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Spotlight on Culture

People that call this area Home:

European cultures and the people that emigrated

looking for a better life in a continent across the Atlantic

Settlers looking for a piece of the 'American Dream'

The first Europeans explored this area in the 18th century establishing some limited trade with the indigenous nations they encountered. La Vérendrye was the first European person to come to the area. He visited the Mandan tribes around 1738 and was astounded by their level of development.

Much of the area was first organized by the United States as part of the Minnesota Territory and then the Dakota Territory in the 19th century, through treaties and wars with the nations that owned the land. In 1861, the area that is now North Dakota was incorporated into the new Dakota Territory along with what is now South Dakota. On November 2, 1889, North Dakota and South Dakota became separate states.

Eager to attract European immigrants, state officials broadcasted widely pamphlets and newspaper accounts celebrating the "Myth of North Dakota." This myth included: 1) the myth of the garden- that promised things would grow effortlessly in the territory; 2) the "work and win" philosophy, the "American Dream" that promised home and land ownership through hard work to these settlers; and 3) an image of an empire in the making, settled by "good and just people", that did not provide accurate information on the people that already lived in the territory, and in most cases vilified them to the new settlers and describing them as uncivilized and/or dangerous, causing these people to be weary of them as a whole.

The settlers came by 1910, with the largest numbers comprising German Americans, including Germans from Russia, Scandinavian Americans, and Americans from the East Coast colloquially known as Yankees; the Yankees concentrated in the towns and cities, while the others became wheat farmers.

Germans from Russia


Российские немцы

German colonists resting in their travel to a destination village near Kamianets-Podilskyi (now Ukraine).

Germans from Russia were the most traditional of German-speaking arrivals. They were Germans who had lived for generations throughout the Russian Empire, but especially along the Volga River in Russia. Their ancestors had been invited to Russia in the 1760s to introduce more advanced German agriculture methods to rural Russia.

They retained their religion, culture and language, but the Russian monarchy gradually eroded the relative autonomy they had been promised. Many found it necessary to emigrate to avoid conscription and preserve their culture. About 100,000 immigrated by 1900–1950, settling primarily in North and South Dakota, Kansas and Nebraska.

Germans from Russia who immigrated to North Dakota received help from some of the Germans who were already in the area. One of these men was John Wishek. He did so much for the German-Russian immigrants in the south-central part of the state that they called him “Father Wishek.”

John Wishek helped the German-Russians select land, file land claims, and find jobs. Wishek and his partners were responsible for bringing ten thousand people to McIntosh, Logan, and Emmons counties. Wishek established several townsites, including the one that carries his name.

German-Russian settlements were mainly concentrated in three areas of the state—the north central, the south central, and a portion of the southwest. This concentration of Germans from Russia has been called the “German-Russian Triangle".

From 1880 to 1920 more than twenty-five million immigrants, many from Austria-Hungary, Russia, and Ukraine, were attracted to the United States and Canada. In North America, the Germans from Russia were attracted to the great prairies, which were not unlike the steppes of Russia where they had been farming for generations. The greatest concentration of Black Sea Germans is in the Dakotas. German Mennonites from Russia also settled here.

German Russian children pull sugar beets in the early 1900s. Image courtesy of Archives and Special Collections, Colorado State University.

These immigrants saw themselves as a downtrodden ethnic group, having an entirely different experience from the German Americans who had immigrated from Germany. They settled in tight-knit communities that retained their German language and culture. They raised large families, built German-style churches, buried their dead in distinctive cemeteries using cast iron grave markers, and created choir groups that sang German church hymns. Many farmers specialized in sugar beets — still a major crop in the upper Great Plains.

The German-Russians were noted for their strong work ethic. This means they valued work, and they worked hard. Many of the German-Russians felt that working at making a living was more important than getting an education, and most thought that high school and college were unnecessary. Even though schooling may not have been important to some of the German-Russians, they expected their children to behave when they did go to school. Children were told that if they were punished in school, they would get punished again when they got home.

When the Germans and German-Russians came into contact with each other in North Dakota, they usually did not have much to do with each other. The Germans from Russia had kept their customs, traditions, and language the same as those of their ancestors who had moved to Russia a century before. Germany, on the other hand, had become more modern, and their culture and language had changed somewhat. The Germans sometimes had a hard time understanding the speech of the German-Russians, who spoke what the Germans called “low German.”

German-Russians were proud of their traditions and did not want to be absorbed into American culture. They kept their tight-knit communities and continued to speak the German language for many years.

During World War I their identity was challenged by anti-German sentiment. By the end of the World War II, the German language, which had always been used with English for public and official matters, was in serious decline. Today their descendants speak English mainly, and German persists in some singing groups. Despite the loss of their language, the ethnic group remains distinct and has left a lasting impression on the American West, and our area in particular.

For more information, visit the page of the Society of Germans from Russia in North Dakota here.

The following video was created by Prairie Public. You can find their channel on YouTube here.

Next week we'll continue this series with information on the Germans from Russia- their history, notable people and religious traditions

Stay tuned for more information on more cultures in future posts. Our area is blessed to be called home by many people of many cultures, and they deserve to be acknowledged.


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