| PIONEERS ON TWO CONTINENTS: GERMANS TO RUSSIA AND AMERICA
By Gwen Bernice Black Pritzkau
World Conference on Records: Preserving Our Heritage, Series
August 12 - 15, 1980, Salt Lake City, Utah
HISTORY AND CAUSES OF IMMIGRATION
For several centuries it had been the custom of Russian rulers
to invite foreigners to settle in their realm.
Their invitations brought skilled workers, politicians, artisans,
craftsmen, and farmers. As early as Ivan the Terrible (1533-1584)
there had been a German section in the city of Moscow. The first
Romanov Tsars, Michael and Alexis, wished for Russia to become Europeanized,
but it was Peter the Great, son of Alexis, who made the first determined
effort along these lines.
After Peter became Tsar, he toured Germany, Holland and England.
He was so impressed with what he saw in Western Europe that he brought
back with him a collection of skilled workers and craftsmen in hopes
of teaching the techniques of the West to the Russians. This task
he undertook with great enthusiasm and energy. The Russian people
were not too receptive. He pleaded, threatened and punished. His
efforts produced a small beginning and that was all.
The great Tsar realized that he must develop commercial and cultural
ties with the West if his plan to modernize Russia were to succeed.
He needed a seaport on the Baltic Sea. In order to obtain one he
engaged in a war with Sweden (1700-1721) to conquer the area around
the mouth of the Neva River. It was near here that he built the
new capital of St. Petersburg. In his new Baltic provinces he found
the necessary resources to help modernize Russia. The Germans had
been in this region since the twelfth century.
Coming to a backward country, [these German missionaries] and merchants
soon set themselves up as rulers. Although the Germans were few
in numbers, they saw to it that the region along the Baltic Coast
from Danzig to the Gulf of Finland was predominantly Germanic in
law and custom. The small German population was much involved in
trade, industry and government.
Peter the Great found his new subjects entirely to his taste. In
these men he found the help needed to Europeanize Russia. As long
as Russia was ruled by Tsars the Baltic Germans played a large part
in Russian affairs of state.
Peter the Great also introduced the policy of intermarriage of
the Royal House of Russia with its German counterparts. This practice
was continued for several generations, which made the Royal Family
almost completely German in blood. However, for the most part, they
were devoted to the interests of Russia.
After Peter's death, little was done to promote Western manners
and customs. The next ruler to make any great effort to change Russia
was Catherine II (1762-1796). Catherine was born at Stettin on May
first, 1729, and began life as Princess Sophia Augusta of Anhalt
Zerbts, a minor German principality. She had the good fortune to
be recommended by Friederich the Great as suitable consort to the
Grand Duke Peter of Holstein, grandson of Peter the Great. He had
been brought to Russia in 1742 as a prospective heir to the Empress
Catherine arrived in Leningrad in February 1744 and was married
in August 1745 to the Grand Duke. The Princess was lively and intelligent
one soon learned the language, history, customs and problems of
her newly adopted country and soon became devoted to Russia's interests.
In contrast to the keen-minded Catherine, Peter was a dullard given
to heavy drinking; interested only in playing soldier [and women
less gifted than his wife.] When Empress Elizabeth died in 1762,
the Grand Duke Peter then became Emperor Peter III. Before long
he had alienated the people that mattered. He had offended the military,
the government, and the church. As Peter’s popularity diminished,
Catherine’s grew. Her tact and personality won her numerous
loyal friends whose numbers were augmented as soon as Peter’s
accession permitted him to threaten his wife with divorce and to
apply such ill-judged reforms as his capricious fancy dictated.
On June 28, 1762, a small revolution took place which ended in
Peter leaving and being sent to an estate at Ropsha, where he died
in a drunken brawl with officers who were supposed to be guarding
These events placed Catherine on a throne which she did not have
any legal right to, but she did have the approval and support of
the Russian aristocracy.
Early in her rule she made liberal changes. She built schools,
hospitals, extended religious tolerance, and brought about agricultural
reforms. The largest contribution she made to agriculture was the
founding of the German colonies near the Volga River and elsewhere
in her realm. She had hoped that such settlements could bring industry,
new ideas and a higher standard of living.
These Germans were to serve as models for the Russian peasant farmer.
In December 1762, she issued the first invitation to her German
countrymen. This first proclamation brought little results. She
sent her agents into the section of Germany that was busy fighting
in the Seven Years' War. Her invitation held no special inducements.
