The Germans from Russia

By Rev. William C. Sherman, Director of Newman Center and Instructor in Sociology North Dakota State University

“Symposium on the Great Plains of North America”, North Dakota State University, Institue for Regional Studies, Fargo, ND, 1987, Pages 58-63

Catherine the Great is a name revered by some and cursed by others in Eastern Europe but grizzled old settlers of many American Great Plains villages speak of it with respect. The German-born princess whose indomitable wiles made her the Empress of Russia for thirty years found herself with massive tracts of new land acquired through victory over Turks and Tartars. To stabilize and to develop these lands to the steppes of the Caucasus, Crimea, Bessarabia and along the Volga, Catherine turned to the German peasants of her homeland. Seeking skilled farmers and artisans she made an appeal for colonists in a famous Manifesto of 1762 which offered new settlers an attractive set of guarantees, including: a grant of land to each family or individual, complete religious and educational freedom, freedom from certain taxations, a variety of loans and outright monetary grants, freedom from military conscription and a limited self-government.

Cause of Migration

Unsettled political conditions extending from the Thirty Years War (ended 1648) to Napoleonic times (1800) left many German provinces in an impoverished state. In addition population expansion, shortage of land, crop failures, unemployment, and religious tensions tended to turn the German peasant farmers' interest toward emigration. While many tens of thousands of families and individuals went west to United States, other thousands from the provinces of Württemberg, Baden, Pfalz, Elsass, and West Prussia went east in response to the Russian invitation. The first migration started in 1773, going to the Volga regions (about 450 miles southeast of Moscow) and later groups responding to reiteration of the Manifesto by Russian authorities went to the Black Sea area (starting in 1789) surrounding Odessa; the Crimea and the Caucasus. The migrations continued in full force into the first decades of the 19th Century.

Under the favorable conditions the settlements flourished and birth rates soared. Four hundred thousand Germans lived in over one hundred colonies in the Volga area by 1800. In southern Russia, 214 colonies sprang up with a thousand daughter colonies-many of which were named "Katharinetal" in honor of their first patron. Millions of acres were acquired by grant or purchase. Though their numbers had been decreased by emigration, there were still 600,000 Germans on the Black Sea and possibly 2,000,000 in all of Russia at the outbreak of the First World War.

German farmers broke the sod, drained the marshes, developed favorable varieties of grain, garden, and orchard produce. They readily accepted the native winter wheat. German Mennonite farmers played a major role in making the Ukraine the granary of Europe, and have, of course, been responsible for introducing the first American hard winter wheat, the Turkey Red of Kansas. They were also responsible for the early development of wheat production in much of the Canadian Prairie Provinces.

"In their long wandering the German-Russians have three precepts drilled into them. They are: never lose their religion; never to lose their mother's tongue; and never to lose their nationality." The Germans in Russia were able to maintain their blood, tongue, and religion with little difficulty during the first half of the 19th century .They lived in their dorfs (villages) - ordinarily rows of houses along a main street. A village church dominated the scene, gardens and orchards were close at hand, community pastures nearby and cultivated fields extended into the distance. A herdsman would gather the village cattle in the morning all farmers would journey out to their fields. Evening brought the laborers back to the settlement.

The Success in Russia

Their peasant past and Russian village experience made ownership of land the paramount value. Survival, status, and leadership depended on it. As families grew there was a continual quest for new land. Some farmers became very \wealthy, owning as much as 10,000 acres. Crafts were of secondary value and the professions, arts, and higher education of least importance. Illiteracy was widespread. The German village of Elsass in the Ukraine was 89 percent illiterate in 1812. Their neighbors in Mannheim were 78 percent illiterate. In nearby Kandel and Selz, 72 percent of the populace was in a similar situation. Later generations saw school develop, but quality varied with the locality and, though high when compared with the Russian levels, it was low by European standards.

