Thursday, December 26, 2013

So, where did all those Griesses come from, anyhow?

James R. (Jim) Griess died on Friday, March 21, 2014 in Lincoln. Jim was the source of much of our information and understanding about the story of the Germans from Russia who came to Sutton. He is missed. 
You may be new to Sutton or perhaps you've not been told the story, but still you've noticed. There sure are a lot of Griesses in this town.

As someone I used to know might have said, “You can’t swing a long-tailed cat in Sutton without hitting a Griess.” And you can’t even swing a short-tailed cat without hitting someone related to a Griess.

The definitive authority of the Germans from Russia in Sutton,
a thorough study of the migration to Russia and to Sutton with
family history and Sutton history by James R. Griess, Sutton
High Class of '59.
So, where’d they come from? It’s kind of a long story and an important story, for on some level the Griesses and cohorts have long defined Sutton for our neighboring towns.

The earliest settlers to the Sutton area generally came from Back East. There were a handful of Swedish homesteaders to the west as early as 1870 the same time that Luther French homesteaded the north 80 acres of downtown. French was more typical of settlers in those first years, grew up in Ohio, moved to Indiana, then to Wisconsin, and Iowa and finally here, movin’ west.

Young farmers were being crowded out in the east. Older fellows from Iowa to Pennsylvania were looking for better prospects and cheaper land in the West.

The first settlers came as individuals, a family or sometimes an extended family. The Grays were typical. Hosea Gray and his wife came to Sutton with son John and his wife Emma, daughter Ada and her husband George Bemis and the Cunnings. The four Brown brothers homesteaded in the northeast part of School Creek Township before two of them came to town to practice law and publish the Sutton Register. The Clark brothers became developers as well as the first physician and an early merchant.

Settlers from abroad soon came enticed by railroad advertisements and other publicity, Germans and Swedes mostly but Irish, Danes, Czechs, Bohemians and others were represented. Still, the individual or small family group was the norms.

The huge exception to these situations was the Germans from Russia. They came in bunches.

The first Griess invasion came in 1873 when 55 families of about 400 people left their villages of Worms and Rohrbach in the Black Sea region near Odessa, today in Ukraine. They arrived in Lincoln expecting to find farm land but felt the price was too high so they sat for a time. Some of their acquaintances had made this trip a year earlier settling in the Dakotas. Thirty-three of those 55 families drifted off before news of land in Clay County caught the attention of their leaders.

The bunch which first settled here was led by Heinrich Griess, Johannes Grosshans and Heinrich Hoffmann. These were not your poor, struggling immigrants. Griess was a young man who had sold off about nine square miles of Russian farmland for 100,000 rubles. The exchange rate was 52 cents per ruble – the man had $52,000 in 1873 dollars when he arrived. What does that mean? The “Measuring Worth” web site gives a wide range of answers depending…, but the low end comparison is almost $1 million in today’s U.S. currency. The others were similarly equipped.

Heinrich Griess, leader of the first group of
Germans from Russia who migrated from the
villages of Worms and Rorhbach arriving in
Sutton in
The Germans from Russia bypassed the homestead option for land acquisition for the most part purchasing railroad land – 16,200 acres at a cost of $112,480 – from 4 to 7 dollars an acre, much of that purchased by Grosshans, Griess and Company on September 4, 1873 and receiving special mention on page 202 of

We have good analysis of railroad land purchases for only two counties: Lancaster and Clay in Nebraska – Yippee! Check out for the cutest interactive map you’ll see this week. Click on the “Years” at the top of the map, 1870 thru 1880 and watch sections after sections being gobbled up. Those were folks from around Cleveland who settled in Lynn Township and into Harvard but purchases in the northeast part of Clay County were led by Grosshans, Griess & Co.

More bunches and not just a few individuals and families followed those first settlers from Russia between 1874 and 1914, the start of World War I.

A second category of immigrants from Russia were Germans from along the Volga River beginning in late 1874 with eight families from the village of Balzar led by Jacob Bender. The nearby village of Norka contributed many more.

So, how did Germans come to be living in Russia, of all places?

I can’t tell the whole story here. Jim Griess (Sutton High Class of ’59) took 335 large-format pages to tell his version of the story. Anyone connected to the Germans from Russia, with an interest in the topic or just looking for a fascinating book must have Jim’s “The Germans from Russia – Those Who Came to Sutton.” See or see us at the Sutton Museum for a copy (as soon as we restock.)

But briefly, in 1762 Catherine the Great was a German princess who found herself czarina of the Russian Empire – another great story – especially the part where she might have murdered her husband to get the role and the Russian people were O.K. with that. Catherine noticed that a huge portion of southern Russia was unoccupied, unproductive and paying absolutely no taxes. She understood that it was good farmland and she knew where good, honest, hard-working farmers could be found. Actually, it wasn’t in Germany.

