Johann Konrad Topfer

July 3, 2009 at 8:00 am (Toepfer Roots) (, , )


Johann Konrad Topfer, son of Johann Heinrich Topfer and Anna Gela Rosenkrantz, was born on August 16, 1736 in Schellbach, Hessen Germany. As were all citizens of Hessen, he was of the Reformed Lutheran faith. He married Anna Martha Reichmann of Remsfeld, Germany on September 30, 1765.

THE JOURNEY :: The Departure Route

Decisions had to be made! To emigrate seemed the only real option that provided opportunities and the means to climb out of the pit of abandon. Johann Konrad Topfer sold his belongings and joined a group of emigrants walking from Schellbach to Regensburg. The distance of 200 miles as the crow flies, but the terrain was neither flat nor straight. Central Germany consists of rolling hills and forests, and the 300 miles were more like 600. Regensburg was one of the meeting centers for the emigrants. From Regensburg, they were directed to Anhalt-Zerbst and then to Roslau, another 200 miles as the crow flies. People from all regions flocked to the gathering centers. They were registered and placed into “family” units. Two men of a family could comprise a unit, while it was required that three or four women join as a unit. As the daily stipend was greater for married couples, many “crash” marriages were performed at these locations.



Johann Konrad Topfer and his wife, Anna, boarded a ship on the Elbe River that took them to Hamburg. From Hamburg, they were transported by land to Lubeck on the Baltic Sea where ships awaited them. The ships on the Baltic Sea that transported the emigrants were usually Hanseatic or British.


It generally took nine to eleven days to travel from Lubeck to Kronstadt, but with “contrary” winds, it sometimes took up to six weeks, as reported by one chronicler among the Volga colonists. Storms at sea are not a rarity, and the Baltic Sea could become extremely turbulent. It may be that the Baltic Sea was especially tempestuous during the summers of 1765 and 1766. It is also purported that there were some unscrupulous captains who did not hesitate to sail backwards during the dark nights to prolong sea time. The captain then, would sell food stuffs to the poor emigrants at triple price. They would finally arrive at their destination after there was nothing left but moldy bread. At Kronstadt, in the gulf of Finland, the clean shaven Germans saw for the first time the Russian peasant, with heavy unkempt beards. This was a startling sight to the German emigrants, who had never seen anything like it. The emigrants were met at teh dock by Russian teamsters, who had come with farm carts and wagons to transport them, and their belongings, on the next leg of their journey.


In the time of the wooden vessels, the term “ship” was specifically, a three masted vessel with square rigged sails on each mast. A “Barque” (Bark) was a three masted vessel with the fore and main mast square rigged, and the mizzen mast fore and aft rigged. Since the invention of photography did not take place until 1816, there are no photographs of the ships or barques on which the emigrants traveled. However, in the early 1800s, photographs were taken of wooden sailing vessels that were not unlike the vessels that our forefathers traveled.

Barque by you.


The next leg of their journey was partly on water, and partly on land. The colonists first were taken by ship to St. Petersburg, the capital of Russia, and then to Oranienbaum, where the Imperial Summer Palace was located. There, they would take their final oath of loyalty to the Crown of Imperial Russia. At St. Petersburg, the colonists were not provided with living quarters in the city, and they had to live on board the ship lasting sometimes as long as three weeks. Johann Konrad Topfer and his wife Anna and newborn son, Johannes, arrived on September 12, 1766 on board a ship under the command of Skipper Faerfax. The stay on the ships, and a meager diet, ultimately resulted in aggravated illness for many. The misery that they were to endure caused many a traveler the desire to be relieved from the “water torture” once and for all. It was here, in St. Petersburg, that the colonists learned that they were all destined to become farmers, although they had been originally promised that they would be allowed to carry on with their original trades. Once the papers were processed, the official business was completed, the journey resumed. From the “water torture” the travelers were freed, but a new torment lay ahead…


From Kronstadt and St. Petersburg the various groups of colonists were placed under the protection and leadership of military officers. The colonists, with their military leaders, then went on to Oranienbaum, where they met and were welcomed by Catherine II. (Johannes was 4 weeks old when they arrived in Oranienbaum). After taking the pledge of loyalty to the Russian Crown at Oranienbaum, they proceeded onward with their military leaders. These leaders accompanied them through the empire to their settlement sight. They also prevented the immigrants from gathering and discussing “controversial” topics among themselves. Due to the ever increasing torments and disillusionment, there were those that were ready to turn back if at all possible! From Oranienbaum, different routes were followed to reach the lower Volga district. The most common route was to sail the Neva, and down the Wolchow for some distance past Novgorod. Here the sick people that were among the group were disembarked, and they remained there for the winter. In some cases, families were separated due to illnesses. The rest of the newcomers began the wearisome journey, 200 miles, overland to Torzhok, located on the Volga.

