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The Forgotten Schwabians: Germans in the Central Dakota Area -- An Odyssee

by Alice Morgenstern

Die vergessenen Schwaben -- Deutsche in Zentraldakota -- eine Odyssee

von Alice Morgenstern

Published in Heimatbuch 1997/1998, published by the Landsmannschaft der Deutschen aus Russland

Translation from German to American English by Alex Herzog, Boulder, Colorado


"Flour tastes bitter when you're not hungry."
"Don't praise the day before it's over."
[These two proverbs are translated from dialect.]

When people in McPherson County in the deepest interior of South Dakota read these adages, they probably realize that they must have something to do with descendants of families who had immigrated, via various detours, from Southwestern Germany to America.

In reality the story went rather differently, with much more excitement and with greater complications. We are dealing with people who immigrated to the United States as registered Russians. How was that possible?

This story actually begins in Southwest Germany, at the onset of the 19th Century. The native princes in the area had just been subjugated under Napoleon's might and were being obliged to support his military campaigns. And for their subjects that meant that the troops would levy taxes, exact contributions, demand quarters, and cause devastation of their fields. Farmers in particular suffered more and more.

Thus it came as fortuitous news that the Russian Tsar Alexander I was looking for settlers for sparsely populated areas in South Russia and was making enticing promises to them. As a result of wars with Turkey during the 18th Century, Russia had gained large masses of land, particularly in the Black Sea region, and in 1812 Bessarabia also became part of those possessions. It was here that hardworking and adventurous farmers were needed, to establish settlements and to make the land arable. Earlier on, in 1762, Catherine the Great had already lured German settlers to the Volga region and in 1763 had granted them certain privileges. Her grandson Alexander I acted similarly, promising those willing to become settlers specific land allotments of about 60 hectares per family, which were to remain free from taxation for at least ten years, also promising religious freedom, for the most part local self-government and, most importantly, exemption from military conscription -- exactly the kinds of things the German farmers were fervently longing for.

The year 1804 marks the actual onset of a wave of emigration. Thousands, often entire villages, began their journeys down the Danube into the Black Sea region. They were by no means merely members of an agrarian proletariat, rather they were diligent, deeply religious people who were searching for a life that they would be able to fashion in their own way.

What awaited them in Russia at first was the toughest drudgery, in an indescribably huge and inhospitable landscape of steppes, or in faraway river valleys, for example, the Dnyestr, where they even encountered wolves and other wild animals. Illnesses also constituted a formidable and dangerous problem.

Nevertheless, in time the settlers would be able to overcome these difficulties. The colonies sprouted villages that, with their churches and farming estates, reminded folks of their old homes. Following the initial difficult years, their work on the very rich Black Sea area soil brought about a growing prosperity. The increasing number of these visitors -- the wave of immigration actually slowed around 1818, but the families of colonists usually had many children -- resulted in the establishment of daughter colonies, for which additional land was also acquired. Cities such as Odessa profited from the skills and competence of immigrant craftsmen.

In those areas that were settled so sparsely by Russians, there was only minor contact with the native population, even if Tsar Alexander I had envisioned the Germans as serving his own population as exemplars in how to work the land. Germans kept to themselves and took care to pass on what bound them to their origins. Names of the villages present interesting clues: "Rastatt," Karlsruhe," Strassburg," these all reminded the people of where they came from. In this context, special mention should be made of those from French Alsace, who continued to be German-speaking; names such as "Glueckstal" and "Alexanderhilf" bespeak the same observation.

Until the 1870s the German settlers remained essentially unbothered in their development, even though as of 1834 they had been designated as Russian citizens. However, reforms undertaken by Tsar Alexander II (1855 - 1881) gave power to increasing Russification efforts. Restrictions on self-government began in 1871. But the introduction of universal conscription constituted the most stringent change.

Many German settlers considered the end of their liberties as having arrived in 1881 when, under Alexander III, all schools were placed under Russian administration, and only the subjects of German and religion were permitted to be taught in the German language. Only part of the promises that had led many to immigrate remained in effect. The future was now rather uncertain.

Even in the 1860s, slowly growing concerns caused some adventurous young people to look for a new place to settle. They found it on another continent, America. In the course of time, the "pioneers" had penetrated further and further into the West of the United States. A giant area, devoid of people, had remained abandoned. The Great Plains, all the way to the Rocky Mountains, were still untouched by agricultural pursuits. According to the provisions of the "Homestead Act" of 1862, any man or woman could acquire 160 acres at a price of ten dollars, provided they obligated themselves to live on that land and use it for agriculture a minimum of five years. So there was the opportunity to make one's livelihood free of restrictive government rules.

Having heard favorable reports to their relatives by "advance parties," a great wave of emigration of German-Russians was set in motion in the 1880s. Whole families, or individuals, one after the other, again took up the journey toward new areas of settlement. This stream did not end until the outbreak of World War I. A large number of them came to the Dakotas. A Dakota Territory had existed as of 1661; in 1882 it was reduced to the area of today's North and South Dakotas. In 1889 both parts became States of the Union. It should be mentioned that the name "Dakota" originates in the Sioux language and means something like "the bond of friendship."

