The Other Germans Once Filled Dakotas

Herzog, Karen. "The Other Germans Once Filled Dakotas." Bismarck Tribune, 26 December 1997.

Fan through a telephone book from south central North Dakota.

Pause at Ashley and run your finger down the surnames.

Arlt, Bendewald, Christmann, Dohn, Eberly, Feil, Geist, Haas, Iszler, Jacob, Kempf, Lehr, Maier, Neu, Oberlander, Pfeifer, Quashnik, Reuther, Schnable, Tuschscher, Ulmer, Volk, Weisser, Zimmerman.

These people still live in North Dakota's German-Russian Triangle, nicknamed "The Great Sauerkraut Pyramid." They are the third and fourth generations of the folk known as the Germans from Russia, the Volksdeutsch, called the "other Germans" to distinguish them from the Reichsdeutsch -- Germans from Germany.

They are the descendants of the flood of Germans from Russia which inundated the Great Plains -- most heavily in the Dakotas -- from the 1880s to the 1920s. The potent fragrance of free land in their nostrils, these farmers arrived a scant step ahead of the terrible collapsing of the old Russian Empire as it was slowly crushed by the birth of the new Soviet Russia.

Their history is worthy of a hefty James Michener-style epic, but the migrations, sufferings and endurance of this tough and tribal peasantry gets little attention outside the Great Plains.

With the dying off of the original immigrants, from about the 1950s on, much oral history is lost, along with the old ways of living. But some of those phonebook grandchildren are now reaching back to preserve the memories and folkways of their heritage.

In a chapter of the book "Plains Folk," Timothy J. Kloberdanz explains how these German clans came to be living in Russia in the first place.

In 1763, Russian czarina Catherine the Great promised foreign settlers free land, freedom of religion, local self-government and exemption from compulsory military service. Another manifesto by Czar Alexander I in 1804 lured some 30,000 German peasants and craftsman into Russia to escape the devastating effect of the Napoleonic wars of 1804-10 in the German homelands such as Wurttemburg, Baden, Alsace and the Rhine Palatinate.

So off they packed, their wagon trains trundling to the immensities of South Russia. To farm in peace.

Author Richard Sallet, in "Russian-German Settlements in the United States," writes, "German-born Catherine's ... invitation was to bring in western immigrants capable of cultivating the vast stretches of untilled land on the steppes and to provide a protective wall of colonists against Asiatic tribes always threatening to invade from the East."

Those pioneers broke the virgin Russia prairie, enduring "marauding horse thieves, packs of hungry wolves, intensely cold winters, repeated crop failures and the sheer expansiveness of the steppe," Kloberdanz wrote.

He quotes a proverb of the Black Sea Germans, "For the first generation, death; for the second, want; Only for the third, there is bread." (Der Erste hat den Tod, Der Zweite hat die Not, Der Dritte erst hat Brot.)

But hard work and endurance was their nature. Under their tending, the steppes prospered into an abundant granary. The original 300 German colonies eventually birthed daughter colonies numbering more than 3,000, clustered around the Black Sea and the lower Volga River.

The common tribal bonds of blood, language, culture, religion and folkways knit the Germans tightly together in Russia for almost 150 years. They fiercely held to their German ways, even surrounded by native Russians and an ocean of grassy steppe.

But by the end of the 1800s, change was in the air. Exemption from military service was dropped in 1874, and the word came down -- these proud ethnic Germans were to be Russianized -- Russian language taught in their schools, local autonomy lost.

At the same time, a few advance immigrant scouts reported back -- America offered free land!

Under one aspect of the Homestead Act of 1862, the U.S. government offered 160 acres for a small fee to those living on it at least six months a year for five years.

So, beginning in the mid-1880s, ethnic German immigrants packed up again and poured onto the only tracts of free and open land left, America's north central prairies. And prairie they knew.

As Sallet says, "As the Spaniards liked Texas and California, and the Finns, Swedes and Norwegians loved the forests and lakes of Minnesota and Michigan ... the Russian-Germans found the endless prairies of the northern Great Plains much like the landscapes they had abandoned in southern Russia."

But the isolation of living on separated farmsteads was something new, something hard. In Russia they had lived together in villages and farmed the outlying land. So here, the prairie churches became the central hearth, the communal core.

Stepping off onto Dakota railroad stations -- Eureka, Ipswich, Aberdeen -- the Germans anxiously questioned passers-by in their mushy dialects, "Kannst du Deitsch?" (Do you speak German?), Kloberdanz wrote.

The newcomers searched out relatives or former village neighbors, cobbled together some crude shelter, urgently put the plow to the sod, carving and coaxing new land as they had done in South Russia.

Little towns sprang up in that "Sauerkraut Triangle.' Counties like McIntosh, Emmons, Logan soon prickled thickly with German families -- many with a dozen or more children. By 1920, Sallet, editor of the German-language newspaper, the "Dakota Freie Presse," found that North Dakota had 23 percent of the entire German-Russian population of the United States.

