“The Travelers” (a story) and a North Dakota Family Reunion

Hi everyone,

Last week, I stated at the end of my post that this week I would write about the High Road to Taos, New Mexico. Well, I’m taking a one week break from the Taos series to share a little about the family reunion I attended last weekend, June 23-24, in North Dakota, my home state.

Now, this reunion of the August Isaak, Jr. family, takes up a whole weekend beginning with a golf tournament on Saturday morning, visiting and an old time dance with a live band on Saturday night, a church service on Sunday morning followed by a potluck picnic in a park. And folks, this has been held every two years on the last Sunday in June since 1950. I’m proud to say that I was at the very first reunion, albeit only a few weeks old and held by my mother but I was there!

How did all this comes to be, a big far flung family that still gets together every couple of years? About 250-350 people attend the reunion each time it’s held. At the reunion last weekend, one of my second cousins (thanks Carol!) reminded me that I wrote a paper in 1987 about my mom’s side of the family, for an anthropology class at NDSU. As I recall, the class focused on the settlement of the Germans from Russia in North Dakota. They constituted a large percentage of the folks who immigrated to the US and settled in central and western North Dakota in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. When I got home the other day, I dug out that paper (I surprised myself on how quickly I found it!) and decided to share some of the story with you. The paper was titled “The Travelers” because they moved a lot over the period of a 125 years or so and just maybe that’s where I got my traveling gene, from those early ancestors!

The story starts in the State of Brandenburg, Germany located near the city of Berlin and until the reunification was mostly situated in East Germany. There, the earliest recorded member of the Isaak family was born in 1758, Johann Michel. The area is relatively flat with deep, rich soil and it’s likely the Isaak family thrived there for many hundreds of years. However, it was also at the intersection where the French to the west and Prussia and Russia to the east would meet to fight battles over land, religion, or just because they had nothing else to do! This likely lead to plundering, the conscription of young men, religious persecution (they were followers of Martin Luther) and maybe high taxes. So some of the Isaak family pulled up stakes around 1790 and moved to Western Poland. This was during the time Frederick the Great of Prussia was ruler of Poland and set out to reform the country. He invited Germans to work the rich land in an area near Warsaw. Conditions weren’t that much better in Poland especially after Frederick the Great died. The subsequent ruler made war with France that resulted in Poland being ruled by Napoleon after losing that war. Napoleon ruled until 1813 when the Russians drove him back to his own country. Again, the Isaak family lived on a battleground and when the Czar of Russia Alexander I called for voluntary immigration to South Russia, he found willing takers in the many Germans looking for a place to raise their families, practice their religion and live in peace.

Between 1814 and 1816, about 8000 German people or 1500 families made the trip to Bessarabia, South Russia along what was then known as the Lemberg trail. I can imagine their excitement traveling to the “new frontier” and leaving behind about 20 years of sorrow, unrest, and uncertainty. The new settlers were promised protection by the Russian government and the same rights as natives. They were exempt from taxes for a period of 10 years, offered loans to establish farms and businesses, an allotment of about 160 acres of land per family, exemption from military service for all time, and freedom to practice their religion. What a deal! As we look back, the Russians didn’t keep all their promises and eventually forgot them all!

The Isaak family arrived in 1815 and likely helped to establish the village of Kulm, Bessarabia near the Koglanik River that flows into the Black Sea. They probably spent their first winter on the Russian steppe in a sub-terrain structure built in the side of a hill or dug into the ground. In short order, the Germans established farms and grew crops of wheat, barley, oats, rye and corn. Later they added sunflowers, grapes, potatoes to their farms. Almost all farmers raised some type of livestock, certainly chickens, pigs and cows for milk and meat. They also established schools and churches around where the village social life revolved. As the families grew and married some of the Isaak’s migrated to nearby open land and established new farms and villages with schools and churches. So it seems they were always on the move albeit nearby other relatives and German families.

Why they made the next big move is puzzle, they left Bessarabia, South Russia in 1868 to cross the Black Sea to Georgia, in the North Caucasus Mountains. They might have left because of crop failure, poor soil, couldn’t make land payments or more likely that their Ukrainian neighbors and the Russian Government were bothering them. They’d been pretty successful in breaking the land, in their agriculture practices and were seen as outsiders and fair game for harassment. They settled in Michaelsfeld, Georgia located along the Kuban River and the Sea of Azov. This area is now in the hands of the Russian Federation and outside the boundaries of the present day country of Georgia. There my great-great Grandfather August Isaak Sr. worked as a surveyor and likely farmed. My great Grandfather August Jr. was born in Georgia in 1870. The family only spent about 10 years in the North Caucasus area leaving for the US in 1878.

