Who Are They?
From the book, Wishek Diamond Jubilee: 1898 - 1973.
Eureka, South Dakota
"Thou dost not really know thyself unless thou
hast come to learn something about the generations
of thy forebears . . ."
(Gustav Freytag, German historian)
(About the racial background of many central Dakotans)
Through the heart of the Dakotas, with long arms stretching into Montana and northwards up into Canada, is a compact human, ethnic peninsula of a most fascinating people. Statistics reveal that the present day kindred of this unique tribe number approximately one half million Americans. Who are they? Where did they originate? What is their racial background? Among their characteristics are traits such as tendencies toward clannishness and passivity, a preference for good and exotic food, the ability to speak at least two languages. This makes them a people set apart on our Great Plains.
They have been referred to as "Russians," even by anthropologists. And on the surface, that is what they seem to be. For indeed, their forefathers came to this country from the Black Sea area of Czarist Russia seventy or eighty years ago. They have also been simply called "German Russians," but the language which they prefer to use when they are strictly among themselves is a type of German, definitely not Russian.
A few years ago while I was traveling through parts of Schwabenland, a Province in Southwest Germany, my fellow traveling Dakotan remarked about the German passengers on the train with us: "You know, these people speak just like the folks back in Eureka." He had made a telling discovery, for indeed many of our central Dakotans, in an area which begins south of Hosmer and Java in South Dakota on through a line northward of fifty miles east and west into Ashley, Wishek, Napoleon, Tuttle, Harvey, Mercer, etc. of North Dakota, are descendants of the German people of Schwaben or Wuerttemberg, as it is called today. They are thus directly descended from the ancient Germanic tribe of the Suebi (Schwaben), as Julius Caesar named them two thousand years ago in his "Gallic Wars." The proud Roman conqueror refers to the Suebi as being a tribe of stubborn, tough warriors who caused his legions no end of harassment and trouble under their accepted leader Ariovistus, the tribal chief of a related, marauding tribe of the Harudes. Among other things Caesar finally reports tongue in cheek how he overcame them all by making use of a prevalent Germanic superstition, especially nurtured among their women, "that no good nor meritorious deeds could ever be accomplished during the period of the waning moon." His famous X. legion proclaimed an attack which was to follow when the moon was low and routed them completely during such a season, the Suebi especially refusing to fight because of the prevalent superstition.
By nature the Suebi have ever been a sedate, nonmigrating type of people. What could have induced many thousands of this nation to suddenly leave behind their farms and orchards, dark forests and hills in beautiful Germany, to rove twenty five hundred miles southeastward into the Black Sea steppes of Russia? This is a marvelous story.
Perhaps the finest thing that can be said about these Schwaben is the fact that they became deeply devout and religious people in the long process of the christianizing of the Germanic tribes. Let this be underlined in spite of what was indicated above concerning certain superstitions among the Suebi, traces of which can be observed among them to this day. Their Christian faith has always been of a profound, pietistic nature. Schwaben are naturally God fearing, reverentpious and devout whether this pertains to those in the old country or to their descendants here in the Dakota prairies. Many of our great Christian thinkers and theologians since the Reformation came from Wuerttemberg men like Melanchthon, Oekolampad, Butzer, Brenz, and Bengel. And a man of this stature, Bengel, who had been dead for a century, with his pious explanation especially of the last Book in the Bible, directly inspired the Great Suebian Trek into Russia in 1816 - 17.