Even today, that same "triangle" remains one of the most homogeneous ethnic German-Russian enclaves in existence. In six of those counties, 75 percent or more people claim German ancestry, according to Kloberdanz.

So on the vast Dakota prairies, described by NDSU sociology professor William Sherman as "a land in serious need of rain," the Germans coalesced as in Russia -- Catholics with Catholics -- Lutherans with Lutherans.

In a chapter in "Plains Folk," Sherman summarized the land they found here:

    A rural way of life -- no dreamed-of "new Chicagos" ever materialized.

    Ultimately a colonial area, growing -- and exporting -- "food, fiber, energy, and healthy and capable young men and women."

    A transitory land. As Indian life was mostly a search for food and safety, so the immigrants built and left a crumble of little towns. A feeling of abandonment, closing, moving, leaving.

    A land of large dimensions -- nearest neighbors a mile away, church and schools over the horizon, four- and five-section farms, hay quarter in another township, a thousand acres in wheat.

    A land devoid of visual highlights -- no eye-gathering mountains, forests, valleys, lakes, but overwhelming sky and endless horizon. For many, lonely, frightening, cold.

Old brown-tinted photos capture those first years of rock-picking and terrible homesickness -- the Germans breaking sod and shocking their grain harvests, laboring like oxen.

In "Plains Folk" Jacques Riviere voices mild astonishment at the Germans' single-mindedness: "Work is not to the German the painful obligation and punishment which it often is to others ... They go into it with their whole hearts, as if yielding to a powerful mania, and fall back into work as others fall back into sin."

The Dakota land left for them was often rock-filled, said Michael Miller, Germans from Russia bibliographer at NDSU. "(Here) for so many years, this group was not so fortunate to have the best land. They settled in areas with harsh weather and with difficult land."

North Dakota's Germans from Russia preserved their ethnic identity for a uncommonly long time, corralled by the molasses gumbo roads of the central Dakota Plains.

"For many years, these people remained stuck to their old dresses, humble and common and simple," said Arnold Marzolf, retired professor, NDSU. "Now you would hardly recognize them anymore."

"You could tell a German-Russian by the way he dressed," Marzolf said, "Grandmothers wore the babushka (heavy fringed kerchief/shawl), men the old schlapp (sloppy) kap. Until World War II, you could recognize German-Russian homes ... big barn, small dumpy little house."

But World War II, the dying off of the original German-speaking immigrants in the 1950s, and the saturation of American culture have dissolved many outward signs of the ethnic Germans.

"Many of the old things are fading away," said Marzolf. "People are intermarrying; they are shifting in religions. The old ethnic unit isn't as important as it used to be."

As Miller notes, "It's a losing battle." Hurtful is the loss of the dialects -- mainly Swabian for Protestants, Franconian for Catholics -- the now-antique languages of southern Germany in the 1700s. Because, aside from places such as Strasburg, Napoleon, New Leipzig, Wishek, the old dialects are now spoken only by Germans living in Siberia, or returned to Germany from exile in Siberia.

In places like Ashley, cafe conversations in German are still audible, but the folks doing the talking are rarely under 50.

Last winter's German-language Advent service in Bismarck filled the pews. But again, those attending were mostly white-haired, here and there the middle-aged, a few youngsters.

Even in the heart of the Triangle, people in their 40s may comprehend, but will not reply in German.

"You wouldn't hear German in a bar (in those towns), but probably in the nursing home," Miller said.

Anyone born in South Russia is likely in their 90s by now, Miller said.

What remains of the distinctive features of the German-Russians -- their strong fidelity to religion, a love of music and singing? Their foods -- sunflower seeds, halvah (crushed sweetened sesame seeds borrowed from the Turkish during their Russian years), chicken feet, ketchup or cinnamon on noodle soup, pfefferneuse (anise cookies), strudle, knoepfle, sausage and sauerkraut and others?

What remains? Some heavy-tinged accents in south central North Dakota, knoepfle soup on restaurant signboards?

Pioneer churches, stranded like little ships ashore, leavings of the once-flush immigrant tide? A powerfully embedded work ethic? Traits of honesty, stoic resignation, neighborliness, a couple of German words or phrases?

A decade ago, some grandchildren and great-grandchildren began realizing that time was running short; the first generation of pioneers was dying. The foresighted ones visited elderly relatives, gathering the last of the first-hand stories of the Old Country.

The best chance for preservation of this culture, Miller said, is in collecting the oral histories that remain, to identify people in old family pictures before it's too late, listen to the stories, learn the crafts and textiles and foods.

Marzolf believes that any hope for some cultural preservation comes from those searching grandchildren, drawn in middle age to rediscover their heritage -- who are we? where did we come from?

Reprinted with permission of the Bismarck Tribune.

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