Chapter I: German Colonists Leave for Russia

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Transcribed by Michael A. O’Neill in November 2014
Transcribers note: This transcription of Emma’s book was created using Dragon Naturally Speaking voice recognition software, which will result in capitalization errors; misspellings of proper names; and odd usage of prepositions or common words. Originals can be found at the location(s) listed on Worldcat, as well as in the Seattle Genealogical Society‘s library.

From time immemorial the people of Germany had been accustomed to wars and invasions. In the sixth century the armies of Attila and his Huns swept westward as far as present-day France leaving a train of burning villages and blood-drenched battlefields behind them. During the succeeding centuries there was constant danger of attack from the Magyars and Slavs; and throughout the Middle Ages the territorial greed of German princes brought continual suffering. From 1618 to 1648 the disastrous 30 Years War reduced the population of Germany by two-thirds; and in the succeeding century the rival claims of such rulers as Louis XIV, Frederick the Great and Maria Teresa resulted in nothing but devastation and distress.

As a result of these constant wars, many German immigrants began to leave their native land in the 18th century. The state of Pennsylvania in the New World, and such countries as Poland and Hungary in Europe, became the goal of thousands of immigrants. Then on 22 July 1763 Catherine the great of Russia issued a Manifesto in which she invited the immigrants of all nationalities except Jews to settle along the Volga and act as a bulwark against the wild Mongolian tribes of the Eastern steppes. In her Manifesto, specific promises were made such as freedom of religion, internal self-government, and freedom from military service. In addition, Russian commissioners and agents were stationed in such cities as Frankfurt on the main, and Ulm & Regensburg in Bavaria, to expedite the departure of the colonists. Because of these inducements, thousands of dissatisfied German people decided to leave for Russia. Every German district was represented in the Exodus, although the largest number of colonists came from Hessen and the Rhineland provinces. Others left Thuringia and the southern provinces of Bavaria and Baden. The emigration became so great that the frightened rulers of Mainz, Trier, Cologne and Frankfurt soon issued decrees forbidding their people to leave the country. In other towns such as Giessen, laws were passed in an attempt to ameliorate the condition of the poorer classes. “Lending houses” were set up so that people who had to borrow money would not be forced to go to usurers, and it was also decreed that unemployed men and women were to be taught trades, and that the taxes should be lowered.

Nevertheless, by this time approximately 27,000 Germans had already set sail from such ports as Lübeck and were on their way to Russia. Among these immigrants there must have been at least sixteen direct ancestors of ours on the Miller side of the family—all of whom probably left Germany in the year 1766. Although it would be extremely interesting to know just who these people were, and from what towns of Germany they originally came, the information that is come down to us is pitifully meager. The names of five ancestors were: Miller, Giebelhaus, Yost, Hoff and Glantz. (See chart on page 35). Only one of these families, the Giebelhaus, is able to trace its family tree back to Germany. According to my mother’s cousin, Mrs. Margaret Kruger, the original Conrad Giebelhaus left Hesse Darmstadt as an 18-year-old boy. This doesn’t necessarily mean that he came from the city of Darmstadt, since the whole province was known by the double name of Hesse Darmstadt to distinguish it from the other section called Hesse Cassel. (It was from Hesse Cassel, by the way, and not from Darmstadt that the German soldiers came who were rented out to King George III in the American Revolution.”)

The spelling of the name “Miller” has always intrigued me because in the German language it should have been “Mueller” or “Müller,” whereas “Miller” would ordinarily indicate a person coming from England. However, while I was in Germany in 1939 I found the name of a Johann Casper Miller who was married to Anna Barbara Schnorr on 12 June 1766 shortly before he left for Russia. This would indicate that there were people in Germany in the 18th century who spelled their name in this fashion. One possible explanation is that during the British religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries, persecuted groups may have entered western Germany, just as the Puritans temporarily lived in the Netherlands before sailing for Plymouth in 1620.

Although there is practically nothing that we know about the specific men and women who left Germany in 1766, we can mention some of the factors that were to shape their lives in Russia during the following century. The first thing to remember is that Germany didn’t exist as a united nation in 1766. The only supreme ruler was the Austrian Emperor, who claimed authority over all of central Europe and northern Italy. In Germany itself, certain sections, such as Prussia, Saxony, Hanover, etc. had independent monarchs, but all the rest of the country—and particularly the southwestern part—was one vast hodgepodge of 300 separate cities and principalities, some of the latter no larger than a good-sized game preserve. Throughout the 18th century the rulers of these countries tried to ape the rococo life of the frivolous French court at Versailles, over which Louis XV and his notorious mistress, Madame Pompadour, were then ruling. Even as great a figure as the German dramatist Lessing once stated, “Of the love of country I have no conception. It appears to me at best a heroic weakness which I’m glad to be without.”

Because of this widespread attitude, the average German citizen of the 18th century was almost entirely lacking in any feeling of national patriotism. This was particularly true in the Southwest where the greatest political confusion prevailed; and since most of the Volga Germans came from there, it is not surprising to hear that they failed to develop any strong feeling of political loyalty to Russia during their first century in that country. On the other hand, they again resembled their medieval ancestors in possessing a deep feeling of loyalty and love toward their native villages.

The economic and agricultural life of the Volga Germans was also influenced by the 18th century. When they left for Russia the guild system was still in effect. A boy learned a trade by becoming an apprentice and then setting up his own shop as a master. A similar system continued to be used along the Volga during the 19th century. In the same way, the wooden plows, the three-field system of agriculture, and the methods of sowing, harvesting and threshing remained practically unchanged during this period.