Six months later, July 1763, Catherine issued a new manifesto, a
masterpiece of immigration propaganda, which became the foundation
for Russia's colonization policy for the next hundred years.
Catherine published her invitation in the papers in Germany. She
followed her notice by sending German speaking agents into areas
where they found thousands of discontented people willing to listen
to her message. Ishall list briefly the highlights of chat famous
1. Large tracts of free land, plenty of water, free timber.
2. Good opportunity to practice a trade or establish industries.
3. Interest free loans up to ten years.
4. Freedom from customs duties on goods brought into the country.
5. Free transportation to Russia.
6. The right to settle anywhere in the country.
7. Freedom from taxes for five to thirty years, depending on area.
8. No excise fees on new industries for ten years.
9. Exemption from military service for themselves and their descendants.
10. Local self government in colonies.
11. Full religious and academic freedom.
12. Free to leave again if they found Russia unsuitable.
In addition to the above named benefits, the Russian government
also agreed to some help with transportation and housing.
These Germans jumped at the chance for a better life for themselves
and their children.
At that time Europe had engaged in many wars. The young men had
to spend part of their lives fighting in some army. The cost of
these wars kept the common man at the brink of starvation. Due to
the high taxes imposed, the peasant lived in dire poverty.
At one time in history Germany enjoyed religious unity, but with
the Reformation came religious conflicts which brought about small
wars between independent states. If the ruling Prince or Duke was
Catholic and another was Lutheran, this was reason enough for a
war. The German peasant of 1763 did not have much to be happy about.
He groaned under heavy taxes, his young sons were dragged off to
fight in wars in which he had no interest, he was persecuted for
his religious beliefs. Foreign as well as German armies had just
devastated his fields, his cattle, and his home. Industry and trade
had been disrupted. Poverty, unemployment, and malnutrition were
Catherine's message brought hope to those who dared not trope,
and faith to those who dared not believe.
In order to survive they knew they could have to leave their homes,
families and friends.
THE FIRST IMMIGRATION INTO RUSSIA
With a promise of a better life, the first German colonists prepared
to leave their beloved fatherland. Before they could leave, all
debts had to paid, arrangements had to be made for older family
members staying behind, and decisions had to be made about what
possessions to take and what to dispose of. Real estate, cattle,
and furniture had to be sold. Food and clothing for the long journey
had to be made ready. It was a time of much activity. There was
an excitement in the air, but a sadness in the heart.
Catherine had appointed a Johann Simolin to act as special commissioner
to head the emigration organization. His deputies were Friederich
Meixner, whose headquarters were at Ulm, and Johann Facius, with
headquarters at Frankfort-on-Main. About four hundred families went
to Russia in 1764. The emigration movement brought strong reaction
from the German governments, resulting in laws threatening severe
punishment, confiscation of goods, and prohibiting the sale of property.
These actions did nothing to stem the flow of emigration. The people
still left in large groups.
In 1768 Emperor Joseph II forbade all further migration to Russia
from anywhere in Germany. Therefore, for many years there was only
a trickle of German emigrants to Russia, mostly those having family
there since the first group left in 1763 and 1764.
By 1767 more than seven thousand families (twenty six thousand
people) had gone to Russia. For the most part these immigrants had
come from Hesse, but other parts of Germany were represented as
As soon as the necessary emigration arrangements were completed,
the would be emigrants met in the appointed cites. There the Russian
travel agents located temporary living quarters and issues a mall
food allowance daily, which was based on the size of the family.
In as much as land was to be given only to heads of families, many
marriages took place prior to leaving Germany and often between
partners who came together as strangers. The marriage registers
from Budingen, Rosslau and Lubeck are very helpful to the researcher.
When sufficient numbers had gathered, they were transported to
a Baltic seaport, usually Lubeck, where they boarded a ship that
took them to Kronstadt, near St. Petersburg. From Kronstadt they
were taken overland in crude, slow moving wagons, or on foot, to
Oranienbaum. Here they were given crude materials to build makeshift
huts which were to be their living quarters while waiting instructions
for the next move.
It was here in this volatile settlement that many became disillusioned.
In spite of the promise that they could settle anywhere they liked,
they were told that they would be transported to the distant and
desolate area of the Volga region and that they would all become
They waited weeks, sometimes months, before word came approving
the final move. The emigrant groups took different routes, but the
following is typical.
Small ships, always overcrowded took the immigrants to St. Petersburg,
up the River Neva to Schusselburg, along Lake Ladoga to the Volkov
River, up the Volkov River to Novgorod.