The Isaak family homesteaded near Parkston, South Dakota near the present day town of Yankton, near the Nebraska border. There my Great Grandfather August Jr. grew up and eventually married Katherina Breitling in 1892. Settlement in the area was rapid and land was in short supply so young August headed up to North Dakota where he heard there was good land available to homestead. The following are some excerpts from an account of his journey that he wrote in 1926.

“In 1894 there was no crop in that part of South Dakota, so I and my neighbor John Hildebrand agreed to look for land and a new home. We took along some extra horses. We started north west on July 25, passed through Aberdeen and Eureka, South Dakota to Bismarck, North Dakota. When we crossed Emmons County, North Dakota we stopped at old Williams Port and there we saw a scaffold where four Indians were hanged. We thought quite a bit about this scaffold and we were glad when we left it behind.” (This event was recorded in North Dakota history as these Indians were hanged for stealing horses. It was found later they were falsely accused and the actual perpetrators (white men) were caught. This was frontier justice at it’s worst, in my opinion.)

“We lived mostly on prairie chickens and rabbits – no hotel for us. We crossed the Missouri River at Bismarck on the car ferry which was big enough for our wagons and teams. At Mandan we met a man by the name of Sprecher; he is now Doctor Sprecher. He was the first postmaster north of the Knife River. He told us of some good land. We started for Stanton in Mercer County and followed the Missouri River all the way. In Stanton we tried to buy some bread but we could not get any from William Strickler the only man we saw. He said he had some flour though and we bought some. An appetite makes food taste good; Hildebrand said I was a good cook. I baked some biscuits and fixed prairie chicken. Across the Knife River was an abundance of wild fruit. Everything looked good when we got up on the flat. So I said to myself ‘this is your new home’.”

August found some land that he could homestead on the SW1/4 of Section 30 in Township 145 North and Range 86 West, located about five miles north and west of present day Hazen, North Dakota. He later moved to a farm on Section 20 Township 147 North Range 85 West near the Missouri River and now overlooking Lake Sakakawea. My grandparents Frederick and Emma Isaak eventually acquired this property and my uncle Gordon Isaak continues to live on and farm this piece of land. The story of August continues:

So I got ready to take my family to the new home. I got another covered wagon ready and took along twenty head of cattle mostly milk cows; four pigs and a dozen chickens and some household goods. I built a long body on the wagon. It was 8 feet by 16 feet with a rack to feed hay at the back. With the chickens and pigs under the rack, we started – I was 24 and my wife was 23 – on September 21, 1894. My brother William and Gottfried Panko, who were young lads, went along with us. Our progress was very slow on account of the cattle. We were on the road for 28 days. When we came to Mercer County we stopped with George Kuch for about two weeks; his first wife was my father’s cousin. We got through the winter fine at the old Christ Oster place near Henry Richter’s. The winter was mild. We brought a supply of flour from Mandan and we had milk and butter and meat. That was good enough for anyone. In the spring of 1895 I built a sod house on my homestead. Jac Unterseher and John Krukenberg helped me build. I raised a good crop that first year and in 1900 I proved up.”

“We all worked hard and made the best of it. We had ten children 5 boys and 5 girls. The boys are David, Richard, Arthur, Frederick and Herbert; the girls are Lizzie, Emma, Anna, Esther and Hilda. Five of the children are married. All of them live in one neighborhood and belong to the same church. We all believe we have a good home in Mercer County.” (In total August and Katherina had 14 children, 10 who survived to adulthood.)

