Immigrant History

January 1988


The history of America is largely one of immigrants and their adjustment to a new country. Kansas is as typical of that history as any state. Kansans share common visions, but they also exhibit wide ethnic, religious, and racial diversity. The Exoduster story, including the formation of black colonies on the Kansas grasslands, is virtually without parallel. Mennonites were a special immigrant strain and important to the Kansas texture. These examples could be easily multiplied. Many topics help explain the Kansas chemistry, but none better than immigration.

Immigration is a topic that can be used in a variety of ways to explain broad principles and concepts, view sweeps of history, and graphically portray family, institutions, and community. With all the opportunities afforded by the topic, Kansas and Great Plains immigrant history has not been a particularly easy subject to teach. This can be explained by bias and misconceptions that have led to the widespread neglect of the Plains immigrant. This is apparent in the omission of that species of immigrant in any textbook that a student in any grade is likely to read. Textbook authors tend both to be unenthusiastic and less than authoritative on the Plains, and they prefer to describe the "new immigrant" in the American industrial and urban context. Colorful immigrants with unusual folkways who lived in crowded tenements, worked in sweat shops, and whose descendants ran corporations or led unions are the popular grist of American history textbooks.

Neglect of the Plains immigrant was also the consequence of historical interpretations that escaped serious challenge for several generations. The unstated premise of the "frontier thesis," expounded in 1893 by Frederick Jackson Turner, was that environment was more influential than culture. Persons on the frontier reverted to a primitive state, and through various stages of adaptation evolved into Americans. These Americans were formed by the frontier experience, not European antecedents and study of the immigrant was consequently largely pointless.

Walter Prescott Webb applied the "frontier thesis" to the region in his influential 1931 book entitled The Great Plains The mass of readers agreed that the Plains exemplified the rule that environment determined culture. Webb ignored the background of groups who inhabited the region, and never mentioned immigrants and blacks.

Excessive claims by environmentalists like Webb eventually provoked a reaction that led to an intense reexamination of Plains society, including the immigrants and their descendants. Few historians would dispute the strong impact of the Plains and Kansas landscape on persons and institutions, but they also now attach equal or greater influence to culture. Many perceptions and practices had to be modified to suit the environment, but persons didn't have to discard all their cultural baggage. An immigrant, for example, might need to adopt new agricultural methods and crops, but he probably attended a church that duplicated one in Wales, Sweden, or Russia. The study of the immigrant is important to understand the total Plains culture and its interaction with the environment.

Kansas immigrants receive insignificant attention, if any, in American history texts, and studies of Kansas immigrants often disregard the larger context of which they were a part. A mesh between Kansas and American immigration, therefore, will usually have to be made with different sources. Examples of two standard references that should be readily available are Maldwyn Allen Jones, American Immigration (University of Chicago Press, 1960); and Philip Taylor, Distant Magnet(Harper & Row, 1971). These books describe the successive waves and nature of the immigrants that engulfed America, the influences that "pushed" them from their homelands and "pulled" them to a new country, their journey, and where they settled.

Although perhaps not obligatory in the study of Kansas immigrants, comprehension of the intermediate stage of Great Plains immigration between the American and Kansas poles is extremely useful. Pronounced differences exist between individual Plains states, but they have many similarities and comparisons of immigration are interesting and instructive. The once widely ignored immigrant has become a popular subject in Plains historical writing. Frederick C. Luebke (ed.)Ethnicity on the Great Plains (University of Nebraska Press, 1980); and "Ethnic Group Settlement on the Great Plains,"Western Historical Quarterly 8 (October 1977): 405-30, are a good introduction to the region and have background on Kansas.

Immigrants were not equally distributed throughout the Plains, and Kansas ranked in about the middle of the Plains states in the number of foreign born. The highest percentage of foreign born in Kansas was 13.3 in 1870, which was well below the Plains and American record of 43 percent of the North Dakota population in 1890. Nor were immigrant groups uniformly present in all states, but Kansas had every group present in any Plains state and a few that were not found elsewhere in any number. Not only was the background of Kansas groups comparable to the Plains, they shared parallels in migration, settlement, and adaptation. Emigrant aid societies, churches, and railroads played a significant part in recruiting, transporting, and sustaining the newly settled immigrant.

Kansas immigration and groups can be studied in nearly infinite ways. A general view is helpful to discern the possibilities. Robert W. Richmond in Kansas: A Land of Contrasts and ed. (Forum Press, 1981) has pertinent chapters, and The Kansas Immigrants (Division of Continuing Education, University of Kansas, 1983) is a brief and interesting survey that mentions issues associated with immigration and has a comprehensive bibliography.

Reasons to study immigration are apparent, but several of the obvious could be repeated without harm. Immigrant antecedents explain personal, family, and group traits that would otherwise be incomprehensible. This can be clearly observed not only with recent immigrant groups, but also with older ones. Descendants of early Kansas immigrants have generally retained little in the way of dress, customs, and language that once set them apart. The common conclusion, therefore, is that they abandoned their immigrant past as they came to resemble Americans. Although many distinguishing characteristics have in fact been discarded, there is convincing evidence that less visible immigrant influences have survived and are still decisive. Religion, comportment, and sense of family are examples of ethnic roots that have been shown to persist even among groups that are widely regarded as assimilated. Immigrant history is still a key to American diversity, although reasons behind that diversity are less conspicuous than formerly.

