In 1883, a group of some 17 families led by Johann Frederich Rosenoff arrive in Adams County and settle near Ritzville. They are known as Volga Germans because they are German-speaking and German-identified former residents of Russia's Volga River valley. They become the nucleus of the Russian-German population in the area, which by 1930 comprises about one-fourth of Ritzville's residents.
Germans in the Volga River Valley
Many of these immigrants had farmed wheat, flax, and rye on the Russian steppes in the Volga River Valley. They were descended from some 25,000 Germans who in 1763 had settled there at the invitation of Catherine the Great. Volga Germans considered themselves to be Germans living in Russia, not Russians.
An Illustrated History of the Big Bend Country Embracing Lincoln, Douglas, Adams, and Franklin Counties, State of Washington, published in 1904, includes a biographical essay of Alexander Rosenoff, one of Frederich's sons, who arrived in Adams County with the Rosenoff party at age 7. The essay states: "The family has always spoken the German language, conformed to German customs, and in no sense were they Russians except in legally being subjects of the czar" (p. 842). Many Volga Germans left Russia in the 1870s rather than be conscripted into the Russian Army.
The Rosenoff party left their home-village of Kolb in 1878 and traveled to Hamburg, Germany. In Hamburg they boarded the SS Wieland bound for the United States. Their final destination was Campbell, Nebraska, where they joined a larger group of former neighbors who had immigrated in 1876. Johann Frederich Rosenoff was 40, his wife, Maria Katharina Achzinger Rosenoff, was 38, and their five children ranged between 5 and 19 years of age.
From Campbell the Rosenoff party moved to the Culbertson area about 120 miles west of Campbell, building sod houses and attempting to raise wheat. But their unfenced fields were trampled by herds of cattle from Texas en route to northern markets, and severe drought made recovering the loss impossible.
The group decided to move to Washington Territory, an act probably prompted by the prodigious amount of promotional materials being distributed at the time by the Northern Pacific and Great Northern railways. Many Volga Germans were recruited to Washington and other Western states by agents of these railroads who traveled throughout the Midwest and even all the way to Russia to recruit settlers who would buy land along the railroad right-of-way.
The Rosenoff party traveled to Ogden, Utah, by train. In Ogden they joined a wagon train heading toward Walla Walla. The party did not travel on Sundays, instead observing the Sabbath and conducting church services in German. They paused whenever they reached a settlement large enough to offer the men a chance to earn money as day laborers in order to replenish funds.
While in Walla Walla, the families met Ritzville founder Phillip Ritz, who encouraged them to settle in Ritzville. At the time the town consisted of a railroad depot, a storage shed, and about 60 people.
The Russian-German immigrants found Adams County's semi-arid climate and ecology (called shrub-steppe) well-suited to raising wheat, which many had cultivated in Russia. Like other settlers there intent on planting crops, the Rosenoff party began digging up and burning sagebrush by hand. The families settled on the western and northwestern edges of town.
Volga Germans In Washington
Volga German families settled not only in Adams County but also in other parts of the state, primarily in southeastern counties such as Douglas, Lincoln, Grant, and Walla Walla. Despite a century of life in Russia, they had maintained an isolationist stance in their Russian villages, speaking German rather than Russian and having as little contact as possible with Russians. In Washington they were able to transport their existing culture relatively intact to their new homes, both because the residents of entire villages frequently moved to the area en masse and because the existing population was so sparse.
The Russian-German immigrants brought with them extensive farming expertise as well as specialty skills: baking, brewing, carpentry, wagonmaking, and storekeeping. Some of the men worked as laborers on the railroad or in construction. Many were Lutheran, Catholic, Seventh Day Adventist, or Congregationalist. Practicing Mennonites and Hutterites remained more culturally isolated, but Volga Germans of other denominations began to assimilate after one or two generations.