Dakota's Germans from Russia

Presentation by

Michael Miller in wheat field near Odessa, Ukraine, May, 2001

Michael M. Miller, Bibliographer
Germans from Russia Heritage Collection
North Dakota State University Library
Fargo, North Dakota, USA

Deutsch-Amerikanisches Zentrum
German - American Centre
James F. Byrnes Institut e.V.
Charlottenplatz 17, Stuttgart, Germany
May 31, 2001



A brief history of the Germans from Russia on the Dakota prairies

Approximately 300 mother colonies were founded throughout Russia during the settlement years and as the population grew, more acreage had to be acquired for the landless. Thus, numerous daughter colonies were founded. Eventually there were more than 3,000 ethnic settlements in Russia.

Their schools and churches provided instruction in their native language, German. Life was generally good for the colonists and they maintained the distinct customs, dress, musical tastes, and dialects of their ancestral homelands. Many adjustments to Russian ways, however, were inevitable.

In 1871, Czar Alexander II revoked the preferential rights and privileges given to the German colonist settlers by the manifestoes of Catherine II and Alexander I. The colonists, as a result, were reduced to the common citizen status of the Russian peasants and under the same laws and obligations to which peasants were subject. In 1874, the colonists' sons were drafted into the Czar's army for the first time.

The natural result was that the colonists were dismayed and angry, feeling that the Russian Crown was guilty of a breach of contract. As there was nothing the colonists could do to change political policy, their thoughts turned toward leaving Russia. But where could they go? To return to Germany did not enter their minds, for when their ancestors had left Germany years before, they had no intention ever to return to their native country.

During the summer of 1872, Ludwig Bette, a former colonist, who had led a party of 83 friends from the Black Sea to the United States in 1849, decided to visit relatives and friends in the Black Sea colonies. Noting the unrest and dissatisfaction among the colonists for having lost their privileged status, he extolled the virtue of the United States, urging emigration there. Shortly after his return to the United States, an emigration movement to the United States, Canada, and South America was set in motion which continued more or less unabatedly until the outbreak of World War I halted further emigration.

Alexander III came to the throne of Russia in 1881 after his father, Alexander II, had been assassinated. Russification became the official policy, which greatly affected the former colonists. Academic classes later had to be taught in the Russian language. Business was required to be transacted in Russian. Also, opportunity became increasingly difficult for the German-speaking colonists in Russia to purchase more land necessary for their expanding numbers. All political rights of self-government in their villages were lost by the colonists under the changed conditions.

Hesitating to make the long journey over the ocean, many colonists decided to stay in Russia in spite of the Russification policy. In actual numbers, about one out of four German colonists emigrated to North America and South America.

Because of registration requirements of the U.S. Homestead Act of 1862, the German-Russians who took up homesteads in the United States were required to live on their 160-acre farms. They could no longer live in villages or colonies as they had in Russia. Many Volga Germans settled in cities in the central plains. The Bessarabian, Black Sea, and Crimean Germans acquired land and homesteaded primarily in the Dakotas. Many families settled in the western Canadian prairie provinces. The Volga Germans became closely associated with the sugar beet industry in Colorado and western Nebraska. Most Bessarabian, Black Sea, and Crimean Germans became wheat growers in the Dakotas and in Canada. Others became orchard and grape growers in California. Today many descendants of those early Germans from Russia homesteaders are living in California, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Oregon, and Washington, as well as, Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan in western Canada.

The very first settlement of the German-Russians in the Middle West, specifically Dakota Territory, occurred in the spring of 1873. This settlement was a direct result of Ludwig Bette's visit to the Beresan District village of Johannestal in 1872, when he influenced four groups from the Black Sea area to emigrate to the United States. The four groups, numbering 175 men, women, and children, were united at Sandusky, Ohio, where they spent the winter. In the spring, scouts were sent out in search of land. They determined that Dakota Territory was the place for them to settle. They loaded their belongings on a special freight train, possibly one or two passenger cars and a few freight cars, and traveled to Yankton, Dakota Territory. They arrived there in one of the worst winter blizzards on record, and many thought the country was worse than Siberia. This Easter Sunday blizzard occurred in April of 1873. After the stormy weather cleared, they searched for suitable land on which to homestead, finding land where Lesterville, South Dakota, is now located, about 18 miles northwest of Yankton.

Following early settlement near Lesterville, thousands of Germans from the Black Sea areas of Russia poured into Dakota Territory during the following four decades. Their homesteads spread westward and northward until most arable land was homesteaded, in what later became South Dakota in 1889. As more and more immigrant Black Sea Germans continued to arrive in Dakota Territory in search of land, their homesteads spread in 1884 into what is now North Dakota. Eventually, their homesteads were located in all arable parts of North Dakota. As a result, North Dakota census numbers had twice as many Germans from Russia than does any other state in the United States.

In the book, "Plains Folk: North Dakota's Ethnic History," Professor Timothy Kloberdanz writes: "They came by the thousands, bent under the weight of all their possessions. There were few sighs, few tears, few moans of disbelief. They simply pushed on, repeating to themselves the two words that were their destination: Nord Dakota."

