Sunday, September 24, 2023

Invitation to a Wedding

A new friend of Buller Time blog and a member of our extended family, Carolyn (Peters) Stucky, recently shared several treasures from our family’s history, including letters from nearly a hundred years ago, a transcription of remarks that Henry Buller delivered at a 1990 Buller reunion, and the item pictured below.

Viewed from the outside, there is little remarkable or even noteworthy about this simple envelope. Indeed, it does not even indicate who sent it or its intended recipient. The contents of the envelope are an altogether different matter.

One does not need to be able to read German to recognize the names Malinda, Cornelius P. Buller (with a period), and Mr. and Mrs Isaac Franz. The date offers an additional clue: January 20, 1927. This is, of course, an original invitation to Grandma and Grandpa’s wedding. 

The invitation in German and English reads:

Zur Hochzeit unserer Tochter Malinda mit ihrem Braeutigam Cornelius P. Buller laden wir sie sammt Familie zu um half Zwei Uhr nachmittags des Tages, Donnerstag Januar 20, 1927 herzlich ein; um mit uns den Stifter der heiligen Ehe fuer sie um seinen Segen zu bitten.

To the wedding of our daughter Malinda with her groom Cornelius P Buller, we cordially invite you with your family at half past two in the afternoon, Thursday, 20 January 1927, in order with us to ask the Originator of holy matrimony for his blessing on them.

Curiously, although the exact time and day are specified, the location of the ceremony is not mentioned. The GRANDMA database reports that the Bethesda Mennonite Church record book (1878–1948, book 1) lists both Grandma and Grandpa being baptized on 24 May 1926, so a little more than half a year before their wedding. One might imagine, then, that the ceremony also took place at Bethesda, although that is by no means certain. I invite any blog reader with different or additional details about the wedding to share that information with us all.

Holding the invitation in my hand a few minutes ago, I was reminded of the vital importance of artifacts. Stories are, to be sure, important building blocks in the construction of our collective family memory, but the artifacts of our history—the clocks, trunks, wheat weavings, shotguns, articles of clothing, and even letters and diaries—connect us in a more direct and tangible way with those who came before us. I write this as a reminder to myself and everyone else to preserve not only our ancestors’ artifacts but also our own, so that those who come after us will likewise enjoy a connection to their forebears, including all of us.

Saturday, August 5, 2023

Halbstadt 13

The previous post explored the types of houses that the first settlers probably built; this post continues in that vein by discussing the funding that they had for constructing those dwellings and establishing their farmsteads.

In support, every settler received from the high crown the lumber needed for a dwelling and 125 bank rubles for the purchase of livestock and farm implements. This advance was to be repaid without interest, according to the immigration edict, after the graciously granted ten free years over the ten following years.

received from the high crown. Tsar Alexander I’s imperial government provided the support detailed in the rest of the sentence.

lumber needed for a dwelling. It is difficult to determine with any precision how much lumber was needed for a dwelling. According to David Rempel, each settler family was given “100 rubles worth of lumber” (D. Rempel 1933, 91). An 1842 article published in the Russian journal Zhurnal Ministerstva gosudarstvennykh imushchestv and later translated by John P. Dyck (available online here) reports the privileges that Catherine II granted to the original Chortitza setters. These privileges included the following: “Each family received a loan of 500 rubles and 125 logs, four Sajhen … in length” (p. 3). The Russian sazhen (or sagene or sajene, here Sajhen) was roughly 7 feet, so the allotment that Catherine promised the earliest Mennonites in the 1780s was 125 logs of 28 feet in length. That seems like a significant amount of lumber, although we have no indication of the diameter of the logs. Further, we do not know if the first Molotschna settlers were provided the same amount of lumber. In the end, all we can safely conclude is that each Halbstadt settler received enough lumber (probably logs, although possibly cut lumber) to build a semlin-style house like those discussed in the previous post.

The community report does not discuss how the lumber would be provided to the residents of the treeless steppe, but a letter from the military governor Armand Richelieu (see further Halbstadt 6) to the Molotschna settlers offers some insight. The letter, which is reproduced in Isaac 1908, was written on 2 April 1804, while the future Molotschna residents were wintering in Chortitza, that is, before they had arrived at their new home. It seems that some had developed serious doubts over the winter about the suitability and desirability of the land designated for them. Richelieu wrote to allay their fears and to convince them to carry on with their journey. Within this context he addressed the issue of the promised lumber:

The wood and shrubs necessary for your … houses may be transported from the Dnieper to the Molotschna, a distance of only 60–70 versts [40–45 miles] over land [lit. “to the axis”], which is not considered a serious difficulty in our area. Large shipments of timber are often brought to the region from Kremenchuk, which is more than 300 versts [200 miles] away. (Isaac 1908, 9)

In all likelihood, Richelieu’s point is not that there were trees that could be cut along the Dnieper River but that lumber/logs from elsewhere could easily be transported down the river and then hauled overland the remaining 40–45 miles to the Molotschna colony. Indeed, David Rempel explains that Molotschna was chosen in large part because it was “situated near the Dnieper to facilitate the delivery of lumber” (D. Rempel, 1933, 89).

125 bank rubles for … livestock and farm implements. As noted above, each settler family was given 100 rubles worth of lumber to build a dwelling; slightly more was available for the purchase of livestock and farm equipment. We should probably not imagine that each family was handed 125 rubles in cash; rather, if the practice was the same as that in later years, then the figure is probably a rough average of what the original settlers received.

We see, for example, that in 1815 one Mennonite family settling in Russia owned no wagon, no horses, and only one cow; they were provided 215 rubles to purchase one wagon, two horses, and a second cow. That same year another family entered Russia with a wagon, two horses, and a cow; they were given 53 rubles so they could purchase a second cow (P. Rempel 2007, 103). We see a similar pattern in 1816, when a family arriving had a wagon, three horses, and three head of cattle; they were given money to build a dwelling but not to purchase livestock (104). The same scenario is depicted time and again over the next several years: the Russian government provided funding so that each settler family had at least one wagon, two horses, and two head of cattle (see P. Rempel 2007, 104–15, 145–55).

The 1805 Molotschna census referenced earlier (for the census, see here), confirms and supplements this picture. The census reports that each of the twenty-one families who settled Halbstadt owned at least one wagon; four families owned two. Similarly, each family owned at least two horses (average per family: 2.5 horses) and two cattle (average: 4.3), just as one would expect given the Russian policy described above. Families also kept sheep (twenty-eight owned by nine families) and pigs (thirty-four owned by eleven families), though in smaller numbers than horses and cattle.

Finally, the 1805 census also reports the farm implements that the Halbstadt settlers owned. In addition to the wagons, there were twelve harrows and ten plows in the village. Four families had full ownership of a plow, while twelve families reported having half-ownership of a plow; obviously, two families were sharing a single plow is such cases.

advance … repaid without interest. The governmental funding just described was not a grant but rather an interest-free loan. The Halbstadt settlers were expected to repay all the funding received: both the value of the lumber and whatever cash they received to purchase livestock and farm implements.