The colonies were not self-sufficient. Lawyers, physicians and others of the professional class often were of another ethnic group. Jewish merchants from larger towns provided much of the business contacts. The German trading system was geared to the regional needs. Their produce, such things as grain, oats, and barley, was part of the total Russian economy.

Yet they strove to be as culturally independent as possible. Their allegiance and fidelity was to the German culture of the 18th and early 19th Century, the time of their "auswanderung." Religion and national pride made intermarriage with Russians a rare phenomenon. When schools were established, the language was German. The folk music was German, religious customs were German, family structure was German. The village and the homestead (hof) arrangements were also German of the type "niedersaxon.” The three or four generations of Russian living gave them a special folk consciousness, a long-lived sense of group adherence. Though a minority, they felt they were a "superior class" in the Russian countryside.

But as one would expect, the almost idyllic political conditions of the first decades of settlement could not last. The Russian masses were increasing in cultural sophistication and had a population expansion problem of their own. Local resentment began to crystallize against these alien folk who held themselves aloof, occupied some of the best farmlands and were comparatively well off. In 1861, Tsar Alexander abolished serfdom and created 20,000,000 freemen. Stealing from the more prosperous Germans became rampant. Friction between Orthodox and German religious authorities increased. Local juridical privileges were curtained.

Privileges Abolished in 1871

Finally, in 1871, the special privileges of the Manifesto of 1762 were abrogated; Germans now were bound by much the same laws as the Russian populace. Increasingly they fell prey to unscrupulous politicians. A forced program of Russianization slowly got underway. The Russian language began to invade German schools. But most oppressive of all, the Germans were now subject to conscription.

A spirit of unrest swept through the villages. Word of free land in the Americas had already reached the colonies and groups made plans to leave. At first, emissaries were sent to find suitable locations in the New World. Then land was sold often at great loss and, openly or covertly, little bands of families began to depart going to Atlantic ports at Bremen or Hamburg or Black Sea ports such as Odessa.

Reliable figures are hard to come by, but an estimated 150,000 Russian-Germans were in Canada by 1900. Hundreds of thousands eventually went to Latin America and likewise to the United States.

According to the latest figures as compiled by Karl Stumpp in Die Russlanddeutschen, Zweihundert Jahre Unterwegs, Freilassing in Bayern, 1966, there were 1,700,000 Germans living in Greater Russia in 1914. This figure excludes four areas in Poland and Bessarabia (then a part of Romania, but now a part of Soviet Russia) p. 26. The tragic story of this almost two million people who" remained in Russia in 1914 when the outward flow was stopped has never been told completely: German armies, Russian reprisals, Bolshevik mobs, mass deportations, and starvation were their lot. With the German invasion of Russian in 1941, the entire Volga German population (400,000) was sent into Asiatic Russia. The Crimean and Caucasus Germans were moved the same year.

Some recent figures, the 1959 Census, place the number of Germans in Russia as high as 1,600,000, with by far the greatest portion in new Asiatic settlements. The Black Sea German settlements no longer exist, a few Germans are in the Volga area, the rest are scattered in settlements from the Urals to the Pacific, with concentrations in the interior near the border regions of Afghanistan, China and Mongolia.

Stumpp gives further statistics for 1940 (p. 30 et passim). He finds 400,000 in the U.S.A., 200,000 in Canada and 30,000 in Mexico. South America had 407,000 with 250,000 in Brazil and 150,000 in Argentina. This 1,937,000 in the Americas is probably a conservative figure and today's count may be double or even triple this amount, for these were a prolific people. Indeed, large families are a hallmark of the German-Russian life, observers everywhere made note of it. A study of the 1930 Census data of South Dakota finds their families the largest of ail national groups. An Ellis County, Kansas, study, before the turn of the century, found over nine children in the average German-Russian family. The fertility ratio in 1960 at Mandan, North Dakota (predominately German-Russian) exceeded that of any of the state's other major cities.

