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Germans from Russia in Ellis County

German Catholics from Russia brought along precious cultural treasures when they came to Ellis County in 1876. They had carried along many of these traditions when they left their native Germany more than 100 years earlier.

At that time Germany was war weary, recovering from the Seven Years’ War. Catherine the Great of Russia was a fellow German who was interested in building an agricultural region along the Volga and Karaman rivers. She was confident that the German people could further her plan by introducing modern agricultural methods. As an incentive, she promised colonists freedom from taxes, assistance with their move, and exemption from military service. These offers proved appealing. Between 1763 and 1768 more than 25,000 Germans, mostly from the west central region, established 104 colonies on the Russian plains. There in farming communities they lived in relative peace and prosperity for more than 100 years, having limited interaction with the local population.

After Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War and as other European countries made military advances, Alexander II revoked the military exemption and expanded the Russian army. Many of the Volga Germans sought a more sympathetic arrangement in the United States; a number of Catholic families chose Ellis County.

These settlers established the German-speaking communities of Liebenthal, just outside the county, then Catharine (Katharinestadt), Herzog, Munjor, Pfeifer, and Schoenchen. In these new communities they continued the distinct traditions and dialects of their ancestors. They established retail businesses and services like German language newspapers, which strengthened their community bonds, and churches that strengthened their faith. They practiced the farming skills they had honed on the Russian plains.

Wedding traditions were particularly important in these communities. Brides usually wore long, full gowns of a dark color. The traditional white gown became popular in the early 20th century. Gowns were often trimmed with long grosgrain ribbon streamers. Hair was worn up and the head was adorned with a crown of floral blossoms and a veil. Grooms wore tailored dark woolen suit with a boutonniere of floral blossoms tied to flowing white grosgrain ribbon to match the bride.

The festivity might begin at the home of a relative, where the bride and groom kneel to receive a blessing. The couple would walk in a procession to the church for Mass. A relative would host the meal including a roast, dumplings, fruit soup, and bread.

The dance would feature a Hochzeit (or wedding band, consisting of a violin, cello, dulcimer, accordion or reed organ, and sometimes a clarinet. The band played traditional polkas and waltzes while guests pinned money on the couple’s streamers or clothing. With these strong bonds and traditions, communities maintained their unique dialects and could be identified by specific characteristics. Linguists in Germany and in Kansas have since studied, recorded, classified, and connected the dialects with locations in Germany. Many of these dialects have been separated from their German counterparts for more than 200 years. Linguists discovered that in some cases the dialects no longer exist in Germany.

A majority of people today in Ellis County descend from these Catholic German families. Although many of the dialects are disappearing with fewer households speaking German, many of the music, food, and faith traditions are being kept alive.

Entry: Germans from Russia in Ellis County

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: April 2015

Date Modified: December 2017

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.