The Other Germans Once Filled Dakotas
Herzog, Karen. "The Other Germans Once Filled Dakotas." Bismarck Tribune, 26 December 1997.
Fan through a telephone book from south central North Dakota.
Pause at Ashley and run your finger down the surnames.
Arlt, Bendewald, Christmann, Dohn, Eberly, Feil, Geist, Haas,
Iszler, Jacob, Kempf, Lehr, Maier, Neu, Oberlander, Pfeifer, Quashnik,
Reuther, Schnable, Tuschscher, Ulmer, Volk, Weisser, Zimmerman.
These people still live in North Dakota's German-Russian Triangle,
nicknamed "The Great Sauerkraut Pyramid." They are the third and
fourth generations of the folk known as the Germans from Russia,
the Volksdeutsch, called the "other Germans" to distinguish them
from the Reichsdeutsch -- Germans from Germany.
They are the descendants of the flood of Germans from Russia which
inundated the Great Plains -- most heavily in the Dakotas -- from
the 1880s to the 1920s. The potent fragrance of free land in their
nostrils, these farmers arrived a scant step ahead of the terrible
collapsing of the old Russian Empire as it was slowly crushed by
the birth of the new Soviet Russia.
Their history is worthy of a hefty James Michener-style epic,
but the migrations, sufferings and endurance of this tough and tribal
peasantry gets little attention outside the Great Plains.
With the dying off of the original immigrants, from about the
1950s on, much oral history is lost, along with the old ways of
living. But some of those phonebook grandchildren are now reaching
back to preserve the memories and folkways of their heritage.
In a chapter of the book "Plains Folk," Timothy J. Kloberdanz
explains how these German clans came to be living in Russia in the
In 1763, Russian czarina Catherine the Great promised foreign
settlers free land, freedom of religion, local self-government and
exemption from compulsory military service. Another manifesto by
Czar Alexander I in 1804 lured some 30,000 German peasants and craftsman
into Russia to escape the devastating effect of the Napoleonic wars
of 1804-10 in the German homelands such as Wurttemburg, Baden, Alsace
and the Rhine Palatinate.
So off they packed, their wagon trains trundling to the immensities
of South Russia. To farm in peace.
Author Richard Sallet, in "Russian-German Settlements in the United
States," writes, "German-born Catherine's ... invitation was to
bring in western immigrants capable of cultivating the vast stretches
of untilled land on the steppes and to provide a protective wall
of colonists against Asiatic tribes always threatening to invade
from the East."
Those pioneers broke the virgin Russia prairie, enduring "marauding
horse thieves, packs of hungry wolves, intensely cold winters, repeated
crop failures and the sheer expansiveness of the steppe," Kloberdanz
He quotes a proverb of the Black Sea Germans, "For the first generation,
death; for the second, want; Only for the third, there is bread."
(Der Erste hat den Tod, Der Zweite hat die Not, Der Dritte erst
But hard work and endurance was their nature. Under their tending,
the steppes prospered into an abundant granary. The original 300
German colonies eventually birthed daughter colonies numbering more
than 3,000, clustered around the Black Sea and the lower Volga River.
The common tribal bonds of blood, language, culture, religion
and folkways knit the Germans tightly together in Russia for almost
150 years. They fiercely held to their German ways, even surrounded
by native Russians and an ocean of grassy steppe.
But by the end of the 1800s, change was in the air. Exemption
from military service was dropped in 1874, and the word came down
-- these proud ethnic Germans were to be Russianized -- Russian
language taught in their schools, local autonomy lost.
At the same time, a few advance immigrant scouts reported back
-- America offered free land!
Under one aspect of the Homestead Act of 1862, the U.S. government
offered 160 acres for a small fee to those living on it at least
six months a year for five years.
So, beginning in the mid-1880s, ethnic German immigrants packed
up again and poured onto the only tracts of free and open land left,
America's north central prairies. And prairie they knew.
As Sallet says, "As the Spaniards liked Texas and California,
and the Finns, Swedes and Norwegians loved the forests and lakes
of Minnesota and Michigan ... the Russian-Germans found the endless
prairies of the northern Great Plains much like the landscapes they
had abandoned in southern Russia."
But the isolation of living on separated farmsteads was something
new, something hard. In Russia they had lived together in villages
and farmed the outlying land. So here, the prairie churches became
the central hearth, the communal core.
Stepping off onto Dakota railroad stations -- Eureka, Ipswich,
Aberdeen -- the Germans anxiously questioned passers-by in their
mushy dialects, "Kannst du Deitsch?" (Do you speak German?), Kloberdanz
The newcomers searched out relatives or former village neighbors,
cobbled together some crude shelter, urgently put the plow to the
sod, carving and coaxing new land as they had done in South Russia.
Little towns sprang up in that "Sauerkraut Triangle.' Counties
like McIntosh, Emmons, Logan soon prickled thickly with German families
-- many with a dozen or more children. By 1920, Sallet, editor of
the German-language newspaper, the "Dakota Freie Presse," found
that North Dakota had 23 percent of the entire German-Russian population
of the United States.
Even today, that same "triangle" remains one of the most homogeneous
ethnic German-Russian enclaves in existence. In six of those counties,
75 percent or more people claim German ancestry, according to Kloberdanz.
