Genealogy Notes: a recent trip to South Dakota

In September (2016) I made a kind of grand tour across much of South Dakota mainly for the purpose of pursuing genealogical interests.

GRHS (Germans from Russia Historical Society) Conference (

By way of explanation, about a quarter of my DNA traveled from Germanic cultures through south Russia (now Ukraine). So, I have an interest in German-Russian history.

This is the first time I have attended a GRHS conference. It was well organized, and I mainly enjoyed two aspects. I was pleased to be able to share meals and conversations with people that are clearly descendants of the people that were neighbors of my ancestors in the small town that they established in about 1805 in Russia. I also appreciated the new research and contemporary history work presented at the conference. Here are some samples of the new contributions that I encountered.

Bill Bosch (retired math professor) contributed in two ways. He has written a book (The German-Russians), which is the only concise history of the German-Russians that I have seen. Most of the literature that I have encountered has been overly sympathetic or very long. Bill’s book does not suffer from either characteristic. I recommend it to anyone with an interest in the topic. Bill also has recently completed an analysis and reformulation of data about Russia from a book produced for the World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago in the 1890s. (See,+volume+3&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjfk5-twLLPAhWZ14MKHclLAq8Q6AEIMjAE.) He has taken the many separate maps, which describe agriculture and climate in the areas settled by German-Russians, and “normalized” the facts that they describe to create a few comprehensive maps. In doing so, he has created more useful coherent representations of the data so that a researcher has a simpler task of understanding conditions in the late 1800s in Russia. Bill has not yet published his work, but I am hopeful that he will find a reasonable way to do that.

German-Russians in Russia in the late 20th Century – Eric Schmaltz described the recent history of the German-Russians that stayed. I was surprised to find that as recently as 40 years ago there were as many as 2 million Russians of German descent living in Kazakhstan and Siberia. These people had been exiled from western areas in Russia and forced to work for the state over decades, starting around 1900. For a short period, there was even a movement to form their own state in the Russian Federation. However, with the end of perestroika and glasnost, independence efforts failed and many (tens of thousands) were allowed to emigrate – mostly to Germany. This recent history accounts for the fact that I have been able to contact distant cousins, who live in Germany and who descend from common ancestors but along lines that decided to stay in Russia. Their stories in many cases are not happy ones, but I am better positioned now to understand them.

Contemporary Ukraine – Carolyn Schott presented her recent experiences in Ukraine involving people that she encountered when she visited the old sites where her German-Russian ancestors were settlers. She painted a bleak picture of the political situation in Ukraine and the destabilizing and violent actions of the current Russian government. Her direct experience, including as an international election observer, brought current events into better focus for me.

The Northern State University History Project – Robert Russell described his efforts to preserve audio recordings of people in the U.S. with direct knowledge of the (German-Russian) immigrants to the Dakotas from Russia. He is very thoughtful in his approach to acquiring the recordings. He provided a few examples. It is a little surprising to me (pleasantly) that there are still people alive who have had close contact with some of the early Dakota settlers and their culture.

South Dakota State Archives

I spent a few hours looking through some of the materials that are held at the Pierre archive. The staff was friendly and helpful, particularly Virginia Hanson, who had actually just given a presentation at the GRHS conference described above. The holdings of the archive are documented at

I focused on the newspaper archives that have not been included in the Library of Congress’ “Chronicling America” efforts. I also found some useful maps from WPA work during the depression to record graves registration information for all cemeteries in the state. This is a good source to help locate a grave in a cemetery that has no current directory. Some county history books also provided some useful maps organized by township to commemorate the state centennial in 1989.


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