Briefly, here is what happened at the turn of the nineteenth century in Schwabenland. King Frederick I, regal Lord of the land, intended to unite all Protestants by forcefully introducing a new hymnbook and a less conservative book of worship. The people intuitively resented and opposed both books in their small Reformed and much greater Lutheran factions. They banded together into lay movements of a religious nature, often against the forces of both state and church. Persecutions and arrests followed. Meanwhile dire political events were taking place also. Wuerttemberg and its king became vassals of the megalomaniac Napoleon who needed soldiers for his pan European movement and conquest. The separatistic lay movements began to stress what the New Testament said about the End of the World. The afore mentioned theologian and pastor, Johann Albrecht Bengel, who had strongly emphasized this phase of biblical teaching in his book "Gnomon," became the prophet of this ever growing group. He had predicted the coming of the millenium for the year 1836. As Napoleon's armies swept the lands, and Armageddon seemed to draw near, these pious Schwaben were strengthened in their belief that the era of the Antichrist had indeed arrived. Certainly the name "Apollyon" (Rev. 9, 11) could point to none other than to Napoleon himself, by now the scourge of many parts of Europe and even Russia. Bengel had long ago predicted that a refuge for the faithful Christians who might escape the Day of Wrath just prior to the destruction of the Antichrist and the Return of the Lord Christ, according to Revelations, would be found on ancient Mount Ararat of the Caucasian Mountains of Russia. At the same time Czar Alexander of Russia extended an invitation to these Germans as had Catherine II a few decades before to move into South Russia as colonists with special privileges of tax exemption, retention of German citizenship, also exemption from any military service.
We can understand why,. since the turn of that century Russia was becoming the goal of thousands of these people. Fanatical King Frederick I would not hear of any mass migrations. He needed all able bodied men for the napoleonic armies. His successor, Wilhelm I, proved somewhat more conciliatory. He allowed the "pietistic renegades" to found their own "religious lay colony," which would not have to adopt the new religious books, and which would be allowed to conduct its own church affairs. This colony stands to the present day in the suburbs of Stuttgart as "Kornthal" founded in 1817. It had become mandatory! Meanwhile thousands of the citizens of Wuerttemberg were departing for Russia, threatening to deplete this land of its manpower and population.
Homes and farms, orchards and cattle were sold for a song by the religiously enthusiatic emigrants, among whom of course were adventurers and socially displaced persons also. Still, the all pervading thought and incentive was to escape the ravages of the Antichrist and to escape God's Day of Wrath in the refuge of the Savior King, prepared for those "with whom He would rule the world for one thousand years." (Rev. 20, 4 7).
What a sight that must have been in the summers of
1816 and 1817, when whole villages were decimated
because their inhabitants chose to follow the meandering
course of the Danube River on barges and boats, oxen
carts and wheelbarrows, and on foot men, women, children
ever southeastward toward the Black Sea Delta! These
pilgrims took very few material possessions along,
but many of them carried their Lutheran Bibles, the
old hymnals, devotional booklets such as Pastor Friedrich's
"A view of faith and hope for God's people in
these days of the Antichrist, compiled from the divine
foretellings, according to which all of the faithful
are to reassemble in Jerusalem in anticipation of
the Returning Lord." This pastor Friedrich incidentally,
and other clergymen, accompanied the emigrants on
their Holy Odyssey.
Perhaps it is difficult for us moderns to understand such enthusiasm and such religious zeal. On the other hand, people who have experienced these latter days of such godless tyrants as Hitler or Stalin, can appreciate the "End Of The World Thinking" which was so strong in much of Europe one hundred and fifty years ago. A lay leader of that day, Adam Straub, who had been forced to serve as a soldier under Napoleon, and who rightly predicted the tyrant's comeback after his first defeat (Rev. 17, 8), summed up the popular thinking of that day in this manner: "When I beheld him (Napoleon) during a parade, cold chills shot up and down my spine. I said to myself 'That one and no other is the Antichrist!' "
The records reveal that our Suebi trekked northeastward along the Black Sea, having arrived at the mouth of the Danube in late 1817. There, with winter fast approaching, two very opposite trends of thought became evident among our pilgrims. On the one hand, many had become weary and less enthusiastic concerning the original goal. They made the momentous decision to remain in a fertile valley which was immediately named "Hoffnungsthal." Certainly they could set themselves "apart here and rest for a while" (Mark 6, 31). After all, had not Father Bengel predicted the Coming of Christ not before 1836 eighteen years hence?! On the other hand, there were the zealots with the first love and their original fervor concerning the Holy Pilgrimage still . . . These could not be contained! Even though the harsh winter winds were beginning to sweep down the steppes from the north, hundreds and tens of hundreds made the decision to continue swinging southward again toward the foreboding Caucasians. For the place of refuge on Mount Ararat scene of another refuge many years before (Gen. 8, 4) had to be prepared. No time could be lost in accomplishing this well. We hesitate to depict the inevitable tragedy which happened to these people! Suffice it here to state that every last one of this latter group, perished in a terrible blizzard in the foothills of the fierce Caucasians, many miles still from the Mount of Refuge, Ararat. The number of the dead is estimated at about 12,000 souls. Today this is an almost forgotten page in the history of stark tragedies caused by misguided religious enthusiasm.