So on the vast Dakota prairies, described by NDSU sociology professor
William Sherman as "a land in serious need of rain," the Germans
coalesced as in Russia -- Catholics with Catholics -- Lutherans
In a chapter in "Plains Folk," Sherman summarized the land they
A rural way of life -- no dreamed-of "new Chicagos" ever materialized.
Ultimately a colonial area, growing -- and exporting -- "food,
fiber, energy, and healthy and capable young men and women."
A transitory land. As Indian life was mostly a search for food
and safety, so the immigrants built and left a crumble of little
towns. A feeling of abandonment, closing, moving, leaving.
A land of large dimensions -- nearest neighbors a mile away,
church and schools over the horizon, four- and five-section farms,
hay quarter in another township, a thousand acres in wheat.
A land devoid of visual highlights -- no eye-gathering mountains,
forests, valleys, lakes, but overwhelming sky and endless horizon.
For many, lonely, frightening, cold.
Old brown-tinted photos capture those first years of rock-picking
and terrible homesickness -- the Germans breaking sod and shocking
their grain harvests, laboring like oxen.
In "Plains Folk" Jacques Riviere voices mild astonishment at the
Germans' single-mindedness: "Work is not to the German the painful
obligation and punishment which it often is to others ... They go
into it with their whole hearts, as if yielding to a powerful mania,
and fall back into work as others fall back into sin."
The Dakota land left for them was often rock-filled, said Michael
Miller, Germans from Russia bibliographer at NDSU. "(Here) for so
many years, this group was not so fortunate to have the best land.
They settled in areas with harsh weather and with difficult land."
North Dakota's Germans from Russia preserved their ethnic identity
for a uncommonly long time, corralled by the molasses gumbo roads
of the central Dakota Plains.
"For many years, these people remained stuck to their old dresses,
humble and common and simple," said Arnold Marzolf, retired professor,
NDSU. "Now you would hardly recognize them anymore."
"You could tell a German-Russian by the way he dressed," Marzolf
said, "Grandmothers wore the babushka (heavy fringed kerchief/shawl),
men the old schlapp (sloppy) kap. Until World War II, you could
recognize German-Russian homes ... big barn, small dumpy little
But World War II, the dying off of the original German-speaking
immigrants in the 1950s, and the saturation of American culture
have dissolved many outward signs of the ethnic Germans.
"Many of the old things are fading away," said Marzolf. "People
are intermarrying; they are shifting in religions. The old ethnic
unit isn't as important as it used to be."
As Miller notes, "It's a losing battle." Hurtful is the loss of
the dialects -- mainly Swabian for Protestants, Franconian for Catholics
-- the now-antique languages of southern Germany in the 1700s. Because,
aside from places such as Strasburg, Napoleon, New Leipzig, Wishek,
the old dialects are now spoken only by Germans living in Siberia,
or returned to Germany from exile in Siberia.
In places like Ashley, cafe conversations in German are still
audible, but the folks doing the talking are rarely under 50.
Last winter's German-language Advent service in Bismarck filled
the pews. But again, those attending were mostly white-haired, here
and there the middle-aged, a few youngsters.
Even in the heart of the Triangle, people in their 40s may comprehend,
but will not reply in German.
"You wouldn't hear German in a bar (in those towns), but probably
in the nursing home," Miller said.
Anyone born in South Russia is likely in their 90s by now, Miller
What remains of the distinctive features of the German-Russians
-- their strong fidelity to religion, a love of music and singing?
Their foods -- sunflower seeds, halvah (crushed sweetened sesame
seeds borrowed from the Turkish during their Russian years), chicken
feet, ketchup or cinnamon on noodle soup, pfefferneuse (anise cookies),
strudle, knoepfle, sausage and sauerkraut and others?
What remains? Some heavy-tinged accents in south central North
Dakota, knoepfle soup on restaurant signboards?
Pioneer churches, stranded like little ships ashore, leavings
of the once-flush immigrant tide? A powerfully embedded work ethic?
Traits of honesty, stoic resignation, neighborliness, a couple of
German words or phrases?
Eric Schmaltz. The author is immigrant Johann Schmalz’s great-grandson. Born in Minot, North Dakota, in 1971, he is Assistant Professor of History at Northwestern Oklahoma State University, where he teaches Modern European and World History. He expresses his eternal gratitude to old issues of the Emmons County Record as well as various extended relatives by blood or marriage who have assisted him with family history research over the past two decades, in particular Bro. Placid Gross, Mrs. Mary Lynn Axtman, Mrs. Nicole (French) Bailey, Prof. Amy Deibert, and Prof. Michael M. Miller.
A decade ago, some grandchildren and great-grandchildren began
realizing that time was running short; the first generation of pioneers
was dying. The foresighted ones visited elderly relatives, gathering
the last of the first-hand stories of the Old Country.
The best chance for preservation of this culture, Miller said,
is in collecting the oral histories that remain, to identify people
in old family pictures before it's too late, listen to the stories,
learn the crafts and textiles and foods.
Marzolf believes that any hope for some cultural preservation
comes from those searching grandchildren, drawn in middle age to
rediscover their heritage -- who are we? where did we come from?
Reprinted with permission of the Bismarck Tribune.