Earlier (see Halbstadt 4) we read of money that the settlers received when they first crossed into Russian territory: 50 bank rubles to each family (forage for their animals); traveling money of 25 kopeks for each family member twelve years and older and 10 kopeks for each member under twelve years; and a food allowance of 8 kopeks a day for each family member after arrival and up to the first harvest. There was some confusion or misunderstanding as to whether this earlier funding was a grant or a loan. According to David Rempel, although “the Russian authorities at Grodno, where the colonists received the money, had told them that it was not returnable,” “all this money had to be repaid by the colonists after the expiration of a ten year period of exemption from taxes” (D. Rempel 1933, 92 n. 52 and 91–92). In sum, the settlers were responsible to pay back both the lumber and farm loan and the traveling money that they had received earlier.

ten free years … ten following years. Thankfully, no interest was accruing on the total amount of the loans during a ten-year grace period. Further, the loan amount was not due all at once after the end of the grace period but could be paid back over the following ten years. As hinted at by David Rempel above, the settlers became liable for the standard property tax of 15 kopeks a dessiatine at the same time as their loans began to come due.

Works Cited

Isaac, Franz. 1908. Die Molotschnaer Mennoniten: Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte derselben. Halbstadt: Braun. Available online here.

Rempel, David G. 1933. “The Mennonite Colonies in New Russia: A Study of Their Settlement and Economic Development from 1789 to 1914.” PhD diss. Stanford University. Available online here.

Rempel. Peter. 2007. Mennonite Migration to Russia, 1788–1828. Edited by Alfred H. Redekopp and Richard D. Thiessen. Winnepeg: Manitoba Mennonite Historical Society.

Sunday, July 30, 2023

Halbstadt 12

Our progression through the story of Halbstadt’s founding and early history continues. With the village name explained (see the previous post), we are ready to learn of the establishment of the village itself.

The houses were built for the most part already in the first summer of a framework filled out with prepared loam. In support, every settler received from the high crown the lumber needed for a dwelling and 125 bank rubles for the purchase of cattle and farm implements. This advance was to be repaid without interest, according to the immigration edict, after the graciously granted ten free years over the ten following years.

the first summer. As we discovered earlier, twenty of Halbstadt’s founding families arrived on the same day: 21 June 1804 (see Halbstadt 6). Here we learn that, during the first three months of their residency, they constructed their initial (and no doubt temporary) houses.

framework filled out with prepared loam. The community report’s description of these first houses is both clear and frustratingly vague. It is clear, for example, that the houses used lumber in the frame and sod in the walls. Less clear is the extent of the framing, whether it was limited to doors and windows or extended to the roof or beyond. Given the limited information found in the report, the best we can do is to suggest a reasonable and provisional reconstruction of these houses.

We have periodically noted that Mennonites were not the only ones settling in the area at this time. One such group of settlers, the Prischib enclave or colonies, was located to the west across the Molotschna River opposite the Molotschna Mennonites. These settlers were primarily German Lutherans who arrived in the region at roughly the same time as the Mennonites. They, too, were under Russian imperial authority and likewise were required to compose their own village Gemeindeberichte. The community report for the village Hochstädt, which was 8 miles west-northwest of Halbstadt, offers additional details:

The first dwellings were hastily constructed earth-covered cellars called Semljanken. Two to three years passed before some were able to leave their “hamster dwellings,” since they were in no hurry to build houses. (Woltner 1941, 65; German original below)

The dwellings that the Höchstadt setters constructed are referred to as cellars, which indicates that they were at least partially, if not entirely, below ground. The report further identifies the dwellings as Semljanken, which appears as a German word but is in fact a Russian term adopted by German speakers living in a Russian context. The Russian term землянки, or semeljanken (more precisely, zemljanka), refers broadly to any house constructed of earth or specifically to dugouts, which would include the earth-covered cellars mentioned here.

Although the Russian term semeljanken does not provide additional details about the type of house, it does point us in the right direction. When Russian Mennonites settled in Manitoba in the late nineteenth century, their first houses were constructed of sod, just like the first dwellings in Molotschna earlier in that century. These sod houses were known as semlins, a term that clearly stems from the Russian term semeljanken and its German derivation Semljanken (note the repetition of the letters s-m-l-n). Based on this correspondence, we can now construct a likely image of the sod houses that were hastily constructed in Halbstadt.

According to Allen Noble,

semi-subterranean structures were utilized because alternative building materials were not immediately available when a group migrated into an area, or because sufficient time was lacking to construct an above ground dwelling before the onset of the first winter. German-Russian Mennonite settlers entering the largely treeless prairie provinces of Canada in the mid-19th century resorted initially to the old dwelling forms called the semeljanken or semlin.… The semlin which the Mennonites created was a rectangular, excavated pit about three feet deep, with low, above-ground walls of large sods upon which rested a timber and sod roof of gentle pitch. Average dimensions were 24-30 feet long by 12 feet wide. Some reports suggest that farm animals as well as humans occupied the earliest such structures. (Noble 2007, 128).

If, as seems likely, the Halbstadt dwellings were roughly the same as the Manitoba semlins, then we can safely imagine that they resembled the semlins reconstructed on the grounds of the Mennonite Heritage Village in Steinbach, Manitoba, Canada (see their website; all photographs courtesy of Shahnoor Habib Munmun).

Of course, we should not imagine that the original Halbstadt dwellings were exactly like the semlins in Manitoba more than half a century later; apart from the sod, the available building materials no doubt differed. Nevertheless, the general size and shape of the these semisubterranean sod houses probably was the same.

The interiors of the Halbstadt houses are an even greater mystery. As shown below, the reconstructed Manitoba semlin has wood walls and floors, and it is possible that the Halbstadt semeljanken shared this finishing touch.

The community report states that the houses were constructed of “prepared loam” (zubereitetem Lehm), which one might take (as in the translation) as a reference to the cutting of sod into building blocks; however, the German can also be translated “finished loam.” In this sense one might envision not the preparation of the loam but the finishing of the loam walls inside the structure. Does that mean, then, that the interior was finished with lumber, as shown here? Although this is possible, if the term means finished rather than prepared, it seems more likely that the loam itself was finished.

This understanding finds support from other Russian Germans who settled in North America, specifically Germans who in 1876 resettled from the steppes of Russia’s Volga region to Kansas. Albert J. Petersen Jr. writes:

At first they constructed temporary shelters on the chosen village sites. The first dwellings were semi-dugout sod houses. Although often attributed to the American experience, the German-Russian sod dwelling, or semljanken, actually had its origins on the Russjan Volga. Unlike American sod houses, the semljanken was set three feet in the ground. The walls were built of sod, projecting several feet above ground level. The interior walls were plastered with a combination of mud mixed with dried prairie grass. (Petersen 1976, 19)

Note first that the adoption of the semljanken (or semlin) form was not exclusive to Mennonites; other residents of Russia shared that architectural feature. More significant for the specific question at hand is the final sentence: the interior walls of this sod house were plastered, or finished, with mud mixed with dried grass. If the phrase zubereitetem Lehm refers to the finished state of the sod walls, rather than the preparation of the sod blocks themselves (I do not know which is in view), then it likely refers to a type of plastering similar to that described by Petersen.

The next post will finish the rest of the current paragraph by commenting on the lumber used in house construction and the other forms of government support of the new settlers.