The first group began to prosper immediately. These were to become the forefathers of many of our Dakotans today. Having constructed the village of Hoffnungsthal with Czarist support in a short time, a “Dorf” which has survived the fierce upheavals especially of the last few decades, these Suebi began to radiate out into other villages such as Hoffnungsfeld, Gluecksthal, etc. Within two decades the originally much sought after refuge from the Antichrist had been almost forgotten. Napoleon had meanwhile been defeated and banned to the Isle of Elba. A new generation had arisen among our pilgrims which knew little about that "first fire of religious zeal." Then the world began to beckon fiercely again, and with its call came the down to earth institutions of this planet for the sons and daughters of these German colonists in Russia laws and civil government, schools and established churches, as in the departed motherland.
For one half a century things went real well with them in their newly adopted homeland. Then speaking with the Bible: “A new King (Czar) arose who knew nothing of Joseph” and the original promises given to their grandfathers. (Ex. 1, 8). The new Russian Czar Nikolas I. suddenly demanded that these German foreigners become Russian citizens, that they pay taxes for their exceeding wealth which put the native Russians to shame, and that all young men henceforth be prepared to serve in the Czarist Army. This was a hard blow. Let us consider that one hundred years ago the average Russian peasant was still under the laws of serfdom, living in a perpetual fear of the subjugating laws of the nobility, such as whippings, arrests, and deportations at the whims of their superiors.
A new wave of that old restlessness came over the sons of these German pioneers. The old religious books were brought forth again. A renewed cry for The Refuge, this time one of a temporal and this worldly nature, was taken up among them once more.
In the 1860's, just after the U.S. Civil War, certain of the young men of our Schwaben in Russia were encouraged by their elders to make a trip to far away to report back, if possible, in person. Just as the ancient scouts of Joshua in the Old Testament had been sent out into the promised land (Joshua 1), so these men journeyed westward again, this time, into a legendary land called "Dakota Territory." A year or so later some of these 19th century scouts did indeed return to bring back firsthand news about this "new earth." Yes, the land is good and the soil black! The country is wide as the horizons, and uninhabited. It is almost like our land here!
So another trek began. But this time they left their base in groups of twos and fours, of tens and twenty, of families and whole clans. This exodus was not to end within a year. It went on and on, a quarter of a century the descendants of the tribe of the Suebi slowly and systematically settling in a new and final homeland America.
This story is well known to most of us how these settlers, now twice removed from the German Fatherland, came to the northern Great Plains during the 1870's, 1880's, and on into the 1890's and the early twentieth century a seemingly endless, trickling stream of new blood for a new nation- how they became tillers of the soil all over again with little money, relying on their God and on the strength of their hands in an area of the American Midwest which others had condemned as being fit to live only for buffaloes, jackrabbits, and an occasional lost Indian- how they again brought prosperity and fortune, as their forefathers had done in Russia, to the land: solid farms and tidy towns, law and order and government, schools and churches.
Because of two World Wars, fought against Germany, there were times in this country when certain suspicions arose among chauvinistic Americans concerning the loyalty of our Schwaben. There is no need today however, to emphasize the loyalty of these Dakota citizens. They have coma through as most faithful sons and daughters of our country with an enviable record of service and bloodletting for this nation, and we take pride in pointing to the fact that never has one of them been indicted as a spy, a traitor, or a communist.
