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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, 21 August 2008, 17.


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

Schmaltzes in the Russian Empire

In the eyes of Schmaltz family researchers, Josef and Ursula’s great trek from western Germany to southwestern Russia has almost assumed a revered or mythological status. They are nearly like an Old Testament patriarch and matriarch—the heads of a vast family tribe, something similar to Abraham and Sarah who had migrated from the city of Ur in ancient Babylon to the promised land of Palestine.

According to the aforementioned first family account, local church records indicate that Ursula was in fact Josef’s second wife. At the time, it was common for both men and women to get quickly remarried after the death of a spouse, most likely for economic reasons. The first Schmalz wife was named Barbara, and evidence points to Josef’s marriage to her taking place in 1801. (The second family history version also acknowledges that Josef got married in the same year, but assumes it was with Ursula.) If this is the case, the two oldest children, Peter (b. 1802) and George (1804-1852), were indeed the products of this first union. Divorces in those days were rare. Thus Barbara Schmalz must have died after George’s birth in 1804, but before Josef’s journey to Russia in 1808.

Often the long trek to Russia was made by wagon caravan. Sometimes immigrants traveled part of the way by taking large, slow-moving, and cumbersome barges (so-called Ulmer Schachtel or “Ulmer crates”) from Ulm, Bavaria, to Vienna, Austria, and as far as Galatz, Romania, at the mouth of the famous Danube River. Russian government agents arranged this river transportation.

A journey from Alsace or Rhineland-Palatinate to Russia typically lasted anywhere from two to four months. In any event, it was often a grueling physical ordeal for families, as well as a bitter-sweet experience to leave the old homelands. Also, on the journey they sometimes had to contend with the arbitrariness of not so friendly local authorities.

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.

Josef and Ursula arrived in Russia on June 22, 1808, with their two young children. Two more children were born by the time of the Russian census of 1816: Margarete (b. 1811); and Theresia (b. 1815). Many years passed before the next imperial census was compiled for the region, but ample evidence proves that Josef and Ursula at least produced my direct ancestor, Great-great-great-grandfather Ludwig (Louis) Schmalz, who was born around 1820.

Ludwig had a son, Johann (b. 1843), who was a smith by trade. Johann’s wife was Rosina (Fischer) Schmalz (b. 1849), whose large German family came from the nearby village of Selz to the north. Her parents were Johann (b. ca. 1829) and Katharina Fischer (b. ca. 1829), who produced several children. One of Rosina’s ancestors, Matheas Fischer of Speyer in the Rheinland-Pfalz, helped found Selz in 1808.

In Kandel, Johann and Rosina raised their young family. In 1879, they produced yet another Johann, who with his younger sister Agnes (b. 1882), later immigrated to North Dakota—direct human links between Old and New Worlds.

Reprinted with permission of the Emmons County Record.

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