Daniel Unruh and the Mennonite Settlement in Dakota Territory

by John D. Unruh and John D. Unruh, Jr.

Originally published: John D. Unruh and John D. Unruh, Jr., “Daniel Unruh and the Mennonite Settlement in Dakota Territory”, Mennonite Quarterly Review 49, 3 (July 1975): 203-216. Used with permission.

The program of increasing militarization and Russification begun by Alexander II in the late 1860s made clear that the favorable position enjoyed by the German Mennonite “colonists” in Russia was to end.1 Exemptions from military service would no longer be tolerated and the colonies would lose control of their school systems.  All instruction would henceforth be in the Russian language.  The problem led the older colonies to send a delegation of twelve to North America in the spring of 1873 to investigate the possibilities of settlement.  The committee spent the summer examining potential sites in the midwestern states and provinces of the United States and Canada, returning in the fall to report their findings to their Russia brethren.  During the next decade some 18,000 Russian Mennonites responded by migrating to North America.

Approximately 10,000 of these immigrants settled in the United States, most in the western states and territories of Kansas, Nebraska, Dakota, and Minnesota.2 Surprisingly, however, the site chosen by the nearly 2,000 immigrants settling in Dakota had never been examined by the committee of twelve.  Indeed, Andreas Schrag, the delegate of the Volhynian Swiss who comprised a substantial number of those ultimately settling in southeastern Dakota, had returned to Russian recommending settlement in the Pembina area far to the north near the Canadian border.3 That a Mennonite settlement was begun on the prairies of southeastern Dakota was due not to the investigations and recommendations of the delegation of twelve but to the example and influence of Daniel Unruh, who had arrived in America in the late summer of 1873, long before the delegation returned to Russia wit h their report on the possibilities of settlement in North America.4

Daniel Unruh (originally spelled Unrau) was born in the Molotschna colony of southern Russia on March 16, 1820.5 Virtually no information on his family background is available.  The late Benjamin Unruh, Mennonite historian from Karlsruhe, Germany, who contended that the Unruh family came originally from Germany, claimed to have records tracing the family back to the ninth century in the days of Charlemagne.  Another theory claims that all Unraus came originally from Holland, and that the Unruhs came from Germany.6 It is not known whether all Unruhs derive from the same ancestor.  According to some authorities, the first Mennonite Unruh was a military officer of high rank in Saxony who adopted non-resistance when he joined the Mennonites.7 a widespread family name among the Mennonites of Prussia, Danzig, Russia, and America.” “Unruh,” ME, IV, 784.] In the 1880 census reports for Turner County, Dakota Territory, Daniel Unruh reported that both of his parents as well as those of his wife, Marie Wedel, had been born in Prussia.

A stereoscopic view of Castle Garden, since renamed Castle Clinton. Castle Garden was the immigrant receiving center in New York City before the larger Ellis Island Immigrant Centre was opened in 1892. It is located at the tip of Manhattan in Battery Park and now serves as the ticket center for ferries going to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. Photo Credit: Wikipedia Commons: Robert N. Dennis collection of stereoscopic views.

A stereoscopic view of Castle Garden, since renamed Castle Clinton. Castle Garden was the immigrant receiving center in New York City before the larger Ellis Island Immigrant Centre was opened in 1892. It is located at the tip of Manhattan in Battery Park and now serves as the ticket center for ferries going to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. Photo Credit: Wikipedia Commons: Robert N. Dennis collection of stereoscopic views.

But in the early 1850s Unruh owned considerable land near the Molotschna village of Waldheim, where he was an influential member of the community.8 However, due to the critical land shortages which had developed in the Molotschna and Chortitza colonies by the late 1840s and 1850s, a considerable number of Mennonites had begun to move to places where land was more easily obtained.9

Some went south to the Crimean province.  Included in this number was Daniel Unruh, who apparently made the move during the late 1850s, purchasing a considerable quantity of land near the village of Friedenstein.10 Unruh’s son John, who was twenty years old when the migration to America was made, reported several years before he died that they had paid twenty-seven rubles a dessiatine for their land in the Crimea, which they sold for thirty-seven rubles a dessiatine when they left for America in 1873.11

Economically, living conditions in the Crimea were most favorable.  The land was productive and the climate ideal.  Despite the glowing tales about the Crimea which Unruh and his children often later told, however, the ominous portent of the impending military service led Unruh abruptly to sell his lands and leave Russia in the early summer of 1873.

Why he led his family and a small group of relatives and friends to the United States is not known.  Perhaps it was because he knew that the committee of twelve was then in American investigating the possibilities of settlement there.  Jacob Buller, a delegate from the Molotschna colony, was an old friend of Unruh’s, and it is possible that Buller had communicated with Unruh shortly after he had arrived in the United States.12 More likely, however, Unruh had been drawn to the United States by correspondence with the Rev. Robert Neumann, a Lutheran minister in New York City who operated a mission to the immigrants for the General Council at the Castle Garden immigrant receiving center.13

A view of Hamburg Harbour in 1883. Image Credit: Wikipedia Commons, Georg Koppmann.