August went on to serve at least two terms in the North Dakota State Legislature in 1916 and 1918, I believe as a member of the Non Partisan League (then a faction of the North Dakota Republican party) that later merged with the Democratic party. August and Katherina accumulated enough land and property to provide a piece of land for each of their children, boys and girls alike. August died of heart disease in 1933 at the age of 63 (of note, my Grandfather Fred Isaak died at age 64 of the same ailment). Katherina died in 1953 at age 81. They are buried in the Luther Gemeinde Cemetery out on the almost treeless prairie very near where we hold the family reunion. One can almost feel them looking down on the gathering and saying to each other in German “we did good.” Here’s a photo I took of the cemetery a few years ago during the winter season.LutherGemeinde-7825-Final-2.jpg

Now on to a few photos of the August Isaak Jr Family Reunion. The dance held at the Hazen City Hall was well attended with lots of young kids participating, giving one hope for the future!Family Reunion-8948Family Reunion-3976Family Reunion-3944

My second cousin, Valerie Sayler, was drafted to lead the bunny hop.Family Reunion-3986

The following is a short video of the crowd doing the hokey pokey!

At the dance, we also recognized my mother, Margie Isaak Miller, on her 89 1/2 birthday. She will turn 90 on December 24, 2018. The time around Christmas is challenging to get everyone together so we decided to celebrate her half  birthday with her extended family. The children of August and Katherina Isaak are all deceased and many of their children have also passed on, Mom is one of the older generation still living.Family Reunion-8953IMG_3790IMG_3791

As part of the recognition of her birthday, we danced the chicken dance in her honor. You see, she raised and sold dressed chickens for many years, giving that up just a few years ago. You’ll notice in the following video that she’s wearing a sling, she fell getting off the riding lawn mower a few weeks ago and broke her shoulder! Don’t get me started, that’s a whole other story!

Here’s a photo of Mom dancing with our son in law Daniel.Family Reunion-3924

She enjoyed the evening with a few of her friends from the senior living center, Viola and Edna.Family Reunion-8954

The next morning, a large crowd filled the old country church that many of the Isaak family attended and some still do. Here are a few photos from my photo archives of the church.Old Farm Boys-Trinity Sunrise-8066Trinity Sunset-4933

And a few photos from the service. The family even organizes a reunion choir that makes a pretty good sound! While sitting in almost the same pew our family occupied for many years, I could still hear my Grandpa Isaak singing those hymns at the top of his voice. Sometimes it was off tune but it was also sung with gusto! This is the church where my mother was baptized, confirmed into the Lutheran faith, married and hopes to have her funeral service.Family Reunion-4004Family Reunion-4007

And then the picnic, there’s enough food to feed an large army. I have to tell this isn’t health food, it’s the stick to ribs (also sticks to the thighs and guts too!) kind of food. Always a feast but no chicken feet this time!Family Reunion-4016

There’s also the prerequisite family groups that gather for photos. This is a photo of the David Isaak cousins, all of them are my second cousins, many that I grew with. Unfortunately, we didn’t get a photo of our line of the family, maybe two years from now!Family Reunion-4033

This is how I spent last weekend, connecting and reconnecting with family both near and far. We are a scattered bunch but a lot of us still make it a point to keep the last Sunday in June in even years open to get back together. It’s been 140 years since young August Jr. left Russia with his family to come to the United States for the promise of something better, a very typical American immigration story. Even through the many challenges and difficulties, the family grew and found it important to keep connected. This connection helps to remind us where we came from, who our people were and where we get some of those genes (both good and bad!) that make us who we are today. Thanks for reminiscing with me, I hope you enjoyed this story about my family history and the reunion. In future posts, I plan to share more stories and photos of both my Isaak and Miller grandparents as well as my parents, Donald and Margie Miller.

Next week, back on the High Road to Taos.

Until then, travel safe.


PS 1: A big thanks to Great Uncle Richard Isaak, who did much of the genealogical research on our family in the early 1950’s. I have warm memories of Uncle Richard, he was a kind and generous man as well as very industrious and creative. Rest in peace!

PS 2: An errors in dates, locations, and etc. are unintended and mine alone.

6 thoughts on ““The Travelers” (a story) and a North Dakota Family Reunion

  1. Tom, thank you for taking us along on your family’s journey. Look forward to reading more! Hope all is well with you and Donna.


    1. Thanks Marsha. We are doing well. Been very hot and humid here so spending more time inside that we intended.

  2. I’m lobbying to call it the August and Katherina Family Reunion. She should get some credit too!

  3. Tom

    I would like your permission to repost your story on August Isaak Family Facebook page, Beth and enjoyed the reunion, is was great to honor your Mom


    Sent from my iPhone


    1. Yes, you have my permission to repost. I was going to try posting later today. Thanks for checking it out. Tom

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