new Mennonite Life logo    June 2000     vol. 55 no. 2     Back to Table of Contents

Prairie People: A Swiss Volhynian Kaleidoscope of Images

Rachel Waltner Goossen

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I have never lived in a Schweitzer community, though I have aunts, uncles, and cousins who live in and around Freeman, South Dakota. The summers of my childhood were structured around annual car trips to Freeman to visit "the home place," as we called it. Of my great-great-grandparents, eight were born in Volhynia, a western province in the old Russian empire, and migrated here to the United States. These great-great-grandparents of mine included a Graber, a Gering, a Schrag, a Stucky, a Kaufman, a Krehbiel, a Mueller, and a Waltner. Even though that may seem like the entire universe of Swiss Volhynians' last names, their first names were even more limited. (Among my Swiss Volhynian great-great grandparents, three of the women were named "Maria," and all three of them married men named "Johann"!)

Anna Gering Kaufman in 1967
Last surviving member of the Swiss Volhynian
Mennonite migration to Freeman, South Dakota
(Credit: James and Lenore Waltner, Goshen, Indiana)
One of those pairs of Marias and Johanns began a family several years before joining the migration to these western plains. Their child-immigrant, three-year-old daughter Anna Gering, accompanied them on the mass migration out of Russia. Here in America, Anna eventually married into a well-regarded Kaufman family in east Freeman, South Dakota, lived to the advanced age of nearly 100, and outlasted all the pioneering folk of her community. Anna had many children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. Her life, and mine, overlapped for a few years in the 1960s and early '70s, when I was a grade schooler making those annual road trips with my family to see our relatives in South Dakota, and she was quietly living out her final years at her farmhouse. This great-grandma of mine, Anna Gering Kaufman, was the only nineteenth century pioneer I have ever known.(1)

Anna Gering Kaufman surrounded by her descendants
in 1967
(Credit: James and Lenore Waltner, Goshen, Indiana)
Born in 1871 in Russia, Anna had an older sister named Freni and a baby sister, Marie, when her family departed for America in the spring of 1874. Anna's parents were still in their mid-twenties. We can only guess at the grief they experienced when one-year-old Marie died during the crossing. Arriving in New York and then traveling by train to the frontier town of Yankton in Dakota Territory, the family must have felt an overwhelming sense of loss tempered with anxiety about what lay ahead on the prairie. Would the land be productive? How would they survive the bitterly cold winters? What setbacks of natural disaster and illness would befall them? Losing a child en route to the frontier was not an atypical experience. One account of the migration tells us that in the fall of 1874, when Elder Jacob Stucky brought sixty-two Swiss Volhynian families to central Kansas, the men left their wives and children in the town of Peabody while they "went out on foot with spade and hoe" to select suitable land.(2) While the men were deciding on the merits of Mound township and finding to their liking the newly-established mail station and blacksmith shop at Christian (all this more than a decade before the town of Moundridge existed), illness struck most of the families' children, and a number of those youngsters died.

Yet despite the difficulties and heartbreak that these families faced, there is no evidence that Anna Gering's family regretted their move to Dakota Territory, or that the families in the Kansas group looked back once they were here. In the case of the Gering family, Anna and Freni eventually had a passel of younger brothers and sisters, some with surprisingly Anglo-sounding names: Caroline, Regina, and Dora, Frank and Jonathan, Charles, John Jr., and Jacob. In this rural immigrant world, family livelihoods depended on child labor. Anna's parents had filed a homesteader's claim on the land where the Lake Charles Dam in eastern South Dakota would later be built. On the roadless prairie, they traveled by wagon pulled with a team of oxen. They set up a shanty; neighbors could see light in their cabin each evening. Anna's father was skilled in the manual arts, and he was soon building furniture for others arriving on the frontier. The family raised sheep, and Anna and her older sister were responsible for herding the flock. Within a few years the Gering family sold most of their sheep and took up a new line of work--brick-making. This too was a family enterprise, with Anna and her siblings enlisted as helpers, and by 1880 her father had a small brick manufacturing enterprise in the nearby town of Parker.