Here began an overland trek to Torshak on the Volga. The women
and children were forced into wagons piled high with baggage.
The men and older boys had to walk. Many of the immigrant groups
reached this stage of the journey in the late fall when the weather
was cold. Many fell sick and were left behind in some obscure Russian
village, while many died en route and were buried along the way.
Some groups had to spend the winter in the Russian village of Torshak
where they were quartered with the native peasants in their small,
smelly, and overcrowded huts. From Torshak, ships took them to Saratov,
which was the nearest town to the proposed settlement sites.
Here, near Saratov, the Russian government had marked off both
sides of the Volga River for settlement. The first group of colonists
arrived there on June 29, 1764. They founded the colony of Dobrinka,
which was located on the west bank (Bergaeite) of the Volga River.
From 1764 to 1767, shipload after shipload of colonists arrived
at Saratov and were led to the barren Volga regions.
A total of 104 villages were founded in this fashion. One hundred
and three were German, and one was French. Of these, 44 were on
the west side (Bergseite) and 60 on the east side (Wiesenseite),
with a population of 6,433 families or 23,109 people.
A few of the German immigrant groups did not go to the Volga River
area, but were directed to settle elsewhere. A group of 110 families
settled near St. Petersburg in 1765. In the same year, a small group
of 34 families from Württemberg was sent to a Count's estate
in the Voronezh region where they settled the isolated village of
Riebensdorf, in the political district of Woronesch. They were Lutherans
from the German village of Sulzfeld near Heilbronn. Within a number
of years, their population increase made it necessary to establish
several daughter colonies, some extending as far south as the Sea
In 1766, another 80 families were sent to Hirschenhof and Helfreichshof.
The same years, 147 families went to the Chernigov region where
they started the six villages of the Belowesch settlement. In 1767,
another 67 families founded three colonies near Jamburg. These groups
were exceptions. The main flow of immigrants went to the Volga River
Although the Russian government had promised housing for the newcomers,
they found neither houses nor lumber with which to build. Instead,
they were shown how to build the Russian type mud huts. In some
cases, the Germans had to live in these houes for two and three
years before they obtained the materials to build a proper house
for their families. Housing and building materials were not the
only thing found in short supply. Cows, horses, pigs, chickens,
and farm implements were very scarce. The farm implements and building
tools were not only hard to come by, but they were far inferior
to those they had left behind in Germany. Seeds for crops and gardens
arrived too late to plant. Many of these first colonists did not
have enough warm clothing for the coming winter. Due to the lack
of trees, there was not enough fuel to keep the huts heated. Because
of these problems, many people died the first winter. In the spring,
floods came and washed away the mud huts, and they had to start
all over again.
It was not until 1775 that the colonists had a good harvest with
enough yield to feed themselves and their livestock. This was due
to several reasons. Many of the colonists had never farmed before.
Even those who had been farmers had to learn new cultivation methods.
They were unfamiliar with weather and seasonal conditions. They
were ignorant of the types of soil and which crops to plant where.
Many of the people were mistreated by greedy village "directors"
who were interested only in their own wealth. Many wished to return
to Germany, but there was no going back.
Gradually, the immigrants adjusted to their new surroundings and
slowly houses began to replace mud buts. Within a few years schools
and churches were built. Trees were planted along the streets and
good wells were found in every village.
Along with the other hardships were the wolves and bands of robbers
that roamed along the lower Volga area. These robbers were attracted
to the German colonists because they represented a high form of
living than had been known in the area. They not only stole goods
and cattle, but kidnapped people either to be used as slaves and
servants or to be sold.
For many years it was not safe for the colonist or his family to
be alone on the roads or in the fields. They formed groups to protect
themselves and their livestock.
Within a few years there developed a community pride and the Germans
began to prosper. They no longer yearned for their native homeland.
To the younger generation, this land of the Tzar was bane home.
The Russian government was highly pleased with the fine colonies,
wheat fields, new industries, and all of the other accomplishments
of the German newcomers. The plundering tribes, who for so many
years had robbed, kidnapped, burned, killed and caused general destruction
to the Germans as well as to the native Russian peasant, had now
been driven away.
Catherine II began to look elsewhere for new lands to conquer.
In 1768-1774 and 1787-1792, Russia and the Turks fought for the
rich, fertile lands surrounding the Black Sea. The Russians were
the victors, which extended the empire to the Black Sea. The Crimea
Peninsula was incorporated into Russia in 1783.
