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The John Schmaltz family of Emmons County: from Ukrainian Steppes to Dakota Prairies

Schmaltz, Eric. "The John Schmaltz family of Emmons County: from Ukrainian Steppes to Dakota Prairies." Emmons County Record, 31 July 2008, 13.


(Editor's Note: This is part four of Eric Schmaltz's history of the John Schmaltz family.)

Schmaltz Family Origins in Lower Alsace and the Rhineland-Palatinate

Alsace lies on the border between France and Germany. The Rhineland is just east of it.

For many centuries, branches of the Schmaltz family had lived in the regions of Lower Alsace (Unterelsass) and the Rhineland-Palatinate (Rheinland-Pfalz) along the present French-German border. Based on my personal travels there, Alsace and the Palatinate are truly picturesque, with calm rolling hills and fields, neat vineyards, excellent local wines and breads, winding roads, clean streets, inspiring stone churches, and ancient communities. For countless generations, however, these regions also experienced frequent military invasions and political turmoil. In late antiquity, Alsace and the Palatinate were borderlands of the great Roman Empire as well. As Roman civilization and trade networks spread, these areas witnessed the mixing of Celtic, Germanic, and Gallo-Romanic peoples over many centuries, as the diverse physical characteristics of the locals still betray to this day. Many of the nomadic German tribes on the empire’s periphery became more sedentary and engaged in agriculture and other skilled trades.

Both Alsace and the Palatinate have rested along ancient regional and cultural fault lines. One of the dividing lines running through them concerns the kinds of alcoholic beverages consumed and enjoyed. They were part of Europe’s wine-drinking country, bordering with the beer-drinking lands. Thus at least in this regard, they shared greater affinity with the Mediterranean world. This longstanding Alsatian-German affinity for wine-producing and wine-drinking continued in Ukraine centuries later, as the numerous extensive vineyards and wineries of ethnic Germans near Odessa indicated.

As the Roman Empire collapsed, many of the frontier towns and farming communities in Alsace and the Palatinate were already Christianized by missionaries as early as the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries. By the early Middle Ages, Jewish communities were firmly established in what is now northwestern Germany. Later, in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, persecuted European Jews from Spain and France migrated through these areas, adding to the peculiar cultural flavor of the regions and, in some instances, intermarrying with gentiles and converting to Roman Catholicism. Much of the population along the French-German borderlands remained Roman Catholic during the Protestant Reformation, although some neighboring German provinces turned Lutheran in the 1520s. In many respects, the region and its neighbors were a microcosm of the broader religious divide that beset sixteenth-century Europe.

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.

In retrospect, an odd continuity seems to pervade much of the history of those people who became known as the German Russians. Until relatively recent times, many of them have tended to live—not always by choice—on cultural frontiers and political borderlands, whether in Eurasia or the Americas. Some of these borderlands include the French-German, Romanian-Moldavian-Ukrainian, Volga-Central Asian, Russian-Siberian, and Dakota-Canadian. Often these people settled in wide open places made available to them at certain points in their development—above all, on the Ukrainian, Volga, and Kazakh steppes, the North American Great Plains, and even the pampas (nearly treeless grasslands) of South America, notably in Argentina.

Reprinted with permission of the Emmons County Record.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller
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