Family puzzles

Martin and Elizabeth Schwindt
My mother’s maternal grandparents Martin and Elizabeth (Heft) Schwindt and their family, including my grandmother Elizabeth standing second from right, in Nebraska ca. 1910.

When I was young, my mother mentioned that in her youth her parents would sometimes playfully argue whether Norka was better than Balzer. When asked what that meant she explained to me that these were the names of villages in Russia. That confused me because I knew that she was of German descent. She explained that her German ancestors moved to Russia but eventually life became hard for them there, and after several generations they emigrated to the United States.

I wanted to know more about why they left their homeland to make such a long and difficult journey, especially after learning that the conditions they found in Russia were little better and in some cases worse than in Germany.

When I became interested in researching my ancestry in the 1980s there was not yet much information available on the internet and my mother knew little more about her family. At that time one of the best ways to make discoveries was to reach out to others on message boards who were researching the same surnames. I was extremely fortunate to be contacted by a number of people who were researching the same lines that I was. One of them, a woman with the same surname as my mother, knew that her ancestors were also Germans from Russia. While we were pretty sure we were related, we were not at that time able to determine how. But she did have a lot of background information on what difficulties they faced in Russia and some historical context.

Through this contact I found the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia. On their website I have found many articles and essays to aid my research, both genealogical and historical.

In 1762 Catherine the Great, a German princess who had recently assumed the throne of Russia, wished to establish her newly gained borders to the south and at the same time assist the German populace who had been ravaged as a result of the Seven Years War. Germany at this time was still a collection of small kingdoms and principalities. In 1763 Catherine issued her Great Manifesto, promising prospective immigrants religious freedom, exemption from military service, freedom from taxation for a minimum of 30 years, and free living quarters for six months after arrival, as well as free travel and expenses.

How could a poor and oppressed group of citizens refuse such an offer? The first wave of German emigrants from 1763–69 numbered more than 25,000, with many more to follow in subsequent years. My mother’s ancestors left Germany in 1766 and arrived in Norka almost a year later. Immigrants continued to arrive until the late 1800s.

Yet when they arrived in southern Russia there were no living quarters awaiting them. They lived in thatched huts in the summer and caves in the winter. Having no knowledge of the Russian language, they lived almost exclusively in German colonies. Moreover, when they first arrived in this sparsely populated area they were at the mercy of robbers and nomadic tribes to the south, which would frequently raid villages kidnapping and pillaging at will.

Gradually over the generations the promises made by Catherine expired or were reneged on by the government. The forced service into the Russian Army was likely the last straw for many of the villagers. A second cousin of mine (five times removed) became a minister for the reformed church and from 1864 until 1868 served as a missionary in Wisconsin before returning to Norka. It is said that he was instrumental in the later emigration of thousands of immigrants from Russian villages to the United States. The American Midwest, with terrain similar to the Russian Steppes, was an attractive destination for the colonists. My mother’s ancestors settled in Lincoln, Nebraska, as did many others; they gradually moved west to the city of Norfolk in the same state. Others settled in other areas of Nebraska, as well as the plains states of the Dakotas, Kansas, and Colorado. Eventually many of these migrated further west to the Pacific Northwest.  By 1920, there were more than 300,000 of these immigrants and their descendants living in the United States.

One of the regrets I have is that the culture and customs of my great-grandparents did not survive in my family. However, through the efforts of the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia, whose mission includes preserving the rich history and culture of this unique group of people, I now have the opportunity to discover much more about my ancestors and pass the stories and traditions down to my children and hope that they will do the same with their children.

Tom Dreyer

About Tom Dreyer

Tom has a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration from Boston University. He has been a genealogical researcher for the past thirty years. His areas of interest are New England, Nebraska, Missouri and Germany

25 thoughts on “Family puzzles

  1. Tom – I had to grin when I saw the names of the Russian villages. Do you have bottles of Norka soda, etc? Norka is Akron (OH) spelled backwards and soda of various flavors, and other items including stores, had that name here. If I come soon to NEHGS to look for more information on my Fabyan ancestors (Maine & Massachusetts), I will bring a bottle or two.

    1. Thanks for the offer. This is the first I have heard of Norka soda but look forward to giving it try if you are able to visit the Society. Thank you.

