From Germany to Russia to N.D.
Lind, Bob. "From Germany to Russia to N.D." Forum, 25 June 1989.
Those people who loved three-day wedding celebrations, ate borscht
and gave Lawrence Welk to the world took a roundabout way to immigrate
to Dakota Territory from their homeland in Germany. They came by
way of Russia.
They settled throughout the territory which eventually became North
and South Dakota. Their descendants made the Germans from Russia
the second-largest ethnic group in North Dakota, trailing only the
Norwegians in number.
One of those descendents is Mike Miller, a reference librarian
at North Dakota State University. He’s also the bibliographer
for the Germans from Russia Heritage Collection in the North Dakota Institute
of Regional studies section of the NDSU library.
It’s the best source of information on North Dakota Germans
from Russia, according to the Rev. William Sherman of Grand Forks,
no amateur himself when it comes to charting the ethnic groups of
The institute contains a variety of resource material: more than
400 books, family histories, cassette tapes of interviews and speeches,
cookbooks, photographs and histories of the German colonies in Russia,
especially around the Black Sea area and of the Bessarabian region
in that area, from which most of those who came to North Dakota
Miller’s annotated bibliography, "Researching the Germans
from Russia," lists the materials available at the Germans
from Russia Heritage Society library in Bismarck, N.D., as well
as at the institute. The book also summarizes the history of these
Their ancestors had poured into the Black Sea are in the late 1700s
at the invitation of Catherine II, empress of Russia. She invited
foreigners to help develop the region into a productive agricultural
area and as a protective barrier against the nomadic Asiatic tribes.
The Germans came because their own country was devastated by war
and poverty was widespread.
They got along well in Russia until 1871, when Czar Alexander II
revoked many of the rights originally granted them. They no longer
were exempt from military service; they no longer could have their
own schools; their lives were becoming tightly controlled. Eventually,
the Germans had enough; they packed up whatever they could and headed
for America, homestead land and freedom.
The heaviest immigration occurred between 1880 and 1910, Miller
says. They first settled in Yankton, S.D., area, then moved into
south-central North Dakota and then, as land became scarce, into
the Rugby-Harvey area. Eventually they pushed into Canada.
Miller says few of the original homesteaders are left; those who
remain are in their 80s. "A lot of the stories about the early
days are secondhand stories now," he says. "But fortunately,
good publications have been written which retain that history."
Miller’s grandparents on both sides were Germans from Russia.
His maternal grandparents came from Strasburg, Russia, and settled
in Strasburg, N.D., where both he and Welk were born and raised.
Miller says it was common to name the colonies in Russia after the
settlers’ home towns in Germany; when they came to North Dakota,
they brought those names with them, leading to such communities
as Strasburg, Kulm, Balta, and Gackle.
Miller says most of the Germans from Russia were farmers, hard
workers, musical and largely Catholic and Lutheran, although many
were Baptist and of other Protestant denominations. Parents wanted
their children to have better lives and sent them to high school
in days when high school was not required.
The settlers stuck it out through blizzards, epidemics and prairie
fires. But the Depression was too much for many, who gave up farming
and moved elsewhere: Minneapolis, Milwaukee, the northwestern United
States, and northern California. "Go to Lodi in California,
and it’s just like North Dakota," Miller says.
All of this is documented in the institute’s collection,
which Miller calls "THE Collection" of materials on
the Black Sea Germans. "This perhaps is the largest collection
of material on them in North America," he says.
The collection is privately funded; no state funds are involved.
Miller, however, hopes someone will come up with an endowment to
cover the cost of finding more materials.
Many Germans from Russia will be in Bismarck July 13-16, when the
Germans from Russia Heritage Society International convenes. That
convention will be in Fargo next year.
Miller will be at both of them. He is an acknowledged authority
on Germans from Russia. He need only glance at a picture of a German-Russian
cemetery to know where it’s located, by the names on the tombstones.
It took him about three years to compile the bibliography. He hopes
to provide a supplement to update it.
Meanwhile, people write, telephone and visit the institute for
information on the Black Sea Germans. Or, quite often, for information
on Lawrence Welk.
Miller says he’s trying to obtain all of Welk’s recordings.
The collection now has many of them, as well as most of his books.
It also has a videotape of Welk’s first nationally televised
TV show. "Oh, I remember that well!" Miller says. "It
was July 2, 1955. The whole town of Strasburg gathered to watch
Reprinted with permission of The Forum, Fargo, North