The Germans from Russia

By Michael M. Miller, Bibliographer, Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, NDSU Libraries

Descendants of German-speaking peoples residing in the Western Hemisphere whose ancestors immigrated to the Russian Empire during the years 1764 to 1862 are variously referred to as Germans from Russia, Russian-Germans, German-Russians, Russo-Germans, and Russia Germans. In Russia, these Germans retained their language, customs, and other forms of ethnicity. But they were Russian because they were citizens of that country.

One group of Germans who had resided in Russia for a brief period of time immigrated to the United States in 1849. The mass migrations of Germans from Russia to the Western Hemisphere began in 1872 and continued sporadically until about 1920.

Foreigners were invited by the Russian rulers Catherine II in 1763 and Alexander I in 1804 to settle in Russia. Their purpose was to populate the land south and east of Moscow with industrious people, bring western culture and industry to the empire, and develop a buffer against nomadic tribes making raids for the east. Among those accepting the invitation were about 27,000 German-speaking immigrants from the provinces of Hesse, the Palatinate, Saxony, Prussia and others, who immigrated to Russia between 1763 and 1790. Another group of about 50,000, mostly from Württemberg, Alsace, Baden, and the Palatinate settled in Russia between 1804 and 1862.

The invitations to foreigners to settle in Russia were in the form of manifestoes. A manifesto was a written list of guarantees, similar to a "Bill of Rights", under which the immigrants were to reside in Russia. Foreigners of several nationalities responded to the manifestoes because these guarantees provided relief from sources of discontent prevailing in their homeland. This discontent stemmed from economic, religious, political, and personal sources. It is well to remember that "a contented person will not leave the country of his/her birth."

Both land and water routes carried the immigrants to the Russian Empire. Land travel was limited to wagons and carts, drawn by various animals. Unique among the water conveyances was the Ulmer Schachtel. These wooden boats made a one-way trip down the Danube River. At the trip's end, they were dismantled and the wood used for other purposes. Some immigrants spent a year and more en route.

The major settlement areas in the Russian Empire and the years of settlement were:

Volga Region 1764-1767; 1860's
Black Sea Region 1787-1793; 1804-1810
Bessarabia 1814-1816
Caucasus 1816-1818
Volhynia 1830-1860
Dobrudscha 1840-1890

The original, or so-called mother colonies, established by Germans eventually numbered about 300. The German colonists lived in farmyards, called a Hof or yard, which were located side by side in a village called a Dorf. The land they farmed was outside the village. Some of the lands they were granted were held in common. The original land grants made to the immigrants were, at that time, considered to be very generous. The amount of land granted varied from colony to colony. Colonies usually, but not exclusively, were occupied by people of the same religious faith. In Volhynia the farmers lived on their own land, not in villages as in other regions in Russia.

The colonies were established on the steppes, natural grasslands. Like the North American Great Plains, the major problems encountered by the settlers of the steppes were a source of water, a source of fuel, and building material. Most of the mother colonies located near a source of surface water. Dung and other organic materials were the primary fuels. Building materials consisted, in the main, of natural sod, stones, and reeds. In Volhynia, some of the lands settled by Germans were woodlands, including areas with excess water.

Most of the German immigrants to Russia did not have agricultural skills, but with few exceptions, they were expected to make their living as farmers. Even the agricultural skills acquired in their homeland were of little benefit to them in Russia because of differences in climate and soils. Their German homeland had a humid climate while the Russian steppes had a semi-arid and sub-humid climate. There are striking similarities between the Russian steppes and the North American Great Plains.

With the primitive implements and tools available at the time, preparing land to grow crops was, at best, difficult. In the Black Sea Region, a farmer required about 13 years to develop 37 acres of land for crop production.

Because of the high birth rate, land became a scarce commodity for the first generation of Germans born in Russia. By the late 1840's, land purchases from the Russian nobility began. The purchases were financed largely through sheep husbandry. The Merino sheep, famous for its high quality wool, had been introduced into Russia in the early 1800's and became available to the German colonists. The annual wool production paid for the first mortgage on the land purchase. Also by this time, new implements had been invented and others had been improved. Wheat production became the primary agricultural enterprise in most of the new daughter colonies. Daughter colonies eventually numbered about 3,000.

Discontent with Russia developed when provisions of the manifestoes were set aside. Military conscription of sons of the German colonists began in 1874 with the institution of the Military Reform Act by Alexander II. The rise of pan-Slavism, "Russia for Russians" became evident by 1881 and became a source of discomfort. The use of the Russian language in the schools became mandatory by 1892. Jurisdictional changes which brought increased Russian control into ordinary, daily affairs were instituted in 1889.

In general, Germans electing to emigrate from Russia did not experience any resistance from the Russian government. With few exceptions, the emigrants took trains to port cities like Bremen and Hamburg, Germany and Libau, Latvia to board ships for the Western Hemisphere. Among the ports of debarkation in North America were New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, New Orleans, Halifax, and Montreal. To fill quotas, some ships carrying emigrants were diverted to South America. Other emigrants selected South America for settlement.

The 1872 immigration to the United States which was the beginning of the mass migration of Germans from Russia to the Western Hemisphere, was from the colonies of Worms, Johannestal, Rohrbach, and Waterloo of the Beresan District. The 258 immigrants spent the winter of 1872-1873 in the vicinity of Sandusky, Ohio. In the spring of 1873 most of these took the train to Yankton, Dakota Territory, the end of the rail line.

They founded the "Odessa Settlement" near the present site of Lesterville, South Dakota. Here they took up their "claim" provided through the Homestead Act of 1862. They lived on their land, placing them a greater distance from their neighbors than they had been in Russia. The sociology changed. The women especially experienced great loneliness and homesickness.

A significant proportion of the Germans from Russia settled on the North American Great Plains. The conditions - climate, soil - were similar to those they had experienced in Russia. Agriculturally, they were much better prepared for the conditions they encountered here than who immigrated from Germany to Russia. On the North American Great Plains they, as in Russia, became premier growers of wheat.

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