12 November 2008

My German Russian Heritage

In 1763 Catherine the Great of Russia, published a manifesto inviting settlers to immigrate and colonize Russian promising free lands, expenses for the move, freedom from taxation for 30 years, and exemption from civil and military service for themselves and their descendants. The empress’s agents recruited settlers especially from the poorer German states devastated by the Seven Years’ War. My Befort family were among one of the first groups who made the journey in 1766 with hopes of a better future for themselves and their children.

The Catholic settlement of Obermonjou was established on the east side of the Volga River--about 40 miles northeast of Saratov--by 82 families on 5 March 1767. By 1798 the town consisted of 211 males, 218 females totaling 429 people comprising of 76 families. There are census records for the village of Obermonjou for the years 1798, 1816, 1834, 1850 and 1857. The Befort families appear in all of them.

A century after the first Germans had settled in the Volga region, Russia passed legislation that revoked many of the privileges promised to them by Catherine the Great. In 1878, 3/4 of the village of Obermonjou packed their belongings and came to the United States.

My 2nd great grandparents - Gerhardt Befort and Catherina Stecklein - arrived at the Port of New York on 17 July 1878 on the ship SS Donau. Scouts had been sent ahead of time to find a suitable place to settle. It was perhaps a poster like above that one of them saw and drew them to Kansas. Whatever the reason, it was Ellis County, Kansas that the majority of Catholic Volga Germans from Russia chose to live.

Russian-Germans in Kansas did not quickly adopt American customs and manners. As in Russia, they settled in close-knit rural communities and remained somewhat isolated from other residents. They preserved their language and traditions for decades, entering mainstream American life only gradually. My father was the first generation in his family to use English as a first language. Unlike most other immigrants to Kansas, the Russian-Germans generally arrived in large groups, often by the trainload. They caused something of a sensation and attracted a great deal of curiosity. The clothing of early Volga Germans was a constant source of amusement to newspaper columnists. Accustomed to severe Russian winters, the Volga Germans wore longs sheepskin coats, heavy felt boots, and head coverings much heavier than the Kansas climate required. The women generally wore dark colored clothing. The only bits of color you might see would be embroidered on their black shawls they wore to cover their heads.They were Catholics and very devout. Religion played a very important part of their daily lives.

The very year of their arrival the settlers purchased Section 25, and organized the Munjor Land Company, which in 1882 was superseded by an incorporated organization, the Munjor Town and Grazing Company. Part of the section was surveyed for a town site, and each lot holder became a member of the company, which started business with a capital stock of $10,000 - 200 shares at $50.00 per share. Among other things, the charter provided that the company have a board of directors made up of five members, a president, a vice-president, a secretary, and a treasurer, all to be chosen from the members of the company; that no portion of the land holdings could be burdened with debt, transferred, or sold without the consent of two-thirds of the shareholders. The by-laws provided for quarterly meetings, and an annual election of directors.

Unfortunately , the settlers were incapable of properly handling the affairs of such a corporation, and the result was a long series of accusations and quarrels which split the town in half. After a futile attempt to settle matters in the courts, the two contending parties came to an agreement, the Munjor Town and Grazing Company was dissolved and peace and harmony restored, to the relief and joy of all concerned.

Munjor remains a small, unincorporated village that is a deeply religious, highly industrious, and extremely progressive that continues to display an intense pride in their heritage.

Volga-Germans are in an enviable position genealogically speaking. While they were in Russia and after the move to Kansas, people did not marry outside of their communities, even if the villages were within a few miles of each other. In researching my Befort line I found this to be true. the only place you'll find them for 100 years is in Munjor, Ellis County, Kansas.


  1. Very interesting post. My ancestors were also Germans from Russia. Although, they did not emigrate when your people did. Which means they ended up living under the iron fist of Stalin...

    As a kid, I literally ate up the stories my Oma used to tell about her life in Ukraine (she immigrated to Canada after WW2). I think I partly got my love of history through her.

    The neat thing is that I am currently working on an independent movie based on the Germans from Russia in the early days of the Soviet Union. "Under Jakob's Ladder" is about a man named Jakob who finds himself arrested and thrown into prison for saying the Lord's Prayer at a funeral...

    You can watch the preliminary trailer here.

  2. Sheri,

    Good post! I had heard about Germans from Russia but I wasn't sure of the history behind it. And, I was fascinated by the fact that most of your ancestors' town moved together to settle here!


