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The Allure of the Eighth Ward

Transcribing thousands of census records for Messiah College’s Digital History class can be tedious at times, and I often found myself in the habit of thinking of Harrisburg’s citizens in 1900 in terms of wards and districts rather than as families and individuals. It is all too easy to merely skim the information and forget the fact that the census documents the stories of individuals who each had unique pasts.

I was hit between the eyes with this fact when I was working with data from Harrisburg’s 8th Ward. Many 8th Ward inhabitants were born in Pennsylvania, Germany, and Ireland.  Suddenly I noticed another place of origin come into play: Russia.  I made a mental note as Russian immigrants kept turning up throughout the 8th Ward.  Then I started paying attention to their names, and I discovered that almost all of these Russian immigrants had not Russian, but German, names.

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1900 Harrisburg Census, Ward 8, District 70, Sheet 2. The word “Russia” designates place of birth as well as the place of birth of one’s parents.

Now I was fascinated.  Why wouldn’t Russians have Russian names? How had an abundance of Russians, who were perhaps not actually Russian, ended up in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania?

A little reading, particularly in Russian historian Roger Bartlett’s book Human Capital: The Settlement of Foreigners in Russia, shed some light on the matter. In 1763, Catherine the Great of Russia wanted to strengthen Russia, but that was difficult to do because there was so much land and the country’s population was quite sparse in comparison. Consequently, Catherine invited foreigners to settle in Russia.  She hoped that they would help grow Russia’s economy and overall strength. In her manifesto, she promised rights and protections for immigrants, and many Prussians responded to her call. Prussians continued to flood into Russia until the mid-1800s, when immigration was restricted and the special protections granted to the descendantsof immigrants were rescinded. This, along with Russian nationalism and declining quality of life for these German-Russian families, resulted in large waves of emigration from Russia in the latter part of the nineteenth century.

A view of Walnut Street in the 8th Ward, a street on which some German-Russian families resided. Image from http://www.old8thward.com/1.htm.

Perhaps this contributed to the German-Russian presence in Harrisburg.  As described in Penn State Harrisburg’s Old Eighth Ward digital project, the 8th Ward was home to many diverse groups of people, including both Russians and Germans immigrants, so it would have been a logical place for ethnic Germans from Russia to settle.  Unfortunately, the 8th Ward was infamous for being a rowdy and run-down part of town, and within less than a quarter century after the 1900 census was taken, much of the 8th Ward had been taken over by the newly built Capitol complex.

This compelling story from the 8th Ward was a much-needed reminder that the people from the 1900 Harrisburg census were not just names on a page. They were real people who lead unique lives.  In a way, the citizens of Harrisburg live on through this census, and their stories deserve to be remembered.  As I continue to work with these census records, no longer will I view these people as one giant, indistinguishable mass.  Rather, I will be more conscious of the fact that I am not just simply relaying the history of a city, but I am also commemorating the lives of ordinary individuals.

For more information on the history of Germans in Russia, click here.

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