The John Schmaltz family of Emmons County: from Ukrainian Steppes to Dakota Prairies

Schmaltz, Eric. "The John Schmaltz family of Emmons County: from Ukrainian Steppes to Dakota Prairies." Emmons County Record, 13 November 2008, 4.
(Editor's Note: This is part twelve of Eric Schmaltz's history of the John Schmaltz family.)

A New Home in North Dakota

Eric Schmaltz’s photograph of the surrounding countryside taken near Linton, North Dakota.

The first Germans from Russia settled in North and South Dakota in the 1870s. This significant migration intensified in the 1880s, 1890s, and early 1900s and continued until around 1920, when the U.S. government established strict immigrant restrictions over the next four decades. According to U.S. census data, North Dakota’s total population increased by more than 50% between 1900 and 1910.

Most Black Sea German settlements are concentrated in the north-central, southwestern, and south-central parts of North Dakota. These clustered communities actually overlap, creating a general triangular region that scholars have traditionally referred to as the state’s “German-Russian Triangle.” Emmons County lies in the “Triangle’s” south-central section.

During the 1890s, a number of Schmaltzes from Kandel and surrounding villages in Ukraine already had immigrated to the “Triangle.” For example, Ludwig Schmalz (1833-1893) and his family came to the United States through Ellis Island on October 3, 1889. Ludwig, his wife and sons homesteaded close to Hague, North Dakota, until 1909. One of the sons, Peter (1870-1942), sold his homestead and moved to a new farm close to Prelate, Saskatchewan, Canada. Some of his descendants later moved on to Alberta, Canada. Johann Schmalz of Kandel soon followed in the footsteps of these and other Germans from Russia. Why he made this life-altering decision, his descendants will never know with any certainty.

In 1990, however, at a dinner for a family gathering in St. Paul, Minnesota, I heard from my father that Great-grandfather had killed a Russian, perhaps an official, in a roadside argument. It evidently had something to do with military conscription. According to the account, Johann had left the man for dead in a roadside ditch. My father said that his father Leo (1923-1987) had told him the same story many years earlier. Apparently, Great-grandfather had related this story to Grandfather several decades before. Three generations have passed down the family legend now. Ironically, a few years later, this author heard a similar story from one of his college professors, whose Russian-Jewish family also had come from the Odessa region. His relatives had told him about one of his ancestors who had killed someone and had immigrated to New York City. It is difficult to say whether this is a popular tale told by numerous immigrants who fled the old country of Russia. Of course, one should be skeptical. Then again, perhaps that is the primary reason nineteen-year-old Johann left for America, with an even younger sister tagging along. Even if this dark episode were not true, the fear of military service in Russia was unquestionably real among young German men and other minorities at that time who were fast approaching conscription age.

Eric Schmaltz. The author is immigrant Johann Schmalz’s great-grandson.  Born in Minot, North Dakota, in 1971, he is Assistant Professor of History at Northwestern Oklahoma State University, where he teaches Modern European and World History.  He expresses his eternal gratitude to old issues of the Emmons County Record as well as various extended relatives by blood or marriage who have assisted him with family history research over the past two decades, in particular Bro. Placid Gross, Mrs. Mary Lynn Axtman, Mrs. Nicole (French) Bailey, Prof. Amy Deibert, and Prof. Michael M. Miller.

A few years ago, the federal government established an official website for the former immigration center at Ellis Island in New York. Here one may click and find documentation of immigrant Johann Schmalz’s entry into the United States. He could never have imagined in his wildest dreams that more than a century later his great-grandson could access his records with the greatest of ease. According to the passenger record, Johann’s date of arrival into the United States was November 9, 1898, and his ethnicity is listed as “Russian” (i.e., as a subject of the Russian Empire). In addition, the records list his home village as “Kandol” instead of “Kandel.” This might result from the immigration official’s misspelling of it, but it might also capture the sound of Johann’s spoken German dialect.

Reprinted with permission of the Emmons County Record.

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