The Fourth Cavalry mustered at the gates of Fort Concho in San Angelo, Texas. Led by Colonel Ranald Mackenzie, the cavalry planned to secure the frontier from encroaching Quahada Comanches, who were led by Quanah Parker. Traveling to the Texas Panhandle in 1871, Colonel Mackenzie’s cavalry troops moved from Caprock to Blanco Canyon, trading shots with Quanah Parker and his army but never soundly defeated the Comanche as they retreated west to the Llano Estacado. While Quanah Parker and his forces escaped the U.S. Army in this battle, the roaming cultures of the Comanche, Kiowa, Cheyenne, and Arapaho were coming to a close.
To the Quahada Comanche, the 1874 Battle of Palo Duro Canyon signaled not just the end of the war, but of their civilization. Quanah Parker held out until surrendering in 1875 at Fort Sill, Indian Territory, to his Fort Concho nemesis Colonel Mackenzie, who received him magnanimously as the Comanche Chief. In time, Quanah Parker became one of the most recognized indigenous leaders by transitioning his culture from a semi-nomadic society to more sedentary way on an Oklahoma reservation.
Around the same time, another group of immigrants arrived on the Great Plains settling in communities from the Dakotas down to Oklahoma. The Germans from Russia may be one of the least known of all the immigrants who arrived in the United States during the massive waves of 19th and early 20th century migration.
The Hutterite sect of these immigrants originated in the Tyrol of Austria during the early 16th century. A pacifist denomination, they eschewed military service in any form. At the request of Russian Tsarina Catherine the Great, many German Hutterites and Mennonites settled around the Black Sea and Volga River valley. She offered them free land, free exercise of religion, freedom from taxes, and no forced military conscription for them or their descendants. These persecuted pacifist German immigrants also started colonies in Bessarabia along with the Caucasus under another Tsar Alexander I in 1804. While some Germans from Russia arrived in the United States as early as 1849, the bulk of them started arriving in the 1870 due to the instability caused by rising nationalist movements sweeping Europe. Tsar Alexander II chipped away at rights guaranteed to German immigrants in Russia that had been established by the manifestos of Empress Catherine the Great and Alexander I. The final impetus for these diverse ethnic Germans to leave Russia came in June of 1871 when Alexander II rescinded all remaining privileges granted under previous Tsars, ending their military exemption after a 10-year grace period, regardless of religious convictions. Basically reduced to the status of peonage after these acts, many Germans in Russia started looking for yet another country in which to settle and live in peace. Many chose the Americas, primarily the U.S. American West and Great Plains where land was still available from railroads and through homesteading.
Many Germans from Russia set up colonies in the Dakotas and Nebraska with smaller communities in Colorado, Kansas, and Oklahoma. The latter came about during the initial land rush in 1889 and then in 1893 when lands were ceded by Apache, Comanche, and Kiowa nations for settlement. Lutheran and Mennonite Germans from Russia established colonies and communities in Western Oklahoma from Hobart and Gotebo to Shattuck in Ellis County. These immigrants even settled and prospered in the hardscrabble No Man’s Land region, which was recently scorched by the retreating Arapaho and Cheyenne who had been forced from their lands by the federal government. The Ehlrichs, Bekkers, Spomers, and thousands of ethnically German immigrants continued their heritage of farming and ranching in Panhandle towns such as Turpin in Beaver County and Hooker in Texas County.
The Mennonite Germans from Russia brought with them not just their hopes and pacifist dreams, but also Turkey red wheat seeds native to the Russian steppe. From these few berries, the Great Plains became known as the breadbasket to the world (it was once called “The Great American Desert” by famed explorer Zebulon Pike). The resilient crop was sewn by German-Russian immigrant farmers from Saskatchewan all the way to Oklahoma, where wheat is still the leading monetary crop, thanks to the importation of heirloom hard Turkey red wheat seeds by these Mennonite farmers.
The Germans from Russia immigrants not only sewed physical seeds but planted their faith firmly in the soils of western Oklahoma, where they found their freedom to plant and pray. The Washita County immigrants established towns, farms, and churches whose missionaries sought to spread the gospel to both whites and Native Americans. One reverend, Henry Kohfeld, came to Quanah Parker—not the Bureau of Indian Affairs—to ask for permission to construct a mission on the Comanche Nation’s reservation just west of Fort Sill. Chief Parker was going to refuse the Mennonite reverend until one of Parker’s comrades interceded and sought the help of a lawyer to scrutinize the situation and proceed under the legal purview.
While it was Reverend Kohfeld who started the Comanche Post Oak mission, it was the man he invited to assist him who played a much larger religious and cultural role in the Comanche Nation. Abraham Becker was born in the Russian Caucus and arrived in Isabella, Oklahoma, after immigrating and spending several years in Kansas. Reverend Becker became interested in the Comanche people and joined Reverend Kohfeld’s mission. While Quanah Parker himself never converted to Christianity, many of his family members and citizens did, including his son White Parker, who eventually became a minister. Given the history of broken government promises, forced relocation, and disregard for diverse beliefs, it’s not surprising that Quanah Parker and Reverend Becker were kindred spirits. The immigrant preacher and chief developed a mutual trust and respect for each other. The comradery was so strong that when Native American Church member Quanah Parker died in 1911, Reverend Abraham Becker officiated at his funeral.
When Quanah Parker was finally at peace, the Germans from Russia immigrants were about to find there was no shelter from the winds of intolerance blowing in western Oklahoma. Just a few years later, World War I exploded in Europe, and the shockwaves reached America’s shore in short order. Anti-immigrant, and specifically anti-German, hysteria spread across the plains like prairie fire after the Wilson administration established the civilian Councils of Defense. In Oklahoma, many of these county-level civilian organizations took to vigilante justice to enforce loyalty to America and stamp out any pro-German or pro-Kaiser sentiments, whether real and perceived. In a harbinger of the 1921 riots in Tulsa, a German-American man in Tulsa was tarred and feathered, lashed 50 times, and forced to leave the city.
Out in western Oklahoma, the Germans from Russia were suspect on two counts: they maintained their German language and (as pacifists) refused to register for the draft. German language instruction in public and parochial schools in Iowa, Colorado, Oklahoma, and Minnesota was outlawed. Pacifist Mennonites were harassed and abused for not purchasing war bonds, of which each county had a quota, or for their refusal to enter military service, even when volunteering to farm instead to support the American war effort. A Mennonite conscientious objector John Klaassen from Oklahoma was arrested, tried, and sentenced to 25 years in prison for refusing to enlist for religious reasons. Herr Klaassen and many other Mennonite conscientious objectors from other states were interned by the military at Fort Leavenworth, Camp Funston (Fort Riley), and Alcatraz, where they were beaten, tortured, and in several cases died from their injuries.
Mennonite immigrants in Oklahoma were forced to flee yet another homeland, just as Quanah Parker led his Comanche people to the Llano Estacado to live in peace. The late John Klaassen’s uncle, for example, left Corn, Oklahoma, for Saskatchewan, Canada, in 1918. These Okies joined other Mennonite and Hutterite pacifist immigrants forced out of the Dakotas due to violence inspired by government-sanctioned xenophobic propaganda.
Originally published in This Land: Fall 2016