  2. Some of the German-Russians also came to OK and it is said brought winter wheat in the hems of their clothes – at least per a lecture I heard a few decades ago. It was also interesting to read that in the recent past some of them returned to Germany,where they were housed in abandoned US military bases (as I recall) and where their antiquated German language was not always understood by modern Germans. fascinating that Germany accepted them as citizens after an exodus of centuries.

    1. I understand that many Germans were also repatriated to Germany when the Ukraine was overrun by the Germans in WWII. You are correct that many also ended up in Oklahoma as did some of my relatives.Thanks for your response.

  3. Both of my step-father’s parents were Germans from Russia…in fact they were both born in Russia and were part of the last wave of immigration near the time of the revolution. Although they were from the same village in Russian, they did not marry until fairly late in life. My step-father has been very involved with the AHSGR for decades.

    My husband’s father’s father’s family also were Germans from Russia. While my father-in-law is not active with the national organization, he was been very successful in tracing his father’s family back many generations through Russia and back to Germany. One ancestor was Court Apothecary to the Price of Hesse, and we had a great time touring a traveling exhibit of Hessian art objects when they came to Portland some years ago. My father-in-law wrote a book over fifteen years ago which captured a lot of the family history, including that one of his aunts, born in Russian, had lost her sight. They came to America through Mexico, and when they crossed the border into Texas, the family intentionally crossed late in the evening when it would be natural for the little girl to be asleep on her father’s shoulder, so the immigration officer never checked her vision (since blindness would have excluded her from entry). Within a year or two, thanks to improved nutrition, she spontaneously regained her vision…one of the many blessings of coming to the United States.

    1. That’s a great story, Pamela. It confirms the hardships these immigrants faced. My mother’s paternal grandfather came before his wife. He was working in the field one day when a neighbor was asking if he was expecting his wife as there was a German woman from Russia in the local jail. She hadn’t done anything wrong. They were holding her there for safe-keeping. Thanks for your comments.

  4. Great sharing these stories. I live in Lincoln, and we are proud of the Germans from Russia as part of our still diverse (74 languages spoken in our elementary schools!) Nebraskan culture. We even have a Germans from Russia museum.

  5. Tom, this was a very interesting article with a nice storyline. As you may know, the Russian recruitment of German settlers for colonization of the Volga River Valley occurred under Catherine II (“Catharine the Great”) rather mimicked a similar program initiated by the Danish during the period 1759-1766. The program was intended to recruit German farmers to colonize and bring into agricultural productivity vast areas of moors and marshlands in need of draining and cultivation. At that time, Danish King Friedrich V ruled over the region of the southern Jutland Peninsula now known as the German state of Schleswig-Holstein. This was the region that Catharine II (a.k.a., Duchess Sophie Friederike August von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg) was then living as the wife of Duke Charles Peter Ulrich, who had ruled over the Duchy of Holstein-Gottorp until 1762. In that year, the Duke relinquished his rule over the Duchy to become the ruler of Russia as Peter III, with his wife (former Duchess Sophie). But his seat on the Russian throne was quite brief, as he died (or was assassinated) after only about six months. Former Duchess Sophie then assumed the throne as Catherine II.

    With her knowledge of how the Danish colonist recruitment program had evolved and was administered, Catharine II had first-hand information about how to resolve a similar land-productivity issue in Russia’s Volga River Valley.

    Incidentally, this story is well-told in a fairly recent book by Alexander Eichhorn, Jacob Eichhorn, and Mary Eichhorn entitled Die Einwanderung deutscher Kolonisten each Dänemark und deren weitere Auswanderung nach Russland in den Jahren 1759-1766 [The Immigration of German Colonists to Denmark and Their Subsequent Emigration to Russia in the Years 1759-1766] (Meiningen, Germany: Druckerei und Verlag Steinmeier GmbH & Co., 2012). This book is written in both German and English, and provides excellent insight into the German recruitment and colonization of Russia, with many of the colonists to Russia coming from the Schleswig-Holstein area the Danes sought to colonize. In addition, the book has a nice map of the Volga River colonization area, which identifies the location of Norka and Balzer.

