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Unruh Family History

Antanofka, in Volhynia, was aproximately 15 miles southwest of Karlswalde.Volhynia was a province of Russia since the partitions of Poland in the late 1700s. According to records, small groups of Mennonites had settled there around 1800, but soon moved onward to different localities. In 1816 a permanent settlement and a Church Parish was organized. Because of overtaxation by the Czar, the Mennonites decided to leave Russia. When the Czar learned they were going to leave he turned the land over to some Bohemian Catholics. This brought the Mennonites into a predicament which reduced the majority of them into extreme poverty. The Bohemians were now coming to take possesion of their land, which forced the Mennonites to sell their equity in the improvements to the new-comers at their own price, in some instances the property had to be given away. In 1874 approximately 160 families from the area migrated to America. The family of Heinrich David Unruh (born November 10, 1811) and Maria ne Becker Unruh (born April 22, 1834) was among them.

The S.S. Vaterland, a Belgium steamer, traveling the Red Star Line sailed from Antwerp late November in 1874 with 710 passengers, 682 of whom were Mennonites. This ship carried the first and main group from the Antanofka colonies, including Heinrich Unruh and family, who were quartered below decks in an area where barrels of cargo were stored. William Henry Unruh, who was six at the time, later described how frightening the voyage was. The ship was badly damaged on its voyage due to violent storms, the seas were heavy and the ship had an unusually rough journey. Barrels of cargo broke loose and rolled back and forth in the area where the Unruhs were staying.

The ship lost all three of its propeller blades coming across to America. The first one was lost in the English Channel and the second was lost halfway across the ocean. Still, the ship kept limping onward to its destination, until nearing the United States harbor, the last propeller blade was lost. The ship was on it's voyage for 21 days, arriving in Philidelphia December 25, 1874.

S.S. Vaderland* photo courtesy of Van Moorleghem Ludo

*Mike Dirksen let me know that the photo I used to have posted here, from Abe Unruh's book "The Helpless Poles," was actually the ship that replaced the one that brought my ancestors to America. He has detailed information on the S.S. Vaderland on his website.

The whole group remained in Philiadelphia until December 27, quartered in the company's new dock. Then the whole group, with the exception of several families, left for Kansas. The Western Post of St. Louis had this to say of the group as they came through the city on December 29, 1874:

    "Tuesday P.M. December 29, an immigrant train of 15 coaches on the Vanadian Line, brought 641 passengers from Wohlynien West Russia to St. Louis. They had with them 422 pieces of baggage, it took 35 buses and 10 freight wagons to transfer them over the bridge to the Pacific Railroad Station.

    One of their leaders, a Mr. Andrew Eck gave a thorough report of their trip to a reporter of the Western Post. He said, Tobias A. Unruh, the leader of another party, had made a trip to America two years before to look for a location for settlement. Upon his return to Russia he made wonderful word pictures of America, in contrast to their condition in Russia.

    They lived on forest lands in Russia, and had been paying 50 cent tribute on the dollar for their property, for that reason they were immigrating to America. When the Czar was aware of their undertaking, he sent a lord Tod Leben to their village to try to persuade them to remain in his domain. This, however, without results. The entire party immigrated, leaving land which they had transformed from wild forests into fertile growing fields with receiving anything for their labor.

    The party consists of robust healthy people, clothed fairly well. Although a number of them, having lived in Russia for over a half century, they all speak their mother language fluently. Nearly the whole party are of Russian birth, but of German descent, all speak German, Polish, or Russian. A 74 year old father died enroute to America. Their destination is Kansas."

They arrived in Hutchinson, Kansas at 11 o'clock PM on a cold wintry night with the thermometer registering 12 degrees below zero. The wandered about the streets, without money, without food, without a home in a strange country with a foreign language, until a man came along and opened an empty store building for the whole party to crowd into.

Coming unexpectedly as they did, created an emergency on the part of the Mennonite Board of Guardians which required immediate attention. When it came to settling them on small farms the next spring, they quickly organized a special committed known as the "Local Kansas Relief Committee" to assist them in handling this large group of homeless people.

Several of this group with a little means went to Great Bends, Kansas to spend their first winter in Santa Fe railroad cars. the rest of the party were taken to Florence, Kansas where the Mennonite Board of Guardians together with the Santa Fe Railroad Company, housed these one hundered families in poorly constructed buildings for the winter. The death rate was high among them, it was reported a child passed away every other night.

In spring the two above committees together with the Santa Fe Railroad land in Lone Tree Township, McPherson County, Kansas. This was the Unruh family's first real home in America.

A Kansas history book described the Mennonites as thrify and industrious farmers. They did well in their new land and helped Kansas become the excellent farmland it is today.


Unruh, Abe J. The Helpless Poles. Montezuma, KS: author, 1973.

Hiebert, Clarence. Brothers in Deed to Brothers in Need: A Scrapbook about Mennonite Immigrants from Russia, 1870-1885. Newton, KS: Faith and Life Press, 1974.

Unruh Farm in Greensburg, Kansas



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