| The Forgotten Schwabians: Germans
in the Central Dakota Area -- An Odyssee
by Alice Morgenstern
Die vergessenen Schwaben -- Deutsche in Zentraldakota -- eine
von Alice Morgenstern
Published in Heimatbuch 1997/1998, published by the Landsmannschaft
der Deutschen aus Russland
Translation from German to American English by Alex Herzog,
"Flour tastes bitter when you're not hungry."
"Don't praise the day before it's over."
[These two proverbs are translated from dialect.]
When people in McPherson County in the deepest interior of South
Dakota read these adages, they probably realize that they must have
something to do with descendants of families who had immigrated,
via various detours, from Southwestern Germany to America.
In reality the story went rather differently, with much more excitement
and with greater complications. We are dealing with people who immigrated
to the United States as registered Russians. How was that possible?
This story actually begins in Southwest Germany, at the onset of
the 19th Century. The native princes in the area had just been subjugated
under Napoleon's might and were being obliged to support his military
campaigns. And for their subjects that meant that the troops would
levy taxes, exact contributions, demand quarters, and cause devastation
of their fields. Farmers in particular suffered more and more.
Thus it came as fortuitous news that the Russian Tsar Alexander
I was looking for settlers for sparsely populated areas in South
Russia and was making enticing promises to them. As a result of
wars with Turkey during the 18th Century, Russia had gained large
masses of land, particularly in the Black Sea region, and in 1812
Bessarabia also became part of those possessions. It was here that
hardworking and adventurous farmers were needed, to establish settlements
and to make the land arable. Earlier on, in 1762, Catherine the
Great had already lured German settlers to the Volga region and
in 1763 had granted them certain privileges. Her grandson Alexander
I acted similarly, promising those willing to become settlers specific
land allotments of about 60 hectares per family, which were to remain
free from taxation for at least ten years, also promising religious
freedom, for the most part local self-government and, most importantly,
exemption from military conscription -- exactly the kinds of things
the German farmers were fervently longing for.
The year 1804 marks the actual onset of a wave of emigration. Thousands,
often entire villages, began their journeys down the Danube into
the Black Sea region. They were by no means merely members of an
agrarian proletariat, rather they were diligent, deeply religious
people who were searching for a life that they would be able to
fashion in their own way.
What awaited them in Russia at first was the toughest drudgery,
in an indescribably huge and inhospitable landscape of steppes,
or in faraway river valleys, for example, the Dnyestr, where they
even encountered wolves and other wild animals. Illnesses also constituted
a formidable and dangerous problem.
Nevertheless, in time the settlers would be able to overcome these
difficulties. The colonies sprouted villages that, with their churches
and farming estates, reminded folks of their old homes. Following
the initial difficult years, their work on the very rich Black Sea
area soil brought about a growing prosperity. The increasing number
of these visitors -- the wave of immigration actually slowed around
1818, but the families of colonists usually had many children --
resulted in the establishment of daughter colonies, for which additional
land was also acquired. Cities such as Odessa profited from the
skills and competence of immigrant craftsmen.
In those areas that were settled so sparsely by Russians, there
was only minor contact with the native population, even if Tsar
Alexander I had envisioned the Germans as serving his own population
as exemplars in how to work the land. Germans kept to themselves
and took care to pass on what bound them to their origins. Names
of the villages present interesting clues: "Rastatt,"
Karlsruhe," Strassburg," these all reminded the people
of where they came from. In this context, special mention should
be made of those from French Alsace, who continued to be German-speaking;
names such as "Glueckstal" and "Alexanderhilf"
bespeak the same observation.
Until the 1870s the German settlers remained essentially unbothered
in their development, even though as of 1834 they had been designated
as Russian citizens. However, reforms undertaken by Tsar Alexander
II (1855 - 1881) gave power to increasing Russification efforts.
Restrictions on self-government began in 1871. But the introduction
of universal conscription constituted the most stringent change.
Many German settlers considered the end of their liberties as having
arrived in 1881 when, under Alexander III, all schools were placed
under Russian administration, and only the subjects of German and
religion were permitted to be taught in the German language. Only
part of the promises that had led many to immigrate remained in
effect. The future was now rather uncertain.
Even in the 1860s, slowly growing concerns caused some adventurous
young people to look for a new place to settle. They found it on
another continent, America. In the course of time, the "pioneers"
had penetrated further and further into the West of the United States.
A giant area, devoid of people, had remained abandoned. The Great
Plains, all the way to the Rocky Mountains, were still untouched
by agricultural pursuits. According to the provisions of the "Homestead
Act" of 1862, any man or woman could acquire 160 acres at a
price of ten dollars, provided they obligated themselves to live
on that land and use it for agriculture a minimum of five years.
So there was the opportunity to make one's livelihood free of restrictive
Having heard favorable reports to their relatives by "advance
parties," a great wave of emigration of German-Russians was
set in motion in the 1880s. Whole families, or individuals, one
after the other, again took up the journey toward new areas of settlement.
This stream did not end until the outbreak of World War I. A large
number of them came to the Dakotas. A Dakota Territory had existed
as of 1661; in 1882 it was reduced to the area of today's North
and South Dakotas. In 1889 both parts became States of the Union.
