesteaders were admirably, equipped
for Plains settlement. The land was their life, urban living was
not attractive. They were familiar with hard and tedious work. Generations
of struggle made them thrifty almost to an extreme. A strong sense
of family solidarity enabled them to pool their resources. They
were thus flexible, yet adamant and could survive drought and misfortune.
The first settlers were anything but enamored .with their desolate
prairie countryside. Old timers talked with nostalgia of the good
times, good soil, good climate of the Ukraine. Many would have returned
to Russia if political conditions there had been favorable. Many
would have gone elsewhere in the United States, but unlike the Irish,
who could go back to friends in eastern cities or the Scandinavians,
who could return to relatives in Minnesota, Iowa or Wisconsin, the
German-Russians had no place to go. Knowing only the Great Plains
they stayed and multiplied.
Yet a number of their cultural ways were similar to those already
evolved in the prairie regions. Earthen houses had been a familiar
part of the South Russian landscape. The burning of "buffalo
chips" was nothing new. For generations their manure had been
fashioned into dried squares of "mistholz" for winter
fuel. Some North Dakota German-Russians utilized this agricultural
commodity even into the 1930's. The Russian boots, the great coat,
and the fez-like fur cap were admirably suited to the prairie winters.
Their inexpensive and practical foods are still popular in the Dakota
regions along with their traditional German foods, they brought
the Tartar sweetmeat, halva, to the United States, also the Russian
sunflower seeds and the Ukrainian golubtsy ("Pigs in a Blanket").
Land was what they wanted, and land they obtained. The father's
instinct was to seek the eventual settlement of his sons on farmlands.
Father and sons pooled their labor and capital; the father's knowledge,
the son's labor. Then with marriage the father fulfilled his part
of the unspoken agreement, assistance in obtaining and developing
a farm for the son's new family.
Expansion during the Great Drought
In the dry 1930's the thrifty ways of the German- Russians enabled
them to survive in numbers far beyond that of most other national
groups. They provided a stable element in the social and agricultural
fabric of many North Dakota counties. In Pierce County, North Dakota,
they owned 19 percent of the land in 1910. In 1960 they held 45
percent of the land and farmed much more as tenants. In contrast
forty-eight Irish settlers of 1910 owned 10,600 acres in Pierce
County, in 1960 those of Irish, stock owned only 1,600 acres. A
1910 Pierce County community of Syrians has completely passed out
of existence, the land now being owned almost entirely" by
The Russian experience, however, caused them at times to make costly
mistakes. In Pierce and Mc- Henry County they passed by good loamy
soil to take a sandier land because their colonies in Russia had
found sandy soil the most favorable. But the sandy loam proved to
be sand hills; literally hundreds of families were forced over a
period of years to move elsewhere as the topsoil was exhausted.
After the first few years of settlement, with its problems of orientation
and land acquisition, most German-Russian communities (especially
those of a single religious background) flourished in a unique,
way. Here in America the immigrants could obtain the fond hopes
of their fathers: land for themselves and their sons, a life without
government interference, freedom to worship, freedom to be German.
The traditions of their forefathers (still to a great extent a peasant
culture of the early 19th Century) burst forth in dozens of self-contained
communities over the Great Plains. It was a kind of "Golden
Age"; one that continued into the dry years of the 1930's.
The German-Russians proved to be most flexible and less tradition
bound when it came to economic activity. Here they easily adopted
the American ways; they readily accepted the Anglo-American system
of buying and selling; marketing methods, banks, elevators. This
was so, perhaps, because they had to be flexible in that element
of life in Russia where they had previously found themselves in
an o already developed national economy.
They were most resistant to change in the things that they had
fought "in Russia to avoid; inter-marriage, loss of family
solidarity, loss of religion, and for a generation or two, their
own particular brand of German culture. They further avoided things
in the United States that had been their natural enemies in Russia;
politics, conscription, higher education, and the world of high
Economic and Political Views
Ninety-eight percent of the voters in four solidly German-Russian
Pierce County, North Dakota, town- ships voted for F. D. Roosevelt
in 1932. But in 1940, when he was attempting to repeal the Arms
Embargo, only 20 percent voted for him. In German- Russian McIntosh
County, the number of vote for Roosevelt fell from 1,900 in 1936
to 318 in 1940. In 1920, after the First World War, the Pierce County
townships voted decisively against the Democrats, the wartime administration.
These votes for Harding and against Roosevelt were typical of the
Ger- man-Russian communities in North Dakota and are no doubt a
measure of their dislike for their ancient foe, conscription, and
also an index of their reverence for their German homeland.
The Germans were deeply aware of their past. Settlements named
Odessa sprang up in South Dakota and Saskatchewan, two were in North
Dakota. Most of their village names reflected their immediate past
in Russia or their home provinces in Germany: Baden, Selz, Johannestal,
Danzig, Strasburg. The railroad may have given a town site an Anglo-Saxon
name but where possible the Germans changed it to fit" their
The dorf (village) and hof (homestead) design in Russia contributed
to their ability to sustain an unmixed culture, to protect themselves,
and to pre- serve their ideas and beliefs. In Russia the people
lived in agglomerated villages which consisted of households bordering
the roads. Attached to the rear of each hof were narrow strips of
land on which were grown the gardens, the fruits, and other items
of domestic consumption. The major farm1.ng lands were outside of
the villages but the property and animals were collected at the
hof. This ancient saxon type was a rectangle surrounded on all sides
by buildings except at the front, which was toward the main road.