  3. Sheri, I really appreciate you telling this story. I'm also a Germans-from-Russia descendant with ancestors from the village of Kratzke and Merkel, in the Saratov region. My ancestors were Lutheran however and settled in Trego County (Wakeeney) and Russell County, Kansas. All you said was absolutely true. My grandfather was born in America--his parents came over in 1886, but my Grandmother came thru Ellis Island in 1904, at age 2. They only spoke German--my dad only learned English at age 12! Anyway, I enjoyed your post and am going to refer my dad to it also. He's on Facebook at age 87! Thanks, Sheri!

  4. Fascinating and nicely written, Sheri. Long sheepskin coats and felt boots seem kind of "in" now, don't they? ... well, in *some* winter places nowadays.

  5. I guess you can count it as a helpful thing to a genealogist that so many emigrants married within their own groups. This was a very interesting story Sheri.

  6. Of course not only Volga Germans came to the US from Russia. My great grandfather came from Volhynia now in northwest Ukraine. Also during the late 19th and early 20th centuries a large number of Russian-Germans settled in Canada, Argentina, Brazil and Asian areas of the Russian Empire. The first Russian-German settlements in Central Asia date back to 1882.

  7. Thank you Otto and Maria Antonia. I am excited that my blog is reaching people with interests that are not mainly family history.

    Neither one of you left a way for me to write you personally, so I can only hope you read my appreciation here.

    Sheri Fenley

  8. I'm also descended from Germans from Russia. My Protestant grandparents came from the village of Frank in the Saratov region. I'm hoping to take a trip there in 2010, perhaps returning by way of Hesse in Germany where the family came from originally.

    I live in San Francisco and was riding in a cab the other day. We have a large Russian immigrant community here and my driver was from Russia. I told him about my family background and he said to me, "What's this German from Russia stuff. Your family lived in Russia for over 100 years. Three, maybe four generations. You're Russian!"

    It made me think; why is it so important to distinguish myself from the Russians? My grandparents spoke German but they also spoke Russian. My grandfather also spoke Polish and served as a translator in the Czar's cavalry.

    My family was in Russia longer than we've been in the United States yet I don't think twice about calling myself American.

  9. Very interesting blog!I'm glad I ran across it! I will definately try to watch "Under Jakob's Ladder". My ancestors are also German Russians who immigrated from the Crimea to Saskatchewan, Canada from 1905 - 1910. Interestingly enough, my Great Grandfather was a "Jakob" as well and disppeared in Russia. He never made it to Canada. My German Great Grandfather and Grandfather were "Musterwitte" Farmers who taught young Jewish famers the agriculture trade in Nikolafield, Nikolajew, Russia in the 1850's through to 1900. As I understand it, many of the young Jewish people lived within German Lutheran Villages and in the homes to learn farming techniques. Unfortunately, in those early days, German Jewish people were all but welcomed and barely tolerated in Russia. Unfortunately, and as I understand it, Communism gained popularity and Katherine's "Manifesto" welcoming Germans waned greatly. I have studied the Villages where my German ancestor's lived and was devestated to learn that many of my kin were either imprisoned or made to join the Russian Army, forced to abandon their farms and Villages. Village records show several murders of Jewish Farmers during WWI and by WWII several of the same Villages were abandoned and the Jewish people murdered.

    Jeana made a very good point, my German ancestors lived in Russia for over 180 years and yet I was always taught that my ethnicity is German - Russian, not German, and not Russian. My ancestry records show my Grandparents leaving Europe for Canada via Bremen Germany, and this was likely the first time they had seen the Mother Country Germany.
    My people, apparently always spoke German, despite their 100 + years in Russia! My father,was a 1st Generation Canadian, his first Language was German. He spoke it to us as we were growing up. I consider myself Canadian first and foremost, however was taught to never forget my German ancestry. I beleive the answer to the question that Jeana posed is simply: "The German is a Willow Tree, No matter which way you bend him, he will always take root again." Alexander Solzhenitsyn
    Lastly, I'm in the throes of frantic research to make my goal the completion of my Family Book. It is called "A Legacy of Promises" because my German ancestors left Germany for Russia based on "promises" and left Russia for Canada, again based on "promises" made by the Canadian Government during a settlement drive. My Family book is about more than Geneology however, it also speaks to a tumultous time of change and transitions in Russia and of populating a relatively newborn Country of Canada.

    1. Hi Deborah, I'm doing some research on my genealogy and I can't find anything about the Musterwitte Farmer who taught Jewish farmers. Do you have any more historical references to this? I am trying to trace the Jewish side of my family and I think this may be the connection. Any help you can give would be greatly appreciated!