"They came from scores of German-speaking colonies and villages that once dotted the present-day lands of European Russia, coastal and western Rumania, northeastern Yugoslavia, western Czechoslovakia, and southeastern Austria. At each place they stopped on their way to the American prairies, they heard themselves referred to by every strange and disparaging name but their own: Russen, Rossbunds, Pruskies, Bobunks, Hunkies, Honyocks, Polacks. The women, their faces framed by the ever-present headshawl, betrayed little of the anxiety they harbored within. The men, clad in homespun and dark caps, carefully studied each fellow traveler before posing the inevitable query: Kannst du Deitsch? The children, pale and tousle-haired, grew weary of their own restlessness. Like their parents, they had no other choice but to look ahead."

The town of Eureka, South Dakota, became very important, where thousands of German-Russian immigrants arrived by train from New York City. The Agricultural Experiment Station publication at South Dakota State University states: "For 15 years, from 1887 to 1902, this `end of the track' town was the largest primary wheat market in the world, claim historians. In 1897 alone, two thirds of the world's wheat crop entering the commercial market was shipped from Eureka."

"Picture over 165 trains of 20 cars each being loaded at one small town. That number of boxcars was needed in Eureka during the $2 million wheat-shipping year of 1892. The wheat bonanza was created by several factors: the end-of-track location for 15 years, the richness of the new land, and the hard work of the German-Russian farmers settling the prairie."

Like many south-central North Dakota families, my Baumgartner and Miller families arrived in Eureka in the late 1880s and trekked by foot with their wagons to homestead on virgin land near Strasburg, North Dakota.

By 1920, it was estimated that 116,539 German-Russians were in the United States. The largest concentration was in North Dakota, where some 70,000 lived in 1920, coming from the Black Sea region. German-Russians heavily populated central North Dakota. Many families in Pierce and Towner counties of north-central North Dakota again resettled in Saskatchewan, Canada, due to lack of farmland.

Professor Kloberdanz writes in "Plains Folk": The largest volksdeutsche group in North Dakota were the Evangelical and Roman Catholic Black Sea Germans (Schwarzmeerdeutsche). Other Black Sea German settlers included a number of Mennonites and Hutterites, as well as Dobrudja Germans who had briefly lived in southeastern Rumania. There were representatives in North Dakota of other major German-Russian groups as well, including the Volhynian Germans (Wolhyniendeutsche) of Polish Russia, The Caucasus Germans (Kaukasusdeutsche), and the Volga Germans (Wolgadeutsche).

I grew up speaking American English, plus the traditional German dialect and accent of my ancestors of historic Strassburg in the Kutschurgan mother colonies. I am grateful to my parents to have learned their Schwäbisch German language during my youth in North Dakota which has been so very valuable for my work at North Dakota State University.

My hometown of Strasburg, North Dakota, became well-known as the birthplace of the late bandleader Lawrence Welk who was born in a sod house and spoke little English until he was twenty-one. His parents immigrated from Catholic Black Sea colonies in Ukraine.

Today in German-speaking volksdeutschen communities throughout North Dakota, there remains a noticeable degree of linguistic variation. This can be verified with GRHC's oral histories on cassette tape. I recall my interview in the German language with Rosa Martin Welk at Einbeck, Germany, on December 29, 1994. Rosa was born on October 30, 1891, in the Catholic village of Karlsruhe, Beresan District. When I interviewed Rosa, she was 103. She died on November 27, 1995. Interviewing Rosa, I felt at home as if I was speaking German at Strasburg, ND. It was an unforgettable experience to be with Rosa Martin Welk who even had lunch ready with cheese buttons (Käseknepfla) similar to those made by Theresa Kuntz Bachmeier, Rugby, North Dakota, who appears in the "Schmeckfest" documentary.

My German interview with Antonia Welk Ivanova on June 8, 1994, at Limanoske, Ukraine, the former German village of Selz, Kutschurgan District, was as if we were speaking back home in North Dakota. There was a bonding and kinship with our German dialects Antonia could not believe, which could be traced to my Baumgartner ancestors who left the Kutschurgan villages in 1889. Antonia died in October 1998.

Further research of our Dakota dialects offers important study which needs to be pursued with scholarly activity, including comparisons with ethnic Germans who once lived in the South Russia German villages and now living in Germany.

South-central North Dakota was once the most heavily populated German-Russian region in the United States. Based on the 1990 census, other than the English language, about 20% of the language spoken in North Dakota's three south-central counties - Emmons, Logan, and McIntosh - was the German language. Ten years and the 2000 census will show a decrease of ethnic German-Russians speaking the German language in these counties.

Professor Kloberdanz writes: "For the Volksdeutsche, both in Europe and in the New World, a common theme ran through many of their folk narratives, songs, and poems: the longing for homeland free of war, wants, and suffering. Despite their deep appreciation of the German Vaterland, they seldom hesitated to move on in search of better conditions, no matter how far away such hopes would take them. Many reached North Dakota, then feeling satisfied, broke the virgin sod and erected homes. Other families traveled further north in search of other opportunities, crossing the border into Canada. For the Black Sea or in the Banat, the truth of the old Latin adage seemed ever appropriate: Ubi panis, ibi patria (Where there is bread, there is my homeland)." This was certainly true for the Dakotas, with large wheat production and the "bread basket of the world."

