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Most N.D. Germans Came from Russia

Immigrants Settled ‘Triangle’

Johnson, Larry. “Most N.D. Germans Came from Russia.” Bismarck Tribune, 16 February 1982, 1B.


Germans went to Russia largely to obtain free land.

They left Russia largely to avoid becoming Russians.

But once they came to the United States, they encountered even stronger pressures that worked against their intense desire to maintain their German identity.

How much German identity has been maintained is a topic of debate.

Tim Kloberdanz, assistant professor of sociology at NDSU, questions whether German-Russians have been truly assimilated into American culture.

Kloberdanz, descended from German-Russian settlers in eastern Colorado, distinguishes between acculturation and assimilation.

He maintains that while German-Russians speak English and have assumed the trappings of American culture (acculturation ), they still perceive of themselves as being different - a separate, and therefore non-assimilated, group.

Kloberdanz says he believes the German-Russian ethnic consciousness will grow stronger in future generations.

A different view is offered by Armand Bauer, editor of the Heritage Review, a publication of the Germans from Russia Heritage Society.

“The German-Russians, I would say, have been essentially assimilated into the American mainstream,” says Bauer, the grandson of German-Russian immigrants to south central North Dakota.

Bauer says the cultural barriers against intermarriage with other people and between German-Russians of different religions are virtually gone.

Tangible signs of German-Russian culture, such as language, seem to be eroding at a faster rate with each generation, as time puts distance between today’s youth and the immigrants.

Unlike some immigrant groups who willingly became Americans, the German-Russian settlers who came to North Dakota wanted to preserve their German culture, just as they had done for 100 years in Russia.

How important was cultural identity to the German-Russian immigrants?

Bauer recalls translating a text a few years ago: “When the German blood was mixed with the Slavic blood, they were lost to their kin forever.”

When the German-Russians came to North Dakota, they were thrown into a mix of other newcomers and into a new structure of government and commerce.

Individual homesteads replaced the colonial communities of the Volga and Black Sea regions in Russia, where German-Russians of various religious faiths had lived separately in villages and worked the surrounding farmland.

In North Dakota, compulsory schools were conducted in English.

Social pressure, during two world wars that pitted Americans against Germans, also forced German-Russians to identify with the United States.

There were instances during wartime of German-Russians being forced to carry the American flag and of being forbidden to speak German. A recent example of similar pressure, says Kloberdanz, was the distrust and scorn sometimes heaped on Americans of Iranian descent after the seizure of Americans in Iran in 1980.

Economic and cultural privileges that had helped the German-Russians maintain their culture in Russia stemmed from promises Catherine the Great and Alexander I gave to attract German farmers to Russia to settle new land and boost agricultural output.

In the late 1800s, however, the privileges were revoked when new, nationalist russification policies were instituted.

Changes in policy in Russia included the institution of universal military service, which meant German youths would have to leave their ethnic communities for a harsh life in a culturally mixed army.

Russian language was made mandatory in schools.

A new administrative structure also put Russians in charge of the German colonies.

Bauer says he recalls his grandmother saying one of the reasons people left Russia was that the Germans were being “stolen blind” by impoverished Russians, who went unpunished by Russian administrators. ·

In addition, life in Russia was sometimes harsh, and Russians grew increasingly jealous of the higher standard of living enjoyed by the German settlers.

Beginning around 1870, many of the Germans, who had immigrated to the Volga and Black Sea regions of Russia from southwestern Germany from 1766 to 1865 to obtain land, felt it was time to move on again.

Homestead Acts in the United States and Canada offered new land and escape from problems in Russia.

German-Russians from the Black Sea region settled mostly in the Dakotas, says Kloberdanz.

German-Russians from the Volga region settled mostly in Kansas, Colorado, Nebraska and southeastern Wyoming, he says.

Some German-Russians from both groups also settled in other areas such as California and the Pacific Northwest, he adds.

Bauer, however, says many of the German-Russian emigrants didn’t know where they were headed until they were aboard ships, whose captains sometimes had quotas of settlers for other countries such as Brazil and Argentina.

Immigrant also were diverted to South America when U.S. officials turned them away for various reasons. For instance, some German-Russians were refused entry to the United States because they suffered from an eye ailment called trachoma, to which many were susceptible.

By 1885-1905, when most of the 28,000 German-Russians who immigrated to North Dakota arrived, either from Russia or from other settlements in America, much of the better homestead land in the river valleys, particularly in eastern North Dakota, had been taken.

