The Saga of Our German Russian Ancestors

By Dr. Joseph S. Height
June, 1973

Transcription completed by Monica Dearing
Sumner, Washington, 1991

Transcription of tape of presentation at the North Dakota Historical Society of Germans from Russia Convention Bismarck, North Dakota

Mr. President of the Association and also Honorary President Dr. Stumpp, whom I welcome back here. Dr. Stumpp has been a longtime friend of mine. We have collaborated for many years together and we are going to spend the next four weeks together on a long extended tour through the Russian German territory in western Canada.

The German Russians of this country have settled along the northwest line. I call it the German Russian northwest passage, which extends from Aberdeen to Edmonton, but we're going to continue on that line. We were in Aberdeen two years ago, and now we are continuing on this northwest passage through Minot, Regina, Saskatoon, Edmonton, Calgary, Kelowna, Vancouver, and Victoria.

I also wish to address briefly the members of the North Dakota Society and welcome them, their friends, and visitors. I think on this centennial occasion it is fitting that I quote the words of a famous German poet, who once wrote the following lines:

Happy the man who fondly thinks of his forebears,
Who likes to tell the willing listener the tale
Of their achievements and greatness,
And is proud to see himself a link in the beautiful chain.

I think that this is what has brought us together here. On this centennial occasion it is certainly befitting that we reflect upon our ancestors and their migration to this country. I'm not going to speak directly about the immigration of our forefathers from Southern Russia to this country or from the Volga to this country. There are several other speakers who are going to deal with various aspects of that immigration.

Those of you who are members of the Society will also note that in our special centennial issue of the Heritage Review are several articles of great historical value and interest which I recommend to your attention.

The topic of my brief address today is entitled, “The Saga of Our German Russian Ancestors.”
What I would like to do for a few moments is to briefly compare the experiences and hardships of our people that emigrated from the Black Sea area from Southern Russia to the Dakotas, Nebraska and Kansas. I would like to compare their experiences with those of the German immigrants that came in the early part of the 19th century to what was then called New Russia, namely the Ukraine Territory around the Black Sea. We have pretty good information of what happened at that time. Many of you will no doubt know that the grandson of Catherine II, Alexander I, opened up a vast new territory of land called "The Steppe" around the Black Sea for colonization. This land had been conquered from the Turks under the reign of Catherine II and was now to be developed. This vast area of grassland was only inhabited by some shepherds who had grazed their flocks of sheep and cattle and horses across this vast stretch of country..

Alexander issued an invitation to farmers and craftsmen in Germany, Elsass and other countries, even countries like Bulgaria, Romania, to come to Russia and to settle on this near virgin land. The invitation contained several important promises, several important offers which were hard to resist.

The most important of these no doubt was the fact that Alexander promised each family that would come to Russia 60 dessiatines equaling 162 acres, a quarter section of land, free. The other offers and promises were freedom of religion; freedom to build schools and to administer them; freedom of village administration; and then also, of course, the government offered considerable financial aid to those early settlers. For example, the transportation costs were to a large extent paid by the Russian government. And, until the first harvest, those pioneer settlers were offered a daily food ration until their first harvest. The Russian government at that time also offered the immigrants an interest free loan of 300-350 rubles to help finance their settlements, to enable them to build a home, and to buy the necessary livestock, farm equipment, plow, and harrow, and some of the necessities of establishing a domestic home.

However, we know from early records that this immigration was attended with great hardships. First of all, the journey from Germany was a very long and arduous journey covering about 1700 miles. It was undertaken partly by land in wagons, partly on barges that floated down the Danube River, either from Ulm to Vienna, or in some cases, all the way from Ulm to the mouth of the Danube near Odessa. I can't find any details about this long arduous journey except to say that it normally took about three months from the time they left Germany until the time they arrived in Odessa. To be sure, about four weeks was spent in quarantine in the Russian port of entry, Radzivilov. However, this was still four weeks of travel in very primitive equipment, in very primitive vehicles, and those who went down the Danube by barges had the hardest time of all because in 1817, 1300 of the immigrant people, men, women, and children, perished on the shores of the Danube, when an epidemic of dysentery and the River Fever, malaria, broke out.

The settlement of the Germans in Russia was also difficult because of the climate. They were not used to the strenuous winters, and consequently, many people fell ill and died in the winter months. Their homes, the homes of the pioneers, were rather poor. They had to live in a hut built of earth. I’m just going to quote to you how one immigrant describes these huts. He says, “In our miserable reed-thatched hut whose walls consisted of thin poles and clay packed wicker work there is no other fuel available except cow dung and the reeds which are cut in the marshes of the Dniester and hauled a distance of from 4 to 8 hours.”

