The Saga of Our
German Russian Ancestors
By Dr. Joseph S. Height
Transcription completed by Monica Dearing
Sumner, Washington, 1991
Transcription of tape of presentation at the North Dakota
Historical Society of Germans from Russia Convention Bismarck, North
Mr. President of the Association and also Honorary President Dr. Stumpp,
whom I welcome back here. Dr. Stumpp has been a longtime friend of
mine. We have collaborated for many years together and we are going
to spend the next four weeks together on a long extended tour through
the Russian German territory in western Canada.
The German Russians
of this country have settled along the northwest line. I call it
the German Russian northwest passage, which extends from Aberdeen
to Edmonton, but we're going to continue on that line. We were in
Aberdeen two years ago, and now we are continuing on this northwest
passage through Minot, Regina, Saskatoon, Edmonton, Calgary, Kelowna,
Vancouver, and Victoria.
I also wish to address briefly the members of the North Dakota
Society and welcome them, their friends, and visitors. I think on
this centennial occasion it is fitting that I quote the words of
a famous German poet, who once wrote the following lines:
Happy the man who fondly thinks of his forebears,
Who likes to tell the willing listener the tale
Of their achievements and greatness,
And is proud to see himself a link in the beautiful chain.
I think that this is what has brought us together here. On this
centennial occasion it is certainly befitting that we reflect upon
our ancestors and their migration to this country. I'm not going
to speak directly about the immigration of our forefathers from
Southern Russia to this country or from the Volga to this country.
There are several other speakers who are going to deal with various
aspects of that immigration.
Those of you who are members of the Society will also note that
in our special centennial issue of the Heritage Review are several
articles of great historical value and interest which I recommend
to your attention.
The topic of my brief address today is entitled, “The Saga
of Our German Russian Ancestors.”
What I would like to do for a few moments is to briefly compare
the experiences and hardships of our people that emigrated from
the Black Sea area from Southern Russia to the Dakotas, Nebraska
and Kansas. I would like to compare their experiences with those
of the German immigrants that came in the early part of the 19th
century to what was then called New Russia, namely the Ukraine Territory
around the Black Sea. We have pretty good information of what happened
at that time. Many of you will no doubt know that the grandson of
Catherine II, Alexander I, opened up a vast new territory of land
called "The Steppe" around the Black Sea for colonization.
This land had been conquered from the Turks under the reign of Catherine
II and was now to be developed. This vast area of grassland was
only inhabited by some shepherds who had grazed their flocks of
sheep and cattle and horses across this vast stretch of country..
Alexander issued an invitation to farmers and craftsmen in Germany,
Elsass and other countries, even countries like Bulgaria, Romania,
to come to Russia and to settle on this near virgin land. The invitation
contained several important promises, several important offers which
were hard to resist.
The most important of these no doubt was the fact that Alexander
promised each family that would come to Russia 60 dessiatines equaling
162 acres, a quarter section of land, free. The other offers and
promises were freedom of religion; freedom to build schools and
to administer them; freedom of village administration; and then
also, of course, the government offered considerable financial aid
to those early settlers. For example, the transportation costs were
to a large extent paid by the Russian government. And, until the
first harvest, those pioneer settlers were offered a daily food
ration until their first harvest. The Russian government at that
time also offered the immigrants an interest free loan of 300-350
rubles to help finance their settlements, to enable them to build
a home, and to buy the necessary livestock, farm equipment, plow,
and harrow, and some of the necessities of establishing a domestic
However, we know from early records that this immigration was attended
with great hardships. First of all, the journey from Germany was
a very long and arduous journey covering about 1700 miles. It was
undertaken partly by land in wagons, partly on barges that floated
down the Danube River, either from Ulm to Vienna, or in some cases,
all the way from Ulm to the mouth of the Danube near Odessa. I can't
find any details about this long arduous journey except to say that
it normally took about three months from the time they left Germany
until the time they arrived in Odessa. To be sure, about four weeks
was spent in quarantine in the Russian port of entry, Radzivilov.
However, this was still four weeks of travel in very primitive equipment,
in very primitive vehicles, and those who went down the Danube by
barges had the hardest time of all because in 1817, 1300 of the
immigrant people, men, women, and children, perished on the shores
of the Danube, when an epidemic of dysentery and the River Fever,
malaria, broke out.
The settlement of the Germans in Russia was also difficult because
of the climate. They were not used to the strenuous winters, and
consequently, many people fell ill and died in the winter months.
Their homes, the homes of the pioneers, were rather poor. They had
to live in a hut built of earth. I’m just going to quote to
you how one immigrant describes these huts. He says, “In our
miserable reed-thatched hut whose walls consisted of thin poles
and clay packed wicker work there is no other fuel available except
cow dung and the reeds which are cut in the marshes of the Dniester
and hauled a distance of from 4 to 8 hours.”