A view of Hamburg Harbour in 1883. Image Credit: Wikipedia Commons, Georg Koppmann.

“Pastor” Neumann, as he was usually called, apparently played an important but elusive role in the Mennonite migration of the 1870s.  He was well enough known to some of the committee of twelve delegates, presumably through correspondence, that the two Hutterite and the two Kleine Gemeinde representatives immediately sought him out “to get some information and advice” the day after they arrived in New York.14 Later in the summer of 1873 Neumann met the Daniel Unruh party on their arrival, one New York newspaper averring that it was through Neumann that the party had been “induced” to come to America.  While the Unruh group was in New York, they spend considerable time in discussions with Neumann, who offered counsel concerning their future course of action, and who also conducted their Sunday worship services at Castle Garden.15 The following year, when the large tide of Mennonite immigrants began to flow into Castle Garden, Neumann was again active, especially in securing railroad tickets and making representations on behalf of the immigrants.  An account in the New York Times even referred to Neumann as “the Mennonite missionary.”16

Since leaving their Crimean homes in the Black Sea villages of Brudersfeld and Friedenstein for the Russian port of Feodosia, the Unruh group had spent some five weeks in travel, coming by way of Odessa, Berlin, and Hamburg.17 Concluding their journey on the vessel Hammonia, they docked in New York on August 15.  The Hammonia passenger list indicates approximately 100 Mennonite immigrants in the party.18

Their arrival in American occasioned laudatory comment by nearly every New York newspaper, and Daniel Unruh (spelled Unruhe by the press) and several of the other “principal emigrants” were singled out for an interview.19 The party remained at the Castle Garden immigrant center throughout their four day stopover in the city, where they experienced some confusion due to the seemingly contradictory maze of orders and immigration officials.20

At this time there apparently was little agreement concerning the group’s final destination in the American West, for the several newspapers in turn reported that the immigrants favored Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, and Texas in addition to Dakota Territory.  Almost all the newspapers were impressed by the absence of elderly persons and the prominence of large families in the immigrant party.  A study of the Hammonia passenger list indicates that only fifteen of the prospective settlers were over thirty years of age, with Daniel Unruh the second oldest at fifty-three.

Even more newsworthy for some of the New York dailies was the rumor – ultimately repeated by Chicago and Iowa newspapers – that the small band had brought with them a considerable quantity of gold.  Peter Isaac was reputed to be the wealthiest immigrant, possessing $140,000 in gold.  While the New York Tribune initially speculated that at least $300,000 in specie had been thus brought to America, by the time the immigrants passed through Sioux City, Iowa, the sum was reportedly over $1,000,000.21 These idle speculations were quickly denounced by John F. Funk, prominent Mennonite editor and publisher who played such a key role in the Mennonite migration of the 1870s.  Explaining that he knew Isaac well and that his property was worth no more than $3,000, Funk railed against this unnecessary spotlighting of the immigrants to pickpockets and confidence men.22

Having refused to leave earlier because of religious scruples against traveling on Sunday, the immigrants departed New York on a rainy Monday evening, August 18.  Traveling first via the steamer Birbeck to Jersey City and then with through tickets to St. Paul, Minnesota, on the Erie Railroad, the Unruh group stopped temporarily in Elkhart, Indiana, on August 20 to visit with friends and decide on their final location.23 Noting their arrival, the Elkhart Evening Review reported that the Mennonite immigrants planned to locate in Dakota Territory but would remain in Elkhart until an advance party would report.  While awaiting the final site selection in that city of 5,500, the young Mennonite men and women in the immigrant party advertised for work.24 Funk labored diligently to find work for the men and to secure suitable places of lodging during the subsequent eight weeks the main group remained in Elkhart.25

Despite the newspaper reports that the Russian contingent now in Elkhart planned to locate in Dakota Territory, Unruh with five other immigrants left Elkhart the following Monday, August 25, for Newton, Kansas, to investigate Santa Fe Railroad lands available in that vicinity.  Cornelius and Peter Jansen, recently-arrived Russian Mennonites who soon decided to settle in Nebraska, joined the group in Newton from where they went to Council Bluffs, Iowa, to examine additional railroad lands.  Going next to Chicago, the delegation was joined by Funk, who spent the next two weeks assisting the land-seekers, and by William Seeger of the Minnesota Board of Immigration, who was zealously promoting Minnesota lands.26

Cornelius Jansen was born in Prussia and emigrated to Berdjansk near the Molotschna Colony in the 1850s where he served as a representative of Prussia. He was an active promoter of emigration in the 1870s and was banished from Russia in 1873 for his tireless activity. He subsequently moved to America, ultimately settling in Beatrice, Nebraska. Photo Credit: GAMEO.

Cornelius Jansen was born in Prussia and emigrated to Berdjansk near the Molotschna Colony in the 1850s where he served as a representative of Prussia. He was an active promoter of emigration in the 1870s and was banished from Russia in 1873 for his tireless activity. He subsequently moved to America, ultimately settling in Beatrice, Nebraska. Photo Credit: GAMEO.

