Settlement Patterns of the Russian German Immigrants to the United States, 1870-1920

By Loralee J. Bloom

Anthropology 496, Germans from Russia Workshop, North Dakota State University, Fargo, ND

The years 1870 to 1920 saw about 117,000 Russian Germans immigrate to the United States. Such an exodus is very intriguing. One must wonder who these people were and what drew such numbers to make their homes on the Great Plains of the Midwest. The Russian German migrants were a very significant part of the history of the Midwest. They were some of the earliest settlers and founders of the earliest towns in such states as North and South Dakota, Nebraska, and Kansas. In this paper I wish to explore the Germans from Russia through their settlement patterns. A study of where they settled and in what patterns can reveal much about these, our pioneering ancestors.

A consideration of the motivations for the Russian Germans to migrate to America can help in understanding their overall settlement placement. Basically these were a people in search of land, freedom, and isolation. Accounts of the Russian homeland prior to immigration describe a land hunger. Schock feels that a need for land was the outstanding push factor for migration. As it happened the United States had plenty of land to offer. The Homestead Act of 1864 had made expansive tracts of land available and at the right time. American land propaganda certainly made migration sound appealing and favorable. A great many of the Germans from Russia were farming people and were looking for farm lands. This explains why they consistently chose lands with agricultural possibilities. The Russian German field of experience was suitable for the conditions experienced on the Great Plains. In fact, Rippley suggests that agrarian utilization of the Great Plains was delayed until the arrival of the Germans from Russia.

In addition to its agricultural potential, the Midwest offered something else to the Russian Germans: isolation and freedom from restrictions. Life in Russia conditioned them into a lifestyle of isolation from the rest of the local population. This sort of lifestyle was an attempt at ethnic retention within an ethnically foreign land. This aspect of the Russian Germans, the fact that they migrated as a group already accustomed to isolation, is unique from any other migrating group, including those Germans who migrated directly from Germany. In fact, Germans from Russia in the United States have held more rigidly to their Germanic traditions than did their brethren who migrated directly from Germany.

This tradition for feelings of ethnic identity was carried along to the United States. Desire for isolation became manifested in the geographic location chosen for settlement. Isolation was very feasible on the Great Plains. Vast tracts of land were open for homesteading. The Dakotas and Kansas were some of the last states cleared of Indian resistance and last opened up for settlement by the railroads. It is no coincidence that North and South Dakota and western Kansas received the largest numbers of Russian Germans.

The 1920 census shows that North Dakota received by far the greatest number of Germans from Russia at 23,850. Nebraska followed at 9,940, Colorado at 9,935, South Dakota at 9,567, and Kansas at 9,056. Other states held far less in numbers. This settlement distribution tells one much about the Germans from Russia as a migrating people. The majority were in search of land and social isolation. They found both on the Great Plains.

Another intriguing aspect of the Russian German people is revealed in their settlement patterns. They tended to settle in clusters that can be divided according to geographic area of origin in Russia, and according to religious denomination. There were basically two geographic sources: the Black Sea and Volga areas. Germans in Russia were also settled in groups of consistently either Catholic or Evangelical. These geographic orientations and religious distinctions became identifications which were carried over to America and manifested into a settlement pattern. Not only did the Russian Germans settle together according to Russian origin, but in addition, according to religious denomination. They developed clusters of four groups with little overlapping between them: the Evangelical Volga Germans, the Catholic Volga Germans, the Evangelical Black Sea Germans, and the Catholic Black Sea Germans.

The Evangelical Volga Germans represent the greatest number at 99,750 (these are Sallet's own estimates of first and second generation Russian Germans in the United States). Nebraska held the largest number of this group, with Colorado second and Kansas third. Evangelical Volga Germans first came in 1874 to Lincoln and Sutton, Nebraska where Black Sea Germans were already established nearby. Lincoln became a focal point and Sutton served as a base camp for further expansion northward and westward.

Simultaneous to settlement in Nebraska, Evangelical Volga Germans were settling in Kansas. The first area of settlement was Marion County. Settlement increased and expanded westward and northward between the years 1880 and 1895. The Evangelical Volgans also significantly contributed to the settlement and establishment of such cities as Portland and Chicago.

Volga Germans of the Catholic faith represent the group of the smallest numbers at 18,743. Predominantly they clustered in Kansas. They established the settlement of Herzog. Topeka became their base camp for further expansion to the north, east, west and southwest during 1878 through 1920.