By this time, Anna, age nine, was a child of the prairie through and through. She spoke the Swiss-German dialect rather than English, but her memories were all of a Dakota childhood. She'd been too young when the family had left Volhynia to recall any details of life there. So she asked her parents, and they told her: along with their Mennonite friends and kin they had lived in Volhynia, but had come to the United States seeking spiritual freedom. Their forebears had been Amish people with origins in Switzerland and France who had migrated to the Palatinate, Austria and Poland, and, as territorial control shifted, had come under Russian authority. Through most of the nineteenth century, these Mennonite pilgrims had lived among Slavic peoples in Volhynian villages, moving occasionally to unite with similar Swiss groups and always in search of better, affordable land. During those years in Russia they had maintained ties with related groups--the Dutch-Prussian Mennonites of Molotschna in South Russia, and the colony Hutterites, who dressed distinctively and operated weaving and shoemaking industries.

In Russia most Swiss Volhynians--Anna Gering's people--had dropped a number of their distinctive Amish cultural practices. They no longer used hooks and eyes. They identified themselves as Mennonites, and gradually increased their contacts with culturally different neighbors. (Some of the Swiss Volhynian men, for example, learned to converse in Yiddish and Russian by virtue of their livestock trading activities in Kiev and other cities.) But in the early 1870s, when governmental reforms ended the Mennonites' exemption from military service, the Swiss Volhynians, long a mobile people, began to talk of moving once again. At the same time, the teaching of the Russian language in schools was becoming mandatory, and Mennonites worried about losing their non-Russian way of life and religious identity in the face of these governmental dictums. And so . . . in the summer of 1873, twelve delegates from various European Mennonite communities journeyed to the United States and Canada to consider possible colonization. These twelve men were representatives of the east Prussian and Polish Mennonites, the Bergthal and Kleine Gemeinde groups, the Hutterites, the influential Molotschna settlement, and also the Swiss Volhynians. The delegates' enthusiasm for what they saw on their trip, combined with encouragement from American Mennonites and land agents, spurred on the 1874 migration of Mennonites and Hutterites to the prairie states and to Manitoba. Fully a third of all the Mennonites living in the Russian empire sold off their property, packed household goods and implements, and moved yet one more time.

The four congregations that comprised the Swiss Volhynians were one small part of this mass movement. All four congregations voted to emigrate. In that first year of migration, at least 160 Volhynian families, with names like Albrecht and Flickinger, Ortman and Preheim, Ries and Senner, Stucky and Voran, made the trans-Atlantic crossing. This was decision-making on a church-wide scale. In preparation, they borrowed ship passage money (some of it from American Mennonites) for approximately half the group's families, who were short on finances. Andreas Schrag, a layman who had represented the Swiss on the scouting expedition the previous summer, brought the first group of ten families to Yankton in May 1874. On their heels came two more groups of Swiss Volhynians, also destined for southeastern Dakota.

Two months later, in September, elder Jacob Stucky arrived in central Kansas with a larger contingent of Volhynian families. During that peak migration year, some fifty-three hundred European Mennonites of various backgrounds came to the United States (most of them to Kansas).(3) For those in Jacob Stucky's group, Kansas's more moderate climate--and the parcels of land available from the Santa Fe--gave this state an edge over Dakota Territory, where the rest of the Swiss were already laying claim to land.

From the 1870s onward, the Swiss Volhynians on the American frontier developed two settlements on a north/south axis four hundred miles apart. The immigrants formed two mother churches, Hopefield in rural Moundridge, Kansas, and Salem-Zion in rural Freeman. All around them lived other immigrants: Polish, Dutch/Russian, and Prussian Mennonites farming the Kansas plains, and in Dakota, Hutterites and Low German-speaking Mennonites. And there were others, Swedes a bit further north and west on the Kansas frontier, and Norwegians edging the Dakota Swiss Mennonite settlement.

The story of the Volhynians is a story of intermingling cultures: Swiss and German, Polish and Russian, and, more tangentially, Jewish and Scandinavian. Once here, on the western prairie, the Swiss Volhynian strand of Anabaptist followers were strongly oriented to their own communities and customs--but always, there were encounters with others. Mennonite families took in American schoolteachers needing room and board, and hired young immigrants from other homelands to help with the farm work. Some Swiss Volhynian men found employment with the railroads. Some married white Anglo Saxon Protestants! And the pioneer generation's memories of threatening Russian government decrees were crowded out, slowly but surely, by interest and involvement in American civic life.

