Schönchen (Paninskaya) Schönchen, a Catholic colony of 42 families on the prairie side of the Volga River, was founded in 1767. It belonged to the Samara District and according to the 1772 census, had 198 inhabitants. According to early reports, Schönchen was bordered on three sides by woods, but as of 1993, these are all gone. It appears the village was name after a Captain Christian Schöne, organizer of the village. For the first winter, the settlers lived in dugouts or caves.
The 1798 Census states that a Catholic Church had recently been built, but "the colony had not had a (resident) priest for two years. The colonists gather together each Sunday to pray and sing under the direction of the schoolmaster who was elected from among them…There is no school building in the colony but the above stated school master teaches children reading, writing, and religion in his house."
Most of the inhabitants were farmers, but much of the land available to the settlers was not very fertile, being sandy and saline. Almost everyone had a vegetable garden. Most had livestock and chickens. They grew tobacco, potatoes, wheat, rye, millet and oats in their fields. The first 10 years were extremely difficult. The available Russian tools and implements were very crude. Seed grain provided by the Russian government often did not arrive at the optimum planting time. At night the settlers protected themselves from wild animals and bands of brigands by posting armed guards.
Family names listed in the 1798 Census are: Adam, Albertin, Baier, Bauer, Bauman, Bayer, Becker, Bettenghener, Bittel, Bittingheimer, Brull, Buchholtz, Burghardt, Bös, Büttel, Deimont, Deisling, Demond, Demor, Demuth, Derr, Derringer, Dumont, Döhring, Ebel, Ebers, Erhard, Erilatz, Fanikuhal, Fervor, Feyer, Fischer, Fladung, Fraas, Frandenberg, Frichtel, Gabel, Gaus, Gebauf, Gebers, Gebner, Geier, Geiman, Geist, Gerenstaler, Gerold, Getner, Görlitz, Götz, Hamm, Hammerschmidt, Hauk, Haus, Hebner, Heiman, Helber, Herbers, Herold, Herr, Herrstaler, Hertz, Hilderman, Hübner, Ihl, Junck, Jägers, Jäkel, Kaiser, Karl, Kern, Kessler, Knor, Koch, Konrad, Kowald, Kramfeld, Kuch, Kuchlin, Kuhn, Köppel, Körner, Ladong, Lasing, Lechner, Leiker, Leopold, Löb, Lorenz, Mahr, Mai, Märtz, Materuk, Mattern, Melezian, Melnatz, Merz, Meshing, Munsch, Müller, Neulist, Offelman, Peter, Pfeifer, Pfennigkuchal, Pitel, Poertin, Remmler, Renick, Renke, Roindorf, Romberg, Rupp, Sack, Sauer, Schenk, Schillig, Scherleg, Schlotthauer, Schmidt, Schnor, Schnell, Schuler, Schwartz, Schäfer, Schönchen, Schöntaler, Seibel, Sellner, Simon, Spiester, Starck, Stengel, Taislin, Teringer, Tulman, Unrein, Verfahr, Von Drau, Werth, Wiesner, Wild, Winterish, Zahn, Zang, Zimmermann.
As the German population grew, the land allotted by the Russian czar became inadequate. Additionally, the Russian government no longer exempted the German settlers from taxes and military service. So in 1876 many families set out again in search of a new homeland.
Leaving Schönchen June 18 on a flatboat to Saratov were the families of Anton Depperschmidt, Peter Depperschmidt, Carl Herrglotz, Alois Luia, Anna Elizabeth Munsch, Joseph Munsch, Michael Schmidt, John Jacob Schöntahaler, Simon Schontaller, Joseph Schuckmann, the Stark brothers, Friedrich Werth, Jacob Werth, John Werth, John Peter Werth, Karl Werth, and John Jacob Zimmerman. The following single individuals accompanied these families: Jacob Haus, Jacob Munsch, Andrew Stark, Louis Werth, and Anna Katherina Zimmerman.
This time their trek took them across the ocean. Again they found their way to land others found unsuitable. Again their first homes were dugouts or sod houses. But through their industry, they established a flourishing agriculture on the prairie of western Kansas. After a brief stay in Liebenthal, they founded another Schoenchen on the Smokey Hill River.
However, not all who came to Kansas in the original group remained. Some judged conditions in Russia to be preferable and returned. Later, more immigrants from Schönchen joined the original contingent.
During both World Wars, the Germans in Schönchen on the Volga suffered persecution. Finally in 1941 all the remaining families were relocated to Siberia and Kazahkstan. A descendant of one of these families, Bishop Joseph Werth, SJ, is now the Roman Catholic bishop of Siberia. In the 1990's, former residents of Schönchen are finding their way back to Germany, the place of their roots.
The original site of Schönchen on the Volga now (as of 1993) has only one dwelling. There are two gravesites dating from the 1940's, one German, one Russian. There is now a small fertilizer plant there. Workmen were constructing a very small dam, probably on the Karshinaya Brook, when I visited. The mulberry trees are gone, though there's still a small grove of oak trees.