The various buildings for animals, machinery, and feed (with the
house on one corner) were attached "to each other, making a
solid enclosure. In the center of this rectangle, typically 40 meters
wide and 120 meters long, was the threshing platform, with manure
piles on one side and a manure well under the platform to receive
and preserve the liquid drainage for fertilizer. Across the opening
at the front was a flower garden and also a rope or wire with a
ring, to which was attached the collar of a vigilant watchdog. In
the winter the cattle were, thus, under the farmer's close supervision
and protected from the winds by the sheds of the surrounding hof.
There is an indication in early reports that the hof arrangement
had a slight influence on some of the original German farm structures
in: North America, at least to the extent that the buildings were
built close together or adjoining. But the Homestead Law provision
requiring the owner to reside on his land made the dorf, or agglomerated
village, impossible. Instead, small churches were erected out on
the countryside to provide some sense of community. The prairie
church became an important symbol of unity everywhere, for the Germans,
especially the Black Sea settlers, tended to segregate themselves
along religious lines. Schock says that in North Dakota the German
Catholics were found mainly in three mixed communities and thirty-six
predominantly Catholic Communities.
German-Russians were almost without exception religious people.
Evangelical Protestants found an initial difficulty in identifying
themselves with the wide variety of beliefs and labels found among
American denominations. They joined churches with doctrines that
seemed most familiar and particularly those with German pastors
and traditions. One estimate suggests that 30 percent became Congregational,
10 percent Baptist, 10 percent Methodist, 5 percent Adventist and
45 percent Lutheran. In North Dakota a sizeable number became Evangelical
United Brethren. Today, German-Russians form the solid core of several
North Dakota religious groups.
The Catholics had no trouble identifying the local Catholic authorities
and institutions but many stormy episodes occurred when they met
pastors and bishops of German-American (non-Russian) or Irish traditions.
.Excommunication, family feuds, interdicts, and fights mark the
first decades of their settlement. Yet today the German-Russians
supply numbers of priests and nuns in amounts far beyond their proportion
of the Catholic population.
At the University of North Dakota only one student identified himself
as of German-Russian descent among its 1,215 students in 1921. Only
two were to be found at that University among the 1,828 students
in 1940. Yet, at least 15 percent and possibly 20 percent of the
State's population were of that ancestry. Elementary education was
accepted by the Germans but higher education was considered superfluous.
On the German-Russian farm, the chores came first, homework came
next. During spring and fall work, students would not go to school.
Politics might have interested them (and they voted often along
a sort of neo-populist line with a strong attachment to the Nonpartisan
League and especially to North Dakota's Senator William Langer)
but political office they avoided. The politician in Russia had
been considered a thief, a tyrant, or a foreigner. While Scandinavian
immigrants entered politics almost immediately, German-Russians
are only now beginning to assume high political offices in substantial
numbers. Since statehood, 168 men have held major elected positions
of leadership in the North Dakota State Capital or as members of
Congress from North Dakota. Of these only five have been German-Russian.
In Pierce County, North Dakota, where now at least 45 percent of
the population are- Black Sea Germans, seventy individuals have
held important elected positions in the Court House such as auditor
, sheriff, treasurer, clerk of court, county judge. Only four have
been of German-Russian descent and two of these are presently in
office. In Pierce County and elsewhere, a certain undercurrent of
resentment has been frequently observed among the Germans toward
successful members of their group. Its subtle influence made it
difficult to get men to take positions of leadership. The curious
situation has occurred in which Norwegians would support a competent
German-Russian candidate while Germans would vote against him.
Public Unaware of German-Russians
In spite of their numbers, the German-Russians , are practically
unknown to the general American and Canadian public and even to
the world of scholarship. This may be partially explained by their
lack of, or rather, their limited sense of national group identity.
Their emotional ties were to no existing homeland, but instead to
the early eighteenth century peasant life in Germany: Russia disclaimed
them, and if one may judge from the reports of Volga and Ukrainian
refugees returning to Germany after the World Wars, even Germany
looked at them with some disfavor. Furthermore, they had no common
region in Russia to harken back to, scattered as they were from
the Volga to Bessarabia, from the Crimea to the Caucasus. They remembered
only the life and locale of their specific Russian villages.
They had no outstanding leaders (Mennonites excepted), no intellectuals,
no poet$, no literature, no epics. Coming from different theological
traditions, they had no common religion to establish an overall
ethnic consciousness. The result was a strong emphasis on family
ties and local unity, but a minimum of concern for "other"
The drought of the 1930's and especially the disruptive experiences
of World War II form a sort of watershed in the cultural development
of German- Russian communities. Young men had to move away from
home; many took brides from eastern or western states. The German
language and culture came under a wartime cloud of suspicion. Land
values soared and new property was not easily obtained. Mechanization
reduced the number of farms in the home settlements. Loans to veterans
enabled some boys to buy land in distant townships: and counties,
others could attend trade schools and some went to college. Automobiles,
good roads, television and consolidated schools made further inroads
into the previous isolation of the German communities. The University
of North Dakota began to number its German-Russians by the dozens
and then in the hundreds.
Today's German-Russian community is still a very distinctive thing.
There is a touch of conservatism in the working methods of many
farmers. There is a hint of suspicion towards outsiders. Music has
an Old Country' flavor and riotous weddings still take place. German
is spoken by the old timers. The English of the young has unique
German accent. Sunflower seeds, golubtsy and halva are still relished.
Elderly women cover their heads witI1 peasant- type shawls. Parental
authority, though shaken, is still intact. Many of the old people
go to retirement homes in distant towns; the young no longer hear
the stories and lore of the past. Religious traditions continue
in full force, though an Irish pastor may: live in the parsonage.
Several generations of living in America leaves its inevitable
mark oil every national group. The German-Russian culture has proved
to be remarkably resistant to this influence, but nevertheless,
it is no exception to the rule.