For the next two weeks the group examined lands in Minnesota and Dakota Territory.  From St. Paul and Minneapolis they traveled to the Fargo area in the northern portion of Dakota Territory, and then to Breckenridge, Herman, Douglass, Morris, Mountain Lake, Windom, Worthington, St. Peter, and New Ulm, Minnesota, discussing terms with Seeger, with various railroad officials, and with agents of the United States land office.  Between Funk’s departure on September 17 and the return of Unruh and his colleagues to Elkhart ten days later, the delegation apparently viewed additional lands in Wisconsin and Iowa.27

As the reconnoitering trip had revealed, choosing a location for settlement would prove difficult.  Unruh favored lands he had seen in Iowa and would have personally preferred to locate there had he not felt responsibility both for the group which had traveled with him and for friends still in Russia who were anxiously awaiting word from Unruh before commencing the journey to America.  Many of these possessed only meager financial resources and would be unable to purchase lands, as would be necessary in Iowa.  Besides, Iowa was already quite densely populated and there simply would not be sufficient quantities of land available for the many immigrants assumed to be coming.  Seeger, who obviously recognized this, felt confident that the entire company would decide to settle in the Mountain Lake region.28

Much to Seeger’s disgust, however, James S. Foster, Commissioner of Immigration for Dakota Territory, chanced to encounter the Russian immigrant party in Elkhart and convinced the leaders to investigate the possibilities of settling in southeastern Dakota before any final decisions were made.29 Before traveling to Dakota Unruh and his colleagues, accompanied by Funk, went to Chicago for further discussions on land terms with railroad officials on October 3.  Then Unruh and another immigrant, in the company of Bernhard Warkentin who, like Funk, had been assisting the Mennonite group in their travels and negotiations, journeyed to southeastern Dakota to examine lands in the Yankton area.  By October 14 Warkentin telegraphed Funk that Unruh had decided definitely to settle in the Yankton vicinity, and by October 15 Unruh had returned to Elkhart to begin preparations for the long awaited final departure for the west.30

On Thursday, October 16, seventy-seven immigrants boarded the train in Elkhart for Dakota, accompanied by the ever helpful Funk, who went as far as Chicago to assist in changing trains.  After watching their Chicago departure Funk wrote in his diary, “I saw them go on their way as the pioneer party seeking a home in the west for Conscience sake.  My prayer was that God should bless them all.  May they be prospered even more.”  The small band arrived on the Dakota Southern Railroad in Yankton, then the territorial capital, on October 18, 1873.  The editor of the Yankton newpaper, pleased at the arrival of the first fifteen families of what was expected to be a much larger colony, remarked: “They are hardy, industrious people, of considerable wealth and will be a valuable addition to our population.”31

Seeger, a determined and resourceful proponent of Minnesota, and well aware that subsequent Mennonites immigrants would be likely to settle where their brethren had already located, apparently also accompanied the group to Dakota and ultimately managed to entice several of the families to return with him to the Mountain Lake area.  This success led him to predict erroneously that he would yet succeed in bringing all the Dakota Mennonite settlers to Minnesota.32

Unruh wintered in Yankton with his family, relatives, and friends, renting houses in the city while making preparations for moving out onto the prairies the following spring.  When Unruh returned to Elkhart in mid-November, presumably to consult further with Funk, he reported satisfaction with the choice of Dakota for settlement.  Unruh made a buying trip to Iowa, as a result of which a carload of wagons, a carload of oats, a carload of oxen, and a carload of horses were shipped to Yankton.  Supplies, farming implements, and lumber were also purchased, and the well-organized prospective settlers even framed their houses and granaries during the winter so that they could be hauled out to the lands they had selected and raised with little loss of time.33

In late March or early April of 1874 Unruh made the first Mennonite settlement in Dakota Territory in Childstown Township of Turner County along the banks of Turkey Ridge Creek, a small stream flowing into Swan Lake.34 This location was approximately twelve miles due west of Hurley or thirty miles north and east of Yankton.  The records in the Register of Deeds office in Parker, Turner County, reveal that Unruh purchased four quarters during the spring and summer of 1874, paying $400 for one quarter, $450 for another, and $500 each for two additional quarters.  In the spring of 1875 he purchased another quarter for $1,000.  There is record of two additional land purchases – a half section for $1,550 in the spring of 1877 and an eighty-acre tract for $150 in the summer of 1879.  There is no record that Unruh utilized either the Homestead Act or the Timber Culture Claims Act for the acquisition of land.  Apparently all of his land (some 1,200 acres) was purchased outright from other settlers.

By mid-May the little settlement presented a lively appearance.  Wells had been dug, many of the houses were almost completed, and pioneers were busily at work breaking land with ox-teams.  Non-Mennonite settlers were particularly intrigued by Unruh’s unique attempt to introduce the village system of settlement.  According to the provisions of the Homestead Act, settlement had to be made on the settler’s actual claim.  Since Unruh had purchased all his land, however, he experimented with the village plan so common among the Mennonites in Russia.