Höchstadt community report:
Die ersten Wohnungen waren eilig angefertigte, mit Erde bedeckte Keller, welche Semljanken genannt wurden. Bei einigen vergingen 2 bis 3 Jahre, bevor sie ihre Hamsterwohnungen zu verlassen im Stande waren, weil sie sich mit dem Häuserbau nicht gerade beeilten.

Works Cited

Noble, Allen. 2007. Traditional Buildings: A Global Survey of Structural Forms and Cultural Functions. International Library of Human Geography Book 11. London: Tauris.

Petersen, Albert J., Jr. 1976. “The German-Russian House in Kansas: A Study in Persistence of Form.” Pioneer America 8:19–27.

Woltner, Margarete. 1941. Die Gemeindeberichte von 1848 der deutschen Siedlungen am Schwarzen Meer. Sammlung Georg Leibbrandt 4. Leipzig: Hirzel.

On the general topic of this post, see also the following resources:

Butcher, S. D. 1904. Sod Houses, or The Development of the great American Plains. Kearney, NE: Western Plains. Primarily photographs available online here.

Dick, Everett. 1954. The Sod-House Frontier, 1854–1890: A Social History of the Northern Plains from the Creation of Kansas and Nebraska to the Admission of the Dakotas. Lincoln: Johnson.

Francis, E. K. 1954. “The Mennonite Farmhouse in Manitoba.” Mennonite Quarterly Review 28:56–59. (unavailable to me)

Germans from Russia Settlement Locations blog. Includes map and information about the Prischib colonies.

Noble, Allen G. 1981. “Sod Houses and Similar Structures: A Brief Evaluation of the Literature.” Pioneer America 13:61–66.

Vashakmadze, Shota. 2017. “Solomon Butcher’s Architectural Image.” Avery Review 25. Available online here.

For German Semljanken = Russian землянки, see

Wednesday, July 26, 2023

Halbstadt 11

The previous post dealt with a long section of the community report and thus turned out quite long itself. The subject of this post is a single sentence.

The Oberschulze at the time, Klaas Wiens, gave this village the name Halbstadt without special reason, at the request of the settlers for the name of a village in Prussia in which some of them had lived.

Oberschulze. There is no consensus about how best to translate this German term, and there is good reason to think that one common translation, district mayor, is as misleading as it is enlightening. For these reasons I decided (for now) not to translate the term at all, so that readers are not misled by an imperfect translation choice.

The problem stems from the inexact relation between the archaic German word Schulze and the English term most often used to translate it: mayor. The German Schulze was, to be sure, the chief executive of a village, but his role was not so much holding a political office as it was exercising practical authority. Thus the Schulze was usually responsible to collect taxes, to enforce governmental decisions, and, in general, to maintain the peace. Each village in Molotschna had its own Schulze, and the Oberschulz was “over” all of them, serving as the chief executive of the district. No English term conveys this role in a clear and succinct manner, so for the time being I will simply use the German term itself.

Klaas Wiens. We have already encountered Klaas Wiens twice in our journey through the Halbstadt community report. Wiens was first mentioned as one of the de facto leaders of the group(s) who traveled to establish the Molotschna colony (see Halbstadt 3). More recently we read that Wiens was the first to plant a forest plantation in Molotschna, an act for which Alexander I rewarded him by granting him his own estate (see Halbstadt 10). To read more about Wiens, see the entry on him here.

According to Cornelius Krahn (1959), Wiens was Molotschna’s first Oberschulze, serving from 1804 to 1806. Unlike the village of Alexanderwohl, which was named by Andrei M. Fadeev, of the Ekaterinoslav Bureau of the Guardianship Committee, or Waldheim, which was named by Johann Cornies, Halbstadt was named by Oberschulze Klaas Wiens. This in itself is an indication of the type and extent of authority that an Oberschulze exercised.

without special reason. A more paraphrastic rendering of the German might be: The Oberschulze at the time, Klaas Wiens, gave this village the name Halbstadt for no other reason than that the settlers asked that it be named after a village in Prussia in which some of them had lived. The point is that the name Halbstadt had no particular significance as it related to the founding of the village. The name, which literally means “Half City,” was no commentary on the new village. By way of comparison, recall that the founders of Alexanderwohl invested great significance in the naming of their village (see here).

name of a village in Prussia. In fact, the new Molotschna village was named Halbstadt because some of its founders had lived in a village by that name in Prussia/Poland, or so we are led to think. Richard D. Thiessen reports that “the 1776 Prussian census lists 13 Mennonite families in Halbstadt with the following surnames: Claasen, Conrad, Dick, Isaac, Kroecker, Loewen, Mertins, Reimer, Toews, Wall, Warkentin, Wiens, and Willer” (Thiessen 2012). Oddly, not one of these names appears among the list of original Halbstadt settlers (see Halbstadt 5): Berg/Barg, Boldt, Braun, Epp, Esau, Fast, Friesen, Giesbrecht, Groening, Heide/Heude, Hiebert, Janzen, Plett, and Wiebe. It is always possible, of course, that several of the founders of Molotschna Halbstadt moved to Prussian Halbstadt between 1776 and 1803. However, it seems curious, perhaps even suspicious, that one of the thirteen families identified with Prussian Halbstadt was Wiens, the surname of the Oberschulze who gave Halbstadt in Molotschna its name.

Works Cited

Krahn, Cornelius. 1959. “Oberschulze.” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Available online here.

Thiessen, Richard D. 2012. “Halbstadt (Pomeranian Voivodeship, Poland).” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Available online here.

Saturday, July 22, 2023

Halbstadt 10

In the previous section of commentary on the Halbstadt community report (Gemeindebericht) we learned about the soil where the Mennonite farmers settled and its agricultural potential. In this post we turn to another aspect of the territory: its utter lack of trees when the settlers arrived.

To beautify the treeless steppe, a wooded area of 10.5 dessiatines was planted at the north end of the village close to the Molotschna; this was at the request of His Majesty Alexander I during his highly esteemed visit to the local villages in 1825. Seeds from abroad were obtained for this purpose by His Excellency State Councillor Mr. Contenius and the local Agricultural Society. In addition, under the management of the Society, every farmer [i.e., landowner] has planted 1 dessiatine of various fruit trees on his hearth as a garden.

treeless steppe. As noted often, the steppeland of the Molotschna colony was devoid of trees when the Mennonites first settled there. This was one of the features that caught the attention of outsiders as early as the Greek historian Herodotus, more than four centuries before Jesus. Much later, during Catherine the Great’s tour of the territory, she “noted with dismay the lack of trees” across the region (Moon 2013, 39; see further 36–39). According to David Moon, the absence of trees was not a natural phenomenon. He explains:

The environment of the steppes encountered by the first waves of migrants was not a “pristine” world that had evolved independently of human action. Later research confirmed the suspicions of some earlier specialists … that the treeless grassland was to some extent created by human activity. For many centuries, the indigenous, nomadic population burned the steppe to encourage the growth of fresh grasses for their herds of livestock to graze on. The combined effects of fire and grazing contributed to the evolution of the grassland, restricting the spread of trees and shrubs from those parts of the landscape where they grew naturally. (2013, 7)

