Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture

Skip Navigation

Electronic Publishing Center
Oklahoma Historical Society
Encyclopedia Homepage
Search all Volumes
Disclaimer and Usage
© Copyright 2003

Table of Contents Search All Entries Home

GERMANS FROM RUSSIA

Among the millions of mid- to late-nineteenth century immigrants arriving in the United States from Europe were ethnic Germans who had immigrated to Russia in the 1765-1824 period. Poland's rulers had encouraged Germans to settle in the province of Volhynia (between the Dnieper and Dniester rivers, part of Russia by 1797), and Russian rulers, including Catherine the Great, had promoted settlement along the Volga River (north of the Caspian Sea) and on the coast of the Black Sea and Sea of Azov beginning in 1750. As a result, in the 1760s groups began leaving various German principalities where wars, invasions, high taxes, and military conscription made life unbearable. Colonists arrived in the steppes (plains), where the Russian czars offered them free land, exemption from military service and taxation, and, to an extent, religious liberty. A second wave immigrated between 1789 and 1862, including in the 1850s thousands of Mennonites, originally of Dutch ancestry. Between 1763 and 1862 an estimated one hundred thousand Germans moved to Russia, including Evangelical Lutherans, Roman Catholics, Baptists, and Seventh Day Adventists.

Living on the steppes, they continued to farm, primarily raising wheat, and adapted their system of agriculture to the new environment. They lived in compact villages, built partially subterranean houses similar to half-dugouts, and burned dried manure for fuel. These transplanted Germans prospered. By the middle of the nineteenth century most families owned land, and some were grain merchants or mill owners. The German colonists had become the most advanced agricultural group in Russia. Seldom mixing with or marrying their hosts, the Germans in Russia retained their culture and perpetuated it through their own educational system.

In the 1860s, however, their lives began to change. Czar Alexander II began to draft them into the army, and in the 1880s Alexander III began a "Russification" policy to establish better administrative control over the colonies. Volga Germans began leaving for the United States in the late 1870s, and Mennonites began moving in the 1880s, as did Black Sea and Volhynia Germans. The Great Plains of the Dakotas, Nebraska, and Kansas, markedly similar to the Russian steppes, became populated by them, and many moved on into the plains of Oklahoma and Texas. By 1920, 120,000 were in the United States.

Land was the factor that drew them southward into Oklahoma Territory. They were poor, and in Kansas they were forced to rent farm land. Beginning in 1889, when public lands were offered for homesteads in Oklahoma, they quickly took advantage of the opportunity to own farms. In the Unassigned Lands, opened in 1889, Mennonites settled at Mennoville, and other Germans established Marena, in Payne County. Others helped form Kiel (Loyal), in Kingfisher County.

When the Cheyenne and Arapaho reservation opened to non-Indian settlement in April 1892, Germans from Russia took up homes there. Earlier, in the 1880s Mennonites led by Heinrich Voth had established missions and schools at Darlington and Cantonment, in the Cheyenne and Arapaho reservation. When the reservation opened, Voth's assistant, John J. Kliewer, helped bring a colony of German-Russian Mennonites from Kansas to Korn (Corn), in Washita County, in 1892 and 1893. This was the largest colony of that ethnic/religious group in the territory. By 1907 there were eight Mennonite Brethren churches in the county, and a Bible Academy operated at Korn (renamed Corn during World War I's period of anti-German sentiment). In addition, in 1892-93 Volga (Baptist) and Black Sea (Lutheran) German-Russians from Lehigh, Kansas, settled around the town of Bessie. At the same time, Mennonites settled near in Blaine County around Geary.

German-Russians were also among the thousands who made the dash into the Cherokee Outlet in September 1893 and created numerous colonies, especially along the Cimarron River and its tributaries. Communities associated with them include Meno and Fairfiew in Major County, Medford and Deer Creek in Grant County, Goltry in Alfalfa County, and Lahoma in Garfield County. Between 1900 and 1902 Evangelical Volga Germans moved from Marion, Kansas, to Shattuck, in Ellis County. This colony proved to be the state's most cohesive and long-lasting. Similarly, when the Kiowa-Comanche-Apache lands were opened in 1901, Germans from Russia moved there also, joining Mennonite missionaries who by 1894 had established Post Oak Mission for the Comanche people, in Comanche County. Others settled around Gotebo, in Kiowa County. In the Oklahoma Panhandle, a large group settled in 1904 in Texas County around Hooker (Mennonites and Lutherans), and others (Mennonites) settled in 1903 in Beaver County around Turpin and Balko.

Thus, over the period of years from 1889 to 1910 eight major clusters of Germans from Russia emerged in western Oklahoma. A significant characteristic of the German-Russian settlement pattern was their tendency to form a dispersed rural community often lying along a river and its tributaries. Another hallmark was their focused community life, centered around a church or a small town. The census of 1900 lists more than twenty-eight hundred Russian-born persons, mostly ethnic Germans, in Oklahoma Territory. By 1907, at statehood, the estimated number had grown to forty-one hundred. Their children and grandchildren numbered into the hundreds of thousands by mid-century. One of the primary contributions of the Germans from Russia to life in America was their introduction of Turkey red wheat, from seed brought from Russia in the 1870s by Mennonites. This hardy variety of grain was impervious to the diseases that devastated other strains of wheat on the Great Plains.

SEE ALSO: GERMANS, IMMIGRATION, MENNONITES, RELIGION, SETTLEMENT PATTERNS.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Dianna Everett and Cathey Kelly, "First, You Work: Germans from Russia to Texas," Panhandle-Plains Historical Review 56 (1983). Douglas Hale, The Germans from Russia in Oklahoma (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1980). Marvin E. Kroeker, "'Die Stillen im Lande': Mennonites in the Oklahoma Land Rushes," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 67 (Spring 1989). Karl Stumpp, The Emigration from Germany to Russia in the Years 1763 to 1862 (N.p.: American Historical Society of Germans from Russia, 1982).

Dianna Everett

© Oklahoma Historical Society

Return to top


Electronic Publishing Center | OSU Home | Search this Site