God-Fearing and Able to Pay

Volga Germans and Mennonites from South Russia laid the Foundation for the Fame of Kansas as an Agricultural State 

Stewen, Ulrich, “God-Fearing and Able to Pay." Moskauer Deutsche Zeitung,” January  2009.

Translation from the Original German-language text to American English provided by Alex Herzog, Boulder, Colorado

German Text [PDF]

Having arrived in their new homeland: Primarily prosperous landowners moved to the head of the emigration movement.
The new US citizens were entrepreneurs, establishing, for example, this “Meat Market.”
James “Wild Bill” Hickock was reputed to have a few dozen men on his conscience by the time he became police chief of Hays City, the most disreputable locale around, a US-American hotbed of buffalo hunters, railroad workers, vagabonds and desperados of all kinds. It was the year of 1867. No one at the time would have bet even a cent on the fact that Hays, in only ten years, would become quite the trading center, and even the destination of god-fearing Germans from Russia, who from there would carve out a new home for themselves.

1876. The military camp of Fort Hays, which for a long time had helped to bolster the bad reputation of the city, had been declared surplus and was shut down. Months of drought had decimated the harvest, and a grasshopper infestation had done the rest. Many fled Kansas to develop land elsewhere. In such a situation, new settlers were just what was needed, especially if they knew something about farming and were willing to put some money into circulation.

Within six years about 12,000 Germans from Russia immigrated to Kansas. Having journeyed via Odessa, Hamburg and New York, an initial 800 folks reached their destination in 1874. The first groups of immigrants were Mennonites from South Russia. During the year prior they had sent a reconnaissance mission to Kansas to check out land for settlement, to determine soil conditions, and to conduct negotiations on prices.

The director of the Immigration Bureau at the time was Carl Bernhardt Schmidt, a German from Saxony and employee of the Santa Fe Railroad Company. Several railroad companies had acquired lands that they now wished to sell, in smaller or larger parcels, to new settlers. Wherever a new railroad track was laid, land prices rose, and in that way those railroad companies financed the push to the West. The companies could not wish for better customers than the German Russian settlers. They paid in cash, wasted no time in tenacious negotiations, and usually made large purchases – changing hands were not small parcels, but whole tracts of land; not individual cattle, but whole herds; and the entire contents of supply warehouses.

These people had been thinking for some time about emigrating from Russia. After 1840, the price of wheat had dropped dramatically due to competition from the US. Furthermore, the Russian government was taking back many a privilege of earlier times, such as an exclusive license for brewing beer and, importantly, exemption from military service. Worst of all, in the opinion of the Mennonite communities, the government was beginning to mix entirely too much in their affairs, e.g., via the decree on land distribution, by which prosperous colonists had to cede cultivable to landless members of the community. No wonder that prosperous landowners in particular would be leading the emigration movement.

Many possibilities were examined: Canada, Brazil, the Near East and, of course, the United States. Plans for moving to the other side of the Atlantic were then not put off any longer after the Russian government, during the mid-1860s, offered the Mennonite communities resettlement on the Amur River in East Siberia, with free land, tax reductions, and exemption from military service. It should be said that Mennonite Bernhard Warkentin had taken a group of followers on an inspection tour in Siberia, but they had returned with great disappointment.  Farms that could thrive from selling its products would be impossible there, because there was no way to transport them, nor were there potential customers anywhere nearby. Besides, they surmised, travel conditions to America should not be any more difficult than a land transport to the still unexplored East Siberia.

In their new homeland, Germans from Russia were living in modest self-sufficiency, in settlement areas that comprised mostly large territories, some in compact village settlements, all where they were largely shielded from external influences and would therefore be able to retain their language and culture at least into the generation after the next. American ways and the English language were thus slow to make any inroads, particularly since the Germans from Russia had long been used to prove themselves largely independent in Russia amidst an environment with other languages. By 1875, David Görtz of Halstead began to publish the first German-language newspaper. This was at a time when newspapers were largely nonexistent in many large cities in Kansas. Further papers followed, carrying names such as “Courier,” “Volksfreund [Friend of the People],” Staats Zeitung,” “Zur-Heimath [To the Homeland],” or “Freie Presse [Free Press].”  

Even without the Germans from Russia, Kansas, famous for its wide fields of waving grain, would assuredly have grown into a significant agrarian state, but the immigrants did provide a decisive contribution. Again and again it has been reported that the Germans from Russia had brought along a certain variety of winter wheat, and had thereby provided the underpinnings for the meteoric rise of agriculture. 

Historical Facts:

Mennonites from Russia were not the only German Russians to make the journey across the Atlantic. Volga Germans also emigrated to the US during the second half of the 19th Century. The first group of Volga Germans came from Katharinenstadt (later to be known as Marxstadt). They had begun their journey in October of 1875 and reached the Kansas capital city of Topeka by the end of November. Toward the end of 1875, some 1200 German Russians from the Volga region, primarily Catholics in this case, came to be settled the rural Ellis and Rush Counties, which to this day report the largest number of residents in Kansas with Volga German ancestors. In the census of 2000, of a total of 2.6 million residents of the state of Kansas, some 868,801 persons reported to have German ancestors, and some 17,734 indicated that they had Russian ancestors.

More information may be found at www.ornis-press.de/russlanddeutsche-in-Uebersee.16.0.html and at the Germans from Russia Heritage Collection web site www.ndsu.edu/grhc.

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

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller