My maternal grandmother, Emma (Walz) Niesl was born in Freeman, SD in 1913 to Fred Walz and Sophie Bischke. The Walzes and Bischkes were German, but we had always been told as kids that they had lived in Russia or Ukraine. This seemed to make our family history just a little exotic, almost as if they were gypsies.
The Walzes and Bischkes were the very last of my ancestors to immigrate to the United States, in roughly 1905. There are a ton of stories that have been passed down from my grandmother over the years, some of them very funny, some sad. But also fascinating is the bigger picture of the “Germans from Russia“. Because my mom’s brother George always provided the genealogy on that side of the family, I never spent much time learning about these people. But theirs is a truly fascinating story which starts in Germany.
My 4th Great Grandfather, Johannes Walz was born in Neidlingen, Germany (Wuerttemburg) in 1788. We think of the very high standard of living Germans enjoy today without realizing things were not so cozy back then. Taxes were extremely high, religious persecution was in vogue, young men were drafted to fight wars, and unless you were the first born male, the family business or farm was not in your future. Prospects for a bright future were…not so bright.
So when Catherine II, Czarina of Russia, and herself a German, issued a proclamation begging Germans to move to and cultivate the unsettled lands she had just won from Turkey, many jumped at the opportunity. Her request was made even sweeter by offering them the ability to govern themselves, no taxes, free land, religious freedom, and the right to leave Russia at any time. In 1809, Johannes Walz and his family were among the first to settle in a colony called Neudorf, what now is Karmanova in Moldova, about 85 miles north of Odesa.
According to the information I’ve read, the first several years called for a lot of resilience and adjustments. The citizens of Neudorf, while enjoying their new freedoms, also suffered from disease, a 4 year locust plague, a hail storm that devastated crops, a livestock disease that killed 1400 head of cattle, on and on. Still they forged ahead. They were making homes for themselves.
In 1871, Czar Alexander II revoked the privileges originally offered by his grandmother Catherine and his father, Czar Alexander. This meant the citizens of Neudorf as well as the 3,000 other German colonies were now reduced to peasant status. They were drafted into the Russian army in 1874. It’s this backdrop that eventually brought my ancestors to the rough plains of South Dakota in about 1905.