General Samuel McRoberts’ photos of Mennonites in Paraguay 1926-1929

by Conrad Stoesz, Mennonite Heritage Centre, Winnipeg

“The world is small, but the Mennonite world is even smaller,” stated Canadian Mennonite University (CMU) student Rodger Toews. That was his impression after he completed his practicum at the Mennonite Heritage Centre (MHC) in the winter of 2014. Toews is a history student from Paraguay, studying at CMU, in Winnipeg. The practicum attempts to match projects with the student’s interests. “My expectations were exceeded by far,” exclaimed Toews as he encountered an abundance of archival materials directly related to the Mennonite experience in Paraguay. Toews learned to read the German gothic script handwriting and helped organize collections of letters, journals and photographs mostly related to Mennonites in southern Manitoba, some of whom moved to Paraguay in the mid-1920s.

Samuel McRoberts was an American banker who was persuaded to help Mennonites to emigrate to Paraguay. Although initially reluctant, his wife, the writer and poet Harriet Skinner McRoberts persuaded him that helping the Mennonites find a home was a worthy Christian cause. Photo Credit: “Gen. Samuel McRoberts, an Appreciation”,  American sugar refining Company, 1947.

Samuel McRoberts was an American banker who was persuaded to help Mennonites to emigrate to Paraguay. Although initially reluctant, his wife, the writer and poet Harriet Skinner McRoberts persuaded him that helping the Mennonites find a home was a worthy Christian cause. Photo Credit: “Gen. Samuel McRoberts, an Appreciation”, American sugar refining Company, 1947.

One of the collections about Paraguay that Toews used was a set of six photograph albums, totalling 231 photos, which were donated by the family of former New York banker, General Samuel McRoberts (1868-1947). These photos provide some of the earliest images of the settling of the Paraguayan Chaco by Mennonites from Saskatchewan and Manitoba. McRoberts proved to be an important player and ally for these immigrants, without whom it would be hard to imagine the migration to Paraguay.

During and after World War One, new legislation was enacted in Manitoba and Saskatchewan eliminating bi-lingual schools (German-English in Mennonite areas) and requiring that English be the only language of instruction. The provincial governments also closed private schools by requiring that all students attend government approved schools. The aim of this legislation was to Canadianize the increasingly diverse immigrant population.

Some of the Mennonite groups in Manitoba and Saskatchewan decided to adapt to these new regulations. The majority of Mennonites in these two provinces, however,  were the traditional Mennonite church groups (Old Colony, Sommerfelder, Chortitzer, Saskatchewan Bergthaler), who felt that losing control of their schools would jeopardize their faith and their future, and so they decided to emigrate. They sent delegations to Quebec, Mississippi, Mexico, and to several South American countries, looking for land and favourable terms that would allow them to live by their faith principles. 

In an effort to find land and financing, Johann J. Priess of Altona, on his own accord, traveled to New York in 1919 to meet with Minneapolis real-estate broker, Alvin Solberg, who had helped bring Hutterites from the USA to Manitoba. Through Solberg, Priess also met with New York financier Samuel McRoberts, who was vice-president of the National City Bank of New York. McRoberts had connections with the Paraguayan ambassador to Washington, Manuel Gondra. Priess also met Fred Engen who was enthusiastic about the options for settlement in Paraguay and became a colleague of McRoberts.1 Priess was a good friend of Saskatchewan Bergthaler Bishop, Aron Zacharias

The first delegation to South America, representing three Old Colony groups: Manitoba, and the Hague and Swift Current colonies in Saskatchewan, left in August 1919. They were unsuccessful in getting any country to provide them with the assurances they were seeking. In 1920, a second Old Colony delegation from Hague was sent to investigate possibilities in Mexico.2

In January 1921, a delegation of six people from the same three Old Colony Mennonite groups travelled to Mexico, saw the land, and met with President Álvaro Obregón. From him they received a Privilegium, which he signed on behalf of the government.3 The Privilegium provided for exemption from military service for fifty years, the right not to swear the oath, control over their own schools, the right to use German as the language of instruction in the schools, and the right to purchase large tracts of land and to lay out villages on this land. The Old Colonists found these terms acceptable, decided to move to Mexico, and began the emigration in 1922.

The Sommerfelder and Chortitzer Mennonite churches in Manitoba and the Bergthaler Church in Saskatchewan also looked for emigration possibilities. A delegation of six from these churches left for Paraguay in February 1921, with instructions to also investigate settlement possibilities in Mexico. They returned from their trip in September.