  10. Now that was very interesting. I too am from that little village of Munjor & I never knew about the incorporation. I am surprised they didn't try to have it settled in the church rather than the courts.

    I know I was part of one of the first generations that were discouraged from speaking German.

  11. I lived in Munjor Kansas from birth until about the age of 14. My great-grnadmother, grandparents and 2 of my Dad's brothers all lived on the same block in this small western Kansas town. I don't know enough about the history of Munjor but I know I grew up with and went to school with mostly Volga German catholics. We called ourselves Volga German because Obermunjor is located on the Volga River in Russia. My Dad has a lot of the Munjor geneology and information about the scouts who settled the area. He also has photos of the cemetary including grave stones from some of the original settlers. He would love to share with anyone who is interested.

  12. I'm so late getting to this but it is really interesting. My great-grandparents left Obermonjou for Galveston, Texas around 1901, and then traveled from Ellis County, Kansas to Edmonton, Alberta. I've been looking for more information regarding the history and circumstances around such a great move. Does anyone have any ideas were I can access records to try and locate my relatives in Obermunjou? Right now I only have the immigration records and nothing from their time in Russia. My family's name is Seib.

  13. Jennifer,
    My German Russian ancestors Also came in through galveston in 1901.
    I have alot of information on this.

  14. waiting for next post

  15. TO Joanne Gartner - I'd love to connect & learn more. Some of my relatives are in the Munjor cemetery. I'd heard they were vandalized & many of the photos were destroyed.

    Many of the headstones in the Munjor cemetery contained a photograph sealed behind a thick glass embedded into the metal or marble.

    I left Munjor about 1964.

  16. I had been told my great greandfather was German and came to the U.S around 1900. Now I do some research and find he was born in Russia. Is it possible he is a "German-Russian"? It looks like the area he was born in is called Guaitele, or Guaitels. I can't find where that may have been located in Russia. By the way, he was born in 1875, if that helps.

  17. I had always been told my great grandfather was German and came to this country around 1900. Now I do some research and find he was born in Russia. Could he be one of these German Russians? It looks like he was born in 1875 in an area called Guaitele, or Guaitels. Does anyone know where this is?

    This stuff is just sooo fascinating!

  18. To find out more about your German-Russian history, check out the American Historical Society of Germans from Russian at ahsgr.org. If you know the name of your village look for the Village Coordinator and they will have some more information about the village and its occupants.

  19. What an enjoyable article.

    My Great and Great Great Grandparents came to Canada in the early 1900s, affected by the unrest and loss of the traditional rights of the Bessarabians, but missing the worst excesses of Stalin and Hitler. My ancestor Philip Littke left letters to his descendants about the old life and country, and there are a few photos of them.

    He was a conscientious objector in the last Russo-Turkish War, when the Bessarabians lost their traditional right to not have to perform military service. He was put to work on the bread wagon and denied his military pay, leaving his family near starvation as a result.

    Although they left Bessarabia before the Hitler-Stalin pact brought disaster, I have copies of some of the original documents their relatives had to fill out accounting for them and their ancestry that the Nazis required before the deportations.

  20. Thank you Jamie, I'm glad you enjoyed the article!

  21. One poster agreed with the taxi driver that if ones German ancestors lived in Russia for a number of generations they are Russian.

    I suggested this to a lady whose German parents had come from a German village in Russia. She had the right answer back to me of German ancestory.

    She asked, "If your great grandparents moved to China and your family grew up there would you be Chinese? Guess the taxi driver is wrong.

  22. My maiden name is Gartner, and my father was from Kansas. All I have been able to find out about his grandparents (from an old government census in the early 1900's) is that they spoke Russian and they were Catholic. Anyone ever hear of Russian speaking Catholic Germans in Kansas?

  23. Ann - The name Gartner doesn't sound familiar to me in regards to my family.
    In answer to the general question about religion. My Germans from Russia family were among the few that were Catholic. Most were Lutheran. The Catholics mostly came from villages along the Upper Volga River Valley like Obermonjou,

  24. I am a BEFORT, I grew up on a farm near a Village named MAZEPPA, after a legendary UKRAINIAN Cossack hero, Ivan Mazeppa. My great-grandparents spoke German in the home and came to what is now Minnesota for free farmland as part of the Homestead Act. I would not be surprised if we are not one of the Russian-Germans you write of.