In the spring of 1874 seven houses were built on the same quarter of land.  Six were built by Unruh – five for the married members of his family and one for himself and his wife.  All the dwellings were built along a straight line approximately six rods apart.  Unruh’s was the largest, being 24 by 60 feet in dimensions.  The remaining dwellings, also one and one-half stories in height, were smaller, approximately 20 by 24 feet.  The houses were arranged so that the youngest son with his family was situated next to the parental home while the family of the oldest daughter lives farthest away.  Unruh allotted a certain portion of land to each family member and furnished the farming utensils.  By 1877 this system was abandoned, since it was considered impractical for everyone to drive back and forth several mils to the fields each day.  The houses were then moved to the individual farmsteads.  This is apparently the only instance where Mennonites attempted to establish the village system of settlement in Dakota, it having been attempted here because of the filial relationship.35

There were ten children – five boys and five girls – in the Unruh family.  Two of the boys and one girl died in childbirth.  The other seven reached maturity, married, and had families.  One son, Daniel, took his family to North Dakota after the death of the elder Daniel, and all of the daughters with their husbands and families also eventually let the state, migrating first to Oklahoma and ultimately to California.  Thus of all the children, only Unruh’s sons John and Cornelius stayed on the original land complex.

Unruh actively operated his sizable Dakota farm for ten years.  Sheep, cattle, and horses were raised in addition to grain and corn culture.  On occasion he made trips to Council Bluffs, Iowa, to purchase livestock, mainly sheep, but usually he remained at home.  Politically, Unruh’s fear of what a low tariff or free trade might do to the price of grain and especially wool led him to side with the Republicans who championed a high protective tariff.

His religious affiliation was with the Salem Mennonite Church, Unruh having belonged to this congregation from the time it was organized in 1786 until his death in 1893.  Although he belonged to the Mennonite Church and had left Russia primarily because of the fear of military service, he seems not to have had scruples about the use of the oath in legal affairs, for he signed the required oath to support the constitution and government of the United States without qualification on November 7, 1876.  Perhaps, however, his unfamiliarity with American legal practices or the English language (which he could apparently neither speak nor understand for at least the first fourteen months after his arrival in America) explains his use of the oath on this occasion.36

Until 1902 the Vohlynian Germans who settled in the Freeman, S.D. area worshipped in two churches. When a wind storm destroyed one of them they joined together to become the Salem-Zion Church. When that church became too small they built this church, the Salem (South) Mennonite church in 1909. Photo Credit: Freeman Heritage Hall Archives, www.montanatreeline.com.

Until 1902 the Vohlynian Germans who settled in the Freeman, S.D. area worshipped in two churches. When a wind storm destroyed one of them they joined together to become the Salem-Zion Church. When that church became too small they built this church, the Salem (South) Mennonite church in 1909. Photo Credit: Freeman Heritage Hall Archives, www.montanatreeline.com.

Physically, Unruh was about 5’10” tall, of average weight, with brown hair and blue eyes.  He did not smoke, nor did he use liquor.  In his later years his hearing was considerably impaired.  He held a well-disciplined temper and commanded the respect and esteem of his acquaintances.  He ate his meals in seclusion with his wife, who would go to the kitchen at mealtime, take from what had been prepared for the others, and returned with it to their private quarters.  Likewise reflecting Unruh’s assumption that certain prerogatives accrued to his age and position was his expectation that the team of horses he regularly drove should be hitched, unhitched, and cared for by others.

Despite this insistence upon the maintenance of personal authority and prestige, Unruh had a keen sense of humor which he sometimes used very effectively with his hired help.  He had noted, for example, that one of his sheep herders was somewhat dilatory in keeping the sheep out of nearby cornfields.  One evening he challenged the herder to a footrace, wagering a dollar that he could defeat him.  Being considerably younger, the herder readily accepted the challenge.  A specified distance was agreed upon and the race was run.  The herder, as expected, easily won the race and Unruh dutifully paid his debt.  However, to the delight of all the bystanders, Unruh told the herder that since it had been discovered that he was such a good runner the herder would now be expected to “run” after the sheep that strayed into the grainfields.

In the spring of 1884, when Unruh had reached the age of 64, he retired from active management of his estate and sold his land and personal property to his sons John and Cornelius.  The records in the Register of Deeds office indicate that this transaction was recorded on March 20, 1884, and that approximately 1,200 acres were sold for $10,000; the personal holdings, for approximately $2,000.

During the following decade Unruh and his wife lived in retirement on the home place, enjoying good health until the last year.  The end came on May 18, 1893, for Unruh, and on November 12, 1894, for his wife.  Unruh’s funeral was conducted by the Reverend Christian Kaufman, pastor of the Salem congregation and his intimate friend, and was held in the large family corncrib to accommodate the great number of friends and relatives in attendance.

In reflecting upon the story of Daniel Unruh, one can emphasize several areas in which his life significantly influenced Mennonite immigration and settlement.  He was one of the first to leave Russia in search for a new homeland when the long-standing Mennonite privileges began to be revoked by the Russian government.  So convinced was he of the necessity of leaving that he departed long before the Mennonite delegation sent to spy out American returned with its reports which then prompted the departure of many other Russian Mennonites.