Human activity had created a treeless landscape, and now human activity would reverse course and populate the steppes with beautiful trees.

wooded area of 10.5 dessiatines. The community report begins with a communal area and activity: the planting of a wooded area at the north end of the village, near the Molotschna River. A dessiatine is equivalent to 2.7 acres, so the size of the wooded area was a little more than 28 acres. The community report does not specify what type of trees were planted here, but these were almost certainly forest trees (see below). An aerial examination of the village site today does not reveal any traces of this wooded area; presumably the trees died or were cut for firewood at some point during Halbstadt’s history.

request of … Alexander I. The commitment to planting trees is attributed to Tsar Alexander I, but it was not due entirely to him. Alexander I visited Molotschna twice, in 1818 and 1825, and several roughly contemporary sources record that during his second visit he encouraged the Mennonite residents to plant trees. An 1831 letter from Andrei M. Fadeev, chairman of the Ekaterinoslav Bureau of the Guardianship Committee, to Johann Cornies explains:

Mennonite communities in general, and every individual in particular, must henceforth give preferential and continuous attention to the development of orchard- and forest-tree culture. Both of these economic branches can help lay the foundation of prosperity for Mennonites and their descendants, and visibly distinguish their villages from others.
     The obligation of the Molochnaia Mennonites must rest on sacred feelings of gratitude and on their promise to establish and spread the cultivation of forest trees. In 1825, during His Majesty’s last visit to the Molochnaia villages, Mennonites solemnly promised the late Tsar Alexander, of ever-glorious memory, to lay out small village woodlots in which each household would be assigned a half-desiatina plot. This vow must not be broken. Actions in this regard will assist Mennonites in maintaining their privileges on a firm, enduring foundation, and will establish their own prosperity and that of their descendants. (Cornies 2015, 227–28)

A brochure written by Fadeev four years earlier, in 1827, recounts Alexander’s visit in even greater detail. Fadeev had accompanied Alexander on the journey, so he was well equipped to offer a reliable report. His account of one conversation is especially relevant here:

After dinner His Majesty entered the other room. After several minutes the Mennonite elders were called. The Monarch asked them whether they were satisfied in everything and whether they might not have some complaints. After they answered that in every respect they were happy and satisfied, and that nothing remained for them than to thank the Monarch for his charity and grace, he said, “I am likewise satisfied with you for your quiet life and diligence. However, I wish that on each farm you would plant trees—particularly the American acacia that grows quickly in this area—in groves up to half a desiatin in size.” (Good and Good 1989, 127)

Note the slight difference between the two reports: the first refers to “small village woodlots in which each household would be assigned a half-desiatina plot,” whereas in the second Alexander expresses the wish that “on each farm you would plant trees … in groves up to half a desiatin in size.” The single wooded area described in the Halbstadt community report corresponds more closely to the 1831 account; the size of the wooded area (10.5 dessiatines) likewise matches a half-dessiatine allotment for each of Halbstadt’s original twenty-one farmsteads.

In Fadeev’s 1827 account, Alexander commends fast-growing acacia trees as an especially promising option. According to Peter Köppen, a Russian official who visited Molotschna in 1837, “The trees they [the Mennonites] planted most frequently were elm, ash, and maple, and also poplar and black locust. In addition, they had managed to grow some coniferous trees” (Moon 2013, 181). All these varieties would have been appropriate for Halbstadt’s communal wooded area, although, of course, we do not know what type(s) of trees were actually planted there.

Finally, as mentioned above, these tree-planting initiatives were not solely attributable to Alexander. In fact, Fadeev’s 1827 brochure records him clarifying for Alexander that a particular stop on their route was not a village but rather “the estate [Vorwerk] established on the land granted by Your Majesty to the late Mennonite elder, Wiens, for his zealous service and establishment of the first forest plantation in this district” (Good and Good 1989, 125, emphasis added). Likewise, Fadeev’s 1831 letter to Cornies notes that “orchards and forest trees are already well established in several Molochnaia Mennonite villages” (Cornies 2015, 228). In light of this evidence, we should conclude that Alexander’s 1825 comments did not initiate the Molotschna tree-planting efforts but rather gave them a much-needed boost and focus.

State Councillor Mr. Contenius and the local Agricultural Society. We met Samuel Contenius earlier (see here) due to his involvement in assigning lands to the settlers. Here he is credited with securing and providing tree seeds to the Mennonite villages. As noted earlier, Contenius retired from his chairmanship of the Yekaterinoslav Guardianship Office in 1818, so his procurement of seeds from foreign sources either took place before that time or was part of his unofficial work on behalf of the Guardianship Office before his death in 1830.

References to the Agricultural Society can be confusing, since there was not one but three such bodies over the first half of the nineteenth century. As John R. Staples summarizes, 

The most visible elements of Nicholas’ reforms in the Molochnaia were economic “societies.” Contenius had created a first, the Sheep Society, in 1824, before Nicholas’ ascension to the throne. It provided a model for the much more powerful Forestry Society, created at the state’s behest in 1831, and, most importantly, the Agricultural Society, created in 1836. (Staples 2015, xliii)

Staples further explains 

Contenius personally created the Sheep Society and provided detailed instructions on its structure and activities. He hand-picked Cornies as its chair-for-life and insisted that Cornies report extensively on his activities and successes. The Forestry Society was also Contenius’ idea, although by the time it was created he had died, and Fadeev played the central role in formulating its charter. (2015, xliii)

In seems most probable that the reference to the Agricultural Society in the Halbstadt community report is to the Forestry Society. For what appears to be the Forestry Society’s charter, see Cornies 2015, 227–35. 

every farmer has planted 1 dessiatine of various fruit trees on his hearth. In addition to requiring the creation of village forest areas, the Forestry Society mandated the planting of fruit trees. Each landowner (i.e., owner of a Wirschaft) was required to plant various fruit trees on his village lot. Fadeev writes in his 1831 charter letter to Cornies:

In Mennonite villages, a number of good, well-disposed householders have laid out large orchards with good fruit trees. To advance orchard cultivation as a flourishing branch of the economy in Mennonite villages generally, and to distinguish them from other settlements of this region without the advantages and privileges granted to Mennonites, every householder is obligated to lay out an orchard behind his house of a size permitted by the local situation and his means. The soil must be adequately prepared and the site protected from livestock damage. … The dimensions of areas selected by each householder for his fruit orchard must be measured and calculations must be made to determine how many rows of trees can be planted without crowding. Every tree must be given sufficient space to grow naturally, so that roots and crowns do not eventually grow together. Experience shows orchards with trees planted too close together result in inferior trees and less fruit than orchards where sun and air can have a beneficial influence on the crown of every individual tree. … Very dry or hot locations are exceptions, where trees must be planted closer together. Spaces between apple and pear trees should be filled with cherry, peach, apricot, and plum trees … as the most useful fruits for every husbandman on the land. (Cornies 2015, 231–32)

According to the Halbstadt community report, the residents of that village had each planted 1 dessiatine (= 2.7 acres) of fruit trees on their lots. Of course, we should not understand this statement literally but as a general description of the villagers’ compliance with the Forestry Service requirement.