In 1786 Catherine sent agent Georg von Trappe into the Danzig region
of West Prussia to recruit new settlers. The Mennonites of West
Prussia were having problems with the government and the Lutheran
Church. It was a well known fact that the Mennonites were clean,
honest, hard working, industrious, productive, and model farmers.
This group would make a good contribution towards building up the
vast, uninhabited steppes of the Ukrain. It took sane time for the
Mennonites to prepare for the move to Russia. In the meantime, von
Trappe led a group of Lutherans from Danzig (fifty families) to
Russia, where they founded the German colony of Alt Danzig, near
Elizabethgrad. Some fourteen families of this group were directed
to stay in the nearby colony of Alt Schwendorf, which was settled
in 1781 by Swedes from the island of Dagö under the leadership
of Ivan Maximovich Sinelnikov, an official assigned to them by the
Russian government. But these Germans were not happy there, so they
left and went to Alt Danzig to be with their countrymen.
In 1788, 228 Mennonites families left West Prussia and started
several colonies in the Chortitza region of the Ukrain.
Catherine II died in 1796, but before her passing she saw many
of her dreams bear fruit.
Paul I, son of Catherine, was ruler from 1796-1801. During this
time colonization came to a standstill. From 1801 to 1825 Russia
was ruled by Alexander I, son of Paul. He carried out his grandmother's
policy of immigration, and once again the call went out to Germany
for colonists to settle in the Ukrain. Because the first immigration
of Germans under Catherine II had been so successful and had been
satisfactory to both the Reich and to Russia, the second invitation
was most welcome.
This time the invitation was directed mainly to the thickly populated
areas of southern Germany. The Ukase of the Tsar had the same basic
conditions as that of Catherine. German speaking travel agents were
sent to Germany to open offices for the purpose of enlisting and
interviewing prospective settlers.
Again, as in Catherine's time, the area of southern Germany was
war torn; overtaxed and oppressed. Napoleon was taking their young
men for his armies. Civil disorders and religious conflicts were
common. The conditions made it easy to enlist people to colonize
The Tsar load set aside entire districts of crown land between
the Bug, Dniester and Pruth Rivers for settlement. In addition to
the crown lands, large estates were bought from private landowners.
Within three years the Russian government had hoped to be ready
to start receiving the first German immigrants for the Black Sea
region; however, some German colonists began arriving before plans
were complete and things were not ready for them.
Two Germans, acting as Russian agents, Ziegler and Schurter, had
done such a good job of recruiting that some two hundred families
had arrived in 1803. In hopes of slowing down the flow of immigrants,
certain restrictions were placed on immigration:
1. Only experienced farmers or tradesmen were to be accepted.
2. They must own property worth at least three hundred Florins.
3. Only families could come.
4. No more than two hundred families a year would be accepted.
5. They wanted only people of a higher class.
The quota was ignored, and for many years the number was much larger.
Most of the immigrants came from Wurttemberg, Baden, Palatinate,
Alsass, Hesse and Bavaria. They also came from Poland and Hungary,
where the Germans had settled many years earlier in another migration.
West Prussia and Prussia were also represented.
The immigrants from Poland and Prussia came on foot or in wagons.
They traveled overland, bringing their few possessions with them.
Many times you would see an older member of the family being pushed
in a wheelbarrow, the journey taking several months to complete.
Oftentimes they had to bury a loved one along the way in an unmarked
The families from southern Germany came in one of two ways: overland
on foot, wagon, or horseback; or down the Danube River on boats,
finishing the journey on foot by going overland to the appointed
Russian town where they were to meet with Russian agents. Once there,
they were placed in quarantine. Sometimes this lasted for weeks
or even months. The barracks in which they were housed were overcrowded,
dirty, and poorly ventilated. Because of these conditions, many
people died. In some cases, entire families were wiped out. Hardly
any one family was not affected.
The hardships and privations these people suffered cannot be described.
Nothing seemed to stem the flow of immigrants, being spurred on
by the hopes of a better future for themselves and their children.
Four hundred families arrived in 1803. More than eight hundred
families arrived in 1804, and another two hundred and fifty in 1805.
Only sixty families came in 1806 and 1807. But in 1808 1810 there
was a surge of two thousand families. After 1810 there was a lull
in immigration due to a war with Turkey. In 1812 the war ended and
Russia had acquired the province of Bessarabia, and again the call
went out for immigrants to colonize newly acquired lands. .The manifesto
was widely publicized in Poland, where recently settled Germans
were known to be discontented. By the end of 1816, some fifteen
hundred families had arrived. Many of these people had to live with
native peasants before being settled on their own land. The government
and the agents could not keep up with the fast flow of immigrants
that were arriving daily.
