Josephburg Germans

The Galician German Settlement of Josephburg

On the Yellowhead Highway between Edmonton and Elk Island Park, alert travelers will notice a sign at Secondary Highway 830 indicating the turn-off to the hamlet of Josephburg. Founded in the late 19th century by German-speaking settlers from Austro-Hungarian Ukraine, this small community 6 kms east of Fort Saskatchewan once played a key role in shaping the history of Kalyna Country when the region was first opened to homesteading more than a century ago.

The roots of Josephburg can be traced back to the 1887 immigration to Canada of George Becker, a native of the village of Josefsberg in the Habsburg crownland of Galicia. After landing in Halifax, the fifty-seven year old Becker made his way to the prairies, which impressed him with their vast and unsettled spaces. Writing home to family and friends in the Old Country, he encouraged his fellow Galician Germans to follow him overseas to seek a new life in the Canadian Northwest.

Becker’s appeal was timely, as many of his countrymen back home felt their horizons were severely limited in Galicia, a poor and overcrowded Austro-Hungarian province largely inhabited by Ukrainians and Poles. Germans had first started to settle in what is modern-day Western Ukraine when Galicia became part of Austria after the first partition of Poland in 1772. Many of them had come to east central Europe from Protestant communities along the Rhine River in southwestern Germany, an historic region known as the Palatinate. For a time, the German colonists had hoped that their fortunes would improve when petroleum, natural gas and other minerals were discovered in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains in the early 1800s. However, by the mid-nineteenth century efforts to mine these resources were still small-scale, primitive and haphazard affairs that were dependent on the harsh exploitation of peasant labour and often resulted in losses for investors. Given the widespread poverty in Galicia and its dubious economic and political future, by the 1880s emigration was increasingly being viewed as an attractive option, notwithstanding the uncertainties and hardships that such a momentous decision entailed.

The village of Josefsberg was situated roughly 40 miles (64 kms) southwest of the city of Lviv, known in Austro-Hungarian times as Lemberg, Leopolis or Lwów. In Ukrainian, Josefsberg was called Korosnytsia, rendered Korosnića in Polish. Josefsberg had been colonized by members of the Reformed Church in Germany, and was one of four parishes overseen by the Reformed Protestant Superintendent of Galicia. The Reformed Church practiced a form of Protestantism influenced by Calvinism, and was theologically similar to Presbyterianism. Other Reformed adherents lived in neighbouring Galician settlements, including the villages of Brigidau and Derzhiv (respectively located eight miles south and east of Josefsberg), and in the nearby regional centre of Stryi (Stryj). Of course, there were numerous other German-speaking religious communities in 19th century Galicia, as well as in Tsarist Ukraine, Russia and the different parts of Poland. These included Lutherans, Mennonites, Moravians, Hutterites and a small number of Catholics – all whom eventually provided immigrants to Canada.

Regardless, in 1888 George Becker’s own family along with several others from Josefsberg and its sister communities departed from Galicia for Canada. While some in this initial group remained for a time in Winnipeg, others continued further west and eventually made their way to Medicine Hat in the district of Assiniboia, now southeastern Alberta. Filing for homesteads in the vicinity of Dunmore, 48 kms southeast of Medicine Hat, the settlers built sod huts, broke the land, and planted their first crop. However, their hopes were dashed when a hot and dry summer scorched their fields, which yielded only a meager harvest. Undaunted, they persevered for another year, during which time their numbers were increased by 40-50 families that emigrated in the spring of 1889 from Josefsberg, Brigidau and Stryi, as well as members of the original group in Manitoba. Other German-speaking immigrants from Galicia also settled near Dunmore, where immigration agents were working to promote the development of an ethnically cohesive bloc settlement. That same fall, a school district called “Josefburg” was optimistically organized for the growing colony, but once again the harvest proved to be a bitter disappointment. Although several unusually wet summers had given the area the appearance of being quite lush when the settlers first arrived, as soon as more normal dry conditions returned it became apparent that the treeless plains of southeastern Alberta would not easily lend themselves to cultivation.