Another man mentioned, “The dwellings of the colonists consist of wretched huts constructed of 12 slender stakes that were driven into the ground and connected with clay plastered wicker-work. In these miserable huts the colonists eeked out their days for, even in the most rigorous winter, they had no wood for their stoves. A bit more fortunate are the colonists who have brought along some bedding, for this provides them, in particular their children, with some protection against the extreme cold that prevails in these huts whose walls are sometimes white with thick layers of frost.”

Of course, the huts that were built by our ancestors in Russia were not sod houses. They were unable to build sod houses because they had no breaking plows. The poor wooden plows of the Russians couldn’t turn the sod; you couldn’t turn a nice strip of sod in order to build a sod house.

The other item regarding immigration was land. Of course, it was steppeland, which means prairie, and the colonists of Russia had great difficulty in turning the sod, in plowing up the prairie, the Russian prairie. One of the colonists wrote, “The land here is as rugged and tough as iron. To break the sod six oxen or four horses have to be hitched to the plow.” This was a crude contraption, a plow with hardly any metal on it, and the plow shears bent like tin.

It was this great difficulty: there were not enough plows to go around so that the colonists often had to hitch together and help one another with the plowing. In other words, the progress made in Russia in converting the steppe to plowland took many decades.

To be sure, our people in Russia had one advantage, I think, over the settlers in this country. They all lived in villages together, and by living together were able to help each other and to have social contact in those difficult times, in those early difficult times.

When we turn now to the emigration of our people from Russia to this country, we, of course, know that they left by train, usually by train, for some German sea port. They then had a sea journey which could extend from 12 to 20 or more days and, arriving in New York, would then again embark on a train which would take them across Chicago to the west, at that time, usually to some railway station in South Dakota.

In comparing the journeys of both people, I would say, generally speaking, that the journey of our people from Russia to America was less dangerous, less arduous than that of their ancestors. However, our pioneer settlers had, of course, many difficulties in getting settled in this country. To be sure, many of them brought along with them a bit of money, which they needed, of course, to get established. They, too, had to buy horses or oxen. They needed a cow, a wagon, a rake, perhaps, and other things to build a house or a hut.

We know, of course, that our people in this country started out with sod houses of which the sod was plowed up by means of breaking plow. Many of these sod houses were built by the women folk. While the men were plowing up the sod and hauling it to the building site it was usually the women who actually built the walls of the hut and consequently they were involved in the building.

An old pioneer wrote an article in an early German paper, The Ashley Tribune. He says, “After we had unloaded our belongings we started getting settled. So we can well imagine how my father and my mother felt about the prospect of living 80 miles from the nearest town, all alone under the open sky, with nothing but sky and prairie. After the house was completed we began picking stones and breaking the land. We succeeded in plowing about 3 acres and seeded them, but we harvested only 5 bushels. So we all went out into the prairie and collected buffalo bones near the place where Wishek now stands and hauled them with our oxen to Ellendale. There we sold the bones and bought provisions, flour, lard, coffee, and the like. In our poverty and distress there was one thing that came to our rescue and that was the buffalo bones. If it had not been for those bones we would have all suffered form hunger; for the crops at that time were still very small and meager and there was no other way of finding a livelihood.”

This was written in 1886 in the very early years of settlement. And you will notice that our people did not have any kind of financial support from the government, I mean, no food rations until their first harvest, and were consequently obliged to resort to this rather strange way of making a living, namely collecting old buffalo bones on the prairie.

“But,” says the writer, “We were able to sell those bones.” Actually they got 10-12 dollars for a ton of those bones and they were able to buy flour, which at that time cost $2.00 for a bag of 100 pounds, and coffee (you could get 25 pounds of coffee for $1.00) or sugar (25 pounds for $1.00). “One week was spent in collecting the bones from the prairie, and the following week we hauled them to town. Collecting the bones was the harvest that kept us busy until the coming of winter. It was easiest to find those bones when the prairie had been burned off, had to look for them in the grass.” In those times of utter distress, young and old wandered over the prairies, day after day, looking for buffalo bones.

Another difficulty, a hardship that our people encountered, were prairie fires. Says one writer, one early pioneer, “One day we saw a prairie fire approaching. I told my wife that we have to plow a fire break around our stack of hay. Hay was very important in those days, not only as food for the cattle and oxen, but also for fuel to heat the stoves. Suddenly I saw five ox-drawn wagons coming in our direction and I shouted to the drivers, ‘If you believe in God, come and help,’ and together we succeeded in putting out the prairie fire, but we suffered burns on our hands and faces. Another fire was approaching from the side, but it fortunately passed by without causing any damage to the hay and farm property.”