In the following (much briefer) post, we will return to Elder Wiens, who not only planted the first forest plantation but also played a key role in the history of Halbstadt.

Works Cited

Cornies, Johann. 2015. Transformation on the Southern Ukrainian Steppe: Letters and Papers of Johann Cornies. Volume 1: 1812–1835. Translated by Ingrid I. Epp. Edited by Harvey L. Dyck, Ingrid I. Epp, and John R. Staples. Tsarist and Soviet Mennonite Studies. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Good, E. Reginald, and Kathryn Shantz Good, trans. and eds. 1989. “The Last Visit of Emperor Alexander I to the Mennonite Colonies.” Journal of Mennonite Studies 7:123–30. Available online here.

Moon, David. 2013. The Plough That Broke the Steppes: Agriculture and Environment on Russia’s Grasslands, 1700–1914. Oxford Studies in Modern European History. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Staples, John R. 2015. “Introduction.” Pages xxi–lvi in Cornies 2015.

Friday, June 30, 2023

Halbstadt 9

As reported in the Father’s Day post below, the translation of the Halbstadt Gemeindebericht has been completed. All that remains for this village report is to press ahead with commentary and explanation. So without further delay, we move on to the next section of the report.

This steppe was completely free of houses and dwellings of any kind. The soil in the lowland consists of a mixture of peat, loam, and sand; the slightly higher steppe, except for the black earth upper layer from 1 to 1.5 feet deep, only of loam. The growth of grass on the hay steppes was, on average, only mediocre; by contrast, the pasture for horses, cattle, and sheep was strong and nourishing. However, with good preparation and treatment, the soil was particularly suitable for cultivation and bore, in fruitful years, a harvest of ten- to fifteenfold.

this steppe was completely free of houses and dwellings of any kind. Although the word steppe may refer specifically to the prairie expanse above the river bottom, it is also used more broadly to describe the entire area surrounding Halbstadt. The more general meaning is apparently intended here. The point appears to be, as suggested in the comments on the previous paragraph, that the founding of Halbstadt did not dispossess anyone. The land had not been settled prior to the Mennonite settlers (notwithstanding the seminomadic Nogais who traversed the area), so their founding of a village on the steppe harmed no one.

the soil in the lowland consists of a mixture of peat, loam, and sand. Here the distinction between the two types of land surrounding Halbstadt (and other Molotschna villages) comes into sharper focus. The community report distinguishes between the lowland along the Molochna River and the slightly higher steppe proper. The two areas had different types of soil. The lowland along the river contained a mixture of peat (decayed vegetation or organic matter), loam (itself a mixture of roughly 40 percent sand, 40 percent silt, and 20 percent clay), and sand.

Heinrich Goerz explains that the area across the Molochna River to the west of the Mennonite colony

had a charac­teristic topographical feature, the so-called “colonist hill,” a long high ridge which followed the right bank of the Molochnaia River. How­ever, between the river bank and the ridge was enough room for the German Lutheran villages…. The “colonist hill” was high enough to give the impression of a real mountain range on the otherwise flat steppe. … The left bank of the Molochnaia [i.e., Molotschna colony], in contrast to the right, rose very gently and gradually blended into the vast steppe.

The last sentence is key: on the Mennonite side of the Molochna River the land rose gradually as it stretched out into the prairie steppe.

the slightly higher steppe, except for the black earth upper layer from 1 to 1.5 feet deep, only of loam. In contrast to the lowland soil, the steppe soil contained two distinct layers. The top 12–18 inches consisted of black earth (Russian chernozem). This soil is some of the most fertile on earth. For a full discussion, see the earlier post “The Russian Steppe 6: Black Soil” (here). Beneath this layer of rich black earth was loam.

growth of grass on the hay steppes was … only mediocre. During the first decades of Molotschna’s existence, the agricultural economy was centered around animal husbandry: primarily the raising of sheep and cattle and secondarily horses. It was only after the mid-1830s that the pendulum began to swing decisively toward crop farming. This initial focus on animal husbandry explains the focus on hay and pastures. If I understand correctly, the grass on the elevated steppe was cut and gathered into barns or haystacks, then used to feed the livestock during the winter. 

the pasture for horses, cattle, and sheep was strong and nourishing. The pasture areas, by contrast, were generally located in the lusher lowland along the river. The location of the pastures in the lowlands was not, however, due merely to the increased output that they produced; pastures were generally kept closer to the village so that the daily trek from barn to pasture was as short as possible.

For additional detail on the Molotschna settlers’ raising of sheep, cattle, and horses, I recommend consulting David G. Rempel’s 1933 Stanford PhD dissertation, which is now available for anyone to read online (see here). Rempel discusses sheep on pages 123–28, cattle on pages 128–34, and horses on pages 134–37.

with good preparation and treatment, the soil was particularly suitable for cultivation. We cannot be completely certain which soil the report has in view here, but it is probably the soil of the steppe. The report just stated that the growth of grass was mediocre, so it would make sense to qualify this with an explanation of the bountiful harvests for which Molotschna became famous. The explanation, in the words of Helmut T. Huebert, was that “the soil [in Molotschna] was fertile, more suited to growing crops than harvesting hay” (2003, 120). If the steppe soil is in view, then the statement certainly describes the situation after the shift from animal husbandry to grain farming. This comports well with the reference to good preparation and treatment. The community report will later elaborate on what it means by “good preparation and treatment”: the practice of black fallow.

a harvest of ten- to fifteenfold. According to data included by David Rempel (1933, 159–60), the yield claimed by the community report is accurate, although only for the decade before the report was written. Rempel reproduces the crop statistics for a certain Molotschna farmer year by year from 1809 through 1848. This farmer, it is reported, began putting stable manure on his field in the 1820s and then practiced black fallow and a four-crop rotation in the mid-1830s. The table below uses Rempel’s full set of annual data to show broad patterns and developments over this forty-year period.

 bushels sown
bushels reaped 
average yield
  1809–1818  11.456.75.0x
1838–1848 26.5366.013.8x

Note first the marked increase in the average bushels this farmer sowed in the last decade of the records; this reflects the shift from animal husbandry to crop farming. Also noteworthy is the sharp increase in yield beginning in 1929 (after manure began to be spread on the field) and especially in the last decade. In fact, in three of the ten years of that period the yield was seventeen times the amount of seed sown. The agricultural practices promoted by Johann Cornies and the Agricultural Society had a decisive effect on crop yields and led to the Molotschna colony’s well-deserved reputation as the bread basket of the Russian Empire.

Works Cited

Huebert, Helmut T. 2003. Mennonite Historical Atlas. Winnipeg: Springfield.

Rempel, David G. 1933. “The Mennonite Colonies in New Russia: A Study of Their Settlement and Economic Development from 1789 to 1914.” PhD diss. Stanford University. Available online here.

Sunday, June 18, 2023

Father’s Day, 2023

The Buller Time blog sprang into existence on Father’s Day 2014 as a virtual gift to my dad, who shares a curiosity about and an interest in our family history. I did not know exactly where the blog would go or what content it might cover; only later did I discover the rich and steadily increasing body of online resources related to Mennonite history that has led us to explore more paths than I ever could have imagined nine years ago.