In contrast to the Volga Germans who were of various occupations, the Black Sea Germans were predominantly wheat farmers. This might help explain why the Black Sea Germans overwhelmingly chose to settle in the agricultural states of North and South Dakota, and Nebraska. Evangelical Black Sea Germans were the second greatest in number at 79,044. According to the 1920 census, North Dakota held the highest number; this number also represents the largest cluster group situated in any one state. South Dakota also held a significantly high amount; Washington, Nebraska, and California had less, yet significant amounts.

Large groups of Evangelical Black Sea Germans arrived in the years 1872 and 1873. Base camps were at Yankton, South Dakota, Sutton and Lincoln, Nebraska; and the territorial capitals for both Dakotas served as points for expansion. From the base camps in South Dakota settlements of Black Sea Evangelicals expanded into Hutchinson and Bon Homme counties which served as centers for further expansion north and westward into the Dakotas. Black Sea Germans settled nearly all of the homestead lands of Yankton, Bon Homme, Hutchinson, and Douglas counties between 1874 and 1880. From South Dakota, settlements were pushed into North Dakota counties of McIntosh, Emmons, and Logan; and from there followed the railroad construction into Morton, Stark, Sheridan, Grant, Mercer, McLean, and Stutsman counties. The 1890 census reveals that Russian Germans were already the majority in Logan, McIntosh, and Mercer counties.

The Catholic Black Sea Germans were about half the number of their Evangelical country men and women at 37,496 in the 1920 census. But they clustered predominantly in the same states: North and South Dakota, and Kansas. Settlement of the Catholic Black Sea Germans took place later and separately from the Evangelicals, however, they used already established Evangelical settlements as arrival points. In the years 1889 through 1890 there existed a community of Catholics in Eureka, South Dakota. But the population of the Evangelicals there expanded so greatly the Catholics chose to move on into Hague, Strasburg, and Pierce County of North Dakota. This incident illustrates the group’s stubborn individualism, and helps one to understand how the cluster patterns of settlement developed for each of the four groups of Russian Germans. Expansion of the Black Sea Catholics continued from South Dakota into North Dakota. Pierce and McHenry counties became heavily populated. The heaviest concentration in North Dakota developed around and west of the Missouri River in such areas as Hebron, Glen Ullin, Richardton, Dickinson, and Bismarck-Mandan.

There was also a fifth group of Russian Germans who settled in very distinct clusters. Those were the Mennonites and Hutterites. They immigrated about the same time as the other Volga and Black Sea Germans especially between the years 1873 and 1875. They predominantly settled in Kansas, Minnesota, the Dakotas, Nebraska, and Oklahoma. Because of their unique religious way of life, these Russian Germans strongly displayed isolation cluster patterns in settlement.

A study of the settlement patterns of the Germans from Russia can reveal much about them as a people. Predominantly these migrants chose the Midwest as their new homes. The things Russian Germans were looking for in migration help explain why they chose to settle where they did. They were mostly people in search of land, isolation, and freedom from restrictions; and the Midwest of America offered all of these. Settlement patterns also reveal that the Germans from Russia were a very ethnically and religiously conscious people. They repeatedly settled in clusters of the same geographic orientation and religious denomination. Because the Russian Germans chose to pioneer the vast Midwest, they helped in settlement that otherwise may not have taken place for many years.


Rippley, La Vern J., German-Americans (Boston: Twayne Publishers. 1976).

Sallet, Richard, Russian-German Settlements in the United States (Fargo: North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies. 1974).

Schock, Adolph, In Quest of Free Land (California: San Jose State College. 1964)

i Adolph Schock, In Quest of Free Land (California, 1964), p. 93.
ii Ibid, p. 99.
iii La Vern J. Rippley, The German-Americans (Boston, 1976), p. 175.
iv Ibid, p. 177
v Ibid.
vi Ibid, p. 175.
vii Richard Sallet, Russian-German Settlements in the United States (Fargo, 1974), p. 110-111.
viii Rippley, German-American, p. 174.
ixSchock, Quest, p. 102.
xSallet, Settlements, p. 112.
xi Ibid, p. 42.
xii Ibid, p. 45-46.
xiii Ibid, p. 48-55.
xiv Ibid, p. 58-59.
xv Rippley, German-Americans, p. 178.
xvi Sallet, Settlements, p. 112.
xvii Rippley, German-Americans, p. 175.
xviii Sallet, Settlements, p. 24.
xix Rippley, German-Americans, p. 176.
xx Sallet, Settlements, p. 26.
xxi Ibid, p. 112.
xxii Ibid, p. 35.
xxiii Ibid, p. 36.
xxiv Ibid, p. p. 37-39.
xxv Schock, Quest, p. 107.

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