In the years 1816 1818, another mass migration took place again
from southern Germany, and again religious and economic factors
player a role.
In 1816, the area of southern Germany had a complete crop failure,
which in turn brought about severe economic depression.
Certain religious "prophets" were foretelling the Second
Coming of Christ. Many of these people thought they should be there
to witness the event, so, in September 1816, a group of forty families
left Württemberg for the "Holy Land." They did not
arrive in Russia until December. Their provisions were gone, and
so they stayed for the winter in the Schwabian colony of Grossliebenthal.
In order to continue on through Russia, they had to get permission
from the Russian government, which did not arrive until July 1817.
Only thirty one families left, traveling along the northern coast
of the Black Sea on their way to Jerusalem. They traveled over the
Caucas mountains, arriving at Tiflis. It was here that the Russian
authorities forced them to stop and settle down. With the help of
the Russian government, the German village of Marienfeld was founded
on Easter Day, 1818. When the religious separatists in Württemberg
heard of the success of their fellow countrymen, they also began
to make plans to migrate.
The meeting place was the city of Ulm, from which nearly eight
thousand people left during the summer of 1817. The journey down
the Danube was long and hard. They traveled in constant fear for
their lives and property, as robbers were numerous. The boats were
small and overcrowded. Disease and fever claimed many lives; and
many were buried along the way. By the time they reached Hungary;
many had lost heart and stayed with the German colonists there.
When they reached Ismael, an epidemic of fever struck, and within
a twenty four day period, sane twelve hundred people had died, many
children losing their parents, parents losing all of their children.
By the time the group left Ismael, only five thousand people survived
to move on. Some of these people settled in the Odessa area. Ninety
eight families settled the village of Teplitz, Bessarabia. Sixty
four families went north of Odessa and founded the village of Hoffnungstal.
Four new colonies were started in the Odessa area, giving homes
to one hundred families. Many occupied vacant places in the Leibental
and Gluckstal settlements. The five hundred remaining families went
on to the Caucasus. Many wished to go on to Jerusalem, but the Russian
government refused to give them permission. Here they founded several
more German colonies.
By 1848 there were more than two hundred colonies in the Black
Sea area numbering nearly sixty thousand souls.
The period of mass migrations was over. A few smaller groups and
individual families continued for several years.
The Germans living in the Volhynia came as the result of their
desire, wandering eastward from the Vistula Valley, Brandenburg,
Pommern, Silesia, and West Prussia. Others came as result of invitations
by Polish estate owners who wanted German farmers on their lands
because of their reputation of being honest, hard working, good
farmers. They were not governed by the same rules and regulations
as were the Germans that came as a result of government sponsored
After the defeat of Napoleon, it is possible that all of his German
soldiers did not return to Germany but remained in Russia, finding
their way to the German colonies where many of them had friends
LIFE IN THE GERMAN COLONY
After many years of hardship and sacrifice, things started to look
better for the German colonist and his family. The temporary shelter
of mud huts in the ground gave way to the permanent shelter of a
house in a well planned "dorf." It must have been a time
of great excitement. Everyone helped to build his own muse as well
as help the neighbor. All of the houses looked much the same. They
were constructed from whatever building material was native to the
area. Wood, sod, rammed earth, stone or clay brick were the most
common. In the Volga, wood was used for the roof, whereas thatched
reeds were sometimes used in the Black Sea region. Each house had
a large yard, a kitchen garden, and out buildings.
The church was located in the center of town, as was the water
well. Here colonists had their barn and house under the same roof.
When building a church, no amount of money or labor was spared.
It was very important to the colonists to have the most beautiful
church in the district. Usually a colony was either Protestant or
Catholic, but not both in the same "dorf."
The village also had pig pens, horse barns, granaries, milking
sheds, sheep barns, and village pasture lands.
The houses faced a wide street lined with shade trees. Each colony
had between fifty and one hundred houses, and they were all laid
out in similar fashion. Near the edge of town was an orchard, vineyards,
beehives, a grinding mill, a cemetery and other things necessary
to the well being of a community. The village owned farmland sometimes
stretched for great distances. The land was farmed as a community
and the profits shared according to their needs.
Within a few years the population of a mother colony in the Black
Sea region could grow to three thousand with three to five hundred
in the daughter colonies. 1n the Volga some of the mother colonies
had a population of twelve thousand. In 1763 the population in the
Volga was twenty seven thousand. 1n 1914 it was six hundred thousand.