There was no Germany. Did you know that? No nation called Germany existed until January 18,
This immigrant trunk belonged Heinrich Griess (or Gries as
spelled on the trunk.) The trunk is marked "No. 1" implying
multiple trunks - he had a large family and was "a man of
substantial resources." The trunk is on display at the Sutton
1871 after Otto von Bismarck had put all the pieces together. There were people who spoke the German language and were consider Germanic but they came from places like Hesse, Baveria, Prussia, Swabia, etc. etc. Germans who came directly to Sutton from Germany often identified their place of birth in the census as one of these city-states. My favorite census enumerator’s “best guess” is that several people in Sutton are listed as being from Dam State. That should be Darnstadt, a city and region in today’s western Germany. There was no Germany until 1871. The nation of Germany has been around as long as the town of Sutton. But I digress.

Catherine invited Germans to come to Russia to live. She established a set of generous conditions allowing the settlers to their own villages, language, churches, etc. living in little pieces of home pretty much to themselves.

Conditions in Central Europe were horrendous. These ancestors of Suttonites were in the midst of on-going wars between the French and the various Germanic states, then Napoleon stirred things up – ugly. Accepting Catherine’s invitation made sense. Many packed up and moved.

The first migrants settled in the Volga River Valley – hundreds of villages. Later another wave settled near Odessa in hundreds more villages.

Advance the clock about one hundred years and a couple of Czars to Alexander II who began to back off of those generous conditions (long story, see Jim’s book.) In 1871 the Germans learned they were to become Russianized – no more German language, churches, villages – now Russian. But, they had ten years to adapt or leave.

Meanwhile, back in American, railroads were laying track across empty plains where a population would certainly be useful. Railroad agents swarmed to Europe with aggressive Madison Avenue-like ad campaigns. Germans, Swedes, Irish, Bohemians and others began a new migration. For the Germans in Russia this was timely, fortuitous and, if they were religious, and they were, it was an answer to prayers.

So to Sutton they came, and to Lincoln, Scottsbluff, Kansas, the Dakotas, Colorado, really all over. Sutton is unusual in that immigrants from both major regions, the Black Sea and Volga area came here. The Sutton arrivals also all came from villages of the Reformed Church. There were also villages of Lutherans, Catholics and Mennonites, some of the latter settled around Henderson, assisted by earlier arrivals in Sutton.

How were the new immigrants accepted? About as you might expect. As a species we do poorly in accepting the New, the Different or the Other.

The railroads launched an aggressive advertising campaign with posters like this one
to attract settlers who would ride the trains and ship goods on those new railroads
being constructed across the open prairie.
The first groups from Russia were frankly wealthy. That helped. The later arrivals were not rich, many were poor and had been sponsored by friends already here. One story involves two brothers who came sponsored by a relative who would not buy them new clothes until they had earned them. These young men were on the streets of Sutton for several weeks wearing distinctive Russian peasant garb, embarrassing and not cool. However, several individuals quickly moved into the mainstream of Sutton life – office holders, professionals, merchants, etc.

We can find newspaper references pointing out the industriousness of the “Russians” as they were often called. But there are contrary references.

On one occasion a local paper noted that a group of Russians had arrived by train and spent the night on the depot platform before catching an early morning train west, likely to western Nebraska or Colorado. The comment concluded something to the affect that Sutton already had its share and he was glad to see their backsides heading west in the morning sun.”

Did all the Germans in Russia immigrate to America? They did not. Many stayed and were caught up in world history often with tragic consequences especially during World War II when they were alternatively courted and vilified by the Germans for being Russians and by the Russians for being German. Again, see Jim’s book; it’s complicated but worth sorting out.

The descendants from those Germans from Russia are a significant percentage of Sutton’s population. Add people who are closely related to that group and there aren’t many of us left out. Theirs may be a unique story in the strict sense of the word – one of a kind. Many of the surnames of the Germans from Russia have disappeared, either the folks left or the names “daughtered out” as the genealogists say. Regarding the leaders of that first group in 1873, Grosshans does not appear in the Sutton phone book. There is a representation for Hofmann. But as for Griess, yes there are some in the phone book.

1 comment:

john knigge said...

I would love to obtain a copy of the book by Jim Griess. I am a descendant of Heinrich Griess and Johannes Grosshans, along with the Ochsners, Milroys and Gellatleys. I am researching the family genealogy and would love to hear from anyone willing to share information. I can be contacted at Thanks John Knigge