Immigrant history can reveal an unexpected amount about individual, family, and group chemistry. Immigrants, however, didn't live in a civic and social vacuum, and examination of their history is necessary to explain society from the neighborhood to the nation-state, particularly American society that is comprised exclusively of immigrants and their progeny. Few Kansas communities can claim that immigration was an insignificant part of their history. The role of immigration in towns like Lindsborg is obvious even today, but it was just as influential, if not as transparent in many other locations. A quick look at the impressive work by J. Neal Carman, Foreign Language Units of Kansas (University of Kansas Press, 1962), will verify that proposition. Just as immigrant history can be important in many assignments that entail self-evaluation and study of societal units, it can also be used to illustrate the model of community and explain its composition and dynamics.

Few subjects lend themselves as well as immigrant history to an examination of the principles of American democracy like tolerance and equality, the realities of society like pluralism, and the ideals and practices of citizenship. Although of specific importance in American history, these issues and beliefs have coursed through western civilization since the Greeks. Although not an exclusive responsibility of public schools, they have been largely charged with instruction in citizenship. Immigration history affords that opportunity.


Athearn, Robert G. In Search of Canaan: Black Migration to Kansas. Lawrence: Regents Press of Kansas. 1978.

Clark, John. Towns and Minerals in Southeastern Kansas. Lawrence: Kansas State Geological Survey, 1970.

Crockett, Norman L. The Black Towns. Lawrence: Regents Press of Kansas, 1979.

Haury, David A. "German-Russian Immigrants to Kansas and American Politics." Kansas History, 3 (Winter, 1980), 226-28.

Juhnke, James C. A People of Two Kingdoms: The Political Acculturation of the Kansas Mennonites. Newton: Faith and Life Press, 1975.

Miner, H. Craig, and Unrau, William E. The End of Indian Kansas. Lawrence: Regents Press of Kansas, 1978.

"Old Order Amish in Oklahoma and Kansas: Rural Tradition in Urban Society." Free Inquiry in Creative Sociology, 12 (May, 1984), 39-43.

Painter, Nell Irvin. Exodusters: Black Migration to Kansas After Reconstruction. New York: Norton, 1976.

Parks, Gordon. The Learning Tree. New York: Harper and Row, 1963.

Randolph, Vance. Hedvig. New York: Vanguard Press, 1935.

Rudin, James A. "Beersheba, Kan.: "God's Pure Air on Government Land,"' The Kansas Historical Quarterly, XXXIV, no. 3 (Autumn 1968), 282-99.

Saul, Norman E. "The Migration of German-Russians to Kansas." Kansas Historical Quarterly, XL (Spring, 1974). 38-62.

Smith, Jr., Griffin. "The Mexican Americans: A People on the Move." National Geographic, Vol. 157, No. 6. June 1980, 780-809.

Turk, Eleanor L. "The German Newspapers of Kansas." Kansas History, 6 (Spring, 1983), 46-64.

Turk, Eleanor L. "The Germans of Atchison, 1854-59: Development of an Ethnic Community." Kansas History, 2 (Autumn, 1977), 146-56.

Wedel, Waldo R. Prehistoric Man on the Great Plains. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1961.

---, "The Swedish Immigrant and Life in Kansas." The Kansas Historical Quarterly, XXXIX, no. 1 (Spring 1963), pp. 1-24.


A common misconception about the folklife of the Great Plains is that the food known as a "bierock" is a German dish. A bierock is a piece of sweet dough wrapped around a filling of cabbage, onions, and beef (or whatever else the preparer wants to stuff into it) and baked. The bierock is a characteristic food of Germans from Russia on the Great Plains. It is not a German derivation, though, but Russian. The term "bierock" comes from the Russian work "pirogi" or "pirozhki," a name for any food consisting of a filling stuffed into dough. This shows that bierocks are not a German food but a Russian one the Germans picked up while living in Russia.

Recipe for Bierocks

Adapted from the One Used by the Lutheran Women's Missionary League, St. John's Lutheran Church, Ellinwood, Kansas

  1. Prepare your yeast. Mix in a bowl: 2 packages dry yeast; 1 tablespoon sugar; 1 cup warm water.
  2. Mix wet ingredients in another bowl: 2 cups warm milk; 1 tablespoon salt; 3/4 cup sugar.
  3. Mix the rest of the ingredients in a third, large bowl: 4 cups flour; 2/3 cup lard; 2 eggs.
  4. If your yeast is working by now, add the two small bowls to the big one and mix. This is a batter called the vorteig. Let it rise until spongy.
  5. After the vorteig has risen, add the rest of the flour--4 cups-and knead the dough. Then set it in a warm place to rise again.
  6. Meanwhile, cook the filling on the stove in a large pot: 1 pound ground beef or pork or both mixed; 2 onions chopped up; 1 head of cabbage chopped up. Season to taste.
  7. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
  8. Roll out fist-size pieces of dough, fill them with good-sized spoonfuls of filling, pull the edges together to seal, and place them on a cookie sheet.
  9. Bake until brown, like a bun.