Settlement in North America

1873 brought the first major waves of Germans to the Great Plains States. First to Nebraska and Kansas (Volga Germans) then to Texas, Oklahoma, the Dakotas and Montana. A Mennonite advance party stopped in Fargo, (Dakota Territory) in 1873 after looking at land in Manitoba. Railroad officials showed them land in the Red River Valley. Mennonite skill at farming and internal religious controls made them the most desirable of all German-Russian immigrants. An attempt was made in Congress to set aside homestead limitations to enable them to settle in large compact units but the measure failed. Canada gave them a more favorable reception and received eventually 70,000 Mennonite immigrants. In the United States Mennonite settlement was most extensive in Kansas and Oklahoma.

The heaviest influx of German-Russians came after the most desirable western lands had been settled, in the late 1880's and early 1890's. It was from the middle and western portions of Dakota Territory that they might make their choice. The Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad pushed into this heartland area of the Dakota plains, arriving at Aberdeen in 1881, Ipswich in 1883 and finally in Eureka in 1881. Each of these successive terminals became a dispersal point for the homestead seekers. Southeastern South Dakota counties received German Russians in 1873; the next year they had moved into middle South Dakota counties, From Aberdeen and Ipswich they distributed themselves across the northern tier of counties. The first to appear in the southern counties of future North Dakota seems to have been in 1884.

Eureka, however, was the major railroad terminal point at which tens of thousands of Germans from Russia were literally dumped on the Northern Plains. This prairie goliath with its 42 grain elevators and 32 commission houses was a funnel into which the wheat of the Dakotas emptied. From its rail yards settlers fanned out by wagon train to points almost as far north as the Canadian border. (Later groups, of course, came directly from the Atlantic seaports over the Great Northern and Northern Pacific railroads). In the 1930 Census, about 65,000 North Dakota residents had Russian- born parents or were themselves of Russian birth. If one would include the grandchildren of these hardy settlers, the number of those wit11 Russian origins was probably close to 100,000, or at least 15 percent of the total state population. South Dakota figures are estimated to be about one-half of the North Dakota totals, perhaps 40,000 of German-Russian stock in 1930.

The immigrants from Russia were for the most part in settlements scattered throughout the south eastern counties of South Dakota and in north central counties from Aberdeen west to Lemmon. In North Dakota, the original German-Russian communities formed a triangle with its western base near New England and in the east near Ellendale. The apex was in Pierce and McHenry County near Rugby.
Ninety-eight percent of the Germans in the Dakotas came from the Black Sea colonies, about two-thirds were Evangelical Protestants, the rest were Catholic, with several thousand Mennonites. A comparative handful stayed in Grand Forks, Mandan and Devils Lake to work on the railroads and in allied trades; the rest were farmers.

(See the map of German-Russian settlements in the U.S.A. on Page 61. Data for the map was taken from the 1910 U. S. Census records. Some Ukrainians and some Russian Jews are included in the census totals for "Russian-born,” but their numbers are insignificant in all but three or four counties. The map thus indicates the initial distribution of the German-Russians. Present day studies show that the concentrations still follow the original patterns and in deed, the proportion of German-Russian stock has generally shown a substantial increase. German- Russians form a large percentage of the rural population of the Canadian Prairie Provinces but they are not, charted here.)

Assimilation in the U.S. and Canada

The assimilation of the German-Russians in the Dakotas was not a uni-dimensional process. It would be wrong to say simply that their Americanization was slower or faster than their non-German neighbors. There was a natural selectivity at work; here and there, on various levels, the process of assimilation was speeded up, here and there it was retarded. In the main it did, in fact, take a much longer period than the customary three generation Americanization process.

This is not surprising, however, for other national groups migrating to the American cities and countryside came directly from their homelands, where they had been part 0£ a dominant majority culture. Arriving in the United States; they found themselves a lower class minority in unfamiliar surroundings. This often led to a considerable degree of confusion and social breakdown. The German- Russians, it must be remembered, came to the American scene after almost a century of experience in living as a minority among unsympathetic and even hostile neighbors. In some ways they may be compared to the newly-arrived Jewish communities; they had already fashioned certain defensive measures-attitudes, customs, and traits that enabled them to be self sufficient in their prairie homes. Second and third generation disorders such as divorce, alcoholism, juvenile delinquency are at a minimum in German-Russian areas.

