Wrought Iron Cross Cemeteries
Beginning in the 1870s, a new group of immigrants began arriving in the United States. The newcomers were from Central Europe and Russia, but they spoke German. These ‘Germans from Russia’ were ethnically German, and had fled their villages on the Russian steppes to seek freedom overseas. Thanks in large part to the Homestead Act, Dakota Territory experienced the Great Dakota Boom during this time, as settlers flooded the territory seeking cheap land. The Germans from Russia found the area appealing, as it mirrored the harsh treeless plains of the Russian homeland to which they had grown accustomed.
By 1910, over 30,000 Germans had arrived from Russia, settling mainly in the central part of the state. They soon became the state’s largest ethnic group, and they brought their food and traditions with them. Although practicing many faiths, most followed forms of Catholicism or Protestantism. In Russia, the Germans had settled in villages in which most members shared the same faith. The church became the center of their village lives, and when they became transplants on the Great Plains, they continued to prioritize the church.
One practice they maintained was the making of beautiful wrought-iron grave crosses (or, Eizenkreuzen). The art of the grave crosses began in Germany and Austria as early as the 16th century. It was most common among Catholics, although others also made the crosses, which usually stood between 2 and 6 feet tall; they represented a symbol of hope and new life for the deceased loved one. The Germans who immigrated to Russia took the tradition with them, and continued to make the crosses once they arrived in the Great Plains.
Across North Dakota, thousands of iron crosses can still be found in abandoned prairie graveyards. In the 1980s, interest in the crosses and their preservation began to grow. Timothy Kloberdanz, an anthropology professor at NDSU, worked with several others to begin documenting the crosses and their locations. On this date in 1988, the crosses of several cemeteries were added to the National Register of Historic Places, to be protected as objects of cultural significance. Today, work continues to identify and document the crosses, works of art that have endured as “sentinels of the prairie.”
Dakota Datebook written by Jayme L. Job
Gilmour, Deneen. September 1, 2002. "Signs of the Cross Documentary Profiles Iron Landmarks of the Great Plains." The Forum: p. 1B.
Herzog, Karen. August 9, 2002. "Iron Work: Blacksmith's Tools, Artist's Hands: Herman Kraft Shapes Traditional Iron Crosses in Demonstration for Germans From Russia Gathering." The Bismarck Tribune: p. 1B.
Herzog, Karen. August 13, 2002. "Germans From Russia Documentary Premieres Sept. 12." The Bismarck Tribune.
Just, Carol. September 2005. "If Tombstones Could Talk." North Star Chapter Newsletter 30(3): pp. 10- 11.
Kloberdanz, Timothy J. 1988. “National Register of Historic Places Multiple Property Documentation: German-Russian Wrought-Iron Cross Sites in Central North Dakota,” National Park Service. (http://pdfhost.focus.nps.gov/docs/NRHP/Text/64500379.pdf)
Pates, Mikkel. October 28, 1998. "Iron Crosses Made Mark on Prairie." The Forum: p. 1C.
Winistorfer, Jo Ann. April 2003. "Iron Crosses: Sentinels of the Prairie." North Dakota Living: pp. 18-20.