Excerpts from:

Irvine Alberta - A New Beginning

Published by the Odessa Digital Library - 6 Apr 2001

Copyright 20 Mile Post Historical Society

Our Bessarabian Ancestors

by Dwayne Janke

Glance at many of the family surnames in this community history book. Notice a

certain similarity to them? Many of the families are descendants of

German-Russian immigrants from the province of Bessarabia near the Black Sea.

They were a people with a unique and fascinating history.

In 1804, Alexander I, Tsar of Russia, invited foreigners, especially Germans,

to settle large areas his armies captured near the Black Sea, including

Bessarabia. Like Catherine II before him, Alexander was eager to colonize

undeveloped but fertile black-soiled areas of his huge country. Alexander aimed

his efforts in the early 1800s at attracting immigrants that could serve as

models for agricultural occupations and crafts.

Generous promises were made to the foreign settlers and their descendants. They

were given free land for farms, interest-free loans for ten years, freedom from

taxes for various time periods, local self-government in their villages,

freedom to practice their own religion and freedom from military service.

The situation was exactly opposite to what many Germans experienced in Germany:

frequent military service in foreign wars, suppression by their own governing

leaders, crop failures, famine, land shortages, high taxes, religious

persecution and many other personal problems. Some had already left Germany and

settled in Poland, but destructive Napoleonic wars there left them eager to

listen to promises of a more peaceful life in south Russia.

From 1814 to 1842, about 25, mostly-German, settlements were formed in

Bessarabia. Most of the settlers came from Wurttemberg in south Germany,

Prussia, Bavaria and Poland. Bessarabia was then an untilled country of rich

rolling plains, with natural boundaries - the Danube, the Dniester and the

Pruth Rivers as well as the Black Sea. It would become a rich farming and

grazing country, in large part through the efforts of the new German-speaking


Although there were exceptions, the new settlers to Bessarabia tended to band

together to form villages that were solidly Swabian and Platt dialect

German-speaking. Virtually all were Lutheran Protestants, although some were

Separatists, at odds with the established church and looking to Russia as a

sort of "promised land."

A typical colony consisted of long streets with farm yards on either side that

included a house and barns, a threshing place, straw stacks and orchards.

Farmland (every family received land as personal and hereditary property when

they came to Bessarabia) was located near the colony.

Life in the beginning was difficult, as the first settlers had little to start

their new lives and needed to learn to farm in the different climate of this

treeless steppe. But soon the Prairie-like grass was replaced by fields of

wheat, barley, oats, rye and maize. The production of grapes for wine was also

an important part of agriculture in Bessarabia. Garden produce and fruit was

plentifully grown. Horse, cattle, sheep, and hog breeding was also an important


In the Black Sea area, usually the colonists were not permitted to divide the

homestead land given to each family. It had to be handed down to an heir,

usually the youngest son. Fathers often had to buy land for their other sons,

so a great deal of property gradually was bought by the colonists. Large-sized

families and a growing need for land led to the establishment of daughter

colonies and further settlement. The population among German Bessarabian

settlements climbed to more than 33,000 by 1861.

Home life, church and school were closely linked among the Germans of Russia.

The church supervised instruction in religion and the study of German. Because

of this influence, the church helped to preserve the original German language,

culture and religion, even though the colonists quickly lost all contact with

the German fatherland. The villages, like German islands in a Russian sea, took

on only minor characteristics and a bit of the cultural life of the larger

Russian population.

The Bessarabia colonists prospered and progressed considerably. By 1871, the

German minority was seen as a prospering threat by some in Russian political

circles. They succeeded in having many of the rights ended which had been

promised to the colonists and their descendants at the time of settlement. The

Russian government, under Tsar Alexander III largely ended independent

self-government in the colonies and freedom from military service. As well, the

government moved to make Russian the language of instruction in schools in the

German villages. The government was determined to make Russians out of all

"foreigners." Land shortages also became a problem.

In North America, however, things looked much better. Just as the Russian

government had attracted Germans with free land and special rights in the early

1800s, the governments of the New World made similar offers. According to the

Dominion Lands Act of 1872, every immigrant to Canada could obtain for $10 a

160-acre homestead in the West, which became his property after three years.

Tens of thousands of German-Russians, including Bessarabians, were attracted by

Canada's land agents and recruitment advertising. They took up the offer to

come to Canada, especially between 1900-1913 when expanding railway branch

lines made the Prairies readily accessible to new settlers. (Those

German-Russians that stayed behind suffered many difficulties as time went by:

a campaign of hate in the first World War, the Russian Revolution, and

increased Russification.)

The emigrating German-Russians traveled by train across Europe to northern

shipping ports. There they boarded huge ships as third-class passengers for up

to two-week trips across the Atlantic, fighting sea sickness and occasionally

death. Many landed at Canadian points of entry at Halifax or Quebec before

another long train ride to the Canadian Prairies, including many to the

Medicine Hat area. They found conditions much like the steppes of the Black Sea

and adapted rather quickly. Today we enjoy many of the fruits of their hard

work and determination.


Geography has likely influenced the immigrants to settle in this area. Strangers

approaching the extreme southeast corner of the Province, from any direction,

will be impressed by three dominating features - its bareness, rolling contour

and its vastness. Approximately 25 miles south of the Town of Irvine, the

beautiful Cypress Hills rise to an altitude of 4,534 feet. The gigantic sheets

of moving, grinding ice gouged out many depressions, some of which eventually

became deep, cold lakes.

Points of Interest

by William Glock

One is about a quarter mile southeast of town and is called THE POINTY HILL,

also known as KAISER HILL. It got its name "Pointy Hill" because it looks like

an ice cream cone turned upside down, very large at the bottom and tapered to

the top. The hill is about 200 feet high, and anyone going to the top will find

it is about 20 feet in diameter, with a 2-3 foot depression that makes it look

as though it may have been a small volcano at some time. The entire hill is

covered with rocks (mostly small ones) and plenty of cactuses.

It was given the name "Kaiser Hill" during the First World War (1914-1918) when

Kaiser Wilhelm, the king of Germany, was burned in effigy on the top of this


The other hill is about 400 yards south of the town. This hill is about 250 feet

high, with the top about 100 feet wide and 400-500 feet long and very flat on


The following story about this hill was told to me in 1938 by a gentleman who

was then 83 years old. This tale was passed on to him by his grandparents and

his mother, who were full-blood Cree Indians.

The area where the Town of Irvine now is was in the territory of the Cree. At

that time there were no white men here, and there was very good hunting in the

area, as this was Buffalo country (plus plenty of deer, elk, and antelope). The

buffalo migrated up here from the south, as this was their summer grazing range,

and therefore other Indian bands would also come here to hunt. Many of them were

enemies of the Cree. In order to protect themselves from attacks by these bands,

and also to locate the buffalo, deer, elk, and antelope, the Cree used this hill

as a lookout point, as you can see for miles around. The Cree name for the hill

I cannot remember as I did not write it down when I was told, but the gentleman

told me translated it meant "SEE FAR". The name was later changed when the white

man came. They called it "SPY HILL". by which name it is known today.


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