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The Black Sea Germans in the Dakotas

Book review by Edna Boardman, Bismarck, North Dakota

Rath, George . The Black Sea Germans in the Dakotas. Freeman, South Dakota: Pine Hill Press, 1977.


George Rath gives a fact-filled overview of the Black Sea Germans who settled in the Dakotas -- as the title indicates. The book is now in its fourth printing and has shown itself to be of enduring interest to persons who are interested in Germans from Russia settlement patterns in the two states, and who seek references to their ancestral villages and families.

Rath begins with a look at the original Black Sea settlements themselves -- the colony groups, the provinces (though not usually the villages) from which their inhabitants originated in Germany, and their culture. He traces their emigration to the Dakotas and identifies where they settled area by area. For some towns in the Dakotas, he lists all the churches; for others, just the churches with a preponderance of German-Russians as members. Additional chapters focus on the role and scope of the major Protestant denominations to which German Russians were attracted. A final part of the book lists Protestant seminaries that trained German-Russian ministers, a list of publications favored by them (some English language, some German), a rundown of religious literature, biographical sketches of ten German-Russian leaders, and miscellaneous statistics and facts.

He is generally very aware of German-Russian religious devotion -- the church, after all, was their institution of choice -- but one can hardly call him objective on religious matters. Catholic settlements, while not entirely ignored, have limited information about them. Though he understands the range of Protestant religious affiliation, he has something of a blind spot where Mennonites and Hutterites are concerned. He includes labeled paragraphs on Harvey and Velva, ND, in which the Catholic churches are listed, but he doesn't mention at all the two thriving all Germans from Russia Mennonite Brethren churches. He doesn't like chiliasts (separatists who believed that Christ would return soon) very much, and was clearly upset when the Evangelical United Brethren and Methodist Churches combined to form the United Methodist Church in 1968.

Rath notes the German-Russian talent for hard work and their hunger for land. He is aware of public German-Russian culture: newspapers, the Germans from Germany who were sometimes their neighbors, and language change. He records facts about church and community history and interests himself in the origins of place names. He includes lots of interesting incidental details. For example, he gives a list of immigrants who crossed the Atlantic on the ship Thuringia but does not provide other passenger lists.

A patient researcher, Rath says he "labored for many years" to collect the material for this book. He combed a tall stack of books plus newspapers, small town jubilee books, and minutes of official church conferences. The book contains lots of numbers, maps, some black and white photographs, and some family names, but more, the names of officials and ministers. He includes chapter notes, which may prove useful to persons seeking their family history. The book is dated 1977, but the most recent specific reference this reviewer noted was 1968 (the oldest 1873). He uses "at present," "now," and "currently" and is very specific about membership numbers and places where services are held, but the reader is never quite sure when "now" refers to because change in the countryside was quite rapid in the mid decades of the twentieth century when he gathered his material. He says of the Germans from Russia, "Wheat raising was the object of their lives," and, from the vantage point of the 1970s, he foresees stability and continuity well into the future.

Rath is not a trained historian. His work is uneven, he injects personal opinion, and he certainly does not tell everything a reader might want to know. His writing style is bumpy, his punctuation is uncertain, and sometimes he spells a word two or three different ways within a few pages. (He needed an editor or maybe just the help of a high school English teacher.) If you can forgive this, and the scope of the book suits your research needs, you will find it a fun browser and an excellent taking-off point for further reading.

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