Emigration to Russia and Life of the German People

Transcription of tape presentation by Ray Friederich, Rugby, North Dakota, July 1978, Tape 7

Transcription completed by Monica Dearing, Sumner, Washington 1991

Edited and proofread by Jane D. Trygg

The Stumpp Exhibition Hall is the joint effort of the Geographical Center Museum and the Heart of America Chapter of the North Dakota Historical Society of Germans from Russia. The exhibit is named in honor of Dr. Karl Stumpp of Stuttgart, Germany who is the undisputed world renowned authority of the history of the Germans from Russia. His photograph and a short biography hangs over the antique organ in the south room of the exhibit.

The furnishings in this building are an attempt to depict what the home of a typical German from Russia family might have looked like 50 or 75 years ago. The first of these immigrants were, of course, forced to build sod houses. Unfortunately, we have not been able to produce a sod house, which we know would add much to the exhibit.

We feel that for the exhibit to be really meaningful to you an explanation of where these people came from and why they came to America at all is imperative.

Everyone has heard about the Pennsylvania Dutch, who were part of that great influx of English, French, Scandinavian and other Europeans from the years following about 1680. They weren’t Dutch, of course. They were German, and when asked their nationality at the immigration office at Ellis Island, they answered Deutsch. To the English speaking immigration officers this sounded like Dutch, and because they were settling what is now the state of Pennsylvania, hence the name Pennsylvania Dutch.

We mention this only because at about the time these so called Pennsylvania Dutch were coming to America there was another mass migration out of Germany, starting at about 1763, this one to Russia. The German migration to Russia was prompted by the fact that Catherine, the daughter of a German prince, became Empress Catherine II when she married the Czar of Russia. When Empress Catherine saw the vast expanses of unoccupied and unproductive land in Russia reaching from the Volga River to the north, all the way down to the Black Sea, knowing that back in her native Germany there were thousands of land hungry people, she immediately resolved to do something about this imbalance.

In 1763 Empress Catherine issued her now famous manifesto. It was a masterpiece of immigration propaganda. Among a host of generous promises if these Germans would migrate to Russia were such things as allotments of free land, interest free loans for 10 years, local self-government in their colonies according to their own laws and customs in all matters of local concern, full freedom to practice their religion and to employ priests and pastors of their choice, and to build and operate their own churches and schools, freedom from military service, with all of these privileges to apply also to their descendants and finally, freedom to leave again if they found Russia unsuitable.

To war-weary, oppressed, persecuted, and impoverished Germans this sounded like paradise at the end of the rainbow.

Time on selection number one does not permit even a cursory part of the whole story. There were Germans from throughout Germany who accepted Empress Catherine's utopian offer, but the colonists who settled in the Black Sea area of Russia largely came out of the southwestern region of Germany, primarily the provinces of Luxembourg and Elsass. The distance from this part of Germany to South Russia is several thousand miles.

As poor people their primary form of transportation was on foot, and they carried their belongings in a wheelbarrow. Some chose to make the trip on barges down the Danube River. A model of such a barge is on display in the south room of the exhibit. Maps produced by Dr. Stumpp showing the geography where these Germans came from, the main routes they took to get to Russia, and where they ultimately built the town we've been describing are located in the south room near the east window of this exhibit. Please take a moment to examine these maps. You will find them both interesting and informative.

The journey was long, grueling, and sheer exhaustion; epidemics and misfortune kept many from reaching their destination. Those who survived the trip found the area they were to occupy something less than the picturesque description that had been given to them by their recruiters. It was a barren, treeless wilderness far inland from Germany where winters became cold and the snow deep. They might have returned to their native Germany, but they had come too far to attempt a return trip.

They were a determined and frugal and ambitious people. They built sod houses as shelter for their families. As the colony grew they built a church and then a school. They knew how to cultivate the land and how to use good farming practices. Through cross breeding they developed fine herds of cattle, horses, and sheep. They planted orchards and trees, and their colonies became clean, attractive places in which to live.

As the colony grew in size it spawned sister colonies. The Lutheran Luxembourg province in Germany, being largely Protestant, produced the Protestant colonies, while those from Elsass, being Catholic, would develop the Catholic colonies. There was only limited contact between the Protestant and Catholic colonies, but there was virtually no contact between Russians and the German colonists whether Catholic or Protestant.

Russians were looked down upon as vulgar, uncouth, and most of all, untrustworthy. The untrustworthy evaluation, particularly of Russian officials, became painfully real to these Germans as we will explain in a moment.

Their beloved German-born Empress, Catherine II, was eventually succeeded by Russian Czars. One of them, Alexander I, was largely sympathetic with what Empress Catherine had promised in her manifesto and even encouraged more migration of Germans. He, in turn, was followed by Czar Alexander II, who was no longer showing the same friendly attitude of his predecessors, and some of the original freedoms given to Germans were curtailed, but conditions could still be tolerated.

