Germans from Russia Now Second Largest Immigrant Group

Hard Work Pays Off for Hardy Homesteaders
Bismarck, 1910

Sometimes they are called “the other Germans.” Sometimes they are called the “Ruzlands.” Some come from the lands that border the Black Sea. Others from Mariupol or Dobrudja or the Caucasus country or the Volga Valley. Some are Mennonites; some are Hutterites. Some belong to the Roman Catholic Church; others are Lutheran. These are the German-Russians. They all lived in Russia, but they all were Germans by birth or heritage. Thousands have left Russia for the United States, and about 32,000 have migrated to North Dakota.

German farmers in Russia plowing in land that looks much like North Dakota.

What were these Germans doing in Russia? In the 1760s Catherine II, the ruler of Russia, invited Europeans, especially Germans, to settle in Russia. Catherine, who was a German by birth, knew that Germans were excellent farmers and that Russia needed a more stable and plentiful food supply. She promised that immigrants would receive free land, could exercise religious freedom and would be exempt from service in the Russian army. In other words, Germans in Russia could continue in their German ways. Because Germany was going through political turmoil and war, over 50,000 Germans went to Russia by 1870. Alexander I, who became Tsar in 1801, continued to recruit Germans to live in lands that Russia had taken from Turkey along the Black Sea. Thousands more Germans took up land in Russia.

Here, Germans living in Russia are mixing clay and straw to make bricks. When some of the Germans from Russia came to North Dakota, they built houses and even churches of the same mixture, called batsa.

In Russia the Germans remained German. They kept their religion and their language. They did not mingle with the Russians and only a few learned the Russian language. Their elementary schools promoted Germanism, things German, not Russian.

These Germans in Russia earned reputations as hard-working farmers who were able to overcome a hostile environment. They were good farmers. Most eventually prospered.

Germans from Russia in front of a Lutheran church near Hazen in 1914. The church was constructed of bricks made from clay and straw.

But things changed for the Germans in Russia when Alexander II became Tsar in 1874. He ended German exemption from service in the Russian army and began a program of Russification — Germans were no longer a special people; they were to become Russians.
Angry over these broken promises, many Germans began to leave Russia. The 160 acres of land that the Homestead Act provided lured most to America, especially the Great Plains states. Now in 1910 about 60,000 Germans from Russia (the immigrants and their American-born children) live in North Dakota. They began arriving through north-central South Dakota in the mid-1880s.

German-Russian immigrants pose for their wedding photograph in 1904.

In North Dakota they mostly have homesteaded in the south-central part of the state with heaviest populations in Emmons, McIntosh, and Logan counties. They have spread northward to Ramsey County and north-westwardly into the counties beyond the Missouri River (see map above).

Germans from Russia settlements in North Dakota.

The Germans from Russia have faced severe hardships. But their farming experiences in Russia served them well. They continue in their German ways which includes success in farming.

By Dr. D. Jerome Tweton


Originally published as The North Star Dakotan student newspaper, written by Dr. D. Jerome Tweton and supported by the North Dakota Humanities Council.

Grade Level

3-4, 7-8

Subject Matter

Social Studies

North Star Dakotan:

Journals and Art Work: The Indian People, The Trade, and The Land

The Indian People

The Purchase and Exploration of Louisiana

The Fur Trade

Dakota Territory

The Military Frontier

The Reservation System

George Armstrong Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn

The Great Dakota Boom, 1878-1890

Reservation Troubles, 1886-1890

The Making of a State and a Constitution

The North Dakota Economy, 1890-1915

Life on the Indian Reservations

The North Dakota National Guard and the Philippines

North Dakota, The Great War and After

The Nonpartisan League's Rise to Power

The Nonpartisan League in Power

The Nonpartisan League's Decline

The 1920s

1930s: North Dakota's Economic and Political Climate

The New Deal in North Dakota

The Road to World War II

North Dakota and American Society

North Dakota Optimism and Economic Developments

North Dakota and Political Change

Related Media

  1. The Germans From Russia: Who are the Germans from Russia?
    Video: Catherine II issued a manifesto in 1763 offering free lands along the Volga River to European settlers, Those settlers later became known in the U.S. as Germans from Russia.
  2. The Germans From Russia: Germans From Russia in North Dakota
    Video: Much the same way as Catherine's manifest had brought Germans to Russia, America's Homestead Act brought Germans from Russia to the United States.
  3. Prairie Crosses, Prairie Voices: Iron Crosses of the Great Plains
    Video: The making of iron crosses instead of gravestones is an endearing folk art of the Germans from Russia.
  4. Dakota Datebook: Germans to Russia
    Audio: A brief description of the history of the Germans from Russia.

Related Links

FOR FURTHER READING: See article and photographs in North Dakota History, 62.4, Fall 1995, pp. 28-35,
“Of Earth and Stone: Old World Building Traditions in a New Land,” by Lauren McCroskey