My grandparents, Jacob & Lena (Zimmerman) Willems, were step-brother and step-sister in a marriage my family says was arranged by the Mennonite Brethren Church. Grandma's father, Heinrich H. Zimmermann (1866-1934), was a widower with 5 children, whose wife, Maria Dyck Zimmermann (1861-1905), died soon after the family arrived in Canada (1903) from a Mennonite colony in what is now Ukraine. Grandpa's mother, Elisabeth Bolt Willems (1858-1943), was a widow with 9 children whose husband, Cornelius Willems (1885-1902), died two years after the family arrived in Saskatchewan in 1900 from Mountain Lake, Minnesota, the place where the family settled after emigrating from a Mennonite settlement in Crimea in 1875. Jacob & Lena were married in 1909. They moved to Reedley, California in 1919.

There is an even earlier couple important to this history, Gerhard Willems (1820-1900) and Katharina Rempel Willems (1823-1875), Cornelius' parents. Their story reaches back to the early years of Mennonite sesttlement in the land they knew as South Russia, a story of migration from the North Sea to the Black Sea, from Eastern Europe to North America.

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Wednesday, February 15, 2012

South Russia

        The Zimmerman and Willems families came to North America from Mennonite colonies located just north of the Black Sea in what is now Ukraine, a place the Mennonites knew as “South Russia.”  They came to that land from the Vistula River delta in what is now Poland.  Before their 200 year sojourn in the Delta they lived further west around Holland, Frisia and Flanders, North Sea land, cold and wet, a land very different from the open grassland the Mennonites found in the steppes of Russia

The Steppe

“The steppe was a place of terror as well as beauty.  Its flatness and the luxuriance of its grass made it a highroad of invasion by fierce, nomadic tribes from central and eastern Asia, who had been pouring into it since the dawn of history.
“There were at least eight of these invasions in historical times.  The earliest steppe nomads of whom there is any accurate record were the Scythians, who swarmed out of the east around 700 B.C.  Herodotus, who spent some time in the Greek colony of Olbia on the north shore of the Black Sea two centuries later, observed them at first hand.  In combat they were savage and efficient, fighting from the saddle with bows and short swords.  When they were victorious, they made drinking cups from the skull of their enemies.”
“The Scythians were overthrown by the Sarmatians, and the Sarmatians in their turn by the Huns. . . ..”
                        “In 558 came the Avars.”
            “On the track of the Avars came the Khazars, who were a more enlightened people than their predecessors, and who were more interested in trade than in plunder and butchery.”
“The fierce Pechenegs succeeded the Khazars; the Polovetsy drove out the Pechenegs, and eventually the all-conquering Mongols were to take over the steppe as their base.”
(Robert Wallace, Rise of Russia) *

They weren’t aware of it, I’m sure, but the journey the Willems family and other Mennonite settlers took to their new home in South Russia followed an ancient trading route known as the Amber Road that linked northern Europe to Greece, Asia, Egypt and other ancient cities and countries of the Mediterranean world.  Baltic amber and furs from northern forests were carried down the intricate system of rivers and bogs of the north European plain to the Dnieper River which took traders to the Black Sea just west of the Crimean Peninsula.  Here at the Black Sea goods could be transported by boat down through the Bosphorus to the cities that bordered the Mediterranean where they were sold or bartered for silk and other luxury goods.

Mennonite settlers, too, followed the Dnieper.  Traveling overland by wagon train from the Vistula Delta to Riga in what is now Latvia, a distance of about 300 miles, they then headed south for another three hundred miles to Dubrovna, a Russian town on the northwestern most curve of the Dnieper.  Here at the Dnieper they loaded themselves and their possessions onto a barge or followed the river in their wagons another 500 or so miles to the land that had been allotted to them in what the Russian government called “New Russia.” 

The first Mennonite colony was Chortitza, located on the west bank of the Dnieper River about 250 miles south of the city of Kiev.  Looking at the map of Ukraine, (click on, you will see that the Dnieper, which flows southeast from Kiev, bends sharply southwest just north of the Sea of Azov before it empties into the Black Sea.  The Chortitza Colony was situated in the bend of that curve.  In 1804, a second colony was established about 50 miles southeast of Chortitza on the east bank of the Molochna River, which flows into the Sea of Azov just east of the Crimean Peninsula.  It was here in the Molotschna that my Willems’ family first settled.

