The Black Sea Germans
On July 22, 1763, Catherine II issued a manifesto inviting foreigners to settle in Russia. This was an old Russian custom. In Western Europe thousands of discontented people, mainly Germans, responded to the invitation.
When Catherine began her rule in 1762, Russia was lagging far behind Western Europe in its agricultural development. Most of her people lived in the central provinces surrounding Moscow, so great tracts of fertile land remained uninhabited and uncultivated. Catherine, a German princess herself, desired to fill the land with industries peasants from her native land.
To attract the foreign settlers she made generous promises: 1) free transportation to Russia; 2) freedom to settle anywhere in the country; 3) freedom to practice any trade or profession; 4) generous allotments of land to those who chose agriculture; 5) free transportation to the site of settlement; 6) interest-free loans for ten years to establish themselves; 7) freedom from custom duties for property brought in; 9) freedom from taxes for from five to thirty years, depending on the site of the settlement; 9) freedom from custom or excise duties for ten years for those who set up new industries; 10) local self-government for those who established themselves in colonies; 11) full freedom to practice their religion; 12) freedom from military service; 13) all privileges to be applicable to their descendants; 14) freedom to leave if they found Russia unsuitable.
The first group of emigrants settled in the Volga area in 1764. In 1803 immigrants were again recruited to settle the Black Sea region, near Odessa. Although the Russian government placed a restriction of 200 families a year, this did not prevent the flood of immigration for years in much larger numbers and all were accepted.
Conditions in Germany made emigration sound attractive to the Germans in 1803. Napoleaon's armies marched repeatedly across Germany on their way to war with Austria and Prussia. The restructuring of the country resulted in the transfer of predominately Catholic areas in southern Germany to the Protestant ruler of Baden. The change brought religious conflict. The wishes of the people were not considered. French rule was harsh and bitterly resented in general. The constant wars destroyed towns, farms and crops. They disrupted industry and trade and brought oppressive taxes, regulations and confiscations. They took their young men off to war to fight under a foreign flag. many looked for a way of escape and were receptive to the Russian agents promising a better life.
The German peasants came by the thousands to the Black Sea region, mainly from Wuttemberg, and other German states as well. Emigration was heavy in the years 1803 to 1805 and 1808 to 1810. It began to taper off about 1825, but they continued to trickle in.
Their journey was difficult. They came in crowded boats down the Danube River and often overland by wagon and frequently on foot. The journey took from two to five months and they frequently wintered on the way at Baden for a period of quarantine in primitive barracks for weeks or months before their settlement site was ready. many died along the way. In some cases entire families perished and few families reached their destination intact.
In 1816 to 1818 another great wave of emigration from southern Germany took place, primarily from Wuttermberg to the Black Sear region. Reasons were mainly economic, but religious factors also played a role. There was a severe economic depression after the Napoleonic wars and a disastrous crop failure in 1816 resulted in famine conditions. There were also religious conflicts. Many settled in the Bassarabia, Liebental and Gluckstal regions.
Promises of self-government were not kept. Each village was required to elect an overseer and two assistants. They had the authority to collect taxes for local purposes and to deal with minor litigation and petty crimes in the village, but their main job was to enforce the ordinances of a book called "Instruktion," which regulated the lives of the colonists in great detail including their spiritual welfare: It insisted upon regular attendance at religious services, pious performance of religious duties and sober moral behavior at all times. It instructed the clergy on their work, told the colonists what crops to grow, how to cultivate their land and when to plant and harvest crops. It recommended useful activities in the winter months to keep the colonists occupied and discouraged wasteful travel by requiring a passport for a trip even to the nearest city. It also included detailed instructions to the overseers regarding punishment to fit each crime. The overseers were required to supervise every activity of the colonist daily life and to punish those guilty of deviations from the norm by fines, whippings, forced labor or imprisonment on bread and water. later, under Nicholas I, the Colonist Code of 1842 allowed for all decrees that had been issued and the regulations that had been made over the years for the foreign colonists to be gathered together. It listed the rights and privileges which had been promised to them, their duties toward the Russian government, and the regulations of landholding and local government in their colonies. All those who had colonist status were subject to this code rather than to Russian laws. The colonist code was highly valued because of the special privileges which it gave them.
For the Black Sear colonist the first activity that became commercially prosperous was sheep-raising. This was encouraged by the Russian government. From the 1830's onward grain-growing became commercially important in the Black Sear colonies but drought was so frequent that often all crops died. Even in years of adequate moisture, locusts, caterpillars, bugs and field mice seriously damaged their crops. The colonists built storage buildings in each Black Sea colony and each grower was required to contribute his share to the common store. As a result the Germans didn't experience the periodic famines that hit the Russian population until 1921 to 1922 and 1933 to 1934 when the Soviet regime confiscated the grain stores.