On the way to Paraguay, together with Johann Priess, the delegates stopped in New York to see McRoberts.  He helped them with their papers, but was initially not interested in their proposal to emigrate. When he mentioned the Mennonite delegation’s pending visit to his wife, Harriet, however, she insisted the delegation come to dinner. Bernhard Toews writes in his journal (jokingly?) that McRoberts took a special interest in Toews because of the extra work it took to prepare his travel papers. Toews reports they were served bread, meat, baked potatoes, coffee, and an assortment of other delicacies. The Mennonites provided the evening entertainment with the singing of a German and a Russian song. Harriet Pearl Skinner McRoberts, a poet and songwriter whose writings can still be purchased today, gave a copy of one of her songbooks to Bishop Aron Zacharias.4 She was impressed with the delegation and insisted that the Mennonites were good, God-fearing people, and that helping them “would be a real service to Christianity and the church.”5 McRoberts was convinced, and promised the delegation help and financial support.

The delegates left for Paraguay, and on May 20, 1921, they reached the most westerly portion of their exploration of the Paraguayan Chaco, where they erected a cross with their names engraved. Reports came back from the delegation that the land was “satisfactory in every respect.” The delegates also had a fifty minute meeting with now President, Manuel Gondra, and presented to him their petition for a Privilegium.  Gondra gave them assurances that his government could accept all their key points, including the right not to swear the oath, have their own schools, use the German language in schools, maintain their Waisenamt and inheritance laws, set up their fire insurance organization, and appoint executors and trustees of their organizations and estates.6 They were also given assurances they could organize villages in compact settlements.7 Before the end of July, the Paraguayan Senate and Congress passed the necessary legislation to guarantee these privileges.8 The delegation also visited Mexico, but was not favourably impressed with the land, or with the assurances given by President Obregón.

When the delegates returned from their visits, they reported in their respective church groups in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, and recommended migration to Paraguay. Many formal and informal meetings followed as the church leadership, together with the members, weighed their options: to stay or to migrate, and if to migrate, then where? McRoberts, Engen, and Solberg visited Manitoba in November and December of 1921, hoping to ensure that the Mennonites would buy their land in Paraguay and not follow the Old Colony to Mexico.9

In the fall of 1921, another delegation of Sommerfelder Mennonites left for Mexico. They met with President Obregón, and received assurances on virtually all their requests. They returned and recommended migrating to Mexico. On a subsequent trip to Mexico, some Sommerfelder bought land in Mexico. By the late fall of 1922, about 600 Sommerfelder, together with their bishop, Abraham Doerksen, had moved to Mexico. They founded the 12,000 acre Santa Clara settlement just north of the two Old Colony settlements, Manitoba and Swift Current, near the town of Cuauhtémoc.10 This decision resulted in a split in the Sommerfelder Church about where to migrate. 

Plans for migrating to Paraguay came to a halt in late 1921 due to the economic crisis that saw the American stock market devalued by 47 percent from a high on November 3, 1919 to its low on August 24, 1921.11 Canadian land and grain prices also fell sharply. Without the backing of McRoberts and the much lower value of their land, Mennonites could not raise enough funds to emigrate and buy land in Paraguay.12

By 1925, the financial situation had turned around, allowing McRoberts and Mennonite leaders to continue their plans for emigration. McRoberts founded the Intercontinental Company (I.C.) in Winnipeg to handle the liquidation of Mennonite farm lands in Manitoba and Saskatchewan (43,998 acres worth an estimated $902,900.) and the emigration from Canada. In Paraguay, McRoberts founded the company Corporacion Paraguaya (C.P.) to handle the immigration into Paraguay, including the purchase of land and assistance in settlement.