Consequently, in 1890 about half of the settlers relocated with the help of the CPR to the Wolseley-Grenfell area roughly 100-150 kms east of Regina, where some of their relatives and kinsmen had chosen homesteads in 1888, at the same time adopting the name “Josephsberg” for their small colony. Meanwhile, the remaining settlers near Dunmore decided to investigate agricultural conditions further north, and in the spring of 1891 sent a delegation of five young men to assess the lands in the Beaver Hills district north and east of Edmonton. When these scouts returned with a positive report, fifty-three families, comprising a total of 225-250 people, pulled up their stakes at Dunmore and made an eight-day trek to Strathcona by train and by wagon trail with their herds of cattle, horses, and other livestock – finally arriving between 26-29 April. Most were Galician Germans, but some were originally from North Germany. Along the way, a couple of families resolved to stay behind in Red Deer, and two more took land near Wetaskiwin. Once in Edmonton, the religiously diverse group divided along confessional lines, with roughly two dozen Reformed Lutheran families homesteading west of the city at Stony Plain and Spruce Grove, and five German Catholic families from Hungary settling in St. Albert. Still others moved to Leduc and the Peace Hills, while several Baptists from Volhynia eventually set down roots in the Rabbit Hill area southwest of the city, calling their district Heimtal.

In the meantime, a mixture of Reformed Church and “Old Lutheran” adherents picked the Horse Hill plain, southeast of Fort Saskatchewan, as their preferred location to make a fresh start. Nine of these families rented two farms in the Oliver and Horse Hill districts ten miles east of Edmonton, but filed for homesteads around present-day Josephburg, where they immediately began building log cabins on their future farms. Thanks to good weather they made rapid progress and were able to move into their modest homes (some were little more than shacks) by the fall of 1891, after which they continued to work digging wells, clearing brush and putting up fences. At this time, it was said that there were only two settlers living in the area between Fort Saskatchewan and today’s village of Andrew – a couple of retired Mounties who ran small herds of cattle in clearings in the parkland terrain.

Additional German-speaking newcomers reinforced these pioneers in subsequent years, both from Galicia as well as well as from Ukrainian lands within the Russian Empire. By the fall of 1893, the district boasted 390 German inhabitants, a thousand acres under cultivation, 600 cattle and 24 horses. That same December, a ratepayers association was organized to build a school that was named “Josephburg,” the spelling having being modified in the process of becoming Anglicized. This third Canadian “Josefsberg” proved to be the most enduring, and thus the name continues to be shown on road maps as a hamlet in north Strathcona County.

Although never very large, the Galician German colony established in 1891 at Josephburg was to have a major impact on the creation of the Ukrainian bloc settlement started a year later with the arrival of the first two settlers from Nebyliv, Galicia. That is because in many ways the emigration of German Galicians helped to unleash the influx of Ukrainians who were equally frustrated by their hard lives of poverty and lack of opportunity. Indeed, the plight of Ukrainians was even more difficult because of the discrimination that they experienced under the Austro-Hungarian regime, which favoured the Poles even in places where they were only a minority.

It is generally recognized that the “fathers” of Ukrainian immigration to Canada were Ivan Pylypiw and Wasyl Eleniak, who in September 1891 made an exploratory trip to the prairies to determine for themselves whether or not the country was suitable as a new home. The reason they came was Johan Krebs, a member of the Josephburg colony, who spoke Ukrainian and whom Pylypiw knew from the homeland, apparently as a classmate. According to the author J.G. MacGregor, Pylypiw had written to Krebs because he had earlier expressed an interest in striking out for North America, but by the time the letter reached him, Johan was already living with his family in southern Alberta. Although conditions at Dunmore were obviously not the best, Krebs is said to have written Pylypiw a very enthusiastic account about the great agricultural potential of Canada, mentioning the Josephsberg settlement in Saskatchewan and the rich black soil and timbered land that was available outside of Edmonton. The correspondence between the two men ostensibly became the catalyst behind the Pylypiw-Eleniak mission, which was to have far-reaching implications not only for the history of Kalyna Country, but for development of large parts of Western Canada during the pioneer era.