Another man mentioned, “The dwellings of the colonists consist
of wretched huts constructed of 12 slender stakes that were driven
into the ground and connected with clay plastered wicker-work. In
these miserable huts the colonists eeked out their days for, even
in the most rigorous winter, they had no wood for their stoves.
A bit more fortunate are the colonists who have brought along some
bedding, for this provides them, in particular their children, with
some protection against the extreme cold that prevails in these
huts whose walls are sometimes white with thick layers of frost.”
Of course, the huts that were built by our ancestors in Russia
were not sod houses. They were unable to build sod houses because
they had no breaking plows. The poor wooden plows of the Russians
couldn’t turn the sod; you couldn’t turn a nice strip
of sod in order to build a sod house.
The other item regarding immigration was land. Of course, it was
steppeland, which means prairie, and the colonists of Russia had
great difficulty in turning the sod, in plowing up the prairie,
the Russian prairie. One of the colonists wrote, “The land
here is as rugged and tough as iron. To break the sod six oxen or
four horses have to be hitched to the plow.” This was a crude
contraption, a plow with hardly any metal on it, and the plow shears
bent like tin.
It was this great difficulty: there were not enough plows to go
around so that the colonists often had to hitch together and help
one another with the plowing. In other words, the progress made
in Russia in converting the steppe to plowland took many decades.
To be sure, our people in Russia had one advantage, I think, over
the settlers in this country. They all lived in villages together,
and by living together were able to help each other and to have
social contact in those difficult times, in those early difficult
When we turn now to the emigration of our people from Russia to
this country, we, of course, know that they left by train, usually
by train, for some German sea port. They then had a sea journey
which could extend from 12 to 20 or more days and, arriving in New
York, would then again embark on a train which would take them across
Chicago to the west, at that time, usually to some railway station
in South Dakota.
In comparing the journeys of both people, I would say, generally
speaking, that the journey of our people from Russia to America
was less dangerous, less arduous than that of their ancestors. However,
our pioneer settlers had, of course, many difficulties in getting
settled in this country. To be sure, many of them brought along
with them a bit of money, which they needed, of course, to get established.
They, too, had to buy horses or oxen. They needed a cow, a wagon,
a rake, perhaps, and other things to build a house or a hut.
We know, of course, that our people in this country started out
with sod houses of which the sod was plowed up by means of breaking
plow. Many of these sod houses were built by the women folk. While
the men were plowing up the sod and hauling it to the building site
it was usually the women who actually built the walls of the hut
and consequently they were involved in the building.
An old pioneer wrote an article in an early German paper, The Ashley
Tribune. He says, “After we had unloaded our belongings we
started getting settled. So we can well imagine how my father and
my mother felt about the prospect of living 80 miles from the nearest
town, all alone under the open sky, with nothing but sky and prairie.
After the house was completed we began picking stones and breaking
the land. We succeeded in plowing about 3 acres and seeded them,
but we harvested only 5 bushels. So we all went out into the prairie
and collected buffalo bones near the place where Wishek now stands
and hauled them with our oxen to Ellendale. There we sold the bones
and bought provisions, flour, lard, coffee, and the like. In our
poverty and distress there was one thing that came to our rescue
and that was the buffalo bones. If it had not been for those bones
we would have all suffered form hunger; for the crops at that time
were still very small and meager and there was no other way of finding
This was written in 1886 in the very early years of settlement.
And you will notice that our people did not have any kind of financial
support from the government, I mean, no food rations until their
first harvest, and were consequently obliged to resort to this rather
strange way of making a living, namely collecting old buffalo bones
on the prairie.
“But,” says the writer, “We were able to sell
those bones.” Actually they got 10-12 dollars for a ton of
those bones and they were able to buy flour, which at that time
cost $2.00 for a bag of 100 pounds, and coffee (you could get 25
pounds of coffee for $1.00) or sugar (25 pounds for $1.00). “One
week was spent in collecting the bones from the prairie, and the
following week we hauled them to town. Collecting the bones was
the harvest that kept us busy until the coming of winter. It was
easiest to find those bones when the prairie had been burned off,
had to look for them in the grass.” In those times of utter
distress, young and old wandered over the prairies, day after day,
looking for buffalo bones.
Another difficulty, a hardship that our people encountered, were
prairie fires. Says one writer, one early pioneer, “One day
we saw a prairie fire approaching. I told my wife that we have to
plow a fire break around our stack of hay. Hay was very important
in those days, not only as food for the cattle and oxen, but also
for fuel to heat the stoves. Suddenly I saw five ox-drawn wagons
coming in our direction and I shouted to the drivers, ‘If
you believe in God, come and help,’ and together we succeeded
in putting out the prairie fire, but we suffered burns on our hands
and faces. Another fire was approaching from the side, but it fortunately
passed by without causing any damage to the hay and farm property.”