There was the Russian farm carts, also wagons for transportation, but they were so overloaded with mothers, children, and baggage, that the men could barely find a seat. The most able bodied were expected to walk. They traveled the long distance on foot with staffs in their hands moving forward along the dusty road, up and down the hills, through the fields and forests. It has been said that the migration resembled the exodus of the Jews out of Egypt as related in the Bible.

Because many travelers had not arrived for this portion of the trip until late in October, the beginning of the trek was already uncomfortably cold. They were provided with sheep skin coats, but that did not offset the illness that beset the travelers due to cold and hunger. More than a few of them died on the way, and were buried on the roadside in the cold and desolate Russian soil.

After walking the 200 miles from Novgorod, they finally reached Torzhok. Here, the majority of the travelers were forced to spend the winter. The families were distributed among the Russian peasants for lodging. Others had to push on the Kostroma, but were stopped there by the ice formation on the river. None could reach Nishi-Novgorod, where the government had prepared some kind of winter quarter. The suffering entailed during this travel was devastating. The stay in the interior was frightful. Accommodations provided by the Russian peasants were cramped and cold. Many became afflicted with measles, brain fever, typhus, red and yellow dysentery, large ulcers on the head and neck, and many died from the dreadful conditions.

It was at this time when Johann Konrad Topfer lost his wife, Anna, and son, Johannes.

In the winter quarters with the Russians, the immigrants had an opportunity to observe the manners and customs of their new homeland. To their astonishment, they saw people making room for barn animals, such as pigs, chickens, sheep, and so forth, in their living quarters, and living with these under the same roof. What was even more depressing was the fact that they were compelled to live in the same manner, there was no other choice. In the mornings when the stove was being heated, the smell inside the harbors became intolerable. Outside was the icy cold of the North. In spite of the cold, the emigrants were forced to go outside to save themselves from the unbearable stench. The dwellings contained not even a window or vent to allow the foul air to clear.

As soon as the snow thawed and the ice melted, the immigrants continued their journey. The Torzhok group continued to Kastroma, and others from Kastroma, down the Volga. It was almost a year after they left Germany when they finally arrived at Saratov on the Lower Volga. By this time, the travelers were sick, weary, and disillusioned. To compound the asperity of these new immigrants, almost half of them were artisans and knew nothing of farming. They had been induced to leave their native homeland with promises of being able to practice their various trades. However, before the travelers left St. Petersburg, they had been “persuaded” to become farmers.

Volga Region by you.

Volga Region, Procession on the steppe.

NO PARADISE :: Many Regrets

Catherine II had only a vague knowledge of the primitive frontier that she was determined to colonize and develop. The lower Volga was a teething trouble spot of hostile roaming bands of Kirghiz, Tartar, and marauding Cossacks. Catherine wanted a dependable settler population that would bring civilization and productivity to the frontier land that would take root and flourish. She envisioned the wasteland along the Lower Volga being converted into a region of farm productivity and social stability. The exalted paradise, depicted to the colonists by the enrolling agents, turned out to be a vast expanse of wild, semi-arid steppe land. It was void of trees and covered in dry grass nearly two feet high. The promised buildings of the government were nowhere to be seen. To make matters worse, the colonists arrived too late in the season to do any planting. The Russian winter set in with a vengeance, dealing the inevitable suffering and death.


In the beginning, the choice of the colonist’s settlement was as follows: “each could go to whatever colony he wished, for each was free to choose a colony, so long as there was a vacancy there”. But, there were restrictions. Their selection had to be “in their director’s district, and that a vacancy existed there”. There was an, exact, predetermined number, made by the authorities, which prescribed the number of families that each colony was allowed. Also, once a selection was made, the colonists were required to stay at that location. They did not have the privilege of moving from village to village at their discretion. (However, later census reports indicate that the colonists did move a great deal when the conditions permitted.)


The task of building shelters was now, foremost. Without building materials, it was necessary to adapt the Russian style of habitat that they had loathed when stranded in Torzhok, “the dugout”.

Dugouts consisted of a large hole scooped out of the ground. Some were large enough to hold two or more families, thus furnishing additional warmth during the long winter. The disadvantage to more than one family was that, it sometimes brought on discord amongst the occupants. The dwellings were covered with branches or sticks, then covered with sod and mud. A hole was cut out into the top to vent out smoke from cooking and heating fires. The fires were burned on the dirt floor in the middle of the room. The dugouts provided protection from the elements, but there were many disadvantages, such as darkness, and dampness that bred illness, and there was the ever presence of undesirable odors.

Through the long winter, the settlers suffered from hunger, loneliness, and the unbearable cold. When spring did finally arrive, another calamity arose that had to be reckoned with. The rapid rising flood waters from the melting snow made wide rivers out of the streams and sent the settlers scampering from their “caves”. They clambered to the nearest hills for safety, barely escaping with their lives. Half dead, suffering from fever and malnutrition, the new settlers ushered in the spring, but with little to celebrate. Out of the trials and tribulations of this ill-fated group of settlers came the dawning of a tough new ethnic branch. The Volga German, true survivors with a proud identity!