Not only was Unruh instrumental in the exodus of the group traveling on the Hammonia, but he was also primarily responsible for the choice of Dakota Territory as the eventual place of settlement for many of the Russian Mennonite immigrants who came in subsequent years.  No committee of twelve delegates or, as far as is known, any other Russian Mennonites had ever traveled through southeastern Dakota before Unruh settled there.  In addition, during Mennonite migrations there has always been a strong attraction for later arrivals to locate near where friends or acquaintances had already settled.37

  Thus, Unruh’s prior selection of Dakota Territory as a place of settlement was of crucial significance to subsequent Mennonite settlement in what is now South Dakota.  Eleven Swiss-German families from the Volhynia region in Russia under the leadership of Andreas Schrag, committee-of-twelve delegate of the preceding year comprised the next settlement group to arrive in Dakota.  While it is unclear exactly when and under which circumstances Schrag and Unruh had become acquainted, it is certain that when Schrag learned that Unruh had located in southeastern Dakota he immediately scrapped his plans to settle near Pembina in the Red River Valley near the Canadian border.  Instead, he purchased rail tickets to Yankton for his group because of his desire to settle close to Unruh’s settlement.  And almost immediately after arriving in Yankton, Schrag and several of his traveling companions journeyed to Unruh’s farm to discuss with him the possibilities for locating in the vicinity.38

Of related significance to the choice of Dakota Territory for settlement by subsequent Mennonite arrivals was a delegation of five Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Mennonites who stopped at Unruh’s settlement on a tour of inspection during the summer of 1874.  These men desired to probe the settlers’ impressions and to see what had been accomplished in the few short months since homes had been established.  The delegates, as the local newspaper happily reported, were “perfectly delighted with the looks and resources of Dakota.”  Impressed by the soil, climate, water, and crops, they were “satisfied to report to all Russians whom they might influence that if they came here they would make a wise choice.”  The Pennsylvanians had previously investigated Nebraska and had planned on visiting Minnesota, but after viewing the land around Unruh’s settlement they decided to eliminate the Minnesota visit and “gave up looking for any better or more attractive free lands, and started to direct for home, considering it impossible to find a better place than this.”39

With this effective combination of influences – Unruh’s continuing impact upon incoming friends from Russia, enthusiastic boosters for the Dakota settlements among Pennsylvania Mennonites active in advising and aiding incoming Mennonite immigrants, and a small but flourishing settlement of Swiss Volhynians expecting sizable additions later in the summer – permanent Mennonite settlement in Dakota was assured.  During the summer a second large group of 53 Swiss Volynian families led by the Reverends Peter Kaufman, Christian Schrag, and Christian Kaufman did arrive, settling near the Unruh and Schrag groups.  The leaders of the second large Swiss group to reach Dakota Territory in the summer of 1874 also first went to consult with Unruh before beginning to locate their homesteads.40 Also arriving late that summer was a large group of Russian immigrants from the Molotschna Colony under the leadership of Derk Tieszen.  Many others were to follow and ultimately this section became one of the most prosperous in the state. 41Turkey Creek Valley in Turner County remains one of the most beautiful and productive sections of South Dakota.  One can readily surmise the impression it must have made upon Unruh in 1873 when he first saw it.  The reference is probably apocryphal but it is quite possible that Unruh did say, as he has been quoted, “Here I want to live and die.”42

Another area of Unruh’s influence came in the early years of the settlement when the Mennonite immigrants were obliged to do considerable traveling to procure the necessities required for beginning new farms.  Yankton, thirty or forty miles to the south and west of the various settlements, was the main center for supplies.  Jacob Max, who was in the general merchandising business and conversant in German, did considerable business with the early settlers.  Pioneer Mennonite farmers on their way to and from Yankton would almost invariably stop at the conveniently located Unruh place at the southern edge of the Mennonite settlement.  Here was water for horses or oxen, a meal for travelers, and frequently lodging for the night.  The house was large and Unruh and his wife were hospitable.

Not all of the early settlers that came from Russia were in favorable financial circumstances.  In fact, many who came to Dakota had a real struggle to make ends meet.  Until crops could be raised the need for assistance was almost inevitable.  Credit had to be extended to make needed purchases.  The part that Unruh played in providing such help is difficult to estimate, but it was considerable.  In his booklet After Fifty Years (published in 1924 in connection with the fiftieth anniversary of the original settlement) John J. Gering, himself a son of one of the early Swiss immigrants, refers to the aid Unruh gave in this way: “Without him the poorer settlers would have suffered much more for he gave them financial aid when they could not get any elsewhere.”43

Unruh had prospered in the Crimea and had made a favorable sale of his land there, bringing approximately $40,000 to America with him.44 This represented a small fortune during the panic years of the middle seventies.  Unruh also prospered in Dakota, the large economic complex he operated and his sizable herds of cattle and flocks of sheep adding to his wealth.  A local newspaper in 1879 characterized Unruh as “the wealthiest Russian of them all.”45

This material prosperity afforded him opportunity to make numerous loans to those who needed assistance in beginning life anew on the virgin prairie.  Some of his grandchildren recalled a small book in which he kept records of such assistance.  Apparently no promissory notes were involved – only the entry in the book.  Unfortunately the book can no longer be located and how many came for assistance in this way may perhaps never be known.  In making loans Unruh’s personal predilections often came into play.  On one occasion two prospective borrowers visited Unruh.  Both of these men wore moustaches – presumably to create an impression.  When they made their wishes known Unruh quickly replied that he would make no loans to people who wore the moustache.  When the men came again the razor had been applied and the loans were then consummated.

