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German Settlers in the Dakotas

Waren, Lore. "German Settlers in the Dakotas." California Staats Zeitung, 8 November 2001, 10.

Translation from German to English by Alex Herzog, Boulder, Colorado


The first settlers in the Dakotas arrived in 1885. These immigrants built their small houses out of pieces of sod, and in 1890 there were small settlements. Most came directly from South Russia, and at first some settled in Freemont, South Dakota, and later in North Dakota.

Their little houses gave them protection from the cold of winter and from the heat of summer. But it was the land itself that promised a good future.

Some things were not as expected. Often there were hunger and unrest. There were the long, cold winters, scarce provisions and insufficient clothing, minimal financial income, impassable roadways, and the great distances to other localities, and also an almost daily occurrence of wild fires and attacks by Indians.

In addition, there often were homesickness and loneliness. Many wished they could return to Europe, but they lacked the financial means for it. Earning one's daily bread required very hard work.

Occasional visiting was helpful, but there were difficulties. At that time there were no cars and few carriages, so that often times one had to pass the way to one's neighbor on foot. If the distance were only a mile, that would have been easy, but too often it was a matter of three to six miles.

The names of the settlers were predominantly German, e.g., Nauer, Guenther, Schweigert, Ellwein, Reiner, Dachtler, Grecklau, Uhl, Ruester, Schmidt, to name only a few.

The first immigrants were strongly interested in finding, as soon as possible, a pastor who could take over St. Paul's Church at Otter Creek. Not much was documented in those times, and much was lost. It is known, however, that between 1893 and 1899 the Reverend C. O. Engler, and at times also Rev. Schienhust of New Salem, were pastors in the community. Families who lived north of the church had their own pastor, F. Wohlfeil from Hannover.

In 1899 the Reverend Ferdinand Matthias came to Hannover and became pastor of the community. Services were held in various homes.

After the first school building had been erected, some services were held in it. There were about 100 community members.

On February 11, 1904, in the home of Henry Ellwein, the congregation was formally organized, and Pastor Matthias presided at the gathering.

Shortly thereafter the decision was made to build a church. Several sites were suggested, even a cemetery where several had already been buried -- but in the end it was decided to erect the church on five acres of land owned by Julius Krecklau.

Wood was purchased, the building was to measure 22 x 32 feet. The costs amounted to 1,400 dollars and, except for 88 dollars, it was all was covered by contributions.

The corner stone was laid in July, and Pastor Matthias saved several documents in the foundation.

In October things had progressed enough that the church was celebrated via a special feast in Otter Creek. By 1907 there were 27 member families.

In November of 1908 the community decided to hire its own pastor or teacher. Candidate Banker arrived in Otter Creek in September, making it possible to open the school. The teacher's pay was 300 dollars per year, but he was allowed to earn additional money during the summer. During the first school year there were 50 children in their first year of school. Some children were not part of the community and [a line missing, which seems to imply that it was decided to] allow those children to attend the school.

In 1919 it was decided that a new church be built, its costs not to exceed 5,500 dollars. Unfortunately this proved to be impossible, so it was decided to build a story under the local church.

A large celebration took place in 1929, first for the annex, and also the 25-year anniversary, and a new pastor, P. Ernst, took over the post at St. Paul's Church. Another attempt was made to locate water, and it proved successful. In 1937 a church tower was built.

In 1963 the doors of St. Paul's were closed permanently. Today the church is designated a historical building for the descendants of the immigrants, whose simple way of life can hardly be compared with today's.

Our appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translation of this article.

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