As a writer of this article may I personally confess that the history of our Suebi, whom my sainted father was also privileged to serve for years as a pastor in North Dakota, has intrigued me now for many years. Having attempted to unravel their history briefly from the source in Germany to the present day, allow me finally to submit a bit of that history from the present situation in America, via Russia, back to the beginnings of a century and one half ago, in Germany. We shall thus be inviting you to look through that telescope the other way around, as it were. It is another established fact that no other people know so little about their racial background as do our Dakotans with their Russian German history. Much of this is due to an innate lack of knowledge concerning their real racial origin, which again breeds a feeling of insecurity and also inferiority with regard to their ethnic standing. There is no reason why this should be.
In the 1890's of the last century, a man of the Neudorf
community near Eureka, S. D. returned with a family
of seven to Hoffnungsthal, Russia, to inherit a farm
there. Five of his children perished shortly after
his arrival of diphtheria, yet his wife blessed him
with an additional seven children. He who had originally
moved to this area from South Russia in 1885 was one
of the founders and builders of the old Lutheran Neu
church. Being an elder of that congregation he kept
a record of all members, newly arrived from the Hoffnungsthal
colony, Russia, a list which included the cost of
the newly constructed sod church, pastor's and janitor's
dues, etc. The record which he kept here in this area
for 10 years then accompanied him to Russia. One of
two surviving Native American sons became a schoolteacher
in Hoffnungsthal just prior to World War I. When war
broke out in 1914 he was inducted into the Czarist
army to fight against Germany, together with thousands
of other Russian Schwaben. Having been taken a prisoner
by the Germans he was permitted to return to Hoffnungsthal
after the Russo German Peace Treaty of Brest Litowsk
Then in the early twenties the Bolshevik conquest
swept over the Ukrainian. Plains also, engulfing the
German colonists there. When Hoffnungsthal had been
sovietized this same man had been pressed into communist
party membership in order to keep his position as
elder. As the communist functionary of the "Dorf" he officially banished all religious instruction in the public school, yet for almost two decades he also regularly assembled the whole village, old and young, each Sunday in the church which had been turned into a grainery by the Soviets, to conduct Lutheran reading services as the anonymous Christian elder in the absence of the deported pastor. Then in the course of World War II the German Wehrmacht conquered the whole Ukraine; coming into these German colonies in late 1941. The colonists greeted the Germans as liberators from godless communism. This time this poor fellow became a key collaborator and German confidant. His only daughter married an SS sergeant. The Church was everywhere officially restored, all known communists were officially expelled. Suddenly two years later the tide turned. Just before the Russian offensive began which was to push the German armies westward again, our friend was arrested by the German Gestapo (secret police) and transferred to the Moabit Penitentiary in Berlin. The charge: hiding his identity as a former member of the communist party!
Thousands and thousands of the German colonists now began to evacuate the Black Sea area together with the Wehrmacht, a retreat which was to end in Germany itself in May of 1945. Among these refugees were the wife and the married daughter of that man. During the Russian conquest of the city of Berlin in April 1945 he managed to escape incognito to western Germany. For 11/2 years he traveled up and down the land, also corresponding with many church and refugee ,agencies concerning the whereabouts of his lost wife and daughter. He wrote letters over here to relatives in the Dakotas in the hope that these might have received information about his loved ones. His search was finally rewarded when someone in this area sent him the address of the two lost people. Finally in 1947 there was a happy reunion of four people in a small Bavarian village, for the German son in law had also come home, and discovered his wife and her parents.
Why are the details of this one family included here? Your writer had the opportunity to personally meet and speak to this person in Germany a few years ago. His father had turned over to him the old records of the Neudorf settlement here in the Dakota Territory years before. He had begun to fashion genealogies of the names on these American records family names like Adam Schick, Adam Weller, Friedrich Himmrich, Johann Schlaht people who had migrated to this country from Hoffnungsthal in 1890. With the help of the Hoffnungsthal, South Russia, records, which were also in his possession, he was able to trace these names retrospectively to the German homeland itself.
With his permission, and copies of some of these family trees, I took it upon myself to visit certain Schwaben villages near Stuttgart in the search of "missing links" which might bind these American Russian German family names to the people who long ago had left Germany for the pilgrimage to Russia.