Unruh also made sizable loans outside the Mennonite community to Yankton concerns.  One of several such loans was for $10,000 to merchandiser Jacob Max.  One of Unruh’s grandchildren relates that on one of Unruh’s visits to Yankton he stayed at the Max home and during the course of a meal offered to cancel all interest on the load provided Max would pay the principal.  Apparently Unruh had become concerned about this loan and was willing to sacrifice the interest to safeguard his original loan.  Max, encouraged by his wife, accepted the offer and paid the amount owed.  The reminiscences of his grandchildren suggest that Unruh kept little if any of his personal wealth in banks, much of it apparently being stored in his personal desk.46

Finally, Unruh exerted continuing leadership in the community, especially during the critical first year.  In the fall of 1874 he did some traveling on behalf of the Dakota Mennonites, including a trip to Lincoln, Nebraska, which nearly cost him his life.  A German-speaking traveling companion invited Unruh to stop with him in Council Bluffs.  The unsuspecting Unruh, after being induced to enter a house by his acquaintance, was seized, threatened with a razor, and robbed of his watch and nearly $400 in cash and certified checks.47

Following the hard winter of 1874-75 when food was extremely scarce and aid was being received from some of the older Mennonite settlements in the east, Unruh, Andreas Schrag, and Derk Tieszen were natural choices for a local committee to survey the needs of the community.  The three men also assisted in the distribution of the supplies sent by eastern Mennonites.48

In the early 1880s and “Oregon fever” struck Dakota and quite a few of the Mennonites were interested in moving farther west, especially after a Hutterite went to Oregon in the spring of 1882 and sent back glowing reports of the possibilities for settlement there.  In company with Darius Walter from one of the Hutterite colonies west of Freeman, Unruh left on an investigation trip to Oregon in late June, 1882.  Unruh and Walter were to examine the land and ascertain if conditions in Oregon would warrant leaving Dakota.  After a good look at the land the two men returned with an unfavorable report.  They found the land hilly and stony, as well as in need of irrigation, and reported that good land was scarce and therefore costly.  Further, it appears to them that the section where land was available was inhabited mostly by poor people – Chinese, day laborers, and shepherds.  Once the two men came back with the pessimistic report the Oregon fever in the community subsided.49

Daniel Unruh kept no diary, he apparently wrote almost nothing, he sought no religious or political position.  Yet his independence of mind, foresight, leadership, sound judgment, and generosity were instrumental in facilitating the trek of the Mennonite immigrants from Russia to the prairies of Dakota Territory in 1873 and during the following decade.


John D. Unruh was born in South Dakota, is a graduate of Yankton College, and has done graduate work in history in the Universities of Minnesota, South Dakota, and Texas, receiving his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the latter two.  In 1952 his history of the Mennonite Central Committee, In the Name of Christ, was published.  His up-dated doctor’s these was published in 1972 under the title of A Century of Mennonites in Dakota: A Segment of the German Russians. Dr. Unruh taught history at Freeman Junior College and Southern State College in South Dakota.  John D. Unruh Jr., is Associate Professor at Bluffton College in Ohio.  Professor Unruh has published articles in trans-Mississippi historical journals on the part the Burlington and Missouri River Railroad played in bringing Mennonites to Nebraska, 1873-78.  His master’s thesis on this topic was done at the University of Kansas (1962).