Historical circumstances had therefore fashioned in the German-Russians a special sense of identity, a unique set of ideals and aversions. These factors continually affected the adjustment of the first generations in America. In addition, the ecological isolation of their Great Plains settlements reinforced their exclusiveness and moderated the trend toward Americanization. ,

They came to the prairies when the framework of social institutions had already been quite well established. Counties had been set up and many towns had been organized. Anglo-American political and legal procedures were already in effect. Small numbers of knowledgeable Scandinavian, Old American, Canadian, Scotch and Irish homesteaders and merchants had already preceded them.
In many ways the Black Sea homesteaders were admirably, equipped for Plains settlement. The land was their life, urban living was not attractive. They were familiar with hard and tedious work. Generations of struggle made them thrifty almost to an extreme. A strong sense of family solidarity enabled them to pool their resources. They were thus flexible, yet adamant and could survive drought and misfortune.

The first settlers were anything but enamored .with their desolate prairie countryside. Old timers talked with nostalgia of the good times, good soil, good climate of the Ukraine. Many would have returned to Russia if political conditions there had been favorable. Many would have gone elsewhere in the United States, but unlike the Irish, who could go back to friends in eastern cities or the Scandinavians, who could return to relatives in Minnesota, Iowa or Wisconsin, the German-Russians had no place to go. Knowing only the Great Plains they stayed and multiplied.

Yet a number of their cultural ways were similar to those already evolved in the prairie regions. Earthen houses had been a familiar part of the South Russian landscape. The burning of "buffalo chips" was nothing new. For generations their manure had been fashioned into dried squares of "mistholz" for winter fuel. Some North Dakota German-Russians utilized this agricultural commodity even into the 1930's. The Russian boots, the great coat, and the fez-like fur cap were admirably suited to the prairie winters. Their inexpensive and practical foods are still popular in the Dakota regions along with their traditional German foods, they brought the Tartar sweetmeat, halva, to the United States, also the Russian sunflower seeds and the Ukrainian golubtsy ("Pigs in a Blanket").

Land was what they wanted, and land they obtained. The father's instinct was to seek the eventual settlement of his sons on farmlands. Father and sons pooled their labor and capital; the father's knowledge, the son's labor. Then with marriage the father fulfilled his part of the unspoken agreement, assistance in obtaining and developing a farm for the son's new family.

Expansion during the Great Drought

In the dry 1930's the thrifty ways of the German- Russians enabled them to survive in numbers far beyond that of most other national groups. They provided a stable element in the social and agricultural fabric of many North Dakota counties. In Pierce County, North Dakota, they owned 19 percent of the land in 1910. In 1960 they held 45 percent of the land and farmed much more as tenants. In contrast forty-eight Irish settlers of 1910 owned 10,600 acres in Pierce County, in 1960 those of Irish, stock owned only 1,600 acres. A 1910 Pierce County community of Syrians has completely passed out of existence, the land now being owned almost entirely" by German-Russians.

The Russian experience, however, caused them at times to make costly mistakes. In Pierce and Mc- Henry County they passed by good loamy soil to take a sandier land because their colonies in Russia had found sandy soil the most favorable. But the sandy loam proved to be sand hills; literally hundreds of families were forced over a period of years to move elsewhere as the topsoil was exhausted.
After the first few years of settlement, with its problems of orientation and land acquisition, most German-Russian communities (especially those of a single religious background) flourished in a unique, way. Here in America the immigrants could obtain the fond hopes of their fathers: land for themselves and their sons, a life without government interference, freedom to worship, freedom to be German. The traditions of their forefathers (still to a great extent a peasant culture of the early 19th Century) burst forth in dozens of self-contained communities over the Great Plains. It was a kind of "Golden Age"; one that continued into the dry years of the 1930's.