Buller Time’s first post (reproduced below) was short and simple: a brief paragraph followed by a photo.

Mennonite barn located in the former Molotschna Colony, Ukraine. Chris Buller’s father, Peter P Buller, lived in the villages of Alexanderkrone and Kleefeld before coming to the United States with the rest of his family when he was ten. To read further about the Molotschna Colony, see here.

Mennonite barn, Molochna

Today’s anniversary post is number 705, with many more to come (Lord willing). For the immediate future, I plan to continue translating and commenting upon the 1848 Molotschna Gemeindeberichten. In that vein, I am pleased to report that the translation of the Halbstadt Gemeindebericht has been completed. You can read the entire community report in English here. Much of the commentary remains to be written, but I hope to finish that within the coming weeks, so we can proceed to the next village in line: Muntau.

On this Father’s Day, as we remember the launch of Buller Time blog nine years and three days ago, let me offer thanks to all those who have stopped by to read and explore (and apologies to those who have emailed but not yet received a response). Most of all, thanks (and love) to my dad, who is the reason that the blog even exists. 

Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Halbstadt 8

Before we proceed to this post’s text and commentary, permit me to supplement the previous post (here) with newly discovered information. Earlier I wrote that I was unaware of any “lesser” village named Tokmak that would prompt the community report to refer to the village near Halbstadt as Grosstokmak, or Great Tokmak. While looking at an 1835 map during research for this post (see here), I noticed a village just north of Tokmak named Tokmachka. Intrigued, I researched that name and discovered that the full name of the village is Mala Tokmachka (see here). Since the Ukrainian word mala (мала) means small or little, we have our explanation why the community report refers to Tokmak as Grosstokmak: it was to distinguish the village close to Halbstadt from the village of the same name a little farther north. With that mystery cleared up, we are ready to move forward with the next paragraph of the community report.

The village was founded in the insignificant lowland on the left bank of the steppe river Molochna, which originates as the Tokmak 25 versts outside of the border of the district on a significant mountain hill and runs until 2 versts before this village, where the tributary Schönhull empties into it, and from there on it is called the Molochna. It is 40 versts from the former district city, Orikhiv; approximately 120 versts from the current district city, Berdiansk; and approximately 330 versts from the gubernia city, Simferopol.

the village was founded in the insignificant lowland. The reference here is to the village of Halbstadt, not the just-mentioned Grosstokmak. We can only guess why the community report refers to the area as insignificant (German “der nicht gerade bedeutenden Niederung” is literally “the not exactly significant lowland”). The authors of the report may be hinting that there was nothing outstanding about the location, that whatever success the village came to have was due, not to the village’s location, but to its residents. Or perhaps the authors mean to imply that the location was of no interest to the residents of Tokmak or the Nogais, so they were not dispossessed or disadvantaged by the founding of Halbstadt.

left bank. River banks are conventionally labeled left or right, but how does one know which is which? The answer is simple: look down the river, that is, with the current flowing away; the bank on your left is the left bank, and the one on your right is the right bank. Since the Molochna River flows generally from north to south, emptying into the Sea of Azov, the left bank is the east side of the river, which is the side on which Halbstadt and the other original villages were located.

steppe river Molochna. There is nothing intrinsic about a river that makes it a steppe river; it is all a matter of location. The Molochna River is a significant waterway in the immediate area but pales in comparison to a major river such as the Dnipro (or Dnieper). David Moon’s comments about rivers on the steppe, as opposed to rivers that run through deep valleys, are true of the Molochna as well:

The rivers in the region—a potential source of water for irrigation—did not contain sufficient water at the times it was needed. Water levels were highest in the spring, when they were fed by melted snow, but fell over the following weeks. Some rivers dried up altogether in the summer. Due to the flatness of the terrain, the gradient of most steppe rivers was inadequate to allow water to be channelled by gravity to irrigate surrounding land. (Moon 2013, 208)

Ukrainians spell the river’s name Molochna; the Russian spelling is slightly different: Molochnaya. The German-influenced spelling of the Mennonite colony is still different: Molotschna. None of these three forms, and others of which I may be unaware, is more correct than the others, although Molochna is the more common spelling today. The community report, not surprisingly, uses Molotschna for both the river and the colony. 

originates as the Tokmak. The community report can be a little difficult to follow here, but satellite photographs bring clarity. The river known as the Molochna actually starts out as the Tokmak River. The aerial photo below shows where the Tokmak River begins (red pin on the right). The river then travels generally westward along the path of the villages and cities shown until it reaches Tokmak (yellow pin on the left). 

2 versts before this village. As noted in the previous, a verst is .66 mile, so this statement indicates that the Tokmak River ran from roughly 30 miles to the east until 2 versts (= 1.32 miles) before the village of Halbstadt. The next phrase explains what happens to the waterway 2 versts before it reaches Halbstadt.

where the tributary Schönhull empties into it. The community report identifies a particular spot on the Tokmak River, a place where another waterway joins the Tokmak. The precise location in view is marked by a red X on the satellite photograph below.

The community report identifies the new waterway as the tributary Schönhull, which can be none other than the tributary labeled the Chynhul on Google Maps. According to the report, something significant takes place at this spot. The next phrase tells us what that is. 

from there on it is called the Molochna. Past the point where the tributary Schönhull joins the Tokmak, the river is known as the Molochna. One can even see this indicated on the satellite photo above. To the right of the X the river is labeled Tokmach (Tokmak); downstream past the X it is the Molochna. The change in name takes place roughly a mile and a quarter north of the village Halbstadt.

Having located the village in terms of a well-known geographical landmark, the community report proceeds to locate it in relation to three prominent cities. In the satellite photo below, Halbstadt is marked by the red pin: Orikhiv is the yellow pin to the north, Berdiansk is the one to the east, and Simferopol the one to the south.

Orikhiv. The community report spells this city name Orechow; the Ukrainian spelling commonly used today is Orikhiv. Founded around 1783, this city was only two decades older than Halbstadt. According to the community report, Orikhiv had previously served as the district capital. If I understand correctly, in 1802 Tsar Paul I redrew the political map of the area formerly held by the Crimean Khanate. As part of that reorganization, he established the Taurida gubernia (or governate), which encompassed all of Crimea and a substantial amount of land on the mainland north of Crimea. All the territory outlined in color in the map below was a part of Taurida.

The Taurida gubernia was divided into a number of districts (or uyezds).* The district/uyezd in which the Molotschna colony was located, which later was named the Berdiansk uyezd, was on the east side of the mainlaind portion of the Taurida gubernia. The city Orikhiv was on the northern border of Taurida, some 40 versts (ca. 26 miles) north-northeast of Halbstadt.

*One can think of a gubernia and its constituent uyezds as roughly comparable to a state and its counties.

Berdiansk. Located on the shore of the Sea of Azov, Berdiansk grew rapidly from a small settlement in the late 1820s and reached city status in 1835 (see here). Six years later, in 1841, Berdiansk replaced Orikhiv as uyezd capital. As we will read later in the community report, Berdiansk played a significant role in the life of the Molotschna colony by providing a ready market for the colony’s agricultural goods. As indicated in this section of the report, Berdiansk was approximately 120 versts (79 miles) from Halbstadt.