Both companies, the International Company in Winnipeg and the Corporacion Paraguaya, stood to make huge profits, according to the German Counsel in Winnipeg. He reported that the C.P. company in Paraguay purchased 137,920 acres of land in the Chaco from the Carlos Casado Company at a cost of $1.25 to $1.50 per acre,13 and resold it to Mennonites for $5.00 per acre. In Manitoba the I.C. Company bought farm land from the Mennonite emigrants for an average of $35 an acre and was selling it to new Russian Mennonite immigrants coming to the Canadian prairies for $65 per acre.14

Thus by 1925, the three Mennonite church groups, Sommerfelder, Chortitzer, and Saskatchewan Bergthaler, had decided to emigrate. However, enthusiasm for emigration to Paraguay had diminished since 1921. In the Chortitzer church, the bishop and most of the ministers were in favour of emigrating; however, only about 40 percent of the membership was ready to follow. Since the Sommerfelder Church bishop, plus some of the ministers, and 600 members had moved to Mexico, only a small portion of the remaining large Sommerfelder church was prepared to emigrate to Paraguay. In the end, only about 350 Sommerfelder emigrated. An even smaller number of Saskatchewan Bergthaler decided to emigrate.15 The majority in all three church groups were not convinced they should emigrate, and remained in Canada.

On November 28, 1926, the emigration to Paraguay started with high hopes. The departing emigrant group consisted of about 279 families totalling 1,785 people. They included 1,201 people from the Chortitzer Church, 357 Sommerfelder, and 227 Saskatchewan Bergthaler.16 The decision was made to have the whole group emigrate at one time, despite advice from A.M. Roger, the Vice President of the Intercontinental Company, to send an advance party of only 100 families to ascertain the conditions and make preparations.17

Upon arrival, the immigrants experienced a series of setbacks because the C.P. was unable, under Fred Engen’s leadership, to prepare sufficiently for their arrival.18 The immigrants left Canada at the onset of winter, and arrived in a tropical climate in the hot summer season. Further, the land was not surveyed so the immigrants had to live in crowded tents and make-shift shelters for many months in Puerto Casado on the Paraguayan River, far from the land on which they were to settle.19 Hot weather and cramped, unsanitary living quarters gave rise to illness and disease, including typhoid fever. 20 Friends and family back in Canada grew anxious and informed McRoberts of the dire situation. 

McRoberts arrived in Paraguay and, together with the Mennonites, organized an expedition to make land selection in July 1927. They journeyed into the uncharted land, making short trips to the right and left of the trail looking for agricultural land, trees, and good water. At the end of August the survey of land was finally started, but this too moved slowly. Growing impatient, some struck out on their own into the Chaco. In frustration, some returned to Canada.

It was only in April 1928, almost two years after arriving in Paraguay, that the immigrants could move onto their land and begin to settle. Fourteen villages were established in 1928. Each village consisted of 16-20 households. Each household received 160-200 acres of land. Four more villages are added by the end of 1932. They decided to name the settlement “Menno Colony” after the early Anabaptist leader who gave his name to this branch of the Anabaptist movement. 

The Establishment of Villages

Year

1928

Bergthal, Laubenheim, Waldheim, Gnadenfeld, Weidenfeld, Reinland, Bergfeld, Osterwick, Blumengart, Schoental, Halbstadt, Strassberg, Chortitz, Silberfeld.

1929

Neuanlage

1930

Lindenau

1932

Gruenfeld, Gruental

The long journey and extended stay at the company town of Puerto Casado exacted a large toll on the group, both physically and mentally. On the trip to Paraguay six people died. While waiting at Puerto Casado, 121 people died. Forty-eight people died on the way from Puerto Casado to their new land, with another twelve dying once they had arrived in the newly established villages. By the end of 1928, 187 people, of a total of 1785 immigrants, had died.21 It should also be noted that 371 people gave up on the Paraguayan dream and returned to Canada at their own expense.22 Thus, within two years of arriving in Paraguay, almost a third of the immigrants had either returned to Canada or died.

In early 1928, the Intercontinental Company was making plans for more Mennonites to move from Canada to Paraguay.  In February 1928, McRoberts’ Intercontinental Company representative, A.M. Roger, wrote an upbeat and energetic letter inviting Henry Klippenstein, the “Waisenamt men,” and “a few other ministers” of the Chortitzer church still in Manitoba, to a meeting to report, discuss, and view photos and “a lot of exhibits.”23 Roger’s view seemed to be that since the major immigration and settlement hurdles in Paraguay had been overcome, the Intercontinental Company was looking to accommodate successive waves of immigrants to Paraguay.

McRoberts photo number 84 shows C.R. Funk from the village of Reinland illustrating how much a plant could grow in one day.

McRoberts photo number 84 shows C.R. Funk from the village of Reinland illustrating how much a plant could grow in one day.