In the winter months they were confronted by another surprising and shocking phenomenon, namely, the North Dakota blizzards or the South Dakota blizzards. “In the late fall,” says another writer, “my father and several other settlers drove to Ipswich to buy provisions for the coming winter. The trip ordinarily took a whole week, but by driving day and night, they made it in four days. It's a good thing they did, for on their return trip they got into such a snowstorm that they were often unable to tell in what direction they were going. Luckily, too, for them, the good old oxen knew the way home. They got back safely that night in a raging blizzard that lasted a whole week. That was the blizzard of 1886 in which 140 people died in South Dakota. I often heard my father say that if they had not made it home that same night, they would all have frozen to death, for the weather turned very, very cold and the snow was much too high to get through with an ox team.”

Similar accounts, of course, could be no doubt multiplied one thousand fold and corroborated from written and oral sources. But, I think even these few brief reports enable us to draw the perhaps startling conclusion that the obstacles and hardships confronting our Dakota pioneers were by all odds greater and more formidable than those endured by the immigrant forefathers who settled on the steppes of Russia some 70 years earlier.

This is a part of the saga of our people. Our Russian German people in the Ukraine and in this country established no wild west. They were a people who believed in peace and order. They were a people who believed in hard work, a people who were God-fearing and concentrated on the task of establishing a new existence. They were simply much too busy raising children and wheat and cattle. They were much too busy doing this than raising hell all over the place. Raising havoc and so on, this was not the German Russian character or type. However, these people have a long history as a people of the soil, as tillers of the soil. Their ancestors as far back as we can find historically were grain farmers, back 1000 years. Their ancestors had settled in the Rhine River plains, producing wheat in the middle ages.

(Here, the tape was changed and a small part of the speech was lost.)

….the Palatinate parts and the lower part of Elsass. They came, these farmers, to the Great Plains of Russia and from there to this country.

Our people had been a pioneering people for hundreds of years. They are still a pioneering people today. I need only point out that 2 million of our countrymen are pioneering in Siberia and Kazakhstan today after they had been removed from their earlier settlements, from their beautiful villages on the Volga and on the Black Sea. They are the great pioneers in Russia today.

And it is somewhat appropriate, I think, to mention that in Russia they were largely responsible for making that country the breadbasket of Europe. Perhaps they are largely responsible to making the western plains the great agricultural, agrarian granary of the world. It is somewhat ironical, if you like, to note that in this recent Russian grain deal that we, the Russian Germans of the Dakotas, Kansas and Nebraska, are supplying a goodly portion of that grain that is going back to Russia. Just as the Canadians, the German Russians of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta, are supplying a goodly portion of the grain that the Canadians have been shipping to Russia in the last several years.

Even the Russians realize this. Today there is a famous story, a joke if you like, where one Russian says to another several years ago, “Have you hear of Khrushchev’s great agricultural miracle?” “No,” says his comrade, “What is it?” “Well,” he says. “Khrushchev, you know, he planted wheat in Kazakhstan and harvested it in Saskatchewan.”

In other words our people have bean dedicated to the task of producing bread for the world. And it is perhaps, not by accident, that the symbol of the Russian German people in Germany is a simple head of wheat.

The production of wheat, food for the world, is our contribution, the contribution of the German Russians wherever they were, whether they were in Argentina, or whether they were on the prairies of America, Canada, or whether they were on the steppes of South Russia.

Of course, I could go on and on but I must come, I think, to a conclusion. Our people, humble, unassuming, had certain qualities of courage, endurance, of faith in God, of cooperation. And it was this that saw them through difficult times and enabled them to establish a future for, their children, the kind of future that we are enjoying today. We owe it to them, and we should not forget the story of our people and what they had achieved. It is the prime purpose of our Society, of the American Association of Germans from Russia, the North Dakota Society; it is our prime purpose to research the story of our people and to preserve it for the present and for future generations. This story must not, dare not, be forgotten. It must not be lost, and we have a group of people who are dedicated to this, and we are, of course, delighted to see that there has been an awakening among us and new interest has been created. People who were ashamed to be Russians, German Russian, today again feel an ethnic pride in the story of their forefathers.

I wish I could have told you all of this in German, in my own dialect. Our people, of course, were serious when it came to work, but they also had a sense of humor, and, I think, without that life for them would have been a lot more difficult.

Our people were religious. For instance, they observed the Sunday. You couldn't do anything on a Sunday except, really, just eat. And, of course, we could drink on Sundays because our people are not prohibitionists. You could even swear on Sunday, at least in German. Of course, you swore in Russian that was a little more serious.

My mother came from Selz, and of course, my mother tongue is really the dialect of Selz. My father came from Mannheim, and I could also speak his dialect. He never spoke the same language at home as the children did, or my mother.

There's a story told that has to do with the fishing expedition that took place after Trinity Sunday. You know, Trinity Sunday was the greatest and most holiest Sunday of the year.

(Here he tells the story in German.) .

Danke Schön! End of Speech

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