Chortitza & Molotschna

The steppe land north of the Black Sea seems such an exotic, unlikely place for a practical, prosaic people like the Mennonites to choose to settle.  It wasn’t just the history of wave after wave of invasion by people from Central Asia or the proximity to Muslim people, it was the land itself, a land utterly different from their home in the wet delta where the Vistula River meets the cold Baltic Sea.  Anthropologist James Urry, in his book, None But Saints: The Transformation of Mennonite Life in Russia 1789-1889, has written a beautiful description of the land the Mennonites found at the end of their long trek, and I quote it here at length:

            “New Russia was a very different environment from the Mennonites’ Prussian homeland.  The first settlers were confronted with what at first sight appeared to be a desolate wilderness.  To the traveler, the open steppe beyond the wooded regions of central Russia had few natural features to distinguish land from sky …In spring, wild scented flowers covered the ground and by summer the flat plains were covered in luxuriant vegetation.  Wild grasses, taller than a person, resembled a vast, rippling ocean when the winds blew.  But on closer examination the colonists soon discerned subtle variations of topography and vegetation—small areas of scrub sheltered in hollows and here and there indications of the earlier inhabitants of the region.  In Khortitsa many of the ravines were wooded and the stream beds and river banks were covered by silts and sands, suitable for horticulture.  There were also signs that trees and orchards had been planted and that the land had been tilled by Cossacks and Potemkin’s peasants.  The Molchnaia colonists were settled in more open, level country.  A number of shallow streams crossed the colony, the larger ones flowing westwards towards the Molochnaia (Milk) River. …This region was exploited by the Nogai Tartars,[nomadic] pastoralists who planted crops near the streams and then abandoned them until harvest time, which coincided with their migration to the winter pasture lands situated near the coast.  The Nogai would burn off the tall grass to enrich the soils and to provide fresh pasturage for their animals.  Often the entire steppe horizon would be engulfed in flames, and heavy black clouds would obscure the sky.”

            “In Molochnaia the climate was drier than in Khortitsa.  Streams ceased flowing in summer, and where the Molochnaia River neared the sea there were swampy flats that turned into salt pans beneath the heat of the summer sun.  In time, the Mennonites would learn to appreciate the Ukrainian proverb that ‘it is not the soil which bears fruit, but the year.

            “The climate could indeed be unpredictable and severe. …The hot, dry summers began in early June and lasted into October; autumns were short and by November winter had begun.  This lasted until March when a short but brilliant spring started the farmers’ year once again.  Long, warm summer days under a cobalt sky could be rudely interrupted by sudden thunder storms that threatened crops, particularly at harvest-time.  The scorching sun, when combined with the dry southeasterly summer winds (sukhovey) could result in severe drought that desiccated plants and brought dust storms to the region.  Precipitation was low—just over 400 mm [15.7 inches] a year on average in both colonies – with heavier falls in spring and early summer (April-July).  Winter snows could be heavy but the falls tended to be blown away by strong winds that could turn suddenly bitter, and the inclement blizzards combined with low temperatures sometimes took a heavy toll of livestock and claimed the lives of unwary travelers. 

                “The colonists had to face other obstacles to successful settlement besides the climate: earthquakes, dangerous beasts, noxious weeds, insect and animal pests, and contagious diseases.  In the early years wolves raided stock, but more menacing were ground squirrels (marmots or gophers) which attacked plant roots and devastated crops.  Hunting quickly reduced the wolf population, and a sustained campaign against the ground squirrels lasting many years reduced their numbers to manageable proportions.  Less easy to control were the periodic plagues of locusts that destroyed all vegetation in their path. Later in the century plagues of beetles attacked grain crops with devastating effect.  Not all the local fauna was harmful however, and although wildlife was sparse, small game supplemented the colonist’s diet. … Animals such as the hare and various birds were hunted, although song birds that inhabited the scrub and storks that nested on the roofs of houses were protected by most colonists.  Diseases threatened both people and domestic stock.  The caravans of traders that crossed the steppe, particularly salt carriers with their oxen, spread animal diseases to the colonists’ livestock.  In the Molochnaia two broad paths were set aside across the colony, the so-called Chumak Road …from which the carters and their animals were not supposed to stray.  Disease was common also among the colonists, although most were healthier than the neighboring peasants, in whose villages infant mortality was extremely high and life expectancy short.  Children died of diphtheria, whooping cough, and measles; adults of typhus, smallpox and various fevers.  The most feared disease, however, was cholera, endemic to Asiatic Russia, which periodically swept across New Russia having been spread along overland trading routes or introduced through the coastal ports” (83-86).**


*Robert WallaceRise of Russia.  New-York: Time-Life Books, Great Ages of Man series, 1967, pp. 16-17.

**James UrryNone But Saints: The Transformation of Mennonite Life in Russia 1789-1889 (Canada: Hyperion Press Ltd., 1989).