Simferopol. Located 330 versts (ca. 220 miles) south-southwest of Halbstadt, Simferopol served as the capital of Taurida from the the creation of the gubernia in 1802. Although a city had long existed on the same general location, it was newly founded and given the name Simferopol (Greek: City of Common Good) after Catherine II’s conquest of the Crimean peninsula in the early 1780s.

Work Cited

Moon, David. 2013. The Plough That Broke the Steppes: Agriculture and Environment on Russia’s Grasslands, 1700–1914. Oxford Studies in Modern European History. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sunday, May 28, 2023

Halbstadt 7

The previous post (Halbstadt 6) commented on the one-sentence report of the Mennonites’ arrival on the steppe. The next sentence in the community report, the focus of attention in this post, identifies who their closest neighbors were in their new home. For the German text and a translation of the full Halbstadt report, see here.

The steppe was used at that time partly by the crown peasants of the parish village Grosstokmak, lying 10 versts away, and partly by wandering Nogais.

crown peasants. At this time roughly half of Russia’s peasants were serfs, indentured individuals who not only lived and labored on land owned by someone else but also were bound to that land in a very real way, with no freedom to leave for a better position or to relocate to a better estate. Russian society recognized different types of peasants, based on who owned the land on which they served. David Moon writes, “the main categories were the seigniorial peasantry (or serfs) who lived on nobles’ estates, the state peasantry who lived on land belonging to the state, and the appanage peasantry whose land was the property of the imperial family” (1999, 22). The latter group, appanage peasants were also called court peasants, so presumably the phrase crown peasants refers to members of that grouping.

parish village. To learn what is meant by the term parish village, we turn once again to David Moon, who writes, “From the sixteenth century, most rural settlements were either villages (sela) or hamlets (derevni). The main distinction between them was that villages had churches, and were the centres of parishes that included the nearby hamlets. Villages were usually larger than hamlets” (1999, 200). Based on the community report’s designation, then, we can safely conclude that Grosstokmak was the central Russian village in the immediate area.

Grosstokmak. According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Ukraine (here), Tokmak was established in 1784, just twenty years before Halbstadt, by Russian state peasants (i.e., members of the state peasantry mentioned above) from the Poltava gubernia, a province roughly 165 miles to the north-northwest. The town took the name Tokmak from its location on the Tokmach River, which empties into the Molochna River a little more than 2 miles west of the village. According to a German Wikipedia page (here), the village was generally known as Tokmak but occasionally referred to as Grosstokmak (or Groß-Tokmak), which means Great Tokmak. One would think that there must have been another, smaller Tokmak that was distinct from Great Tokmak, but I know of no such village or hamlet in the area.

10 versts. The verst was a Russian measure of distance of that time period, equal to .66 mile. Thus the 10 versts from Tokmak to Halbstadt was roughly 6.6 miles.

Nogais. As reported earlier, historically the Nogai Tatars stemmed from the Golden Horde led by Nogai Khan, a descendant of Ghengis Khan. The Nogai, who were Muslim and spoke a dialect of Turkic, were settled in the Molotschna region by the Russian government between 1792 and 1810 in an attempt to prevent their defection to the Turks, against whom Russia warred periodically during this period. The Nogai were seminomadic herdsmen who moved their flocks and herds through the Avoz Lowlands (see further here).

Work Cited

Moon, David. 1999. The Russian Peasantry 1600–1930: The World the Peasants Made. London: Longman.

Sunday, May 21, 2023

Halbstadt 6

We continue our exploration of the Halbstadt community report with a long post on a single sentence. The full report (at least all that has been translated thus far) can be found here.

After spending most of the winter in the Chortitza Mennonite district, they arrived in the spring of 1804 on the steppe assigned to them for settlement by the military governor, the Duke of Richelieu, and the chairman of the Yekaterinoslav Office for Foreign Settlers, Mr. Kontenius.

winter in the Chortitza Mennonite district. As noted earlier, the 1803 immigrants left Grodno in small groups of families; the first families began the approximately six-week trip in early August, while the last groups departed in late October. Instead of pushing all the way through to their final destination, the families traveled first to Chortitza, a distance of roughly 625 miles. They would travel the final 50 miles to Molotschna after spending the winter with their sisters and brothers in the faith. This arrangement not only benefited the travelers (there was not enough time before winter set in to build adequate shelter in Molotschna); it also provided a much-needed financial boost to the struggling Chortitza colony. Heinrich Heese explains:

The arrival of our Molotschna brethren during the years 1803–05 saved our community from total bankruptcy; for it was through them that money once again began to circulate amongst us. These comely brethren encountered much better conditions than had our [Chortitza] fathers; for the late nobleman Contenius … had already arrived, and it was he who poured out upon them all the benefits of which the government was capable, benefits which had been so sparingly extended to our fathers. These new immigrants paid our fathers in cash for living quarters and barns, which till then had not been used because, for the sake of convenience, our cattle had been fed outside throughout the winter. Our fathers, in return for a fee, also took care of their purchases from the Russians and earned money while assisting them in the building-up of their colony on the Molotschna. Thus the wholly enervated community was partially restored to life. (quoted in Friesen 1980, 112–13)

spring of 1804. According to the 1808 Revisions List (Unruh 1955, 305–6), twenty of the twenty-one founders of Halbstadt arrived at their farmsteads on 21 June 1804; twelve families from Muntau and nineteen from Fischau arrived the same day. The Halbstadt founders were thus part of the initial wave of Molotschna settlers. The first group of five families arrived on 18 June, and they were followed by a steady stream of immigrants: three families on 19 June, fifty-one families on 20 June, the fifty-one families already reported for 21 June, ten families on 23 June, and one family on 24 June. Additional families arrived over the next four months: one family on 2 July, eighteen on 5 July, thirty-one on 15 July, three on 20 July, one on 12 September, one on 15 September, and one each on 2, 5, 9, and 15 October. By the end of 1804, over 180 families had taken up residence in the new Molotschna colony.

steppe. For a seven-part series on the Russian steppe, see the following links: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4 (vegetation), part 5; (climate), part 6 (black soil), part 7 (drought).

assigned to them. I recall reading somewhere that the original group of Molotschna settlers had their Wirtschaften assigned to them while they were still in Chortitza. I am now unable to find the source of that information, but at least two considerations imply that that is what happened. First, the Heinrich Heese quotation above mentions that Samuel Contenius (see below) was present in the Chortitza colony during the winter of 1803–1804, when the future Molotschna settlers were there; since Contenius was involved in the assignment of Wirtschaften, it is reasonable to think that the assignment took place at that time. Second, most of the residents of each village generally arrived on the same day, which implies that they traveled in village groups, as it were. For example, we already noted that twenty of the twenty-one Halbstadt families arrived on 21 June 1804. Similarly, nineteen of twenty-two Fischau founders arrived on the same day, 20 June 1804, as did twenty out of twenty-two of Münsterberg’s original families. Even the first group of five families to arrive (18 June) all settled in the same village, Altona. The most likely explanation of this overlap between traveling party and village residence is that the Wirtschaften were assigned while families were still in Chortitza and served as the organizing principle for the formation of the traveling parties on the final leg of the journey.

military governor, the Duke of Richelieu. The identity of the individual in view is clear: Armand Emmanuel du Plessis, Fifth Duke of Richelieu (for a brief account of Richelieu’s life, see Height 1975, 97–113). What is less certain is the accuracy of the governmental position attributed to him: military governor.

