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 there. 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 during WWII. 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.

Neff Family Name

Neff Coat of Arms 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.

Go back to the Neff Family Name page.