The Pioneers Who Helped Build Freeman

For history buffs, these excerpts from a history of Freeman compiled in 1954 by the late Dr. John D. Unruh, a native professor, author and former mayor of Freeman, provide an excellent review of the rich history of this community.

This piece was shared by Waltner Media as part of their 2017 edition of the Experience 57029 publication.

In our agricultural sections a city can never be greater or more prosperous than the farmers surrounding the city.

Naturally one would ask what kind of people live around the city of Freeman? Where did they come from? What was the reason for locating on these virgin prairies even before there was any railroad or any sign of a city nearby?

The nearest towns were Yankton some 30 miles away and Sioux Falls 40 to 50 miles away. The pioneers began to pour into this state in the early 1870s, while the railroads to this part of the state did not come until 1879 and later.

Would these pioneers become permanent settlers, break the virgin sod and establish homes, or would they, like many others have done, stay only long enough to cash in and move on to greener pastures? Let us take a closer look at the pioneers surrounding the Freeman area.

Daniel Unruh - One of the Early Freeman Pioneers

Daniel Unruh - One of the Early Freeman Pioneers

With Freeman as a hub or center, let us start with the rising sun in the east and follow the sun on its daily round (figuratively speaking).

Beginning in the area to the east of Freeman or what we generally call East Freeman, we have a large group of settlers known as the Swiss Germans. They are so called because they originally came from the Canton Bern in Switzerland. They are German because they spoke German or some dialect of the German language. They were often referred to as Russians, but like most of the other German-speaking people did not have any Russian blood in them, but were called Russians because they lived in Russia around 75 to 100 years before coming to America.

Their history goes back to the days of persecutions because of religious beliefs. Persecuted in Switzerland, they migrated to France, to Austria, to Russia and finally to America. This particular group came from the province of Volyhnia in Russia. They had settled in Russia upon the invitations of Czarina Catherine II, as did many other German-speaking people, including Reformed, Lutherans and Catholics. Knowing about the thrift and industry of the German people, she herself of German blood, invited thousands of German-speaking people to settle in her vast domains, the steppes of Poland, the Ukraine, and the Crimea in South Russia. Much of these vast areas she had recently acquired by conquest from Turkey in the Russo-Turkish war.

To induce these people to settle in Russia, she offered special privileges to the people from Germany and Switzerland. Some of these were freedom from military service for all time, tax exemption for 10 years, the right to own and hold property, and permission to use their own language in their churches, schools and local government.

Besides the Swiss Germans, many other German-speaking people took advantage of the privileges granted by Catherine II. The Low Germans, who originally came from Holland and were now living in Danzig and Prussia, migrated to Russia and settled along the banks of the Dnieper and the Molotschna Rivers. Many others settled in the Crimea in South Russia.

The Hutterites who originally came from Tyrolean Alps settled in the province of Tschernigov. During the period of 75 to 100 years, these German people prospered in Russia.

But all good things come to an end sooner or later and so did some of the privileges. Around the year 1870 freedom from military service came to an end in Russia. Up until now all foreign settlers had been free from military service. The passing of a general subscription law caused thousands to leave Russia and to migrate to America.

Almost to a man the entire congregations of the Swiss Germans decided to emigrate to America.

Old Freeman.jpg

Some of them settled in Kansas and some in South Dakota, in 1874 and 1875. One group of Low Germans under the leadership of Daniel Unruh came to East Freeman one year before the Swiss German group came, and settled in the Turkey Ridge Creek Valley. This group came from Crimea. The Swiss German group settled east in Rosefield township and southeast along Turkey Ridge Creek in Childstown township and continued almost due south of Freeman, with one or two even southwest of Freeman.


Immediately beyond the Swiss German settlers to the southeast of Freeman was a group of Danish settlers.

These came mostly as individual settlers from Denmark, without any organized church group. Among the Danish settlers we find family names of Jorgensen, Christensen, Andersen, Hansen, Olesen and others.

Proceeding farther west in our trip around Freeman we find some more German settlers; these came mostly from Iowa and were of the Catholic faith. They organized one of the first Catholic congregations here. Family names here are Dangel, Weier, Goettertz, Heirigs, Bauer and others.

As we proceed farther west and almost due south of Freeman we find another group that came largely from Norway. Here we find the names of Carter, Mosby, Gullickson, Jorstad, Wek, and others. These also soon organized themselves into a congregation of the Lutheran church.

Then as we follow the sun around to the southwest of Freeman we find a number of German Lutheran settlers who came largely from south Russia and the Crimea. Here we have such family names as Heckenlaible, Keller, Delzer, Dubs, Ellwien, Huber, Hein, Knittel, and others.

Then as we proceed farther west and northwest we find still another group of settlers — the Hutterian group. This group has a similar history to that of the Swiss Germans in East Freeman.

They also came from the Alps and were persecuted and driven from country to country. Their leader was Jacob Hutter. They came from the Tryolean Alps and were near neighbors of the Swiss people.

Originally Jacob Hutter founded the society known as “Brederhoefe” one of which settled in the Freeman community at the junction of the Wolf Creek and the James River, and was known as the Wolf Creek Colony. This colony supplied the flour for many miles around, as they built one of the first flour mills in the Freeman area.

There were many individual farmers of the Hutterian people who lived outside of the colonies in Russia, but lived independently in villages, these also migrated as entire congregations, and so we have the Hutterthal, Neu Hutterthal, Hutterdorf and Krimmer Mennonite Brethren congregations. Paul Tschetter and Lorenz Tschetter were delegates for these people in 1873. Rev. John L. Wipf was one of their first teachers and ministers.

Once more we proceed on our trip around Freeman and now almost due north and northwest we have our last group, the Low German settlers. As we have already mentioned before these people originally came from Holland, but left Holland during the 16th century, settled in Danzig and Prussia. They followed the movement to Russia and then, in 1874 under the leadership of Tobias Unruh, settled in the Silver Lake area.

In addition to the groups that came from across the sea we had a few individual settlers who came here by covered wagon from the eastern states.

Most of the pioneer settlers who came from the eastern states simply followed the advice of Horace Greely. When asked about the opportunities of the future in America, he advised them “Go west, young man, go west.”