By most accounts, Tsar Alexander I appointed Armand Richelieu governor, or mayor, of Odessa in 1803, then two years later, in 1805, promoted him to governor-general of New Russia (LeDonne 2000, 172; Height 1975, 104). There is no mention of Richelieu as military governor in the usual story of his life. However, according to LeDonne, prior to 1822 the specific title usually translated governor-general with respect to Richelieu’s assignment was “military governor of Kherson (or Odessa) and ‘administrator in chief’ … of Kherson, Ekaterinoslav, and Tavrich (Crimea) provinces” (2002, 25 n. 49). In light of this, a reference to Richelieu as military governor seems plausible.***

That still leaves the problem of the timing: as noted above, most date Richelieu’s promotion to 1805, a year after the Mennonite colonists had been assigned their land. Thus far I have found only one scholar who dates it to 1804. Julia Malitska writes, “In 1804, Richelieu was appointed Military Governor of Kherson province, based in Odessa and with responsibility for other southern provinces of the empire” (2017, 100). Unfortunately, she does not cite any sources to document her claim. She does add, “From the time of his appointment in 1803 as Town Commandant [or governor or mayor] of Odessa, Richelieu had taken a close interest and concern about the colonies. His office was involved with the activity of the Guardianship Office” (2017, 100).

If Malitska is correct about her dating of Richelieu’s promotion, then the community report is probably correct not only in referring to Richelieu as a military governor but also in reporting that he was involved in the assignment of land to the first Molotschna settlers. However, in the absence of corroborating evidence, we should hold that conclusion as only possible, perhaps not even plausible, but definitely not certain.

***Interestingly, LeDonne reports elsewhere that the title governor-general fell out of favor during the early 1800s and was replaced with the designation military governor (2001, 14). This likely explains why the pre-1822 title highlighted the military governor part of the role. For governors-general in Russia, see also Shandra 2021.

Yekaterinoslav Office for Foreign Settlers. This short phrase offers a great example of how confusing historical details can become for readers far removed from the events being reported. Consider, first of all, the name of the city: Yekaterinoslav. One frequently encounters the spelling Ekaterinoslav, which is just as correct as the version used here. To complicate matters further, the name of the city has undergone numerous changes. The first recorded name of the settlement was Novyi Kodak (New Kodak, since the original Kodak had been destroyed). In 1784 Catherine II renamed the city Yekaterinoslav after herself, but in 1796 her son and successor, Tsar Paul, removed her name from the city and gave it the name Novorossiisk. His son and successor, Alexander I, reversed his father’s decision in 1802 and restored the name Yekaterinoslav. That name stood until 1918, when it was changed to Dnipropetrovsk, a word that combined and commemorated the Dnieper River (Dnipro) and a Soviet revolutionary named Grigory Petrovsky. Finally, in 2016, with the Soviet Union now only a memory, the name was shortened to Dnipro. The city itself is located roughly 85 miles north-northwest of Molotschna.

Like the city, which had five different names over its history, the government office in view went through various incarnations, which can create significant confusion. In 1763, during Catherine II’s reign, the Russian government formed a department in St. Petersburg called the Bureau of Guardianship of the Foreign Colonists. As its name implies, the department was to oversee the settlement and care of foreign peoples settling within Russia’s borders. This centralized approach lasted all of three years, after which it was supplemented by the establishment of a regional office in Saratov. Sixteen years later, in 1782, both the bureau and its Saratov office were abolished, and foreign colonists were placed under the authority of the provincial (gubernia) authorities. According to David Rempel, “This meant that they were now subject to the same oppression and extortions as the native peasantry and with the same results” (1933, 37). Consequently, within the first year of Paul’s reign, on 4 March 1797, Russia returned to the former model, with the establishment of the Expedition (Department) of Political Economy, Guardianship of the Foreigners and Domestic Economy. After several years devoted to on-site investigation of conditions in the colonies, a local bureau was established in Novorossiisk (i.e., Yekaterinoslav) on 6 April 1800. This is the office to which the community report refers. However, the story does not end here. According to the Mennonite Heritage Centre (here), the Yekaterinoslav office was initially named the Guardianship Office for Foreign Settlers in New Russia but changed its name ever so slightly a year later, in 1801, to the Guardianship Committee for Foreign Settlers in New Russia. Eventually the number of colonists in New Russia increased to the point that the local bureau could no longer manage its workload. Therefore, in 1818 a new governmental department was organized to meet the need; that department is known in English-language documents as the Guardianship Committee for Foreign Settlers in Southern Russia, the Guardians’ Committee of the Foreign Colonists in the Southern Region of Russia, and the like. This Guardianship Committee continued to operate until it was finally abolished in 1871.

Contenius. In keeping with the theme of the previous paragraphs, we begin by noting that this person’s name is often spelled differently: Contenius is more common in English-language contexts, Kontenius in German-language works. Samuel Contenius (1749–1830) conducted the on-site investigation of New Russia referenced above, so it was only natural that he was appointed the first judge (chairman) of the Yekaterinoslav Guardianship Office. According to John R. Staples,

Contenius was an energetic proponent of agricultural modernization, and his wide contacts with the central Guardianship Committee administration in Kishinev, and with senior governmental authorities in St. Petersburg, often allowed him to bypass administrative red tape and push through reforms among the foreign colonists under his supervision. Contenius was a domineering bureaucrat who … placed enormous demands on everyone he commanded…. Although Contenius officially retired in 1818, he retained an office and staff in Ekaterinoslav until his death in 1830, and continued to be a driving force in colonist affairs until almost his last days. (Staples 2015, xxxvii)

Contenius enjoyed close and positive relations both with Armand Richelieu, military governor/governor-general of the province, and Johann Cornies, the most influential Mennonite within Molotschna colony. As already noted above, Contenius certainly was involved in the assignment of land to the founders of Halbstadt, as reported in the Halbstadt Gemeindebericht. Whether that consisted only of assigning the general area on the steppe or extended to the assignment of village areas and perhaps even individual Wirtschaften remains unknown.

Works Cited

Friesen, Peter M. 1980. The Mennonite Brotherhood in Russia, 1789–1910. 2nd ed. Translated by J. B. Toews, Abraham Friesen, Peter J. Klassen, and Harry Loewen. Fresno, CA: Board of Christian Literature, General Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches. Available online here.

Height, Joseph S. 1975. Homesteaders on the Steppe: Cultural History of the Evangelical-Lutheran Colonies in the Region of Odessa. Bismarck: North Dakota Historical Society of Germans from Russia.

LeDonne, John P. 2000. “Frontier Governors General 1772–1825 II. The Southern Frontier.” Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas NS 48 (2000): 161–83.

———. 2001. “Russian Governors General, 1775-1825: Territorial or Functional Administration?” Cahiers du Monde russe 42:5–30. Available online here.

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