• • •
The idea of mapping all the places where immigrant Germans from Russia and their descendants lived in America began one rainy Saturday afternoon in October 2018.
The New York Times had published a special section in both the print and online editions entitled “A Map of Every Building in America.” It included an interactive map that showed the footprint of every building across the United States. The shapes came from satellite imagery that were fed into a neural network trained to recognize buildings from blobs of pixels and turn them into polygons – building footprints. The majority of the data used to make the map came from a project by Microsoft engineers. It was called U.S. Building Footprints, and it is the largest and most comprehensive collection of these images with some 125,192,184 from all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
I spent the weekend looking at the places that I had lived, the places my parents and grandparents had lived, and where my great and great-great-grandparents had homesteaded upon their arrival from Russia. I noticed where a town ended was not the end of the buildings. The data had picked up the farms – houses, barns, etc. The more rural I went, the more the blobs reminded me of the old military maps (below) and some of the plat maps of German villages in Russia, those that were drawn from the memories of those evacuated or deported during World War II.
The heart of “German Russian Country” – the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado – is still today comparatively devoid of buildings except in the few large urban areas in those states. Comparing the New York Times map to Karl Stumpp’s Map of the Russian-German Settlements in the USA and Mexico, it was clear that immigrant Germans from Russia went where no one else wanted to go. They settled where there was nothing else. And they started to build. And nearly 150 years later, a neural network saw pixel blobs of what our immigrant ancestors’ and their descendants built and generated building footprints.
The parent project of this one, Germans from Russia Settlement Locations, has been focused on locating and mapping by GPS coordinates the places in the Imperial Russian Empire and the neighboring empires where our German ancestors lived. At the time of the first wave of German immigrants to the Volga, Russia was expanding, and Germans were tapped to settle the hostile edges of Catherine the Great’s empire – the places where no one else wanted to go.
One can’t help but see some parallels between our German immigrant ancestors to Russia with our Germans from Russia immigrant ancestors to America.
Much of the narrative about Germans from Russia in America is about the immigrant and less about the descendant generations. There are up to at least five generations of descendants from those early settlers in the 1870s and 1880s.
On that rainy Saturday afternoon while looking at maps past and present, I wondered where everyone went.
This project and the resulting map will answer that question. And hopefully it will encourage current and future generations of descendants to remember that where we “settle” adds to the collective and living history of our Germans from Russia ancestors.