    This history is still quite fresh to me, as I just finished my mother’s maternal-paternal genealogy, where I discovered this Danish/Russian colonization story. As an interesting aside, the Eichhorn’s ancestor, Jacob Eichhorn, and my mother’s ancestor, David Christian Schoof, were German colonists on adjacent farm plots in the same settlement colony (Neubörm Colony) in the Duchy of Schleswig.

    1. Jack. Thanks for adding to the history of the Germans from Russia story. The offer by Tzarina Catharine II actually was intended for anyone in Europe who was interested. It happens that most of those were from Southwest Germany, but there were many from other areas of Europe including a large group of Mennonites who came from the Danzig area. I believe that many of these immigrated to Pennsylvania.

      1. Hello, Tom. Just getting back into this stimulating discussion. I just wanted to add a few other facts provided by the Eichborn research. First, the Russian Commissariat established an assembly/staging/processing area in the City of Lübeck for the voyage by ship across the Baltic Sea to St. Petersburg, then by land and the Somina River to the headwaters of the Volga River, and finally down the Volga River to the Volga Colonies established by the Russian government in the Saratov region. Second, citing the work of Igor Pleve, Eichhorn tells us that 26,676 people were transported to the Saratov settlement area, with 12.5% dying before they reached Saratov. Lastly, and with a focus on Germany, Eichhorn explains that Volga colonists came from various regions in Germany, with especially large numbers immigrating from (alphabetically) Alsace-LorraineHessen; the Rhineland-Palatinate region, including Upper Palatinate; Saxony; Swabia; Thuringia; and Württemberg — all area that had suffered from the ravages of the Seven Years War.

        This topic is absolutely fascinating. Thank you for your post, Tom.

  6. Thanks for your interesting article. Does the AHSGR also track German Jews from Russia? A branch of my husband’s family is from the village of Vasilkov near Kiev and our best (and nearly only) information is from ship and naturalization records. Best Regards.

    1. I’m not positive, but I doubt it. The recruited Germans (who incidentally were told they could pursue their previous trades in Russia, but then were compelled to be farmers) all settled in the Volga River area (hence another name for this group is “Volga Germans”). When I attended a convention years ago, the name tags people sported had Protestant and Catholic on them, as villages fell into one of those groups based on who settled there. I don’t know a lot about Jewish areas of Russia, but I know the government tried to keep them concentrated in the Pale of Settlement.

  7. The Germans from Russia Heritage Society (GRHS) in Bismarck, ND is also a very good resource. They have interest groups for various regions of Russia (Crimea, Bessarabia, etc.) and lately members have been translating Russian records that have recently become available. I have been a member for 30 years and have written a book on my husband’s grandparents who all came from southern Russia. Baer, Oster, and Muttschall are some of the names in his family. Peggy Baer

  8. My ancestors came to Philadelphia in 1753. While reading a book on the 18th C. German immigration process, I discovered that far more (something like 9 to1) Germans went East than came to North America.

    1. Can you share the name of your book. My German ancestor came here in 1738, so it would be fascinating to read. Thanks!

  9. There was a group of Volga Germans in Grimes County Texas. In searching the 1900 census, I was surprised to find a number of “Volga Germans”!

    1. Thanks for your response and also for sharing the link to your blog. You have a lot of interesting history there. I only had a chance to view a small portion but look forward to reading the rest of your posts. There was a Concordia Seminary which was established in Altenburg, Missouri where my paternal ggrandfather settled in the late 1800’s and ultimately moved to St. Louis. I wonder if there is a connection with the University?

      1. There are quite a number of Lutheran institutions of higher learning called Concordia. The one that houses The Center for Volga German Studies is located in Portland, Oregon. They hosted the AHSGR convention a few years ago, which my step-father was very involved in organizing, since he lives in Portland.

  10. My husband’s Schantz ancestors are from Odessa in Russia now Ukraine. They moved to North Dakota in 1856.
    Christine Schantz

  11. I am a Dreyer from Nebraska but mine came from Rahden, Westfalen, about 1883. However, some friends of ours were married by a Rev. Dreyer in 1950 in Auburn, NE. If I remember he had come from Norfolk or the Norfolk area and was Lutheran. One of yours?
    Ramona Wickenkamp

    1. Ramona, just saw your post. That was most likely my grandfather’s brother Martin. A number of my grandfather’s siblings moved from Missouri to the Norfolk area. I still have relatives there today.

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