Land of Opportunity: Catherine the Great Offered Germans Free Land in Russia

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By Capper's Staff | Mar 22, 2013

Between the years 1763 and 1862, hundreds of Germans emigrated from Germany to German settlements in Russia, a land of opportunity, they believed. Catherine the Great of Russia was German. She knew what excellent farmers the German people were and that Russia needed to populate the southern areas of her country. She offered the Germans tax-free land and promised that their young men would not have to serve in the Russian Army. She even guaranteed that they would be able to practice their religion.

This manifesto came at a critical time for the Germans. Napoleon’s Army had recently swept through, taking many men and boys with them. There had been severe crop failures for several years. Like America’s early pioneers, men were looking for a better life for their families, even though it meant saying good-bye to all that was familiar and taking a long, difficult trip into the unknown.

In spite of all the promises of aid on the part of the Russian government, the initial years were fraught with great difficulties. The long trek itself, under the prevailing conditions, made inhuman demands upon the first immigrants. Some of them had to travel more than 2,000 miles. At the time of settlement there was a woeful lack of dwellings, farming equipment and draught animals. It took time to get used to the climate and to the new, totally different farming methods in the vast, treeless Steppes.

Joining these brave pilgrims at this dramatic time in history were some of my early ancestors. They settled in the Black Sea area near Odessa, Russia.

Before Grandma Eva Marguerite Hirning and Grandpa Adam Grenz married, each had lost their mates through death. Grandma’s first husband died when their third baby was 3 months old.

By the time they made their decision to come to “the Land of Opportunity,” they had her three children, his two children, and their first little girl, 2-year-old Elizabeth.

It is difficult to imagine the scene before they left Russia. Grandma’s relatives held a funeral for her because they knew they would never see her alive again! How hard it must have been to leave their loved relatives and friends.

Grandma and Grandpa landed in Baltimore, Maryland, on May 15, 1887. Seven days later, Grandmother gave birth to their son, John, in Palmer, Iowa. What must it have been like to have a baby only one week after arriving in a strange land? They probably spoke no English. Did Grandma have the baby alone? Did kindly women of the town help? There were six other children with them to be washed, fed and looked after.

They stayed in Palmer for eight days and then moved on to South Dakota, where Grandfather’s brother lived. Perhaps they heard of greater opportunities, because they went west to Oregon after 11 months.

Grandpa was a brick mason by trade, and his work can still be seen in buildings in Salem, Oregon.

Eventually they moved to a farm. They had seven children, including my handsome dad, Lee Andrew Grenz.

Grandpa died in 1900, a few months before their seventh child was born.

In my memory, I see Grandmother, a tiny, slender woman, about 5 feet 1 inch tall, with white hair and blue eyes. She usually wore an apron with white peppermints in the pocket. I remember her rolling out noodle dough and cutting it very fast into slender strands. Grandma died in 1943 when she was 87.

I shall always be grateful that my ancestors had the courage to come to America. I am proud of them.

Nyla Booth
Beaverton, Oregon

Back in 1955 a call went out from the editors of the then CAPPER’s Weekly asking for readers to send in articles on true pioneers. Hundreds of letters came pouring in from early settlers and their children, many now in their 80s and 90s, and from grandchildren of settlers, all with tales to tell. So many articles were received that a decision was made to create a book, and in 1956, the first My Folks title – My Folks Came in a Covered Wagon – hit the shelves. Nine other books have since been published in the My Folks series, all filled to the brim with true tales from CAPPER’s readers, and we are proud to make those stories available to our growing online community.

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