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, 26 June 2008, 9.

(Editor’s Note: This is part one of Eric Schmaltz's history of the John Schmaltz family.)

For almost a century, the Schmaltz family name and “meat market” were virtually synonymous in Emmons County, North Dakota.

Catherine the Great

John Schmaltz (1879-1951), a German-speaking immigrant from tsarist Russia, brought his new family to the area in 1910 to seek his fortune. He turned out to be a successful local businessman, passing his trade on to his seven sons. In 2006, his descendants sold the Schmaltz Food Pride in Linton, in effect closing a long chapter in the county’s history, but the family business represented only one feature of a much larger human drama covering half the globe.

The compilation of historical records and oral traditions over the past generation has cast a new light on the Schmaltz family. Its saga—shaping in part my personal development—has deep roots in the distant past and in remote lands, from the Ukrainian steppes to the Dakota prairies. In many respects, the Schmaltz story has become North Dakota’s very own.

Who Are the Germans from Russia?

As early as the sixteenth century, the expanding Russian state already claimed a German presence. Beginning at that time, the tsars recruited German military officers, craftsmen, engineers, merchants, doctors, and scholars to help develop the capital in Moscow. Early on, most of these Germans lived in Russia’s urban centers and tended to reside in special ethnic neighborhoods, such as Moscow’s “German suburb” (Nemetskaya Sloboda). Over the next three centuries, additional waves of Germans entered Russia for various reasons, including those who settled along the Volga and Black Sea regions.

Tsarina Catherine II the Great (1762-1796), a German-born aristocrat herself, was the first to sponsor significant numbers of Central Europeans to settle in Russia. Beginning with her, the Russian Empire invited foreign settlers for two primary reasons. First, Russia wanted to cultivate wide areas of virgin lands and introduce agriculture into the region, thus the formal invitation of a vast number of farmers and skilled laborers in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Second, Russia desired that these new settlers on Russia’s expanding frontiers would provide a protective buffer against rival states and various nomadic Asian peoples. Under both Catherine and her grandson Alexander I (1801-1825), the empire conquered vast territories along the Black Sea, including parts of Ukraine, from the declining Turkish Empire. After the Turks’ defeat, they opened up the Black Sea region, which in reality had been a virtual no-man’s land, to large-scale settlement and economic development.

In particular, Catherine issued two manifestos in 1762 and 1763 to promote the influx of human and financial capital into her growing empire. Russian government agents and promoters went abroad to encourage immigration, offering people economic incentives and promising special political privileges for “colonists.” Her government established recruiting offices in many European cities, including German centers like Frankfurt, Stuttgart, Lübeck, and Regensburg. Russian solicitors also distributed advertisement leaflets among the general population, sometimes to the great annoyance of German magistrates who at times felt the dramatic loss of their local populations. More than a century later, American railroad companies conducted similar advertising practices, enticing Europeans to set their stakes on the American frontier.

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.

Catherine’s announcements resulted in a series of large foreign migrations into Russia. In particular, several German enclaves appeared in the Volga region between 1764 and 1774. During this time, about 30,000 settled along the Volga River, especially near Saratov.

Most German “colonists” who migrated to Russia came from the Holy Roman Empire, which was at the time a rather loose confederation of German-speaking states in Central Europe long plagued by religious and political strife. Particularly severe economic and political distress in the various states of Germany came in the aftermath of the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763). These conditions worked to Russia’s advantage at this time. Because of her German background, Catherine was all too familiar with the region’s problems. Indeed, German political unity did not occur until 1871, after Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck’s wars of national unification.

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