(This was after the mass migration to North and South America.)
Similar growth was experienced in the Black Sea colonies.
When a colony outgrew its land, more land was purchased from the
crown, or sometimes from private landowners for a daughter colony,
which was populated by people from the mother colony. In due time
there were over five hundred German "dorfs" and "chutors."
The German colonies in both the Volga and the Black Sea were, for
the most part, dependent only upon themselves. The early immigrants
were not all farmers. Although many had to learn the farm industry,
they had not forgotten the trades and crafts brought with them from
Germany. Every "dorf" had a shoemaker, harness and saddle
maker, baker, blacksmith, cabinet and furniture maker, brick and
tile masons, weavers, millers, teachers, tanners, candle makers,
merchants, and professional people. Every person played an important
part in the growth of the community during the time of settlement
as well as a hundred years later. Then, as now, German craftsmanship
was in great demand. Their reputation grew, and soon their work
and wares were in demand by the colonists and the Russians alike.
Schools were church built and maintained, with the preachers or
the laymen serving as teachers, each village having their own. Children
from seven through fourteen attended. At one time there were three
thousand German schools in Russia, and also many institutions of
higher learning. Compared to the local Russian, the German stood
on a higher educational and cultural level. By the age of sixteen,
the German child was better educated than his Russian counterpart.
The church was the center of their lives. Whether the village be
Catholic or Evangelical, the clergy played a large part in their
social and cultural affairs. Because the colonists lived in closed
colonies, they had retained much of the background they had brought
with them from Germany.
Each village had their own customs regarding weddings, death, baptism
and certain other holidays, these customs being peculiar to the
district in Germany where they had lived prior to going to Russia.
In the absence of medical service, the early day colonist relied
on "folk medicine." The use of herbs, chants, charms,
and magic was quite common. They had a cure for warts, toothaches,
poison ivy, headaches, nosebleeds, burns and boils. They butchered
according to the moon. They were superstitious about barking dogs,
howling calves, sneezing cats, first laid eggs, falling stars, and
Each village had a social committee to look after widows, orphans,
collect taxes, and keep general order. They dealt with cases of
public drunkenness, smoking on the street, and failure to keep a
light burning in the window at night.
Sunday was observed as the "Sabbath." No one was allowed
to work and everyone was expected to attend church services. During
the time of church meeting, no traffic was allowed on the street.
After church was over, the colonists would gather in someone's home
for more prayer and the reading of scriptures. Dancing, loud laughing,
card playing, love making and singing were oftentimes thought to
be sinful. Throwing garbage into the street was forbidden, and,
if caught, carried a fine. They upheld obedience; they were taught
hard work to avoid drunkenness and laziness.
Easter and Christmas were celebrated as being holy days. One could
always find a decorated tree in the church with apples, candy, candles
and tinsel. On Christmas Eve, groups of carolers would sing to the
shut ins and elderly.
Marriages were performed in the church, but the celebrating was
in the home, sometimes lasting up to three days. There were all
kinds of foods to eat as well as a little "Schnapps."
The invitations were in the form of a written letter or by a rider
on horseback. The practice of matchmaking was common. Even here,
laughter and happiness were frowned upon. The practice of announcing
the banns three times continued here just as it had been in Germany.
After the grain and other crops were harvested, the colonists would
take it to the city to be sold. While here they would make the necessary
purchases to last for the coming year. It was always a time of great
excitement. Long caravans of horse drawn wagons stretched along
the open plains. Household items and groceries would be purchased
in large quantities.
Village life changed somewhat with every generation. As land became
scarce, many moved to the cities and took jobs in factories or as
laborers. For the most part, they retained their customs and culture,
and they exist in many far flung corners of the world today.
Conditions had indeed improved for the German colonists. While
a few had acquired great wealth, most all were comfortable. They
had turned the barren waste land into productive fields, started
new industry, founded beautiful villages, and built schools and
BROKEN PROMISES LEAD TO MASS EXODUS
Catherine's manifesto of 1763 had given the German colonists special
privileges. In 1871 these same premises were abrogated. From this
time on, the Germans no longer enjoyed living in Russia.