Klippenstein met with Chortitzer ministers and they decided not to meet with Roger. They also asked that the pictures of their relatives in Paraguay not be shown. Klippenstein stated that he and the ministers were concerned that the photos would create too much excitement.24

A day later, February 25, 1928, Roger replied, expressing surprise and concern.  “I think you are making a very great mistake. I am sending your letter to Bishop [Martin C.] Friesen and the ministers in Paraguay. I can see no reason at all why the people should not see their relatives and friends and what they are doing. Such action on your part looks as though someone wished to prevent people from going to Paraguay…. [nevertheless] until you change your minds, we will not show the pictures to your people. The pictures will be shown on the West Reserve and if other people ask for them we will show them to them.”25

There appears to have been a lot of talk about these photos. Roger wrote another letter to Klippenstein two days later to quell fears surrounding the viewing of the photos. He assured Klippenstein that the photos would not be shown in churches, but only in private homes. Roger intended to reassure, but likely raised alarm instead when he revealed that the Intercontinental Company was offered money to have the photos shown in “all the moving picture houses in the United States,” but that they declined, stating, “the pictures are only for non-combatant people.”26

J.U. Kehler family in front of their home in Halbstadt. McRoberts photo #171.

J.U. Kehler family in front of their home in Halbstadt. McRoberts photo #171.

With family and friends anxious about the living conditions of their family members, they were relieved to hear settlement had finally taken place. By the end of 1928 and the start of 1929, McRoberts took another series of photographs of the settlers in their new homes. The photos and the descriptions that were provided by Engen, suggest that the photos were taken to show the successful development of the Menno Colony villages and farms, possibly to encourage further migration and settlement. Each image is identified by village; often the owner is identified as well. They show flourishing gardens, nurseries, and fields filled with a variety of crops such as cotton, peanuts, sunflowers, potatoes, sorghum, beans, pumpkins and watermelons. They also show animals including pigs and chickens. The theme of the photos is to emphasize the progress of the settlement by showing the homes, barns, fertile fields and favourable growing conditions. In photo 84, the caption reads “the distance indicated by the man with his hand represents the growth of the plant in one day.”27

There is a progression in the photos with a few photos of the make-shift housing in the long lay-over in, or near, the town of Puerto Casado followed by the images showing the clearing of the land for agricultural uses. It is interesting to note that in some photos Paraguayan aboriginals are helping to clear land and build homes for the immigrants. Most of the photos show the successful farms that were established. While the aim of McRoberts was a mix of humanitarian aid and personal financial gain, the Intercontinental Company that was established was financially unsuccessful.28

There was no subsequent wave of immigrants to Paraguay as McRoberts had hoped. Mennonites in Canada had made adjustments and accommodations, and news of the difficulties in Paraguay discouraged emigration. 

The photo of the railway track from Porto Casada to the new colony is an example of the kind of damage the photos have suffered. McRoberts photo #4.

The photo of the railway track from Porto Casada to the new colony is an example of the kind of damage the photos have suffered. McRoberts photo #4.

For Mennonite Heritage Centre practicum student, Rodger Toews, these photos were an exciting discovery.  “To see a photo with Ältester Martin C. Friesen sitting at a table with my grandfather as a child is very special since my family has very few photos of this era.”29

These photos provide a unique glimpse into the early years of the Menno Colony in Paraguay. However, over time these photos have suffered from the acidic glue used to affix them to the pages in the albums. The glue has migrated to the surface of the photos, severely damaging them.  At this point the details in the damaged areas are still visible, but the photos will continue to deteriorate over time. The good news is that with digital technology the photos can be restored.  If you would like to help fund the costly, but important restoration of these photos please contact Korey Dyck kdyck@mennonitechurch.ca or me, Conrad Stoesz, cstoesz@mennonitechurch.ca at the Mennonite Heritage Centre.