After stopping to see a German settlement at Langenberg, Saskatchewan, and also visiting the Grenfell area, Pylypiw and Eleniak attempted to come all the way to the Josephburg colony that was in the process of being established east of Edmonton. However, since winter was rapidly approaching, they decided to turn back at Calgary – though they had learned enough by that time to become convinced that the lands east of Fort Saskatchewan would make an excellent location for the Ukrainian colony that they hoped to initiate.

Consequently, when the first Ukrainian settlers arrived in Edmonton in June 1892 as part of a group of twelve families organized by Ivan Pylypiw upon his return to Galicia, they immediately gravitated northeast of the city to the area being homesteaded by Germans from Josefsberg. Some of those who followed them found temporary shelter and work among their fellow Galicians at Josephburg before taking their own homesteads further northeast, in the vicinity of Edna-Star. The fact that the trail leading from Edmonton to the Ukrainian colony that initially developed between Star and Wostok passed through German settlement, ensured that there continued to be frequent interaction between the two pioneer communities for many years afterwards. Thus, in some ways, the Galician Germans can be regarded as the “godfathers” of Ukrainian settlement in Canada, having been the first to blaze the path that Ukrainian Galicians took in a swelling tide beginning in 1892.

As for the original Galician Josefsberg, it was to suffer a difficult fate over the tumultuous course of the twentieth century. The scene of heavy fighting in the First and Second World Wars, Josefsberg was largely destroyed in the latter and all that remains of it today is the hamlet called Korysnytsia, administered from the nearby village of Letnia. Brigidau, founded by German colonists in 1784 and known in Ukrainian as Bryhidan, in 1947 was renamed Lanivka and in the 1970s reported a population of just over one thousand. Its German residents had moved back to Germany in 1939 as part of a resettlement scheme arranged under the short-lived Molotov-Ribbentrop agreement, but many of them returned to their old homes under the Nazi occupation. After the bitter conflict, most of the German inhabitants of Galicia were forcibly evacuated from Ukraine by the Soviet government in a process that saw large Polish, Ukrainian and German populations arbitrarily resettled from their former villages. The intention of this policy was to change the ethnic make-up of entire territories, especially in borderlands that had long been inhabited by people of different nationalities and were therefore regarded as being inherently unstable.

Today, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, it is finally possible for the descendants of immigrants to Canada who came from villages that had been closed to foreigners under the Communist regime, to travel freely within Ukraine to explore their ancestral roots. The creation of a democratic Ukrainian society is also allowing historians to examine and openly discuss both the happy and the painful legacies that are intertwined in the complex heritage of Slavic Eastern Europe, and are similarly part of the fascinating story behind the settlement of east central Alberta.

Researched and written by Jars Balan


#1 Around 1880 the population of Galicia was approximately 6.3 million, with Poles comprising 45.9% and Ukrainians (or Ruthenians, as they were then known) 42.6% of this total.  The remaining inhabitants included Jews (10%), Germans (1%), Armenians and Gypsies. 

#2  In 1774 Empress Maria Theresa issued the fort settlement patent allowing German immigrants to settle in cities and towns in Galicia. A second patent was issued in 1781 by Emperor Joseph II permitting immigration to the countryside as well, who also granted religious tolerance of Protestants. In the wake of these developments thousands of German families, mostly from the Palatinate (an historic region in southwestern Germany) migrated to Galicia. 

 #3 See Krebs, Gilbert, “Tracing Our Austrian Ancestry,” in South of the North Saskatchewan. Fort Saskatcehwan: Josephburg History Committee, 1984, p. 12.

 #4 Most of the mining firms in the 1870s were owned by Jews, with Ukrainian peasants providing much of the labour. The wretched conditions in the oilfields were vividly described by the writer Ivan Franko in his Boryslav cycle of stories and novels.

#5  Lviv was the capital of Galicia. In 1894 it had a population of 128,000.

