Germans from Russia
Germans-from-Russia is a large ethnic group in the upper Great Plains area of the United States
and running into southern Canada. Some groups also settled in South America. They came from
Russia, but were Germans.
Catherine the Great, Czarina of the Russian Empire, needed people to settle the southern steppes
of Russia, people who were good farmers and could be taxed, unlike the nomadic Cossacks who were
The Cossacks were a group known for their horse-riding, fighting skills, and resistance
to rule. Catherine, being German herself, invited Germans (and other western Europeans) to
come and settle this area, and
promised them many things, among them partial autonomy, not being eligible for the draft,
and the right to keep their religion and language.
Since Germany was not unified at this time, there were several border skirmishes, sometimes
resulting in the new ruler changing the religion of his subjects (primarily between Lutheran
and Catholic). Also, land in German families is often split among the male descendents, so
it was becoming fragmented. On top of this, the Little Ice Age was still causing problems
with the farm crops. So, many Germans settled in Russia, from the Polish areas to the
Crimean (Krimea) Peninsula, including modern-day Moldavia, and along the Volga River.
By the end of the 1800's, 1.8 million Germans lived in Russia.
The Germans prospered and built villages, including churches and schools. Often people settled
with others from the same village, and would speak the same dialect and worship in the same way.
But a century later, conditions started to deteriorate. Anti-foreigner sentiment grew and in
the 1870's Germans started to come to America, often for the promise of free land in the Great
Plains under the homestead act. This flat treeless plain was also similar to the southern
steppes of Russia. Later wars and famines in Russia added to the migrations.
Mennonites led the migration both to and from Russia.
The migration was largely cut off by the 1917 revolution. Contacts were lost, visas denied. Still the
Germans kept their autonomous region in southern Russia. Stalin, however, did not trust many
people, the Germans among them, and persecuted them (Stalin probably killed more civilians than Hitler).
This included taking away their
grain and causing starvation (on the pretense that the starvation was worse in the rest of the
country), killing those that protested, and eventually splitting up families and shipping many
to work camps in Siberia or Kazahkstan. The invading German army also uprooted many families
Today, many of the surviving Germans are moving back to Germany or forgetting their German
heritage altogether. Interestingly, their language is usually a German dialect that has been
forgotten in Germany over the past 200 years.
For more resources, check out American Historical Society of
Germans from Russia, based in Kansas; Germans from Russia
Heritage Society, based in Bismarck, ND;
and the NDSU collections, of Fargo, ND.
Some of the earliest Neffs found are in Zurich and the small town of Kappel, Switzerland in
the 1300's. Although very small, Kappel played an important role during the reformation
when the Catholic Church became divided in western Europe. During the
reformation, an Adam Neff fought heroically in the Battle of Kappel, 1531. He was given
several honors, including citizenship in the city of Zurich, and possibly this is when
the Neff coat of arms was created. At the bottom it says, translated, "Naef, from Zuerich and
Kappel". Out of the reformation, the Anabaptist movement
(essentially now known as the Mennonites) was
formed, and many Neffs joined this denomination. Eventually persecution pushed them
to nearby Germany, then to Russia, the United States or other countries. As our
German-from-Russia Neffs were Anabaptist, it is possible, but not proven,
that we come from this Zurich, Switzerland line.
Story of my Neff Family
As best currently known, my Neff family came from Grossbotwar Germany, about 20 miles north
of Stuttgart. Johann Frederich Neff was born in Grossbotwar in 1760, moved to Brackenheim,
Germany. (However, another source states the Neffs came from Holstein in Germany).
In either case, in the early
1800's they moved to Russia where numerous German colonies had been created near the Volga
River on the southern steppes. They settled in Dinkel,
Russia, which also went by the Russian name of Tarlykovka. This was on the Tarlyk River, very
close to the mouth where it joined the Volga. Across the Tarlyk River was the town of Laub
(Tarlyk, in Russian), which spoke the same dialect of German as Dinkel, but was a Catholic
town. The story goes that everything was fine until winter, when the Catholic boys could
go across the ice and meet the Protestant girls.
Heinrich Neff was the first Neff born in Dinkel, in 1833. His son George Henry was a wagon
maker & wood worker, and would travel up the Volga to Saratov to sell his wares, buy wood and
travel back to Dinkel. George married Marie Katrina Rau, also of Dinkel, and in 1902
the family emigrated from Russia to North Dakota, stopping
first in Georgia where George Henry worked as a logger, perhaps to pay off the debt of
traveling. This is where a young daughter Amelia died. They then continued to North Dakota
where they were thankful to get away from the heat, and settled next to George's brother August.
George Henry's son, Karl Neff (Later Charles, or Chas G. Neff, my grandfather), grew up in
McClusky, ND. He worked in Minneapolis for a time, with the horses for the streetcars, then
returned to the family farm. He taught himself the law and became the county judge, a post
he held for many years.
The Schindlers (my Grandmother's Family)
On the Schindler side of the family, they moved around a bit more. Some from the Schmidt side
came from the Mannheim
area and settled in Austria for a time. Others came from Rockenhausen, Pfalz (Palatine) part
of Germany and moved to Hungary. The Schindlers settled in the Crimean Peninsula in South
Russia. Philip Schmidt married Elizabeth Tempel around 1865 in Austria, later they moved to
Neu Kassel, Russia. Philip died in 1881, apparently drafted to fight the Cossacks (over grain
supplies). Elizabeth remarried, but times were tough, and several children, including Susanna
Schmidt, moved to the Dakotas. There is a small town called Temvik, near Linton ND. The name
comes an Ed Larvik and two Tempel brothers (relatives of Susanna) who settled there.
In South Dakota, Susanna met Jacob Schindler, they were married in 1902 and my grandmother was
born soon after. They moved to the Temvik area, then McCluskey, where my grandparents met.
The rest, as they say, is history.