Czar Alexander II was assassinated by revolutionists in 1881 and was succeeded by his son, Alexander III. The fate of the Germans who had now lived in Russia over 100 years was to change drastically at the hands of Alexander III. Unlike his father and grandfather, he was a strong Russian nationalist who was determined to wipe out all non-Russian influence.

To the Russians he described the Germans as intruders with certain special privileges. He accused them of being disloyal to the Czar all at the expense and to the detriment of the Russians. He arbitrarily revoked the promises contained in Empress Catherine's manifesto, conscripted the young men into the Russian army, forced the schools to teach Russian, and interfered in countless ways with the internal control of the German colonies, all with the avowed determination to accomplish Russiafication. To the Germans, their heritage was too firmly rooted and their background too precious to be easily abandoned. They saw the alternatives open to them at once: either to submit to the Russiafication by Czar Alexander III, or get out of the country.

It was a time when Dakota Territory in America was being opened to settlers, and the arbitrary acts of Alexander III caused an increasing number to show an interest in America. Some of their countrymen had already found land in Kansas and Nebraska, and good reports from these American settlers were filtering back. The choice was to be made by many in the years to follow.

To gain permission to leave Russia usually required bribing a Russian official, disposing of their property except what they could carry, and arranging for passage on a ship to New York. It meant leaving friends, loved ones, and relatives behind with little chance of ever seeing them again. Their fore-fathers a hundred years earlier had made such a sojourn from Germany to Russia. It was now their turn, for their own welfare and for the welfare of generations that would follow, to make a similar journey, this time to America.

The first contingency of Germans from Russia arrived in Yankton, South Dakota, the end of the railroad, on April 14, 1873 in the midst of a three day snowstorm. On the train to Yankton with them was General and Mrs. George A. Custer and the 7th Cavalry. In a strange land, unable to speak the language, the courtesy and the assistance provided these people by members of the 7th Cavalry during the short stay at Yankton has never been forgotten by the Germans from Russia.


We concluded selection #1 by telling you about the first contingency of Germans from Russia arriving in Yankton, Dakota Territory, on April 14, 1873 in the midst of the worst blizzard ever recorded in that part of South Dakota either before or since then.

Their destination when they left the Black Sea region of South Russia in the fall of 1872 was not Dakota Territory but, in fact, Sandusky, Ohio. They spent the winter of 1872 at Sandusky and sent scouts out to find suitable land for homesteading. These scouts visited at least seven or eight central states for suitable land for homesteading, but their search was unsuccessful. Time was running out. These people were farmers, and when January 1873 arrived Spring and planting time could not be far away.

The scouts had heard about Dakota and, in desperation, four of the scouts (the rest felt it was a waste of time) set out to see for themselves what this part of America was like. Back in Sandusky their friends were discouraging against including Dakota in plans as a possible homestead. Dakota was known throughout the east for its cold winters, blizzards, hot and windy summers and, above all else, unruly Indians.

The winter of 1872-1873 had been exceptionally severe with much snow and ice over the entire east, including Ohio. To the great surprise of the small German scouting party when they arrived at Yankton in February was that farmers in Dakota were out working their fields. They inquired at the Land Office about the possibility of homesteads, rented a wagon and team, took a surveyor along, and set out for the open prairie. What they saw was indeed what they had been looking for; It reminded them of what they had left behind in Russia. They drove over the prairie for several days and finally made the decision to have the surveyor measure off the land they needed about 20 miles west of Yankton.

Delighted with what they had found, they hurried back to Sandusky to relate to their countrymen all about land they had found and especially, unlike Ohio, the splendid spring weather they had encountered in Dakota. The skeptics back in Ohio were unwilling to believe this story. They called the description of the land and the spring weather a blatant lie. In no way could it be cold and miserable in Ohio, then pleasant so much further north as Dakota. Furthermore, it just wasn't safe because of possible Indian attacks.

The immigrants were in a dilemma. Whom should they now believe, their own group whom they had sent out for facts or the people who had lived in America for some years and should know about such things? Finally, the decision was made. Contrary to the advice of their Ohio friends, they would head for Dakota. A railroad car would leave Sandusky for the trip to Yankton. All but four of the original 45 families who arrived at Sandusky earlier were on the train to Yankton.

By this time it was already near the end of March and as they proceeded westward and northward they observed little of the balmy weather their scouts had told them about. The closer they came to Yankton, the deeper the snow. And when they finally reached Yankton, it was virtually buried in snow. It took little imagination to visualize whose life in the group was in jeopardy. The people back in Sandusky had in fact been right. Dakota was unfit to live in, and the scouts were called liars, swindlers, and other terms that would not be proper to repeat here.

