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Searching for German Russian Ancestors

by Betty Miley Ashley

Betty says: Not that I am crazy about Hilary, but I do like the sound of her statement for the title of this article.

I've said before that I got started in my pursuit when my first child, Chip, was born in 1950. His little baby book had a chart to fill in with names to be inscribed back to his great-grandparents. My Virginia hillbilly dad's side was easy. But Mom was born in a remote German Village located on the Volga River in Russia. The "Cold War" was going on so my only resources were my relatives. But I was determined to fill in that chart!

It turned out that my grandad Schaefer's aunt (Anna SCHAEFER GALLOWA) had arrived in the US in 1887. Her descendants knew that the names of Grandpa's grandparents were Adam and Anna Marie (JUNG) SCHAEFER. The GALLOWAs settled in Otis, Kansas, and their friends, a MUTH family, settled near them. Anyway, I had the names of the SCHAEFER great-grandparents.

Grandmother's maiden name was MILLER. Her parents were Andreas and Maria MILLER. Mom's MILLER cousin, Eva JUNG CHAMNESS, has a family book in which her mother, Eva MILLER JUNGIYOUNG, had written the names of hers and Grandmother's parents: Andreas MILLER and Maria ZOELLER.

During the 1960's I was teaching school, had three lively teenagers, and a weekend farmer husband. Feeling very martyr-like I decided I needed a hobby. Digging up dead relatives seemed most intriguing with all the stressful and lively activities going on around me.

Dad's hillbillies were easy to find. Husband Chuck's Scots-Irish roots were also simple to uncover. But what to do about the German Russian side?!

Mom often claimed that she just wanted to be an American, but actually she was the biggest help around. My questions were endless.

Question: Who also in Fresno, CA came from Wiesenmuller? Answer: The STUCKERTs, MICHAELISes, PINNECKERs, ROHRIGs, one family of KINDSVATERs who were related "somehow" to Mother (Katherine Elisabeth MILLER SCHAEFER).

Question: Can you remember any families in Rocky Ford, CO (where mom was brought up and I was born)?

Answer: KINDSVATERs (2 possibly unrelated families), FREIDENBERGER, BUSCH, BRICK, DIEHL, MUTH, PINNECKER, EIRICH, MICHAELIS; some of them "related somehow or other" to "the folks." She said that one time when she was just a little kid an old lady came to Rocky Ford to visit her children. Mom called them Mrs. BUSCH, Mrs. BRICK and the lady's son, Pete KINDSVATER. This elderly lady told Grandmother that she was a "Geschwisterkind" which means literally a child of a parent's sister. In other words, a cousin. It turned out she was a distant cousin.

The interviewing began. In Fresno I visited Anna EIRICH LEATHERMAN. It turned out that my Uncle Jake SCHAEFER was her "first sweetie" in Rocky Ford. The FREIDENBERGERs were "somehow related" to the EIRICHS. I visited Lydia PINNECKER SCHMIDT who was a cousin to my cousin, Alvin SCHAEFER. Lydia told me about the BUXMAN family which lived around Reedley and Orange Cove in Fresno County, CA. That was how I met dear Katherine BUXMAN WIEST.

I can tell you, Readers, the afore-mentioned ladies became beloved friends. My circle of Wiesenmullerin was becoming wider and wider. I could almost visualize Grandpa and Grandmother visiting with the parents of my new friends.... going to church... eating watermelons... watering the Obstgarten down by the Jeruslan ... the "Mutti" washing clothes in the summertime on the river beach ... the kids swimming in the Jeruslan.

My contacts with the STUCKERT family did not lead to much until I met Mary STUCKERT MORROW who lived in Sacramento, but came to Fresno to settle the estate of her sister who had died here. Mary became a wonderful friend also. Through an ad in AHSGR Journal I met George Fred SCHAEFER of Portland, Oregon, who said in the first sentence of his letter, "If my family had not lived in Portland most of my life, and yours in Colorado and Fresno, I would think that we were of the same family by the common Christian names." In another article I shall describe my attempts to sort out the several SCHAEFER families of Wiesenmuller.

The Fresno County Hall of Records has information about "intentions for citizenship." In the records I have found a few birth dates, names of family members, and dates of arrivals of some in my scope in interest. The local chapter of AHSGR also has copies of all the German Russian church records containing information about the local Wiesenmuller area families.

By the time the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia was established, I knew the I would add to my knowledge only by knowing more about Grandpa and Grandma's home village. And possibly because I was the only person pestering the central office about Wiesenmuller, I became the Village Coordinator.

During the 1970's a researcher of German Russian information had to rely entirely upon the information within the U.S. My cousin, Alvin, finally found the very passenger list naming our grandparents' family, manifest ARABIC 1907, by personally searching the archives in Washington, D.C. (Grandpa was listed as Jewish tailor, probably because he answered "Ja!" to all the questions, and the families just preceding were headed by Russian Jewish tailors!) Also the scribe had spelled the name something like "SHEFFER" thus causing difficulty in focusing in on the correct persons when we had requested the list via U.S. Mail.

Probably the best thing that happened in my research of my mother's village of birth was when I received a letter from Sue BECKMAN KOTTWITZ. I had no help for her family names of SCHREINER and SPENGLER. However, she mentioned that if there was any way she could be of help..... And so the newsletter came into being.

I met David SCHMIDT of the Bay Area of California at a genealogy seminar about 1991. I heard him talking of a Dr. Igor PLEVE who had researched David's SCHMIDT ancestors in the Volga Area. I asked David if he would help me with my SCHAEFERs. He went out of his way to be of assistance. He faxed my information which was transcribed by him into German. He relayed Dr. PLEVE's responses. I needed more information about mother colonies and so on before Dr. Pleve could help. I knew my granny's family had migrated from Dietel to Wiesenmuller because of the "Geschwisterkind" who had visited when my mom was a child.

In the information we have received since 1992, I know more than ever that the lives of the people of the daughter colonies near Wiesenmuller were entwined.

My advice to anyone researching Germans from Russia:

  • Find out who your grandparents' (or great grandparents') best friends were.
  • What church they attended.
  • Who was with them aboard the ship which brought them to America.

Don't think that the research of just one surname will do it for you. In this German Russian research we must remember that our forebears were isolated in the Volga area surrounded by strange Russian people. They clung together for support and strength. In all the German villages everyone knew everyone else.

Please, always remember that in order to find out about YOUR OWN family...

... you need to know as much as possible about the WHOLE VILLAGE.