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 North Dakota.

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 emigrated.

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 people.

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 it."

Reprinted with permission of The Forum, Fargo, North Dakota.

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