This proved a most fascinating engagement during two European visits in 1957 and 1960. The places to haunt and search were invariably the Lutheran parsonages with their ancient archives, going back many centuries. I received the best of help from German fellow clergymen, who often knew much more about the exodus of their countrymen of long ago than I dreamed. Many times my efforts were crowned with success, about which I shall speak a little later on.
Perhaps it should be pointed out in this connection, in order that we might get the whole story of these Schwaben colonists, that some very fine books of research have also been written, such as Pastor F. Gruenzweig's "Die Evangelische Brudergemeinde Korntal." May it also be said in this connection that this research also covers the untold numbers of the Suebi in Russia who were not able to migrate to the U.S., but were left behind in their villages in southern Russia. Church statistics reveal that there are possibly one million such Protestants in widely scattered villages and communities of vast Siberia. The Soviet Government forcefully resettled them there in a spirit of vindictiveness and sovietization after the end of the last war. It is no secret that most of these Russian Germans had collaborated with the German Wehrmacht during World War II. They looked upon German troops as blood relatives, but especially as liberators from the communist yoke. What tragedies took place in those villages of the Black Sea area immediately after 1945! These hamlets had always given secret refuge to former white czarist officers and political refugees from the feared NKWD (Russian Secret Police). We have reports which describe the terrible waves of retribution and murder which were meted out to the unfortunate German colonists who did not follow the receding Wehrmacht into Germany. Those who survived these mass executions, especially of men, and deportations into slave labor camps of the Stalinist era, were forcefully transplanted into the northern Siberian tundras. All German colonies, such as Hoffnungsthal and Gluecksthal, were evacuated of their original inhabitants. In their places scores of Russians of non Germanic stock were moved in. Strange as this may sound though, these same descendants of the Suebi in Siberia. are again accomplishing agricultural miracles in the short summer seasons of these frigid regions. This has so impressed the Soviet Government that the Kremlin leaders are taking a good, hard look at this whole vast northern zone of the tremendously large continent as the future bread basket of their always sadly depleted agricultural reservoir. There are, of course, other heart rending reports also. Thus Lutheran World Action reported two years ago that these settlers were clamoring for one million German Bibles which, they hoped, might be supplied them in the coming years. Then, we were all recently stirred by the sudden advent of thirty two such peasants from Siberia, who had made a long, long pilgrimage to the U. S. Embassy in Moscow with one burning yearning: a refuge and asylum from the godless commissars who are making life unbearable for them all over again by and through atheistic propaganda and religious persecution. (We recall that one of the gains for Russian citizens in the course of World War II was the official proclamation of religious freedom by Stalin.) What a travesty it was that our embassy officials could do nothing for these Siberian Christiansother than to smile embarrassedly, and to have them carted off to points unknown by the Soviet police in closed busses! Evidently our foreign protocol carries no rules for meeting such emergencies which involve aching human souls.
Let me close this essay by referring once more to the above mentioned "missing links" concerning many of the names of our Dakotans today which it was my. privilege to discover with the cooperation of the German pastors in various villages of ancient Schwabenland names which had been traced to the very beginning of that great Exodus of a century and one half ago by that man from Hoffnungsthal. The greatest thrills I personally experienced took place in one or the other of these old "studies" with the old archives of such parsonages. For instance, when perusing the birth records of the early nineteenth or the late eighteenth century, how many times would such a Dakota family name pop up, the great , great , grandfathers of many of our people here on the Great Plains today. And now and then a faithful pastor of that day, or some unknown chronicler had added a terse message above the record, something like this: "anno 1816 nach Russland verschollen." What a world of enthusiasm and despair, religious zeal and deprivation, hope and fear, life and death, coming and departing, finding and losing such a message enfolds! "In the year 1816 lost somewhere in Russia!" Should we not in our blessed land today as the children's children of those our forefathers, whose eyes also saw "the glory of the coming of the Lord . . ." (Battle Hymn of the Republic) thankfully and humbly add this supplement: "Anno 1963, we the descendants of our pious fathers, found by the Grace of Almighty God in God's own country"?!