The homestead area that remained included prairie similar to the steppes of Russia.

Kloberdanz says some people look at North Dakota’s lack of trees and call it empty and desolate. “North Dakota German-Russians will say it is free, open,” without trees that have to be cleared for farming, he says. “Hills, indeed, were thorns in the eye.”

The German-Russian immigrants settled and tended to dominate the central region of the state, which Elwyn B. Robinson called “the German-Russian triangle” in his history of North Dakota.

The Triangle had its base along the southern border from Dickey County to Hettinger County and its apex in Pierce and McHenry counties.

German-Russians built homes mostly of sun-dried bricks, a cheap available material they had become accustomed to in Russia.

Life had been hard in Russia, where the German-Russians had developed a reputation for resilience and willingness to stick to the land.

That reputation was tested in North Dakota. They were basically wheat farmers, which made them vulnerable to drought, other natural disasters and the Depression of the 1930s, when many lost their land and many moved to California.

In North Dakota, they also experienced a revolution in status, according to historians. They went from being at the top of society in rural Russia to the bottom in North Dakota.

Gordon Iseminger, professor of history at the University of North Dakota, says German-Russians frequently were referred to as “damned Roosians” and were considered dumb and dirty. There were stories about them keeping pigs in their houses, he adds.

“They didn’t like that,” says Iseminger, who admires the selfreliance of the immigrants and has portrayed a mythical German-Russian immigrant named Gottlieb Bauer for chautauquas throughout the state.

“They didn’t like to be the butt of jokes and be at the bottom of society,” he says.

The initial generations of German-Russian immigrants have been stereotyped as disinterested in politics and higher education, and as having an aversion to war and military service.

“I’m not so sure they were antiwar, anti-military, as they were anti-Russian military,” says Iseminger, whose view coincides with that of Armand Bauer.

Bauer says the German-Russians may have been viewed as being at the bottom of the social scale partly because immigrants from the Volga region, especially, commonly were field laborers in the sugar beet industry in several states.

Other reasons may have been their lack of involvement in business or political office, which stemmed from their background and preference for agriculture, he continues.

Bauer says language also may have been a primary reason German-Russians were looked down upon by some other immigrants.

But he says German-Russians were good farmers and their greatest contributions to the development of North Dakota probably were in the field of agriculture. He notes that modern winter wheats have been developed in part from grain brought to the United States by German-Russian immigrants.

Bauer says that, through the years, the barriers against cultural and religious interaction with other immigrants and even other German-Russians have fallen by the wayside.

The German-Russians tried and failed to preserve their language as common usage in North Dakota, although many descendants can speak the language today. The religious barriers between Catholics and protestants are virtually gone, according to Bauer.

Bauer says the German language and ethnic identity seems to fade with each successive generation.

He says that perhaps one factor that worked against German-Russian cultural preservation in North Dakota was individual homestead land, as opposed to Russia, where the Germans lived together in villages and worked the surrounding land.

The legacy of the German-Russians today includes some traits of the early immigrants.

One notable example is the work ethic, in which North Dakotans take pride.

The German-Russians also may show a preference for “meaty” disciplines in higher education, such as medicine and engineering.

Ted Pedilesky, associate professor of political science at UND, recalls teaching at Napoleon High School in the 1950s. He says his students at Napoleon were some of the highest achievers he’s ever encountered as a teacher.

German-Russians rank second to Norwegians in percentage of the state’s population, according to the Rev. William Sherman, Grand Forks, who studied ethnic distributions in rural North Dakota in 1965.

Sherman found that 30 percent of rural households were Norwegian and about 20 percent were German-Russian. He believes the percentages would be roughly the same in the state’s urban areas.

North Dakota has the highest concentration of German-Russians of any state in the United States, according to Iseminger, and McIntosh County has the highest concentration of German-Russians of any county in the United States.

Robert Wilkins, a UND historian who wrote a history of North Dakota about five years ago, says he believes that although people of various ethnic backgrounds helped settle the state and new people continue to move into the state, the overall population will always be mostly of Norwegian and German- Russian stock.

The stone house on the Tony Michalek farm near Cathay is tribute to the German-Russian emphasis on durability. The stone house was built in 1896. It has been modernized and remains inhabitable today.

Reprinted with permission of the Bismarck Tribune.

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