This change came about during the reign of Alexander II, who was
very anti-German. From the beginning, the German colonists had enjoyed
home rule, used German language in schools and church, and had lived
in closed colonies. On June 4, 1871, a decree was issued that would
change that. The Russian language was to be used, and their villages
would soon be incorporated into local Russian government. Still
worse was the law of 1874 which made military service compulsory
for all Russian citizens, including the Germans. The premise of
freedom from military service for themselves and their descendants,
for all time, was for them one of the most attractive features of
Life in the Russian army was terrible. Often the soldier had to
serve from 6 to 20 years. Discipline was harsh, pay was poor. The
families that were left behind were not provided for, and, more
often than not, they never saw each other again.
Even before the military law was passed, the Germans began to think
about migrating and sent some scouts to the United States and South
America to investigate the possibility of a mass migration and the
conditions of obtaining land.
The Homestead Act, signed by President Lincoln in 1862, made it
possible for any immigrant willing to become a citizen to receive
160 acres of free land. By 1873 the railroads had reached across
the vast plains of the Midwest and, through the government, had
been endowed with millions of acres of land. They had spread immigration
propaganda in Europe, attracting people who were interested in becoming
American farmers. Some of these pamphlets had reached the German
colonies in south Russia.
In 1849, a group of twenty one families (eighty three people led
by Ludwig Bette from Johannestal) came to the United States. They
boarded a small sailing vessel, the "Constantia," which
sailed from Odessa on July first (old style) and landed in New York
Harbor on 22 October, some 101 days later. Some of this group, Bette
included, found their way to Kelleys Island, Erie County, Ohio.
They seemed to prosper, as in 1872 Bette returned to Russia to visit
his relatives. His apparent wealth no doubt made an impression on
his relatives and friends. He told them of the opportunities that
were available in the United States. Ludwig Bette returned to this
country on board the "Westphalia" on August 2, 1872.
This good news must have spurred the colonists to make ready for
immigration to the United States as the first group left two months
after Bette had left. From October 1 to November 13, four different
groups left Russia. They sailed from Hamburg, Germany, and landed
in New York.
They spent the first winter in America in Sandusky, Ohio. The following
spring all but four families went to Yankton, Dakota Territory,
becoming the first German-Russians to homestead there.
In September 1874, a small group of Volga Germans came to Kansas,
Nebraska, and Arkansas. During the winter of 1874-1875, another
small group came to Red Oak, Iowa, and a larger group going to Lincoln,
In June 1873, a group of four hundred persons from the Worms Rohrbach
area, near Odessa, settled in Sutton, Nebraska.
About three hundred thousand Germans left Russia in search of freedom
and land. Of this number, some went to South America and Canada,
but the bulk came to America.
The Volga Germans found their way to Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska,
Montana, Wyoming, Oregon, Washington, Texas, Oklahoma, lows, and
also Michigan and California.
The Black Sea German is mostly found in North Dakota; South Dakota;
Sutton, Nebraska; Eastern Montana; Oklahoma; Idaho; California;
Eastern Washington and, Colorado.
The migration lasted until the First World War.
THE FATE OF THOSE WHO STAYED BEHIND
Although the remaining Germans did not agree to all of the anti
German measures brought about by Alexander III, they adapted as
best they could and seemed to prosper. After his death, his son,
Nicolas 1I, relaxed the rules set forth by his father.
As a rule, the German colonists remained loyal to the Tsar. They
did not take part in the revolution of 1965. In fact, many of them
suffered heavy losses during the revolution through raids by the
local Russian peasants. They had no desire to tape part in any politics
outside of their own village.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the German colonist
had hit the peak of economic prosperity. Most of his wealth was
in the land and industry. They had large farms, nice houses, large
herds of horses and cattle, and ate very well. His neighbors, the
Russian peasant, had not prospered.
A feeling of resentment against the Germans was spreading.
The outbreak of World War I was a shock for the Germans in Russia.
They became “enemies of the people.” They were regarded
with suspicion and hatred by the Russians. Although many of their
young men served in the Russian army, many giving their wives, they
were never to be trusted by the Russian government again.
After the war ended, many Germans left Russia and returned to Germany.
The remaining Germans suffered greatly. Many were shipped to Siberia
or Turkistan. They were not allowed to settle in all German colonies.
They were forced to abandon their German culture. They were forbidden
the use of the German language.
The villages of the black Sea tend Volga are no longer inhabited
by Germans. The churches have been destroyed, and the village names
changed so that today one would never know that Germans had once
Thousands perished while on forced marches. Thousands more died
in labor camps. Families were split up, never to see each other
Today, as in the past, these Germans are once again making agricultural
history. Wherever they are living, they have turned the barren waste
lands into timber, grain crops, row crops and vineyards. They are
producing crops where nothing ever grew before.