The history of settlement played itself out in a manner different from that of the plains that lay farther to the East. Through the middle of both states there stretched an invisible border between a somewhat more rainy zone and a rather dry climatic zone. For a long time no one wished to settle down in the arid part. Only when the wave of immigration from Russia reached its full extent were settlements established in this area. Late arrivals had to take what was left. The new beginnings on this treeless, stony and undeveloped soil proved to be as difficult as that in the Russian steppes. Also, there were constant, strong winds; hot, dry summers, with occasionally heavy thunder and hail storms; tornadoes; and icy winters with heavy blizzards. Wood for buildings was not available. The first settlers had to be satisfied with huts made of sod and mud, or they housed themselves in holes dug into the ground, heated with buffalo and cow dung, at least until the time when the ground finally was transformed into rich fields of wheat.

This region, especially in today's McIntosh County (North Dakota) and McPherson County (South Dakota), was settled mainly by families from the South-Russian Glueckstal colonies on the Eastern side of the Dnyestr River. They made up an unusually homogeneous group and to this day constitute a large portion of the population. Their earlier origins lay in Wuerttemberg; they were strict adherents to the Lutheran faith, retained their "Schwabian" language of origin, and had clung especially strongly to their traditions and culture. In spite of all that, they and all the other Germans from Russia were known as "Russians," since they named Russia as the place they had come from.

Their case is unique: until the middle of our [20th] century, these same "Russians" maintained an entire way of life that was very much like that of early 19th-Century Wuerttemberg, and therewith, under contrary conditions, they kept up a tradition across two continents and through one and a half centuries. They are the "forgotten Schwabians" of America. Most Americans, even those who are well aware of the German element in their country, have never heard anything of these "Schwabians," who in many ways are more German than most other German-Americans.

Today's times are not favorable to the survival of the culture of minorities, so their case must be pointed out even more emphatically.

Fortunately there has been timely success in the gathering and processing of materials on the heritage of these "forgotten Schwabians." For this our gratitude goes to Dr. Shirley Fischer Arends who, herself a member of one of those families, dedicated her life from the 1960s until the end of the 1980s decade to the research work concerning this ethnic group, the "Central Dakota Germans," a she calls them. In her work she benefited from her "trilingualism" (English, High German, and "Schwabian"), her personal contacts, as well as her scientific competence and her persistence. All this enabled her to amass a rich trove of materials and to work on it with great care. Along the way she reports of her experiences with people she had interviewed. Her oldest partners in those conversations were still members of the first generation, themselves immigrants who were able to provide detailed information about immigration and those early beginnings in America. With well-thought-out deliberation and with a confident feel for the
language, they provided answers to questions concerning specific expressions in Schwabian, and with pride and joy they told of their religious life, their customs and mores, even including handed-down treatments for illnesses, as well as recipes (for "Knoepfle," for example). Their dialect never did become merely a sign of a socially lower class. On the contrary, their dialect can easily take its place alongside the Schwabian spoken by dignitaries or higher society.

This strong pride may be one of the reasons for the long continued existence of their culture. Dr. Fischer Arends names a few additional factors for that:

-- German-Russians always insisted on holding their close family circle together, thus the extended family, the so-called "friendship circle," was a particularly dependable source of support in times of great need.

-- Due mainly to the large spaces and the resulting seclusion, in Russia as well as in America, contact with people who spoke other languages was minimal.

-- The strong tie to the Lutheran church, the religious upbringing, and German-language church services and their traditional hymns helped to keep alive not only their Schwabian dialect, but also High German.

-- The conservative bent of their agrarian society contributed to the maintenance of what was passed on to succeeding generations.

-- During the course of time, all these circumstances actually resulted in a kind of hardening or reinforcement of their traditions.

It was not until the 1950s when even here the trend toward conforming to existing cultural norms in the United States took hold, partly because advancements in transportation was beginning to bring the region closer to their environs, and particularly due to increased influence from the media. In the meantime even the Lutheran Church in the Dakotas has come to conduct religious services in English only. Older people still have command of their Schwabian dialect. For example, at the national convention of the Germans from Russia in Stuttgart in 1994, member of the Dakota delegation easily conversed with the older Germans from the Ukraine. On the other hand, younger people are barely able to speak German anymore, and at best they have only a broken understanding of the dialect.

Perhaps one can hope that Americans' newly awakened pride in their "roots" might rekindle the desire to salvage their heritage in this area as well.

In any case, we have available to us the valuable work of Dr. Shirley Fischer Arends, "The Central Dakota Germans -- Their History, Language and Culture," Georgetown UniversityPress, Washington, DC, 1989, which not only provides detailed and thorough information about the "forgotten Schwabians," but also presents them respectfully and sympathetically. Would that they will always be thought of in that way.

Our appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translation of this article.

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