Myth and History: The Story of William Hespeler’s Independent Role in the Immigration of Mennonites to Manitoba in the 1870s

by James Urry, Wellington, New Zealand

One of the stories often told of the Mennonite immigration to Manitoba in the 1870s involves the special role of William Hespeler in initiating their move to Canada. The story of Hespeler’s role in the immigration vary in detail, but all suggest that he personally learned of the Mennonites desire to emigrate from local sources while in Germany and therefore initiated the process that led to their immigration. My intention here is to consider the validity of this story and to show that contemporary sources suggest a very different account.1


William Hespeler, ca 1903. Photo Credit: Manitoba Historical Society, original Archives of Manitoba N19987.

First, let us consider the stories of Hespeler’s autonomous knowledge of the Mennonite interest in emigrating from Russia. In the early 1870s when Mennonites in Russia first enquired about the possibility of immigration to North America, Hespeler was an agent of the Canadian government based in Germany employed to promote German immigration to Canada.  The earliest version of his autonomous role that I can find appeared in 1877 in an account of the 1877 visit of the Governor General of Canada to the Mennonite reserve. The report states that the province was primarily indebted to Hespeler for the Mennonite immigration, “as it was he who 1871 on a visit to Germany ascertained that a large emigration of these people was in contemplation.”2

A similar report from the Winnipeg Standard was reprinted in the British Quaker journal The Friend.3Hespeler, who the author of the article thanks for “most of the interesting particulars,” apparently “ascertained in 1872, during a trip to Germany, that a Mennonite emigration to this continent was probable”. While use of the word “ascertained” in both reports is ambiguous, the latter account continues that Hespeler “visited Southern Russia in 1870,” that is two years before any enquiries by Mennonites to the British government about emigrating.4By the time the newspaper report was published, Hespeler was living in Winnipeg having been given a central role in settling the new immigrants by the government. He also acted as a middle-man between Mennonites, the government and local merchants. This role is reflected in the report that “upon his representations, and under his auspices, a delegation came to Manitoba in 1872” and now with “three years of activity and well-directed effort” this had produced a successful settlement.5 These reports therefore give three dates for Hespeler learning of the Mennonite desire to emigrate: 1870, 1871 and 1872. Only in 1872 was he apparently “commissioned by the Canadian government to visit Russia” and he then went on to arrange for a delegation to visit Canada.6

The appearance of these articles may have been occasioned by an earlier report in the Toronto Mail that appeared to credit Jacob E. Klotz, Hespeler’s fellow immigration agent in Germany, with a central role in the Mennonite settlement.7 At least one newspaper in Winnipeg that had republished the Toronto Mail report, quickly “corrected” this account, giving Hespeler major credit for promoting and developing the immigration movement.

Jacob E. Klotz was born in Canada to German immigrant parents. He served as the Canadian Immigration Commissioner to Germany from 1872 to 1880 during the period when Mennonites emigrated from the Russian Empire to settle in Canada and the United States. Photo Credit: The Canadian Album, 1893.

Jacob E. Klotz was born in Canada to German immigrant parents. He served as the Canadian Immigration Commissioner to Germany from 1872 to 1880 during the period when Mennonites emigrated from the Russian Empire to settle in Canada and the United States. Photo Credit: The Canadian Album, 1893.

However, it did not suggest that Hespeler had any prior knowledge of the Mennonite’s desire to emigrate.8 But William Leggo, in his account of the administration of Earl of Dufferin, the Governor General of Canada at the time of Mennonite settlement and published shortly after these newspaper reports appeared, also suggests that Hespeler had independently learned of the possibility of a Mennonite emigration from Russia and as a consequence he had informed the Canadian government. This would have been ahead of the Canadian authorities being informed by the Colonial Office in London of the first Mennonite approach to the British consul in Berdiansk.9

Later accounts of the settlement of Manitoba gave the story of Hespeler’s independent role in the immigration process a degree of historical validity. In his 1906 account of the history of Manitoba, Dr George Bryce states that when Hespeler “discovered that a large number of Mennonites in South Russia were contemplated [of] emigrating to America” he made “these facts … known to the Canadian government.”10The Manitoba writer Margaret McWilliams presented a similar account: Hespeler, on a visit to Baden, learned of the Mennonites’ plight and had informed the Canadian government. 11Interestingly, the fact that Hespeler was in Germany as an official agent of the government concerned with immigration is either underplayed in these accounts, or replaced with stories of him being on a personal journey to his old homeland, visiting family. Nowhere is it stated that in fact he was in Germany on official business.

