They were in search of greener pastures.
My ancestors believed America would solve problems and open opportunities.
My dad’s side, mostly German and Scottish, was attracted to the stories of rolling pastures and promises of homesteading the American West provided. My mom’s side, mostly German-Russian, sought better living conditions that would allow them to farm and raise their families.
And while they lived a wildly different life than my own, my ancestors, in a sense, are with me everyday. My own name, Emily Rose, comes from my maternal great-grandmothers: Emelia, affectionately called Emelie by her brothers, and Rosina, known as Rose.
Both Emelia and Rosa considered themselves German-Russians. Of all my great-grandparents, Rosa’s family history is documented the best.
Family records show that her ancestors originated in Alsace-Lorraine, which is part of present-day France, in the 1700s.
For unknown reasons, Heinrich Opp – my great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather – and his family left Alsace-Lorraine and moved to Wurttemberg, Germany in 1784. Family historians suspect that the family left Alsace-Lorraine because of pending war there, or possibly to seek religious freedoms that had been taken away.
But Wurttemberg wasn’t all my ancestors had hoped. Famine struck the region in the late 1700s, and again my ancestors set out for a better life.
Urban Opp, Heinrich’s son, was the first of my ancestors to immigrate to Russia. Records show that Urban and his wife arrived in a small colony called Glückstal near Odessa, Russia, in 1807.
They got there by means of a barge on the Danube River, bringing with them not only their family, but livestock, too.
Germans weren’t the only people to move to Russia during this time.
Many Western Europeans flocked to Russia because the government offered special privileges then. Catherine the Great, who ruled Russia from 1762 to 1796, issued a manifesto in 1763 that offered transportation to Russia, exemptions from military service, free land and religious freedom.
Western Europeans also felt very little pressure to assimilate to Russian culture.
The incentive for the Russian government to do this was that the agriculturally savvy Western Europeans would make something of their land.
Many Germans took advantage of the deal. About 1.8 million Germans were living in Russia by the late 1800s, according to research by the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia.
But, in the 1870s, Russian ruler Alexander II, Catherine’s grandson, repealed her manifesto. The special promises were stripped from the emigrants and they were left with the decision to become “Russianized” or to move again.
“The thought of trading their language and their cultural identity for that of the Russians for whom they had nothing but contempt was too much,” wrote the cousin of my grandfather, Ted Krein, in a 1992 family history book. “They planned again for a new and better life, this time in far away America.”
The first big wave of German-Russian migration to America was in 1872. But my family was part of a migration that took place in 1884 that included 27 German-Russian families from the colony of Glückstal.
Jacob D. Opp, my great-great grandfather, was a young boy during the 1884 migration. Entering the country through a New York harbor, he moved west with his parents to South Dakota.
Their first stop was Yankton, S.D., a town just a couple of miles from where I grew up. The group continued to move north and, in later that year, settled in north central South Dakota.
There, several years later, he met Katherina Neuharth, my great-great grandmother. They married and settled on a homestead 12 miles northeast of Eureka. They had 10 children, one of which was my great-grandmother, Rosa.
The American experience wasn’t the kind of greener pastures they were expecting.
They lived through a South Dakota blizzard in 1888, known today as the “Schoolhouse Blizzard” that killed 235 people, many of whom were children on their way home from school. Wheat crops suffered in the extreme climate. They faced language barriers with other settlers, making living in America sometimes a lonely experience. (The language they brought with them was one that neither Germans nor Russians could understand. Today, the language remains solely a spoken one, as a written language was never established.)
Still, the desolate South Dakota prairie was their home until their deaths.
Rosa lived there her entire life, too, marrying my great-great-grandfather, Julius Krein.
The couple lived most of their lives on the Krein homestead, located about 10 miles south of Eureka. They had three boys. Their middle child was Ted, my Papa Krein.
Julius’s parents also were part of the great migration in 1884 and suffered similar realizations of America.
“My grandmother Krein said if she had known things would’ve been so tough, she would’ve stay in Russia,” my Papa Krein said.
Papa Krein remembers all of his grandparents as being very serious people. He spent a lot of time with each of them because when he was in the first grade, he started attending town school. By that time, his grandpa Krein had died and his grandma Krein was living alone and in town.
While his parents remained on the farm during the week, Papa Krein and his brothers would stay in town with their grandma Krein.
Weather permitting, the boys would return to the farm for the weekend.
Living with them created a strong bond between grandparent and grandchild.
His grandma Krein, named Margaretha, called my Papa Krein a “schtoomper,” meaning a small or little kid.
“Du bist ah net so gross,” he would reply, meaning “you are not so big either.” She stood barely 5 feet tall.
Julius was known for his remedies for minor ailments, my Papa Krein said. A toothache or earache? Blow smoke into the ear or mouth, Julius would say. The warm would help the pain until they could get to a doctor.
A cold? Garlic and hot wine. A great night time snack? Raw egg on a slice of bread or a raw egg in beer.
During high school, Papa Krein stayed with his other grandparents, Jacob D. and Katherina Opp.
“In thinking back, I don’t think it was quite fair for them to have teenagers staying with them,” Papa Krein said of his Opp grandparents. “They were good to us. I don’t recall that we were outright mean to them, but they were hard of hearing and sometimes during mealtime we would say things to make one another laugh, and I am sure they were wondering what was going on.”
In 1947, Papa Krein’s parents moved to town. Papa Krein was 16.
Though Papa Krein graduated from college, served in the U.S. Army and made a life for his family in town, he fondly remembers aspects of farm life.
Gathering eggs. Searching for corncobs for heat. Riding a horse nearly two miles from home to the country schoolhouse.
That appreciation of agriculture, animals and land is the connection among my dad’s ancestors, my mom’s ancestors and me.
While my dad’s family history isn’t documented like my mom’s side, themes of seeking greener pastures and agriculture roots are strong.
Through stories and oral histories, my dad’s family considered themselves American. They didn’t preserve European languages, food or customs like my mom’s side continues today.
My great-grandpa Nohr, a second-generation American from Germany, grew up in Cross Plains, Wis. Orphaned at age 12, he hitched a ride in a railroad boxcar to Yankton, S.D., the same place my German-Russian family members first stopped in South Dakota.
He found work in nearby Hartington, Neb. In the early 1900s, he bought land at Aten, Neb., where he got married and raised 10 children.
Today, Aten, which at one time had a hotel, school and post office, is nothing more than the original Nohr family place, where my grandparents still live.
A dozen homes, gravel roads and miles of cropland surround the farm.
I grew up about a mile from the place and spent a remarkable amount of my childhood there. Still today on breaks from school, I spend time there helping on the farm, hunting and riding a horse.
To me, the farm is home.
I have my own stories about each section of land, the same land my great-grandparents called their own. I feel the same way when I visit Eureka, S.D. I spent a lot of time there my first 18 years of life during holidays and on breaks from school.
These days, going to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, I often miss the wide open spaces that my rural upbringing offers.
Like my ancestors on both sides of the family, I go home to experience the “greener pastures.”