The First Route of the German-American Heritage Survey
In early 2017, the German-American Heritage Foundation of the USA curated an exhibit dedicated to the history of the Volga-Germans.UnterunserLeit: Finding Kansas’ Volga-Germans was created in honor of 2016 Distinguished German-American of the Year Award winner Phillip F. Anschutz, and sought to relay the tale of this often forgotten but nonetheless instrumental group of ethnic German immigrants with the American public. The GAHF’s newest venture, the German-American Heritage Survey, presents the perfect venue for continuing to share their incredible story of religious persecution, economic hardship, encounters with xenophobia, and later flourishing in the western regions of the United States, this time with a wider audience: the World Wide Web.
The goal of the project is not merely to serve as an online map and repository for German-American sites. Instead, we wish to contextualize German-American history, to bring to light historic German settlements and immigration waves to and within the United States, showcasing the unique cultural practices, traditions, and experiences of the different German immigrant groups who traveled to this nation in search of a better life.As is so often the case in American immigration stories, the successful integration and acculturation of a group into the fabric of American society also results in its simultaneous fading from the national consciousness. For this reason, the survey will highlight specific groups and migrations through distinctive, interactive routes. Thus, it is our pleasure to announce the first designated route of the survey: The Volga-German Route.
The Volga-Germans in Russia
The Volga-Germans were an ethnic group who colonized land along the Volga River in southeastern Russia during the 18th century. They maintained relative autonomy for the
next century on account of special arrangements with Catherine the Great, who promised colonists freedom of religion, tax breaks, and exemption from the otherwise-mandatory military draft in exchange for their settlement and cultivation of the desolate region. Although the Volga-Germans came from diverse German regions with differing cultural traditions – Catholics, Lutherans, and Anabaptists from principalities such as Bavaria, Baden, Hessen and the Rhineland were among the first to make the journey — during their sojourn in Russia, they merged to form a unique variant of German culture, distinguishing themselves from both their Russian neighbors and former German compatriots.
In 1871, however, Alexander II revoked all exemptions from the Russian military draft, thus requiring compulsory service for all males over the age of twenty. To the Volga-Germans, this change marked the potential end of a culture that they had worked so hard to preserve outside of Germany. In 1874, five Volga-German villages elected
representatives to explore the possibility of resettlement in the American Midwest… and so begins the tale of the American Volga-Germans. After receiving favorable reports of America from their representatives, dozens of Volga-German families departed for the United States, particularly west central Kansas. During the next four years, hundreds of other families joined them, settling in Kansas and other western states.
The Volga-German communities in Russia were held together by faith, a reality made stronger by the fact that Russian officials separated settlers by denomination. Many of the colonists had fled their German homeland due to religious persecution – religious
minorities such as Moravians, Mennonites, and other Anabaptists were shunned and targeted in strictly Catholic or Lutheran principalities. Mandatory church attendance, the lack of literature aside from Bibles, catechisms, and hymnals in Volga-German schools, and the absence of beer halls in the German settlements on the Volga worked to strengthen the importance of religion in their communities. Although the Volga-Germans became well-integrated with time, the first Volga-Germans settled according to faith, forming distinctly religious towns and counties, just as they had done in the Wolgaheimat.
Transition to life in America was not always seamless – over a century of isolation in Russia had produced a culture that was unidentifiable to both native-born Americans and other immigrants, even those of German background. To many native-born Germans, the Volga-German immigrants appeared more Russian than German. Their dialects often differed greatly from those spoken by “Imperial” German settlers. The men wore long, heavy overcoats, felt boots, and fur hats and the women were often seen wearing black dresses and headscarves made from heavy materials to shield them from the harsh climate of the Russian steppe.
In part due to the Mir system of communal land tenure in Russia, the Volga-Germans developed a cultural idealization of labor, viewing work as a way of life rather than a means to an end. Unlike their neighbors, the Volga-Germans relied heavily on female labor, often hiring out daughters as farmhands, maids, or nannies. Without the labor of women, survival on the harsh prairie would not have been possible. The majority of Volga-German immigrants to Kansas and other western states continued to work in agriculture, helping to revitalize drought-ridden regions that were not was unlike the Russian steppe they had left behind. It has been estimated that the Volga-Germans brought over $21 million in today’s dollars into Kansas in the second half of 1874.
Today, descendants of the Kansas and western Volga-Germans can be found all over the United States and the world. Despite their striking differences, the Volga-Germans ultimately assimilated into the rich and diverse American landscape. As was the case for most Americans of German descent, anti-German sentiment on account of the First World War signaled the end of cultural preservation for many Volga-Germans. Sadly, the use of Volga-German dialects declined and ethnic heritage became a private matter. However, thanks to organizations such as the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia (AHSGR) and hopefully through our survey, the legacy of the Volga-Germans will be preserved for centuries to come.
If you would like to share your own Volga-German heritage with the survey or submit sites for documentation, please visit the submission link on our homepage. We are excited to begin the process of documenting the first route of the German-American Heritage survey!
Historical background courtesy of the German-American Heritage Foundation exhibit booklet “Unterunser Leit: Finding Kansas’ Volga-Germans.”
Grasee, Tyler, Rose Guardino, Erika Harms and John M. Manoyan. UnterunserLeit: Finding Kansas’sVolga-Germans. Washington D.C.: The German-American Heritage Museum, January 31, 2017.