It should be mentioned that the name "Dakota" originates
in the Sioux language and means something like "the bond of
The history of settlement played itself out in a manner different
from that of the plains that lay farther to the East. Through the
middle of both states there stretched an invisible border between
a somewhat more rainy zone and a rather dry climatic zone. For a
long time no one wished to settle down in the arid part. Only when
the wave of immigration from Russia reached its full extent were
settlements established in this area. Late arrivals had to take
what was left. The new beginnings on this treeless, stony and undeveloped
soil proved to be as difficult as that in the Russian steppes. Also,
there were constant, strong winds; hot, dry summers, with occasionally
heavy thunder and hail storms; tornadoes; and icy winters with heavy
blizzards. Wood for buildings was not available. The first settlers
had to be satisfied with huts made of sod and mud, or they housed
themselves in holes dug into the ground, heated with buffalo and
cow dung, at least until the time when the ground finally was transformed
into rich fields of wheat.
This region, especially in today's McIntosh County (North Dakota)
and McPherson County (South Dakota), was settled mainly by families
from the South-Russian Glueckstal colonies on the Eastern side of
the Dnyestr River. They made up an unusually homogeneous group and
to this day constitute a large portion of the population. Their
earlier origins lay in Wuerttemberg; they were strict adherents
to the Lutheran faith, retained their "Schwabian" language
of origin, and had clung especially strongly to their traditions
and culture. In spite of all that, they and all the other Germans
from Russia were known as "Russians," since they named
Russia as the place they had come from.
Their case is unique: until the middle of our [20th] century, these
same "Russians" maintained an entire way of life that
was very much like that of early 19th-Century Wuerttemberg, and
therewith, under contrary conditions, they kept up a tradition across
two continents and through one and a half centuries. They are the
"forgotten Schwabians" of America. Most Americans, even
those who are well aware of the German element in their country,
have never heard anything of these "Schwabians," who in
many ways are more German than most other German-Americans.
Today's times are not favorable to the survival of the culture
of minorities, so their case must be pointed out even more emphatically.
Fortunately there has been timely success in the gathering and
processing of materials on the heritage of these "forgotten
Schwabians." For this our gratitude goes to Dr. Shirley Fischer
Arends who, herself a member of one of those families, dedicated
her life from the 1960s until the end of the 1980s decade to the
research work concerning this ethnic group, the "Central Dakota
Germans," a she calls them. In her work she benefited from
her "trilingualism" (English, High German, and "Schwabian"),
her personal contacts, as well as her scientific competence and
her persistence. All this enabled her to amass a rich trove of materials
and to work on it with great care. Along the way she reports of
her experiences with people she had interviewed. Her oldest partners
in those conversations were still members of the first generation,
themselves immigrants who were able to provide detailed information
about immigration and those early beginnings in America. With well-thought-out
deliberation and with a confident feel for the
language, they provided answers to questions concerning specific
expressions in Schwabian, and with pride and joy they told of their
religious life, their customs and mores, even including handed-down
treatments for illnesses, as well as recipes (for "Knoepfle,"
for example). Their dialect never did become merely a sign of a
socially lower class. On the contrary, their dialect can easily
take its place alongside the Schwabian spoken by dignitaries or
This strong pride may be one of the reasons for the long continued
existence of their culture. Dr. Fischer Arends names a few additional
factors for that:
-- German-Russians always insisted on holding their close family
circle together, thus the extended family, the so-called "friendship
circle," was a particularly dependable source of support in
times of great need.
-- Due mainly to the large spaces and the resulting seclusion,
in Russia as well as in America, contact with people who spoke other
languages was minimal.
-- The strong tie to the Lutheran church, the religious upbringing,
and German-language church services and their traditional hymns
helped to keep alive not only their Schwabian dialect, but also
-- The conservative bent of their agrarian society contributed
to the maintenance of what was passed on to succeeding generations.
-- During the course of time, all these circumstances actually
resulted in a kind of hardening or reinforcement of their traditions.
It was not until the 1950s when even here the trend toward conforming
to existing cultural norms in the United States took hold, partly
because advancements in transportation was beginning to bring the
region closer to their environs, and particularly due to increased
influence from the media. In the meantime even the Lutheran Church
in the Dakotas has come to conduct religious services in English
only. Older people still have command of their Schwabian dialect.
For example, at the national convention of the Germans from Russia
in Stuttgart in 1994, member of the Dakota delegation easily conversed
with the older Germans from the Ukraine. On the other hand, younger
people are barely able to speak German anymore, and at best they
have only a broken understanding of the dialect.
Perhaps one can hope that Americans' newly awakened pride in their
"roots" might rekindle the desire to salvage their heritage
in this area as well.
In any case, we have available to us the valuable work of Dr. Shirley
Fischer Arends, "The Central Dakota Germans -- Their History,
Language and Culture," Georgetown UniversityPress, Washington,
DC, 1989, which not only provides detailed and thorough information
about the "forgotten Schwabians," but also presents them
respectfully and sympathetically. Would that they will always be
thought of in that way.
Our appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translation
of this article.