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Several Types of Germans Immigrated

Johnson, Larry. “Several Types of Germans Immigrated.” Bismarck Tribune, 16 February 1982, 2B.


A German is a German is a German.

Well, not really.

In North Dakota, there are Germans in the generic sense, but they actually are a collection of German-Germans, German-Russians, German-Hungarians and a few small groups of other people who lay claim to Germany as their old country.

The two main groups of Germans in North Dakota are the German-Germans - those who immigrated directly to the United States from Germany - and the German-Russians, who came from Russia.

Together they account for about 30 percent of North Dakota’s population, roughly equal in proportion to the Norwegians, according to the Rev. William Sherman, Grand Forks, who has, studied and mapped North Dakota’s ethnic distribution.

German-Germans, who are referred to simply as Germans in the rest of this story, settled mostly in inconspicuous pockets within larger ethnic communities. Although the Germans are not highly visible, Sherman says all the small pockets add up to at least 10 percent of the state’s population.

Sherman says it is difficult to accurately count the numbers of Germans and Germans who came from Russia because the German-Russians often identify themselves simply as being German.

The German-Russian immigrants differed from the Germans in many ways, however. To Germans, they represented a cultural anachronism because of their conservative background and their lengthy isolation from mainstream German society. They left Germany in the last half of the 18th century and lived in Russia for 100 years, strongly resisting assimilation and preserving their lifestyle.

“To them, to be German meant to do what their forefathers had done,” says Tim Kloberdanz, assistant professor of sociology at North Dakota State University.

When the Germans and German-Russians came into contact again in North Dakota, they tended to stay aloof from each other.

Germans tended to view German-Russians as being backward because of their old style of language, dress and food. “The fact that they could retain those customs might be a mark of achievement, but other Germans looked on them as backward,” says Kloberdanz.

He says the distinction between the two groups no longer is as sharp as it once was, but it does exist. “I don’t think it’s the antagonistic one that it was in the past,” he adds.

Like other immigrants, Germans came to North Dakota basically for free land.

Most of the better U.S. farmland similar to that back in Germany already had been taken, but North Dakota farmland was being highly acclaimed and promoted by the railroads, which advertised heavily in the German language.

So Germans came to North Dakota from Germany and from previous settlements in the eastern United States to homestead and make their living.

Many of them did quite well for themselves, says Sherman.

Starting in the 1870s, they settled in small pockets throughout North Dakota.

“They didn’t seem to feel the need for the ... large-sized compact settlements” that Norwegians and German-Russians did, says Sherman.

The three largest pockets of German settlements in North Dakota are in southern Richland County, the region from around Langdon to Dresden and a spot in central North Dakota that includes New Salem and a swath north through Hannover and Hazen in Oliver County.

Sherman says that Germans usually are found wherever the Lutheran Missouri Synod church is found, that the two are almost synonymous in North Dakota.

Many Germans were able to prosper in the immigrant society of early North Dakota, says Sherman. He says German-Americans from crowded settlements in the eastern United States had advantages over the North Dakota immigrants because they spoke English and were familiar with the American system.

An added benefit was the strongly ingrained German work ethic, according to Sherman.

Even Germans who came “right off the boat” sometimes did well, he continues. A few of them were successful enough to stand right in there and compete with the American-born Anglo-Saxons, Sherman says.

Anton Klaus, called the Father of Jamestown, was an example. “This guy was a whirlwind,’’ says Sherman. “He was in hotels, mills, stores.”

Another highly successful German was John Wishek, called the Father of McIntosh County because of his efforts to establish settlements and help the mostly German-Russian settlers.

By and large, the Germans did not came to North Dakota to escape deprivation and persecution as many immigrants did.

“It was probably just the ballyhoo of the railroads, and, like all of Europe, where does the second and third son go when the (home) farm goes to the first son?” says Sherman.

Many immigrated to the large cities of the United States, but others were farmers who wound up in North Dakota because other states were settled up. 

Reprinted with permission of the Bismarck Tribune.

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