In the winter months they were confronted by another surprising
and shocking phenomenon, namely, the North Dakota blizzards or the
South Dakota blizzards. “In the late fall,” says another
writer, “my father and several other settlers drove to Ipswich
to buy provisions for the coming winter. The trip ordinarily took
a whole week, but by driving day and night, they made it in four
days. It's a good thing they did, for on their return trip they
got into such a snowstorm that they were often unable to tell in
what direction they were going. Luckily, too, for them, the good
old oxen knew the way home. They got back safely that night in a
raging blizzard that lasted a whole week. That was the blizzard
of 1886 in which 140 people died in South Dakota. I often heard
my father say that if they had not made it home that same night,
they would all have frozen to death, for the weather turned very,
very cold and the snow was much too high to get through with an
Similar accounts, of course, could be no doubt multiplied one thousand
fold and corroborated from written and oral sources. But, I think
even these few brief reports enable us to draw the perhaps startling
conclusion that the obstacles and hardships confronting our Dakota
pioneers were by all odds greater and more formidable than those
endured by the immigrant forefathers who settled on the steppes
of Russia some 70 years earlier.
This is a part of the saga of our people. Our Russian German people
in the Ukraine and in this country established no wild west. They
were a people who believed in peace and order. They were a people
who believed in hard work, a people who were God-fearing and concentrated
on the task of establishing a new existence. They were simply much
too busy raising children and wheat and cattle. They were much too
busy doing this than raising hell all over the place. Raising havoc
and so on, this was not the German Russian character or type. However,
these people have a long history as a people of the soil, as tillers
of the soil. Their ancestors as far back as we can find historically
were grain farmers, back 1000 years. Their ancestors had settled
in the Rhine River plains, producing wheat in the middle ages.
(Here, the tape was changed and a small part of the speech was
….the Palatinate parts and the lower part of Elsass. They
came, these farmers, to the Great Plains of Russia and from there
to this country.
Our people had been a pioneering people for hundreds of years.
They are still a pioneering people today. I need only point out
that 2 million of our countrymen are pioneering in Siberia and Kazakhstan
today after they had been removed from their earlier settlements,
from their beautiful villages on the Volga and on the Black Sea.
They are the great pioneers in Russia today.
And it is somewhat appropriate, I think, to mention that in Russia
they were largely responsible for making that country the breadbasket
of Europe. Perhaps they are largely responsible to making the western
plains the great agricultural, agrarian granary of the world. It
is somewhat ironical, if you like, to note that in this recent Russian
grain deal that we, the Russian Germans of the Dakotas, Kansas and
Nebraska, are supplying a goodly portion of that grain that is going
back to Russia. Just as the Canadians, the German Russians of Manitoba,
Saskatchewan, and Alberta, are supplying a goodly portion of the
grain that the Canadians have been shipping to Russia in the last
Even the Russians realize this. Today there is a famous story,
a joke if you like, where one Russian says to another several years
ago, “Have you hear of Khrushchev’s great agricultural
miracle?” “No,” says his comrade, “What
is it?” “Well,” he says. “Khrushchev, you
know, he planted wheat in Kazakhstan and harvested it in Saskatchewan.”
In other words our people have bean dedicated to the task of producing
bread for the world. And it is perhaps, not by accident, that the
symbol of the Russian German people in Germany is a simple head
The production of wheat, food for the world, is our contribution,
the contribution of the German Russians wherever they were, whether
they were in Argentina, or whether they were on the prairies of
America, Canada, or whether they were on the steppes of South Russia.
Of course, I could go on and on but I must come, I think, to a
conclusion. Our people, humble, unassuming, had certain qualities
of courage, endurance, of faith in God, of cooperation. And it was
this that saw them through difficult times and enabled them to establish
a future for, their children, the kind of future that we are enjoying
today. We owe it to them, and we should not forget the story of
our people and what they had achieved. It is the prime purpose of
our Society, of the American Association of Germans from Russia,
the North Dakota Society; it is our prime purpose to research the
story of our people and to preserve it for the present and for future
generations. This story must not, dare not, be forgotten. It must
not be lost, and we have a group of people who are dedicated to
this, and we are, of course, delighted to see that there has been
an awakening among us and new interest has been created. People
who were ashamed to be Russians, German Russian, today again feel
an ethnic pride in the story of their forefathers.
I wish I could have told you all of this in German, in my own dialect.
Our people, of course, were serious when it came to work, but they
also had a sense of humor, and, I think, without that life for them
would have been a lot more difficult.
Our people were religious. For instance, they observed the Sunday.
You couldn't do anything on a Sunday except, really, just eat. And,
of course, we could drink on Sundays because our people are not
prohibitionists. You could even swear on Sunday, at least in German.
Of course, you swore in Russian that was a little more serious.
My mother came from Selz, and of course, my mother tongue is really
the dialect of Selz. My father came from Mannheim, and I could also
speak his dialect. He never spoke the same language at home as the
children did, or my mother.
There's a story told that has to do with the fishing expedition
that took place after Trinity Sunday. You know, Trinity Sunday was
the greatest and most holiest Sunday of the year.
(Here he tells the story in German.) .
Danke Schön! End of Speech