100 YEARS ON THE VOLGA :: First Settlers

Johann Konrad Topfer was among the first arrivals to the Russian Steppes. He had suffered the loss of his wife and baby son on the trip to the Volga and the severe and perilous hardships in the unsettled and wild country. He arrived on the upper Volga river, “Little Karaman”, along with the colonists that reached there in the late fall in 1767. Johann Konrad arrived on August 3, 1767 and settled in the village of Phillippsfeld. There were no accommodations or houses as promised and winter was about to set in It is not known how many houses did exist in 1767, probably none, since the date of the colony establishment was 1767. The census report of February 14, 1769 lists only 28 houses. There were 78 males and 66 female settlers, a total of 144 persons at that time.


Johann Konrad Topfer survived the first cold Russian Northern winter and several years that followed in the wilderness. He had built shelter in the ground. The settlers called it a “Zemlyanki” and referred to themselves as “cave dwellers”. “The original homes were emergency shelters at first, but they served the settlers for years before enlargements or improvements could be made — such as wooden floors to replace the hard-packed earth. It would be three years or more before rough little log houses elevated most of the colonists out of their Zemlyanki. By then the subterranean refuges had cost their victims dearly in health and lives. Because of the unaccustomed long, harsh winters, the undue exposure to constant dampness in the Zemlyanki and malnutrition, sickness broke out among the newcomers that often became epidemic. In one colony of 157 persons, no fewer than 26 died in the four month period. Entire families were wiped out sometimes. The heaviest casualties were made in the ranks of the older persons and young children… Not only had the physical hardships taken their toll, but acute melancholia often hastened death.


When the settlers first arrived, the villages were not named. The various groups of settlers named them after the villages that they left in Germany, or they chose the name of the group leader. These village names were ised by the German settlers for many years, even after Russian names were eventually assigned.

Johann Konrad Toepfer remarried while living in Phillippsfeld. The name os his wife is not known. They bore two sons, Johann Balthasar, born in 1771, and Johann Wilhelm, born in 1778.

Johann Konrad lost this wife while in Phillippsfeld. The census reports do not list her name, or the year of her death. Also, churches are no longer available to research… Johann Konrad married again to Dorothea Bruth. In 1786, the Topfers moved to the colony of Fischer, the German name given to the colony. Later, the official Russian name was Theleusa and later again, the government re-named it, Krasnaya Polyana. Fischer was located on the Wiesenseite (meadow side) of the Volga. It consisted of colonists of Protestant Lutheran persuasion.


Few could enjoy the convenience of having their designated farm land next to their villages. The village of Fischer was located miles away from the farming area. The families had to spend their weeks camped out in the fields during planting season in the spring, cultivating crops in the summer, and harvest time in the fall. However, on Saturday, all work ceased in the evening, earlier than usual, and the household would drive home to make preparations for full observance on the Christian Sabbath the next day.

A GRIM SURVIVAL :: The First Years

The settlers barely survived the first ten years on the Volga steppe, but many did not. The first ten-year cataclysm has been generally blamed upon the fact that the settlers were totally inexperienced as farmers. That is only part of the story.


The Volga was suffering from a severe drought cycle that lasted until 1775.

The Russian bureaucrats did not comprehend the system of planting seasons. It was absolutely necessary for the seeds to be delivered to the colonists, in the hands, by the middle of April to start growth with the early rains. The deliveries were being made in late May. Late planting caused the seeds not to germinate, because the ground was so prematurely parched each season.

Colonists grouped their resources together (because they did not have enough draft animals) to do the heavy work. Later, this practice was forbidden by the Russian bureaucratic overseer! The colonists were on the brink of starvation. The government doled out rye wheat, but it was caked and moldy… The flour was in such a condition that it was like a solid block, which had to be pulverized with an ax and hammer and it was green with mold, so that even the cattle would not eat it, and even of that there was not enough.


Not until 1775 did they enjoy their first blessed harvest… Consequently, they acquired their own seed. Thus, they were able to plant early enough in the spring of the following year to benefit from the early spring rains and melting snow. The Topfers survived the bitter years, managing to endure and staunchly retain their persistence to succeed. They were active in the Protestant Lutherine congregation of the Thelausa Gemeninde. They were farmers, as were all the settlers, per the mandate at St. Petersburg.

Johann Konrad Topfer and Dorothea (Bruth) Topfer raised the two sons by Konrad’s second wife.

The 1798 Fischer census states that Konrad Topfer had; 11 horses, 9 cows, 8 swine, and 14 chickens. He and his two sons had planted 200 liters of rye and 200 liters of wheat.


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