The most influential Mennonite account of Hespeler’s independent role occurs in an account of the Bergthal emigration written by Klaas Peters published as a small book in 1925. According to Peters, while visiting his home in Baden, Hespeler “became acquainted with the Russian Count Menchikow who was spending time in his castle in Baden. He informed Mr. Hespeler that because of a new imperial decree, the Mennonites in Russia … were considering emigration to America.” Hespeler then “wrote to the Prime Minister of Canada, Sir John A. MacDonald in Ottawa, whom he knew personally, and submitted the matter for his consideration.” Only after a “considerable time” – presumably without receiving any response from MacDonald – was Hespeler contacted by the “minister of Immigration and Agriculture, John Henry Hope” and was informed that the government had learned from London of the desire of Mennonites in Russia to emigrate. In May 1872 Hespeler was therefore asked by officials to go to Russia and contact the Mennonites.12

What is interesting about this story is that when Peters first published his account of the immigration in 1890 in a series of articles in the Mennonitische Rundschau, he made no mention of Hespeler’s prior knowledge of a Mennonite desire to emigrate, of him informing MacDonald or of a Russian count. 13Somehow, between 1890 and the book’s publication thirty-five years later, a more elaborate story had been added to the text. It is perhaps worth noting that during the 1890s Peters was himself an immigration agent encouraging Mennonites to come from Russia to Canada. In his role he came into contact with Hespeler.14

Shortly after the publication of Peters’ book, the Count Menchikow story began to appear in scholarly accounts published by Mennonites of the immigration movement, although often without being attributed to Peters. C. Henry Smith repeated the story in his 1927 account of the immigration movement.15 In 1932 Georg Leibbrandt reported the story but without providing his source of information.16 The major study of Cornelius Jansen’s role in the Mennonite immigration likewise drew on the Menchikow story.17 Other Mennonite accounts have also repeated stories of Hespeler learning independently of the Mennonite desire to emigrate while in Baden and his informing the Canadian government with or without repeating the alleged Menchikow and MacDonald connections.18

It would only be fair, however, to note that not all scholars concerned with the Mennonite immigration have succumbed to the story of Hespeler’s independent knowledge of the Mennonite’s desire to emigrate. These include Ernst Correll (see below), E. K. Francis, Frank H. Epp and Adolf Ens, to name but a few.19Only Sam Steiner, however, openly rejected Hespeler’s claims of independently learning of the Mennonites wish to emigrate. Angelika Sauer has questioned the validity of the evidence for the existence of Count Menchikow.20 However, in an earlier article on Hespeler, she appears to accept the validity of the story.21

So what is the truth about Hespeler and his knowledge of Mennonite enquiries about immigrating to Canada? In 1937, Ernst Correll published a letter dated June 1st 1872 from the Public Archives of Canada in Ottawa written by John Lowe, Secretary of Agriculture, to Hespeler, “Special Emigration Agent.”