Some immigrants refused to get out of the railroad car, determined to take the next train back to Ohio. It took the merchants of Yankton and Custer's 7th Cavalrymen to convince some of the serious doubters that this was indeed not a typical April 14th in Yankton.

In a few days the blizzard did subside. They bought their supplies, wagons, oxen, cows, farm implements, and provisions, and headed west for the land awaiting them. Not surprising, they named their settlement Odessa, after the main port city of the area they left behind in Russia. Odessa, Dakota Territory became just one of over 1500 settlements to be established in America by Germans from Russia before the wave of these immigrants finally subsided in the early 1920s.

After the harrowing experiences of the first group to arrive in Dakota Territory, the flood was on. Not a month went by in which more from South Russia did not arrive. Dakota weather was no small part of the many problems these early settlers were faced to endure. The winters were long and cold with much snow. The crops were meager the first years and food and fodder at times was extremely scarce. To survive, they simply built their sod houses a bit more substantial, planted their crops more carefully, worked longer and harder, and saved their money more diligently.

It must be mentioned that religion was always an indispensable part of their life. At first the pastor or priest would conduct services in the homes whenever possible, but as soon as their tiny means permitted, a church had to be built and regular church services were held.

Once no more land in southeastern Dakota was available for homesteading, those that followed had to look further north and further west. When the railroad was extended to Eureka this became the jumping off point for settlements into what is now North Dakota. It produced what is sometimes referred to as the Germans from Russia triangle with its base at Strasburg and Ellendale and the peak here in Rugby.

Between 1870 and 1920 nearly 120,000 such German immigrants came to America from Russia. Ninety-seven percent of these Germans came from the Black Sea region of Russia and eighty percent of the Black Sea Germans settled in North and South Dakota. Their descendants, of course, today number into the hundreds of thousands and no longer live only in North and South Dakota but virtually in all corners of the world.

It has been said that during the over 100 years the Germans from Russia have been in Dakota they have survived blizzards, droughts, hail, and dust storms. Their crops have failed for various reasons, had been eaten by grasshoppers; they have endured depression, battled epidemics, elements, insects, and hard times, but it would be safe to say that the thought of giving up or going back had never crossed their mind. In America, and more specifically in Dakota, they indeed found what they were looking for.

There had been no regrets, no regrets save and except perhaps just one. At a time when the question is often asked, "Who are you?", the Germans from Russia, for some reason, were never asked that question. Here in America and in Dakota they were simply the Russians. Or, if a more derogatory term was needed, the Roosians.

To be sure, they had lived in Russia for over a hundred years before coming to America, but the Russians didn't think of them as being Russians. This is evident from the fact that Czar Alexander III was determined to convert them into Russians, and it was their refusal to be made into Russians that caused them to leave.

They certainly never thought of themselves as being Russians because in the manifesto of Empress Catherine II, which persuaded them to leave Germany and come to Russia, was the right to local self-government in their colonies according to their own laws and customs in all matters of local concern.

They had no particular admiration for Russians, even when they still enjoyed most of the promises in the manifesto of Empress Catherine. It certainly did not endear them to the Russians, as those promises were gradually reduced and ultimately totally revoked by Czar Alexander III. At most, an end to admirers of the Russians as their sons were conscripted into the Russian army, their children forced to learn Russian in school, and they themselves reduced to the status of Russian serfs.

The Czars of Russia two hundred years ago were no different than the politbureau in Russia today. The manifesto of Empress Catherine II was a formal signed legal document. We can read it word for word even today. A promise to the Russians then, as it is today, was made to be broken whenever it no longer served a useful purpose to them.

The Germans who came to Russia in response to Empress Catherine's manifesto kept their part of the bargain. They converted a barren, unoccupied wilderness into a productive, beautiful and desirable area. It took them 100 years of so called blood, sweat, and tears to do it, and in return they were treated by the Russians as intruders and called traitors and parasites. There are few ethnic groups who have a more valid reason for despising Russia and Russians with a greater passion than the Germans from Russia. To be referred to as Russian or a Roosian was, and still is, heaping insult on injury.

Because of their embarrassment of the label Russian and Roosian, they destroyed much of their own history. They spoke little about Russia to their children and passed on to them little of what fully accounts for the injustice, disrespect, fraud, and misrepresentation which the Russians subjected upon them.

The fact, of course, is that their heritage is one that every descendant can rightfully be proud of. Through the effort of the North Dakota and the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia, along with authors, translators, and researchers, we are only recently learning of the heroism and sacrifice that is so much a part of the history of the Germans from Russia. END OF TAPE

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