  1.  An earlier version of this article by the same authors appeared under the title “Daniel Unruh, 1820-1883,” General Conference Mennonite Pioneers, Edmund G. Kaufman, comp. (North Newton, Kansas, 1973), 30-40.
  2.  Georg Leibbrandt, “The Emigration of the German Mennonites from Russia to the United States and Canada, 1873-1880,” MQR VII (1933), 33
  3.  C. Henry Smith, The Coming of the Russian Mennonites: An Episode in the Settling of the Last Frontier, 1874-1884 (Berne, Indiana, 1927), 66; John J. Gering, After Fifty Years (Freeman, South Dakota, 1924), 23, 33.
  4.  While there are a number of contemporary references to Unruh’s role in facilitating Mennonite settlement in what is now South Dakota during the 1870s and 1880s, he remains relatively obscure in the historiography of the great Mennonite migration of the 1870s.  There is, for example, no entry for him in the Mennonite Encyclopedia.
  5.  Daniel J. Unrau, “Dieses Rechenbuch.” This schoolbook, now in the possession of the authors, was used by Unruh at age thirteen and a few family entries were subsequently made.  This apparently is the only item extant in Unruh’s own hand.
  6. Benjamin Unruh, personal interview with John D. Unruh in Karlsruhe, Germany, summer of 1949.
  7. Abe J. Unruh and N. van der Zijpp suggest that “Unruh (Unru, Unrau, Onrouw), [is
  8.  W. D. Buller, “Heinrich Buller” (Typewritten MS written March 19, 1915, now in possession of Eldon E. Smith, Marion, South Dakota), 7.
  9.  Smith, 30-31, 34-36; David G. Rempel, “The Mennonite Commonwealth in Russia: A Sketch of its Founding and Endurance, 1789-1919 (Concluded),” MQR, XLVIII (Jan. 1974), 24-32.
  10.  Buller, 7.
  11.  This information was gathered in personal interviews with Daniel Unruh’s son and grandson and others from the community who remembered him.  Unless otherwise noted, the information in this paper was obtained in this manner.  The Russian ruble was worth about 73 cents in American money at that time; a dessiatine was equivalent to about 2.7 acres.  Melvin Gingerich, “The Alexanderwohl ‘Schnurbuch’,” Mennonite Life, I (January 1946), 46.
  12.  Gering, 20.
  13.  Robert Neumann was born in Germany in 1823, was educated at the University of Berlin, and had been a missionary in China for some years.  Having entered the ministry in 1849, he filled various charges in Pennsylvania and New York, apparently assuming responsibility for the Castle Garden mission in 1865, a task for which his renown as an accomplished linguist well qualified him.  In late 1874 Neumann entered into an extended dispute with members of the Committee on Immigrant Missions of the General Council, a dispute which resulted in Neumann’s dismissal in 1875.  Following this acrimonious dispute Neumann resigned from the New York Ministerium after which his activities fall into obscurity, although when he died in 1890 he still lived in Brooklyn, where he may have continued as a pastor.  Obituary notice in the New York Times, May 6, 1890; “Research Report” on Neumann prepared by Ted Mayes, December 7, 1973, kindly furnished to the authors by August R. Suelflow, Director of the Concordia Historical Institute, The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, St. Louis, Missouri, in a letter of December 20, 1973; Letter of Davie J. Wartluft, Assistant Librarian, Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, October 20, 1971, to the authors.  For further information on the Castle Garden immigrant receiving station in New York harbor see Ann Novotny, Strangers at the Door: Ellis Island, Castle Garden, and the Great Migration to America (Riverside, Connecticut, 1971), 44-54.
  14.  May 9, 1873 entry, J. M. Hofer, trans. and ed., “The Diary of Paul Tschetter, 1873,” MQR V (April 1931), 120-21.
  15. New York Sun, Aug. 18, 1873; New York World, Aug. 16, 1873; New York Journal of Commerce, Aug. 19, 1873; New York Evening Mail, Aug. 16, 1873; New York Daily Graphic, Aug. 16, 1873.
  16.  New York Times, May 8, 1874.
  17.  New York Evening Mail, Aug. 16, 1873.
  18.  Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at New York, 1820-97, National Archives and Records Services, Microfilm No. 380 (Washington, 1962).
  19.  New York Evening Mail, Aug. 16, 1873; New York Evening Post, Aug. 16, 1873.
  20.  New York Journal of Commerce, Aug. 16, 1873; New York Sun, Aug. 19, 1873.
  21.  New York Daily Tribune, Aug. 20, 1873; New York Times, Aug. 20, 1873; Chicago Times, Aug. 21, 1873; Elkhart, Ind. Evening Review, Aug. 21, 1873; Sioux City, Iowa Times, reprinted in Yankton, Dakota Territory Press, November 5, 1873.  According to the Elkhart newspaper, the immigrants had quickly exchanged their gold for bank drafts.
  22.  Mis-statements of Newspapers, Herald of Truth, X (October 1873), 168-69.
  23.  New York Sun, Aug. 19, 1873; Elkhart Evening Review, Aug. 20, 1873.
  24.  Elkhart Evening Review, Aug. 20, 21 and 23, 1873.
  25.  Aug., 20, 21 and 23, 1873 entries, John F. Funk diary; (MS in Archives of the Mennonite Church, Goshen College, Goshen, Indiana).
  26.  Aug. 25, 26, 26 and Sept. 4-17, 1873, entries, Funk diary; Gustav E. Reimer and G. R. Gaeddert, Exiled by the Czar: Cornelius Jansen and the Great Mennonite Migration, 1874 (Newton, Kansas, 1956), 85-86.
  27.  September 6 to 17 and 27, 1873 entries, Funk diary; Reimer and Gaeddert, 86-87; Cornelius Krahn, “A Centennial Chronology, Part One,” Mennonite Life, XXVIII (March 1973), 9.