As far as religion was concerned, the Volga Germans were Catholic, Lutheran or Reformed. The third group consisted of the followers of such men as Calvin and Zwingli who believed in a very simple, rather democratic church organization. After their arrival in Russia, the Volga Germans settled in villages with members of their own religious faith. As time went on, a growing spirit of toleration developed between the Lutheran and Reformed villages, and frequent intermarriages took place. The Catholics, on the other hand, remained distinctly separate, and to this day the average Protestant Volga German in the United States knows practically nothing about his Catholic compatriots from Russia.

Closely connected with religion is the literary heritage that the German people took with them into Russia. The works of such 18th century poets as Klopstock, Günther and Claudius seem to have made little impression upon them, but the many religious poems that had been set to music and were being sung in the Protestant churches were of such importance that a brief description of them will be included at this point.

The introduction of Congregational Church singing was begun by Martin Luther who felt that something was needed to replace the discarded Catholic Mass. Luther himself had always been interested in music and used his knowledge of the subject to compose some of the most inspiring of the 16th century German chorale. Among the twenty-five different hymns which he himself wrote, the most important is the magnificent “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” which has a solemnity and strength that has never been surpassed among Protestant productions.

Luther also urged his friends to write hymns, and one of them, Nicholas Decius, wrote the song which was often sung during the Sunday morning service between the first prayer and the Apostle’s Creed. The German words were:

“Allein Gott in der Höh sei Her
Und dank für seine Gnade.
Darum dass nun und nimmermehr
Uns rühren kann kein Schade.
Ein wohlgefall’n Gott an uns hat,
Nun ist gross Fried’ ohn Unterlass
All Fehd’ hat nun ein Ende.”

Paul Gearhart was another great German hymn writer. He was born in Saxony in 1607, studied at Wittenberg, and later became pastor of the Berlin church. Two of his best-known hymns are the happy sounding “Wauch auf mein Herz und Singe” and the lovely words of ”Befiehl du Deine Wege” (Commit Thou all Thy Griefs) which has proved a source of comfort and consolation to thousands of Volga Germans in all the trials and sorrows of their history.

Two members of the Reformed Church, Joachim Neander and Gerhard Tersteegen, also made valuable contributions to German church hymnology. Neander’s most celebrated work is the magnificent hymn of praise “Lobet den Herren, den mächtigen König der Ehren” which has been described as having a ring in it like the sound of trumpets. Tersteegen, on the other hand, was particularly influenced by the pietistic movement of the 18th century. There is a peculiar calmness and tenderness in all of his poems. This child-like faith is clearly seen in his hymn “Ich bete an die Macht der Liebe, die sich in Jesu Offenbart” which is sung to the music of the Russian composer, Bortininsky. A second poem also has unusually lovely words:

“Gott ist gegenwartig.
Lasset uns anbeten
Und in Ehrfurcht vor ihn treten.
Gott ist in der Mitte
Alles in uns schweige
Und sich innigst vor ihm beuge.
Wer ihn Kennt
Wer ihn Kennt
Schlag die Augen nieder.
Geb das Herz ihm wieder.”

Another religious sect whose hymns were borrowed by the Volga Germans was the Moravian group. The leader of these people, Count Zinzendorf, was born in Dresden in 1700, and at an early age came under the influence of pietistic ideas. After having been banished from Saxony for religious reasons, he came to the United States in 1741 and founded the celebrated Moravian colony at Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. He later returned to Germany and eventually died on his Herrnhut estate. Saxony’s most famous hymn, “Jesu geh Voran,” was usually sung at the beginning of a wedding ceremony.

“Jesu geh voran
Auf der Lebensbahn;
Und wir wollen nicht verweilen,
Dir getreulich nachzueilen,
Führ uns an der Hand
Bis ins Vaterland.”

Last of all, we should remember Martin Rinkart who wrote the ringing words: “Now Praise We All Our God.”

“Nun danket alle Gott
Mit Herzen, Mund, und Händen
Der grosse Dinge thut
An uns und allen Enden.”

The music to which these hymns are sung possesses a strength and dignity equal to that of the words. This fact can be easily understood when one remembers that such outstanding musicians as Johann Sebastian Bach and Georg Friedrich Handel were composing their inspiring chorale and oratorios in the period immediately preceding the departure of the Volga Germans for Russia. As a result, much of the music in the Volga Gesangbuch contains the same religious fervor that one finds in the tender chorale of these 18th-century German masters.

And so our Volga German ancestors prepared to leave their native land, carrying with them their precious German heritage of music and religion, of industry and thrift and cleanliness. But because they were also 18th-century Europeans, they were unable to take along with them any knowledge of modern sanitation, of science or machinery. Their medical knowledge consisted primarily of simple herbs, of reciting charms, and of bleeding a person who was ill. Many of them were superstitious, and in their villages a belief in witchcraft could still be found. They had never heard a symphony, and knew little about the theater or Opera. Beethoven and Napoleon were still unborn. The steam engine would not be invented for four more years. Neither the American nor the French Revolutions had yet taken place, and the United States consisted of 13 struggling colonies barely populated as far as the Appalachian Mountains.

Any moment of departure for a new land is likely to bring with it mixed feelings of curiosity, sorrow and hope. These must also have been the sensations felt by our German ancestors as they left for Russia. But I like to think that a spirit of courageous hope in the future with their predominant feeling, and that after the last view of their homeland had disappeared, they turned their faces to the east and with uplifted heads repeated themselves the beautiful old German expression, “Wir gehen den Tag entgang” or “We go forth to meet the day.”

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