The German-Russians proved to be most flexible and less tradition bound when it came to economic activity. Here they easily adopted the American ways; they readily accepted the Anglo-American system of buying and selling; marketing methods, banks, elevators. This was so, perhaps, because they had to be flexible in that element of life in Russia where they had previously found themselves in an o already developed national economy.

They were most resistant to change in the things that they had fought "in Russia to avoid; inter-marriage, loss of family solidarity, loss of religion, and for a generation or two, their own particular brand of German culture. They further avoided things in the United States that had been their natural enemies in Russia; politics, conscription, higher education, and the world of high finance.

Economic and Political Views

Ninety-eight percent of the voters in four solidly German-Russian Pierce County, North Dakota, town- ships voted for F. D. Roosevelt in 1932. But in 1940, when he was attempting to repeal the Arms Embargo, only 20 percent voted for him. In German- Russian McIntosh County, the number of vote for Roosevelt fell from 1,900 in 1936 to 318 in 1940. In 1920, after the First World War, the Pierce County townships voted decisively against the Democrats, the wartime administration. These votes for Harding and against Roosevelt were typical of the Ger- man-Russian communities in North Dakota and are no doubt a measure of their dislike for their ancient foe, conscription, and also an index of their reverence for their German homeland.

The Germans were deeply aware of their past. Settlements named Odessa sprang up in South Dakota and Saskatchewan, two were in North Dakota. Most of their village names reflected their immediate past in Russia or their home provinces in Germany: Baden, Selz, Johannestal, Danzig, Strasburg. The railroad may have given a town site an Anglo-Saxon name but where possible the Germans changed it to fit" their traditions.

The dorf (village) and hof (homestead) design in Russia contributed to their ability to sustain an unmixed culture, to protect themselves, and to pre- serve their ideas and beliefs. In Russia the people lived in agglomerated villages which consisted of households bordering the roads. Attached to the rear of each hof were narrow strips of land on which were grown the gardens, the fruits, and other items of domestic consumption. The major lands were outside of the villages but the property and animals were collected at the hof. This ancient saxon type was a rectangle surrounded on all sides by buildings except at the front, which was toward the main road. The various buildings for animals, machinery, and feed (with the house on one corner) were attached "to each other, making a solid enclosure. In the center of this rectangle, typically 40 meters wide and 120 meters long, was the threshing platform, with manure piles on one side and a manure well under the platform to receive and preserve the liquid drainage for fertilizer. Across the opening at the front was a flower garden and also a rope or wire with a ring, to which was attached the collar of a vigilant watchdog. In the winter the cattle were, thus, under the farmer's close supervision and protected from the winds by the sheds of the surrounding hof.

There is an indication in early reports that the hof arrangement had a slight influence on some of the original German farm structures in: North America, at least to the extent that the buildings were built close together or adjoining. But the Homestead Law provision requiring the owner to reside on his land made the dorf, or agglomerated village, impossible. Instead, small churches were erected out on the countryside to provide some sense of community. The prairie church became an important symbol of unity everywhere, for the Germans, especially the Black Sea settlers, tended to segregate themselves along religious lines. Schock says that in North Dakota the German Catholics were found mainly in three mixed communities and thirty-six predominantly Catholic Communities.

German-Russians were almost without exception religious people. Evangelical Protestants found an initial difficulty in identifying themselves with the wide variety of beliefs and labels found among American denominations. They joined churches with doctrines that seemed most familiar and particularly those with German pastors and traditions. One estimate suggests that 30 percent became Congregational, 10 percent Baptist, 10 percent Methodist, 5 percent Adventist and 45 percent Lutheran. In North Dakota a sizeable number became Evangelical United Brethren. Today, German-Russians form the solid core of several North Dakota religious groups.