  28.  Daniel J. Unruh, grandson of Daniel Unruh, personal interview with the authors in Freeman, S. D., Aug. 5, 1973; Buller, 7, 12-13; “Official Report of the Hon. William Seeger to the Hon. Horace Austin, Governor of Minnesota, on Russo-German Immigration, St. Paul, Dec. 20, 1873,” reprinted in Ernst Correll, ed., “Sources on the Mennonite Immigration From Russia in 1870’s” MQR, XXIV (Oct. 1950), 341-42.  In his report, Seeger claimed that before he had joined the Unruh and Jansen group in Chicago they had been prepared to settle in Kansas.
  29.  Yankton Press, Oct. 22, 1873.
  30.  September 30, Oct. 2, 3, 14 and 15, 1873 entries, Funk diary: Yankton Press, Oct. 8, 1873; “Official Report of the Hon. William Seeger,” 342-43.
  31.  Oct. 16, 1873, entry, Funk diary: Yankton Press, Oct. 22, 1873.
  32.  Not all of the Mennonites in Elkhart had decided to accompany Unruh to Dakota, and some of these families also chose to locate in the Mountain Lake area.  “Official Report of the Hon. William Seeger,” 342-343; Kempes Schnell, “John F. Funk, 1835-1930, and the Mennonite Migration of 1873-1875,” MQR XXIV (July 1950), 211; Smith, 67.
  33.  Nov. 13, 1873 entry, Funk diary; Yankton Press and Dakotaian, March 16, 1874.
  34.  Ibid.
  35.  Yankton Press and Dakotaian, May 14 and 21, 1874.
  36.  Unruh received his naturalization papers on July 8, 1879, and the authors have in their possession the original documents on which Unruh swore his allegiance to the government of the United States.  For the reference to his unfamiliarity with the English language during at least his first year in America, see “Robbery,” Herald of Truth, XI (Nov. 1874), 189.
  37.  Gering, 27.
  38.  The long-accepted story about the first meeting of Unruh and Schrag is in error.  According to this tradition, Schrag and Unruh’s old friend, Jacob Buller, both members of the committee of twelve, while departing New York in August, 1873, chanced at the dock to encounter Unruh who was just arriving from Russia on the Hammonia.  In a short visit, culminated with prayers on the dock, Unruh and Schrag became friendly and thus it was that when Schrag arrived the following year he inquired where Unruh had settled and immediately followed him to Yankton.  However, the analysis of the Schrag diary of 1873 makes clear that the two men did not meet in this fashion, Unruh having already departed for Elkhart (on August 18) by train before Schrag arrived in New York (on August 19) for the return journey to Russia.  Buller and Schrag did, however, on August 21, meet a second group of Mennonite immigrants from the Crimea who arrived six days after Unruh’s party of the Holsatia, and a short conversation on the dock did occur at that time.  This second group of Crimean Mennonites also went to Elkhart before making their final settlements in America, and doubtless conversed with Unruh there.  Perhaps correspondence between Unruh and Schrag was initiated because of these relationships, perhaps Unruh and Schrag had already met in Russia, or perhaps it was through Unruh’s friend Jacob Buller that Schrag and Unruh became correspondents during the winter of 1873-74.  Perhaps the two men never corresponded and Schrag did not learn of Unruh’s settlement in Dakota until he arrived in New York in the spring of 1874.  In any case, there is ample evidence that Schrag’s plan to settle near the Canadian border, formed while he had toured the United States the preceding summer, had been changed by May, 1874, when he traveled instead to settle near Unruh’s site in southeastern Dakota Territory.  See Gering, 20, 23-24; F. C. Ortman, “Die Ankunft und Ansiedlungh der Schweizer Mennoniten bei Yankton, S. Dakota, 1874,” in P. R. Kaufman, ed., Unser Volk und Seine Geschichte (Basil, Kansas, 1931), 78-79; Smith, 65-66 and 158-159; J. J. Hildebrandt, Chronologische Zeittafel (Winnipeg, Manitoba, 1945), 249; Aug. 15-21, 1873, entries, Gary J. Waltner, ed., “Andreas D. Schrag: A Diary of a Visit to America, 1873” (seminar paper, University of South Dakota, July, 1966), 21-27; Leonard Sudermann, Eine Deputationsreise von Russland nach Amerika vor vierundzwanzig Jahren (Elkhart, Indiana, 1897), 77-79; Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at New York, 1820-97.
  39.  The five men were Amos, Jacob, and Daniel Herr, Gabriel Baer, and John Schenk.  Yankton Press and Dakotaian, June 18, 1874.
  40.  Gering, 29.
  41.  For further details on the various Mennonite immigrant groups reaching Dakota in 1874 and subsequent years see John D. Unruh, A Century of Mennonites in Dakota: A Segment of the German Russians (Sept., 1972, from South Dakota Historical Collections, XXXVI), 22-24.
  42.  Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Argus-Leader, April 18, 1965.
  43.  Gering, 21; Ortman, 79.
  44.  Buller, 7.  An account appearing in a local newspaper in 1879, however, gave the much lower figure of $10,000 for the fortune Unruh brought with him from Russia, Swan Lake, Dakota Territory, New Era, Jan. 11, 1879.  Given Unruh’s obvious wealth, John F. Funk’s cryptic diary entry of October 28 is puzzling, unless the “note for $25,000” he sent to Unruh by mail on that date referred to monies Unruh had left with Funk for safekeeping during the period he had been traveling through the western states viewing potential settlement sites.
  45.  Swan Lake New Era, Jan. 11, 1879.
  46.  Ibid.
  47. “Robbery,” Herald of Truth, XI (November, 1874), 189.
  48.  Gering, 34.
  49.  “Berichte aus unsern Ansiedlungen,” Christlicher Bundes-Bote, I (Aug. 1 and Sept. 1, 1882), 119, 135.


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