The German/Russians are Coming
By: Larry W. Kleingartner
“The Germans from Russia are coming to Bismarck’. One hundred years ago, during the paranoia of WWI, this headline may have scared a lot of people. In this case Germans from Russia are meeting in Bismarck to share information about genealogy, family history and food. The convention is scheduled for July 12-16, 2017 at the Bismarck Ramkota Hotel.
As an ethnic group, Germans from Russia predominate in much of North and South Dakota as well as the Canadian Provinces of Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Others went to Australia, Brazil or Argentina. Most of the German/Russian emigrants landed in this region between 1890 and 1910. The vast majority homesteaded and began farming in their newly found home.
The route to their final destination was circuitous with numerous stops that took over several hundred years to complete. They started from Germany with many stopping in present day Poland. They were mostly landless peasants looking for a better life. Plus, many had been impacted by the numerous wars in Europe and Germany specifically.
The real stimulus for going to Russia came from the Russian Czarina Katherine the Great. Katherine was German herself and needed land hungry immigrants to settle newly acquired areas in southern Russia along the Volga River. Her edict went out in 1762 promising land, freedom from military conscription and freedom of religion. Many responded and settled in the Volga region and thus became known as ‘Volga Germans’.
The next wave of German settlers came in 1800-1820 and settled along the Black Sea in what is now southern Ukraine. These settlers are called ‘Black Sea’ Germans. All of these German settlements in Russia were largely isolated from Russian culture, language and religion. The German settlers kept their German language and traditions and seldom intermarried with Russian or other ethnic groups. Despite many hardships these German settlements progressed economically through hard work growing a wide variety of crops.
By 1871 the Russian Government thought it was time for these German settlements to become part of the Russian landscape. Efforts to ‘Russianize’ these German colonies including serving in the Russian military were met with resistance. Also, large families had put pressure on available land. About this time new lands were opening up in North and South America and the combination of Russian Government pressures as well as land shortages resulted in a significant wave of emigration to the Americas.
The Volga Germans came first and settled in Nebraska, Colorado, Oklahoma and Texas. The Black Sea Germans came later starting around 1890 and settled in the Dakotas and the Canadian Provinces. The German/Russian settlers in North and South America continued their ‘clannish’ traditions by maintaining their language and customs by living in close proximity to other Germans. Marrying outside the German/Russian communities was uncommon in the first generation of settlers.
The German/Russian triangle in ND is well-defined from its broad base on the SD border to the Rugby area of Pierce County to the north. This area was highly concentrated with German/Russians settlers. The isolation and concentration of this population kept the traditions and language well entrenched. But then came the REA (Rural Electric Administration) and telephone cooperatives after WWII and slowly this population with second generation Americans began to adapt American ways. My grandmother often chastised by mother for not enforcing the German language on my sisters and me. But the cat was out of the bag. By the mid-1950s our family had a TV and the rest of the world was in our living room. The miracle of electricity changed the lives of most ethnic groups. I well remember the day the lights came on in our farmhouse. It was a day to celebrate. It did not take long for us to get dependent on that light switch. And there was great longing for the lights to return when inclement weather interrupted our service, which happened often during those early years.
So here we are 120 years later and those of us of German/Russian ancestry continue to hold onto many traditions and in some cases the language. An international organization called the Germans from Russia Heritage Society was created 47 years ago with an upscale library located in Bismarck. The library is replete with information utilized by family history researchers. The convention in July is a further opportunity to learn from each other in our family history searches.
The agenda for the July convention in Bismarck will include over 30 speakers varying from impersonations of Martin Luther to getting started in finding your family history. Of course, there will be cooking demonstrations on making some of our favorite German foods such as preparing a traditional sauerkraut and knoefla dinner. There will also be laughter with one session dedicated to reminiscing about jokes and hilarious stories that were told from one generation to anther.If you are interested in this history and getting started in genealogy then I encourage you to consider attending this fun and entertaining convention July 12-16th. For registration information, please go to www.grhs.org or call the GRHS headquarters at 701-223-6167.