The Catholics had no trouble identifying the local Catholic authorities and institutions but many stormy episodes occurred when they met pastors and bishops of German-American (non-Russian) or Irish traditions. .Excommunication, family feuds, interdicts, and fights mark the first decades of their settlement. Yet today the German-Russians supply numbers of priests and nuns in amounts far beyond their proportion of the Catholic population.

At the University of North Dakota only one student identified himself as of German-Russian descent among its 1,215 students in 1921. Only two were to be found at that University among the 1,828 students in 1940. Yet, at least 15 percent and possibly 20 percent of the State's population were of that ancestry. Elementary education was accepted by the Germans but higher education was considered superfluous. On the German-Russian farm, the chores came first, homework came next. During spring and fall work, students would not go to school.
Politics might have interested them (and they voted often along a sort of neo-populist line with a strong attachment to the Nonpartisan League and especially to North Dakota's Senator William Langer) but political office they avoided. The politician in Russia had been considered a thief, a tyrant, or a foreigner. While Scandinavian immigrants entered politics almost immediately, German-Russians are only now beginning to assume high political offices in substantial numbers. Since statehood, 168 men have held major elected positions of leadership in the North Dakota State Capital or as members of Congress from North Dakota. Of these only five have been German-Russian.

In Pierce County, North Dakota, where now at least 45 percent of the population are- Black Sea Germans, seventy individuals have held important elected positions in the Court House such as auditor , sheriff, treasurer, clerk of court, county judge. Only four have been of German-Russian descent and two of these are presently in office. In Pierce County and elsewhere, a certain undercurrent of resentment has been frequently observed among the Germans toward successful members of their group. Its subtle influence made it difficult to get men to take positions of leadership. The curious situation has occurred in which Norwegians would support a competent German-Russian candidate while Germans would vote against him.

Public Unaware of German-Russians

In spite of their numbers, the German-Russians , are practically unknown to the general American and Canadian public and even to the world of scholarship. This may be partially explained by their lack of, or rather, their limited sense of national group identity. Their emotional ties were to no existing homeland, but instead to the early eighteenth century peasant life in Germany: Russia disclaimed them, and if one may judge from the reports of Volga and Ukrainian refugees returning to Germany after the World Wars, even Germany looked at them with some disfavor. Furthermore, they had no common region in Russia to harken back to, scattered as they were from the Volga to Bessarabia, from the Crimea to the Caucasus. They remembered only the life and locale of their specific Russian villages.

They had no outstanding leaders (Mennonites excepted), no intellectuals, no poet$, no literature, no epics. Coming from different theological traditions, they had no common religion to establish an overall ethnic consciousness. The result was a strong emphasis on family ties and local unity, but a minimum of concern for "other" German-Russian groups.

The drought of the 1930's and especially the disruptive experiences of World War II form a sort of watershed in the cultural development of German- Russian communities. Young men had to move away from home; many took brides from eastern or western states. The German language and culture came under a wartime cloud of suspicion. Land values soared and new property was not easily obtained. Mechanization reduced the number of farms in the home settlements. Loans to veterans enabled some boys to buy land in distant townships: and counties, others could attend trade schools and some went to college. Automobiles, good roads, television and consolidated schools made further inroads into the previous isolation of the German communities. The University of North Dakota began to number its German-Russians by the dozens and then in the hundreds.

Today's German-Russian community is still a very distinctive thing. There is a touch of conservatism in the working methods of many farmers. There is a hint of suspicion towards outsiders. Music has an Old Country' flavor and riotous weddings still take place. German is spoken by the old timers. The English of the young has unique German accent. Sunflower seeds, golubtsy and halva are still relished. Elderly women cover their heads witI1 peasant- type shawls. Parental authority, though shaken, is still intact. Many of the old people go to retirement homes in distant towns; the young no longer hear the stories and lore of the past. Religious traditions continue in full force, though an Irish pastor may: live in the parsonage.

Several generations of living in America leaves its inevitable mark oil every national group. The German-Russian culture has proved to be remarkably resistant to this influence, but nevertheless, it is no exception to the rule.


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