#6 The 1894 population of the county seat of Drohobych was 18,000, while Stryi was 17,000. In 1939 the ethnic breakdown of Drohobych County was 59.9 % Ukrainian, 41.6 % Polish, 14.8 % Jewish, 1.6 % German. The equivalent figures for Stryi County are 71.0 %, 12.6 % Polish, 11.0 % Jews, and 3.7 % Germans. Another German village called Krywula (Kryvula) was located 11 miles east of Josefsberg. No ready information is available on it, and it doesn’t show up on maps. The Kubijovyč ethnographic map of Galicia in 1939 shows Korosnycja having a population that was approximately 85 % German, 12 % Ukrainian and 3 % Polish. The same map shows Brygidyn (Brigidau) with a similar breakdown, while Derźiv registers only a small number of Germans, perhaps 5 % of the total population. Interestingly, I have yet to see the name Josefsberg on even some of the Austro-Hungarian maps that I have looked at – it seems to have more commonly known as Korsnytsia [get German spelling from one of the maps at UCAMA]. 

#7 This  “Josefburg  School District was organized with 42 ratepayers and 72 children, but never actually materialized because of the subsequent relocation of most of the colony to east central Alberta. South of the North Saskatchewan, p. 11.  In the spring of 1890 a post office was established in the community by Joseph Edinger (who turned out to be a swindler) that bore the name “Josephsburg,” and this was retained through several changes in location until it was renamed “Robinson” in 1923. 

#8 This settlement was probably the first to be official named after Josefsberg, Galicia. It is no longer shown on maps. 

#9 They learned the parkland terrain outside of Edmonton was suitable for settlement from information provided by immigration agents and Northwest Mounted Police posted in the region. The scouting party consisted of Johan Krebs, Adam Rippel, Frank Becker, John Mohr and Philip Thomas.

 #10 Peace Hills, Alberta, was 3 kms northwest of Wetaskiwin. It is no longer shown on maps. A small group of German-speaking Roman Catholics who apparently also participated in the trek from Dumnore likewise moved to Egg Lake (Manawan), to be near an Oblate farm that had been established there. 

 # 11 The Mounties were named Richard Guthrie and Albert Nelson. Other sources suggest a couple other homesteaders  might have also been in the around Edna-Star.

#12 Only 2 German families from the first Josephburg and Rosenthal colonies in Alberta stayed in the Dunmore area. The statistics were cited in a report on German settlements published in the Edmonton Bulletin on 2 November 1893. The current and third Canadian spelling of Josephburg is the one used by the first secretary-treasurer of School District #296, Gus Doze. See The Fort on the Saskatchewan, p. 155-6. By  1911 all of the quarter sections in the colony were occupied by either early settlers or members of their growing families.

 #13 Nebyliv was originally in Kalush (Kalusz) county, southeast and bordering the county of Stryi. It is now in Rozhniativ raion. It appears that Josefsberg, Derzhiv and Kawulyv were all originally in Drohobych (Drohobycz) county, while Brigidau was probably in Stryi County. (needs investigation). 

#14 MacGregor, Vilni Zemli, pp. 11-12. Pylypiw appears to have never discussed his relationship with Krebs in any of his recorded interviews. Bobersky suggests that Krebs learned about Canada from the Germans that he met working in the logging industry who had relatives in Western Canada. It is possible that he had gotten to know Krebs while logging, as it is difficult to determine how Pylypiw and Krebs could have attended school together when they came from villages in different counties that were quite distant from one another (perhaps they got to know each other in Stryi, which is between Nebyliw and Josephberg). See Nay, p. 43.

 #15 Korosnytsia is in Drohbych raion, north and east of the raion center; Brigidau/Lanivka is in Stryi raion, northwest of the raion centre; and Derzhiv and the location of Kryvula are in Mykolaiv raion, south of the raion centre. As all three raions are adjacent to each other, and the former German villages are clustered in bordering areas that are in close proximity to each other, the settlers who created east central Alberta’s Josephburg colony all came from a fairly compact source.  

Researched and written by Jars Balan for the Kalyna Country Ecomuseum