13 August 2012

REDEUX: Are Your Germans From Russia?

Here for your reading enjoyment, is a post from 2008.  This article sparked comments and further discussion that continues even today among 55 readers of this blog!

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. Agents of the Empress recruited settlers especially from the poorer German states devastated by the Seven Year War. My paternal 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 extant census records for the village of Obermonjou for the years 1798, 1816, 1834, 1850 and 1857. The Befort family 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, all but a few from the village of Obermonjou packed their belongings and came to the United States.

My 2nd great grandparents Gerhardt Befort and Catherina Stecklein (pictured below) 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  the one above that drew them to Kansas. Whatever the reason, it was Ellis County, Kansas that the majority of Catholic Volga Germans from Russia chose to live.  

Gerhardt Befort and Katherina Stecklein

They used whatever they could find to build their first homes that summer including saplings and trees from the nearby creek and prairie sod to help build dugouts and their "Semlinkas" (sod homes).  

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. 

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 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. 

Munjor, Ellis County, Kansas

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.

St. Francis Catholic Church

St. Francis Catholic Church Cemetery is where my Befort family is buried.  A point of interest - If you see painted iron crosses  in a cemetery, you can be sure that Germans from Russian are buried there.  

Catholic church cemetery in Victoria, Ellis County, Kansas

St. Francis Cemetery has 72 beautiful metal art works that are the iron cross grave markers for many of the early Munjor pioneers.

Gerhardt & Catherina Befort headstones, St. Francis Catholic Church Cemetery, Munjor, Ellis County, Kansas

Gerhardt Befort's headstone  isn't one of those fabulous iron crosses.  His is made of some type of stone and the words aren't in English, but I was assured by the church secretary that it is his headstone. 

Anyone researching Volga-Germans are in an enviable position genealogically speaking. While residing in Russia they never really became "Russians."  For 150 years, they spoke only German, remained true to the Catholic faith and did not marry outside of their communities, even if the villages were within a few miles of each other.  This behaviour continued even after they immigrated to Kansas.  My father was the first in his family to use English as a first language and the first to leave Munjor and marry an outsider - my mother who he met while attending Kansas State University in Manhattan.

Munjor remains a small, unincorporated village in Ellis County, Kansas with a population of 224 inhabitants.


  1. How did I miss this post the first time? ;-) My Germans from Russia came to McPherson County in 1874. They were Volhynians--Mennonites. Then around the turn of the century, they came down to Oklahoma--Over 80 of them are buried at Karoma Cemetery in Goltry in Alfalfa County. Interesting bunch, aren't they?

  2. Well, Sheri, ya made me look it up! I've been to the "Little Apple" (Manhattan, KS), but I had never heard of Munjor. Turns out we drove right by there on our trip back to Kansas last winter. Painfully close. No wonder you were hoping we had some more time...