Notable books covering the history of the Germans from Russia, especially relating to North Dakota include: "From Catherine to Khrushchev: The Story of Russia's Germans" by Adam Giesinger; "Homesteaders on the Steppe"; "Paradise on the Steppe" and "Memories of the Black Sea Germans" by Joseph S. Height; "Plains Folk: North Dakota's Ethnic History" edited by William C. Sherman and Playord V. Thorson; "Russian-German Settlement in the United States" by Richard Sallet, translated by LaVern Rippley and Armand Bauer; "Prairie Mosaic: An Ethnic Atlas of Rural North Dakota" by William C. Sherman; and "The Black Sea Germans in the Dakotas" by George Rath.

Dr. Shirley Fischer Arends, a native of Ashley, ND, has authored an important book published by Georgetown University Press, Washington, D.C. titled, "The Central Dakota Germans: Their History, Language and Culture." The book is presently out-of-print. GRHC is cooperating with Dr. Arends to publish a new edition including photographs in 2002. Dr. Arends works at the U.S. Embassy in Berlin, Germany.

Collections in the central and northern plains

It is important to note the significant German-Russian genealogy resources, books, and reference collections in the United States. The American Historical Society of Germans from Russia at Lincoln, Nebraska, and the Germans from Russia Heritage Society at Bismarck, North Dakota, founded in the early 1970s, have growing library collections. Both societies have impressive archival resources and headquarters. The Mennonite Heritage Centre at Winnipeg, Manitoba, and the Newton College archives in Kansas have valuable collections.

The Germans from Russia Heritage Collection at the North Dakota State University Library is one of the major resources in North America and the world. In May 2000, the Marie Rudel Portner Germans from Russia Endowment was established for GRHC. Marie Rudel Portner was a first generation Bessarabian German growing up near Fessenden, ND. In October, 1999, Marie died at age 102 bequesting a gift of $1.1 million for the Collection in memory of her parents.

German-Russian heritage and culture yesterday and today

Newspapers published in the German language were very important for early pioneers. German was their native language and they wanted to know what was happening back in their homeland of South Russia. Dakota Freie Presse, Nord Dakota Herold, and Der Staatsanzeiger had many subscriptions. County and local German newspapers were published at Ashley and Wishek in North Dakota. The Eureka Rundschau was a significant weekly newspaper. Letters in German published in Eureka Rundschau are featured in the new book, "Marienberg: Fate of a Village" (Marienberg: Schicksal eines Dorfes) authored by Johann Bollinger and Janice Huber Stangl. "Marienberg" is published in one volume in the English and German languages.

Today's media and technology for the Germans from Russia

In the 1990s, the heritage and culture of the Germans from Russia entered the technology world of the Internet and websites with impressive and far-reaching results. The pioneering efforts, beginning in 1991 at the North Dakota State University computer center with electronic discussion groups or listserves, have been of much importance. Today there are five listserves, plus the Black Sea Mail List, totaling more than 5,000 subscribers worldwide.

The development of websites for the German-Russian community, especially in North America, has seen large increases in usage. Between January 1999 and April 2001, the website for GRHC reached close to three million successful requests.

Prairie Public Television's partnership with the North Dakota State University Library to develop scholarly videotape documentaries has reached millions of viewers in North America, many who did not know "Who Is a German from Russia?" The award-winning documentary, "The Germans from Russia: Children of the Steppe, Children of the Prairie" (1999) and "Schmeckfest: Food Traditions of the Germans from Russia" (2000) have reached more than 10,000 in videotape sales. Major documentary work is planned for 2002 to 2004, including the folk art of the German-Russian iron crosses and music, as well as the heritage of the Kutschurgan and Glueckstal villages and settlement in the Dakotas.

The future

In the Dakotas, we are seeing fewer persons still speaking the German language with the fading of the ethnic German dialect so unique to our prairie people. Family reunions are important to share a sense of place providing important events for gathering of family members to share the culture, music, and foodways of the Germans from Russia. Family reunions are important for the ethnic survival of the culture heritage for the Germans from Russia community.

Published family histories are important to document the life and times and provide valuable genealogical data. I anticipate continued growth in publishing family histories in North America with additional family research data available from websites and new materials located in archives of the former Soviet Union.

Computer technology experienced a huge growth during the 1990s with the Internet and website development. The future will see an even larger community of German-Russians with email addresses, especially at a younger age. The web pages of the Germans from Russia Heritage Collection and other websites continue to be primary links for uncovering in text and visually our ethnic heritage and ancestry. The most important impact will be: how to develop interest and usage to these websites for classrooms and libraries.

Because of the well-established Germans from Russia societies in the United States with membership throughout North America; the significant role of an academic library at North Dakota State University; the partnerships with organizations including Prairie Public Broadcasting; the establishment of the Germans from Russia Cultural Preservation Foundation; and the technology era, I see even a greater interest and awareness in our people: the Germans from Russia, Unsere Leute.

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