Livestock epidemics also frequently affected the Black Sea colonies. Wheat was the chief source of cash income in most of the German colonies in South Russia. Other grains, vegetables, fruits and livestock were raised for the colonists own use.
The Crimean War (1853-1856) brought a severe economic depression to the Black Sea region. Grain-exporting ports were blockaded by the enemy fleet and the price of grain dropped to an unprofitable low taking away the colonists' only source of revenue. Although the colonists were exempt from military service until the 1870's, they were involved in non-combatant activities: giving food and lodging to troops marching through; providing transportation for military personnel and for provisions and ammunition; bringing wounded soldiers from the battlefield and caring for them in hospitals in their own villages; supplying labor and transportation for the building of bridges and fortification. All these activities reduced their limited resources and brought poverty and suffering to their families. In addition, the war brought cholera and typhus to the Black Sea region resulting in a high death rate among the civilians of the population.
Crops were good again after the war and the German colonists began to prosper. By 1860 the population in the Black Sea region was approaching 150,000, nearly tripling that of 1825. But the time came when the German-Russians would leave Russia because of oppressive conditions there.
During the reign of Alexander II, on June 4, 1871, a decree was issued which repealed the provisions of the colonist code regarding local government. It abolished the special colonist status the Germans had enjoyed up to this time. Under the new system of indirect election, the colonists as a group had little influence.
The promise of freedom from military service for themselves and their descendants was one of the most attractive features of the manifesto of Catherine II. The Black Sea settlers had left Germany during and after the Napoleanic wars with unpleasant memories. A rumor from St. Petersburg at about the same time as the change in government much more disturbing to them was that compulsory military service was about to be introduced. The concern the colonist had about this was increased by the stories they had heard about life in the Russian army. When a Russian soldier was drafted his family rarely expected to see him again. If he survived, he came home a broken man. In January 1874, a new military service law came into effect which made all medically fit male Russian subjects candidates for army service for six years when they reached the age of 20. To the German colonists this represented the breach of a solemn promise made them in the manifesto of 1763,
In the 1880's there began a subtle indirect attach by Russian nationalism to destroy the German schools. "Free" Russian schools were established in various German villages. With better financial support and better qualified teachers, these were more attractive and more efficient than the colonists schools. All schools were placed under the jurisdiction of the Russian school inspector. he chose the teachers and enforced the program of studies laid down by the ministry of education. He made the schools as Russian as he could. Except for the teaching of religion and German, Russian became the language of instruction in all schools, including the village schools. Two-thirds of the school time was devoted to Russian even at the primary school level. The colonists who still had the privilege of paying for the schools had no voice in their operation and lost their enthusiasm for education. Indifference, apathy and passive resistance became the general attitude. Not until after 1905, when a degree of freedom was restored, did the situation improve.
The propaganda that was spread about the German colonists in nationalistic Russian publications pictured them as intruders whose land acquisitions were financed by the German government to prepare the way for German conquest. It accused them of being disloyal to the Tsar, of teaching pro-Germanism in their schools and of being agents of the German Kaiser. Such accusations were widely believed by the Russian public and eventually had tragic consequences for the Germans in Russia.
Because of these oppressive conditions the German colonists began to look to the Americas where some had already found freedom and land in the 1870's. Starting about 1883 and continuing through the 1890's and the early 1900's, the Black Sea Germans began to arrive in large numbers in the Dakotas. They first went to the Yankton area of southeastern South Dakota. They then moved northward into the north central section of the state in the Aberdeen, Ipswich and Eureka districts and by 1885 they were crossing into North Dakota. By 1900 they had founded settlements as far north as Rugby and as far west as Dickinson. Large numbers continued to come in the first years of the 1900's and gave the Dakotas the largest concentration of Black Sea Germans in the New World.
The Christian Wittmeier Family History by Viv Vorderbruggen (161 Maple Hill Drive, Grand Rapids, MN 55744-9605)
From Catherine to Khrushchev: The Story of Russian Germans by Adam Giesinger, The American Historical Society of Germans from Russia; Lincoln, Nebraksa.
Census Records | Vital Records | Family Trees & Communities | Immigration Records | Military Records Directories & Member Lists | Family & Local Histories | Newspapers & Periodicals | Court, Land & Probate | Finding Aids