Making the transition from a "prairie people" to a "world people" implied cultural and community changes that had the potential to polarize these Americanizing Mennonites as well as draw them together. My great-grandmother Anna Gering Kaufman was an observer, over the course of nearly a century, of the following characteristics of American Mennonite life:

First, there were church tensions. Relationships in the east Freeman community within the Salem-Zion congregation (the mother church) were, earlier in this century, acrimonious (for example, over deciding where a church should be built). Reuben Goertz, a Mennonite folklorist and a rural mail carrier for over forty years in South Dakota, liked to tell people that "the neighboring Germans from Russia that were Reformed and Lutheran presented no problem for the . . . [Dakota] Mennonite groups. They could be avoided and they were. The big concern for the Mennonites was how to cope with their fellow Mennonites. . .  ." Reuben Goertz went on to say, tongue in cheek: "The Swiss [Volhynians] were . . . just making a change in their religious orientation from Amish to General Conference [Mennonite], from ultra conservative to ultra liberal. It was confusing to the larger Mennonite community but most confusing to the Swiss themselves. Even in the 1920s they were still having many meetings to reach some sort of an agreement on what would be acceptable. . . ."(4)

A second characteristic of American life was the irresistible lure of the frontier as land became more settled. In 1884, several Swiss families from the east Freeman community decided that ten severe winters had been enough, and they moved south to Kansas, establishing a church at Pretty Prairie along with friends and relatives from McPherson County. Another group of South Dakota Swiss moved to Bloomfield, Montana, in 1910, and began a Mennonite church there. Still other Swiss Volhynians moved further south and west, to Kingman, Kansas, and down into Oklahoma, to south of Hydro, and to Weatherford. But despite the scattering, there was counter-pressure to connect and cooperate. As early as 1880, the Dakota Swiss were sending delegations to attend meetings of the Kansas Conference, which was the forerunner of the Western District Conference. Out of these joint gatherings came inter-Mennonite institutions: preparatory schools, Bethel College, and Freeman Junior College.

Third, there were significant threats to Mennonite identity posed by the First World War. By 1917, as the United States became drawn into war against Germany, virtually every Mennonite community experienced tensions over the call for national loyalty. Gung-ho American patriots challenged the Mennonites' right to retain the German language in church and school. Nonconformists like the Hutterites were especially singled out for harassment. By the end of World War I, a number of Hutterite colonies in South Dakota were migrating north into Canada, though their Swiss Volhynian Mennonite neighbors made an uneasy peace with their obligations as U.S. citizens and stayed put.

And finally, on American soil the Mennonites would undergo major changes in patterns of authority. During Anna Gering Kaufman's childhood, Swiss Volhynian families initially met in homes for worship. Ministers were chosen by lot. But eventually, being "called to the ministry" was a different proposition entirely. Anna's grandson-ministers were seminary-trained. Just as significant were changing patterns of authority in the home. Anna herself had been obliged at age nineteen to marry the young Volhynian immigrant her parents approved of, and he was not her first choice, though by all accounts he turned out to be a fine husband. Family control would become both more subtle and problematic in twentieth century American life.

Anna, who died in 1971, lived long enough to see the traditional markers of Swiss Volhynian identity diminish, though not vanish entirely. She never learned to speak English, but her family members born in later decades discarded the Swiss Volhynian dialect. Adaptations to American culture would shape the immigrants' descendants throughout the twentieth century and beyond.

* * * * *

Knowing our people's story is instructive as we try to understand human history more broadly. This small stream of Swiss Volhynian folk, it turns out, had much in common with other migrants and pilgrims. What motivated them to move across continents? Anna Gering's parents told her that they had come here seeking spiritual freedom.

For sojourners throughout the world, the expression of that wish has been an important and recurring motif. When we think of their earlier wanderings, their ingenuity in adapting to new environments, their struggles (and sometimes failures) in relating peaceably with neighbors, we cannot help but recognize these as characteristic of people on the move. Perhaps, in the long run, our Swiss Volhynian forbears' commonalities with others are more instructive than their distinctive ethnic characteristics. The Volhynians' desire for self-determination and their quest for community are enduring themes that resonate with us and, at best, link us to the stories of others around the world.

1My account of Anna Gering Kaufman's life is drawn from Personal Memoirs of Orlando J. Kaufman, 1916-1997, unpublished typescript, 1998.

2David Wiebe, They Seek a Country: A Survey of Mennonite Migrations (Freeman, SD: Pine Hill Press, 1974), 115.

3C. Henry Smith, Smith's Story of the Mennonites, 5th rev. ed. (Newton, KS: Faith and Life Press, 1981), 294.

4Reuben Goertz, Princes, Potentates, and Plain People: The Saga of the Germans from Russia (Sioux Falls, SD: Center for Western Studies, 1994), 194-95.