Contact with the outside world is limited, but it is possible to
exchange letters with family members.
THE GERMAN RUSSIAN IN AMERICA
The voyage to America took anywhere from seventeen days to several
weeks, depending on the weather and the condition of the vessel.
The immigrants left from several ports, such as: Hamburg, Bremen,
Liebau (Russia), also the ports in Holland and France. Some of the
people went first to England and then to North America.
Most of the immigrants booked passage in "steerage."
The quarters were crowded, dirty, and foul smelling. The food was
poor and the other passengers were sometimes less than polite. In
general, the voyage to America was anything but pleasant.
As soon as the ship docked, the passengers were subject to a medical
examination. If a person had a certain eye infection, called trachoma,
they were not permitted to go ashore. Thus, families were separated,
and sometimes they were sent back to Germany alone, or they went
to South America where the restrictions were less severe.
Once on land they were met by harbor missionaries of various churches.
Usually these missionaries guided them to towns where other German
Russians had settled. They advised them about train schedules, places
of departure, and how to exchange their money.
Another form of aid to the newcomer was immigrant houses which
were found in cities farther west. Accommodations were available
to those immigrants with little or no funds.
As a rule, the Black Sea German bought tickets for the Dakota Territory,
the Volga for Kansas and Nebraska. In later years, many German Russians
went to Canada.
As soon as suitable land was obtained, the settlers concerned themselves
with providing a shelter for their families and livestock. It was
not uncommon for the settler to live in a dugout, with the wagon
box serving as roof, until a sod house was built.
The houses were all similar in construction, usually with two rooms,
a stone oven for heating and cooking, small windows, dirt floor
and one door. Sometimes the barn and house were under the same roof
with only a wall separating the two.
Trees were very scarce, being found in scattered hollows. Cow or
buffalo chips were gathered and dried for use as fuel.
The winters were long and hard. The blizzards were so severe that
many a homesteader became lost and sometimes froze to death.
In the spring the virgin sod was plowed and crops were planted.
Although a small harvest was realized that first year, it was two
or three years before they had enough for themselves and some to
Within a few years, the sod houses were replaced with fine homes.
Large barns, herds of cattle and sheep, and windmills were found
on every farm.
Again, the German Russian had turned unoccupied lands into the
bread basket of the world.
Churches came later, as did the school houses. For years, both
school and church services were held in the German language.
Wherever the German Russian settled, you will find German names
for many of the towns, school districts, townships and church parishes.
The names of villages went from Germany to Russia to the United
States, Canada and South America.
In contrast to their "dorfs" in Russia, rural farm life
in the United States and Canada seemed very lonely and monotonous.
The homesteads were far apart, giving them an immense solitude and
sense of loneliness. At least in Russia one had next door neighbors
with whom they could exchange words of greeting and comfort.
Though the German colonists came from Russia, they were not Russians.
Furthermore, they disliked being called Russian. Just to look at
them it was indeed difficult to distinguish them from native Russians;
however, that was just in appearance. The language, culture, and
customs were strictly Germanic.
The first generation pioneers retained much of their historical
characteristics. Children of that generation associated with no
one outside of the family unit or others of their kind.
With the coming of the First World War, the German colonists entered
a period of cultural transition. The process of cultural fusion
had been accelerated. Unfortunately, many descendants of the colonists
are completely uninformed of their heritage.
Those wanderers in transit for almost two centuries left their
homeland in Germany in favor of Russia and ended by coming to America.
They were not gold seekers or speculators, but sought to build permanent
homesteads, to help promote economic progress, and to bestow upon
their descendants the values of hard work, honest effort, self reliance,
thrift and an undying faith in God.
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Giesinger, Adam. From Catherine to Khrushchev. Saskatchewan:
Marian Press, 1974.
Height, Joseph S. Paradise on the Steppe. Bismark, N.D.:
North Dakota Society of Germans from Russia, 1972.
Keller, P. Conrad. The German Colonies in South Russia, 1804
1964. A. Becker, trans. Saskatoon: Western Producer,.1968 1973.
Rath, Georg. The Black Sea Germans in the Dakotas. Freeman, S.D.:
Pine Hill Press, 1977.
Sa11et, Richard. Russian-German Settlements in the United States.
Lavern J. Rippley and Arman Bauer, trans. Fargo, N.D.: Institute
for Regional Studies, 1974.
Schock, Adolph. In Quest of Free Land. San Jose, Calif.:
San Jose State College, 1967.
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