  1.  M.W. Friesen, Canadian Mennonites Conquer a Wilderness (Loma Plata: Historical Committee of the Menno Colony, 2009), 13.  See also Peter P. Klassen, The Mennonites in Paraguay: Kingdom of God and Kingdom of this world, volume 1 (Hillsboro, Kansas: Peter P. Klassen, 2003), 24-25.
  2.  Adolf Ens, Subjects or Citizens? The Mennonite Experience in Canada 1870-1925 (The University of Ottawa Press, 1994), 208.
  3.  Ibid., 204, 208, 209.
  4.  Bernhard Toews, Tagebuch meines Lebens: Bernhard Toews 1863-1927 (Asuncion: Geschichtskomittee der Kolonie Menno, 2005), 37.
  5.  Joseph Windfield Fretz, Pilgrims in Paraguay: The Story of Mennonite Colonization in South America (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1953), 13.  See also Harold S. Bender, “McRoberts, Samuel (1868-1947)”, Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (1957), retrieved 4 July 2014, http://gameo.org/index.php?title=McRoberts,_Samuel_(1868-1947)&oldid=118554.
  6.  Ens, Subjects or Citizens?, 248, 249.
  7.  Walter Quiring, “The Canadian Mennonite Immigration into the Paraguayan Chaco, 1926-27”, The Mennonite Quarterly Review 8 (Jan. 1934), 35.
  8.  Ens, Subjects or Citizens?, 211.
  9.  Toews, Tagebuch meines Lebens, 157-158.  See also a review of Toews’ published diary by John J. Friesen in Preservings, no. 13 (Dec. 1998): 133.
  10.  Ens, Subjects or Citizens?, 213.
  11.  “Depression of 1920-21”, Wikipedia (2014), retrieved August 12, 2014, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Depression_of_1920%E2%80%9321.  Ens, Subjects or Citizens, 212.
  12.  Quiring, “The Canadian Mennonite Immigration into the Paraguayan Chaco, 1926-27”, 36.
  13.  Ibid.
  14.  Peter P. Klassen, The Mennonites in Paraguay: Kingdom of God and Kingdom of this world, volume 1 (Hillsboro, Kansas: Peter P. Klassen, 2003), 60.  The gross amount collected from the sale of Canadian lands suggests a lower average closer to $20/acre.
  15.  Ens, Subjects or Citizens?, 214.
  16.  Ibid.
  17.  Klassen, The Mennonites in Paraguay, 60-61.
  18.  There is some debate about Fred Engen role in settling the immigrants.  Quiring says Engen was “a good-hearted man but one who lacked the necessary strength of character and firmness of will as well as the essential organizing ability to successfully perform the task assigned to him.” Quiring, “The Canadian Mennonite Immigration into the Paraguayan Chaco, 1926-27”, 38.  Others, such as J.J.R. Funk, writing from Puerto Casado, considered Engen almost an angel. M.W. Friesen, Canadian Mennonites Conquer a Wilderness, 30.  Engen died in Puerto Casado in 1929.  A street in Menno Colony Paraguay is named in his honor.  Edgar Stoesz, Like a Mustard Seed: Mennonites in Paraguay (Scottdale: Herald Press, 2008), 27.
  19.  M.W. Friesen, Canadian Mennonites Conquer a Wilderness, 127-129.
  20.  Quiring, “The Canadian Mennonite Immigration into the Paraguayan Chaco, 1926-27”, 39.  Quiring uses the term “abdominal typhoid”, which is also known as Typhoid fever and is spread by drinking water contaminated by fecal matter.
  21.  Ibid., 39.
  22.  Ibid., “The Canadian Mennonite Immigration into the Paraguayan Chaco, 1926-27”,  42.  See also Fretz, Pilgrims in Paraguay, 18.  Fretz quotes the number 355.
  23.  Letter from A.M. Rodger to Mr. Henry Klippenstein, February 13, 1928.  Mennonite Heritage Centre, volume 1417, file 9.
  24.  Letter from H.G. Klippenstein to A.M. Roger of the Intercontinental Company, February 24, 1928.  Mennonite Heritage Centre, volume 1417, file 9.  “… das es besser ist nicht zu viel Aufregung unter uns zu machen.”
  25.  Letter from A.M. Roger to Henry Klippenstein, February 25, 1928.  Mennonite Heritage Centre, volume 1417, file 9.
  26.  Letter from A.M. Roger to Henry Klippenstein, February 27, 1928.  Mennonite Heritage Centre, volume 1417, file 9.
  27.  Samuel McRoberts fonds, Mennonite Heritage Centre.  Description by Fred Engen, translated from Spanish to English by Rodger Toews, 2014.
  28.  Harold Bender, “Intercontinental Company, Limited”, Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (1955), retrieved 29 August 2014, http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Intercontinental_Company,_Limited&oldid=104872
  29.  Samuel McRoberts fonds, Mennonite Heritage Centre, book 2, photo #71.

Preservings

An annual magazine that appears each December.

Funding

Fellowships, grants for research, and publication.