I have the honor to enclose to you herewith a copy of correspondence and the action which has been taken upon it by the Government of Canada with reference to the Emigration of a large body of German Mennonites from Russia; and I have an instruction from the Honourable the Minister of Agriculture to request you to proceed immediately upon the receipt of this letter to Berdiansk, to put yourself in communication with her Majesty’s Consul there; taking also such further steps as may be considered necessary to promote such emigration from Russia to Canada.22

Hespeler replied on July 17th:

I will start for Russia to-morrow. I am in the greatest of hope to meet with success on this important mission and if I am successful in bringing such a worthy class of people (I have been living amongst mennonites for 20 years) to our Country I shall consider my work as a very satisfactory one.23

A report of the Minister of Agriculture of Canada for 1873 on the Mennonite immigration stated:

the first intimation made to the Canadian Government of the proposed emigration from Russia, was contained in a despatch (No. 51) dated 7th March, 1872, from the Right Hon. The Secretary of State for the Colonies. The despatch had reference to letters from Mr Zohrab, Her Majesty’s Consul at Berdiansk, and from leading Mennonites, enquiring whether, if these people emigrated to Canada, they would be allowed exemption from military service, and from the ordinary form of oath; asking moreover what advantages they might calculate upon in the way of land grants…. During the summer of 1872, Mr. Hespeler, then Emigration Agent in Germany, was instructed to visit Berdiansk.24

James Zohrab

James Zohrab was the British Consul in Berdjansk in 1872. He was the first person in the British government who was contacted in February, 1872 about a potential migration of Mennonites to Canada. Photo Credit: Zohrab Family

There is no evidence in the archival sources, or in any other contemporary account, that Hespeler possessed any knowledge of the Mennonites interest in emigrating before he received information from Canada and was instructed to visit Berdiansk.25 Nor is there any indication of him independently initiating the process that lead to the Mennonite migration. Pope’s letter also makes it clear that Hespeler was supplied with details on the Mennonite enquiry. What were these details? They included information supplied by the British consul in Berdiansk, James Zohrab, who had forwarded the Mennonite enquiry about possible emigration to Canada to his superiors in the Foreign Office in London. These had been copied and forwarded to the Colonial Office to be sent on to Canada. It was this information that Hespeler received. While Hespeler indicated that he had prior experience of Mennonites, this was of Mennonites in Ontario (and possibly Germany), but not those in Russia.

One might also say that there is no evidence that a Count Menchikow, in whatever spelling one would prefer (Menchikoff/Menshikov), owned a castle in Baden or was even in Baden in 1872, if he existed at all.26

So what is the origin of these stories of Hespeler’s independent role and why have they persisted for so long? The first reports, appearing so soon after the Mennonite immigration, point to Hespeler as the source of stories due probably to his increasingly important roles in their settlement. Hespeler had aided the Mennonite representatives sent to view the land in Manitoba.27 He was also appointed to help the first immigrants settle on their lands and continued to act as a mediator in a range of issues effecting Mennonites for almost the next thirty years.28 Adding the additional role of actually initiating the immigration may merely have completed the story.

However, there is no direct evidence of Hespeler being the source of the story. In 1892 E. Cora Hind wrote an account of the Mennonites which includes details on the immigration to Manitoba.29, 6 (11), 1892, 6-7, 14; Hind was a writer and a leading figure in the early feminist movement in Manitoba.] It is clear that she knew Hespeler and had access to the documents he had received from Canada in 1872. But she attributed the initial contacts between Mennonites and the British government to consul Zohrab (or Zorabs, as she refers to him) in Berdiansk and in her account Hespeler is only involved following this contact. In 1896, at a major convention on immigration held in Winnipeg, Hespeler gave a talk on the history of Mennonite settlement in Manitoba. Unfortunately, while his address is mentioned favourably in a number of contemporary reports, no text of what he said appears to have survived.30

The story of the Russian count and the Canadian Prime Minister therefore appears to have begun primarily with a Mennonite account published after Hespeler’s death. As a story it appears to have been the version particularly favoured by Mennonites, although on occasion it has extended to non-Mennonite writers. Interestingly, its source in Klaas Peters’ book has rarely been acknowledged, and certainly not critically examined. Instead the story has entered Mennonite mythology. But a consideration of contemporary historical sources exposes it as little more than a myth without foundation.


  1.  For a detailed examination of Hespeler’s life and work with Mennonites, see Angelika Sauer, “Ethnicity employed: William Hespeler and the Mennonites.” Journal of Mennonite Studies(JMS), 18, 2000, 82-94.
  2. “The Viceregal Visit. The Trip to the Mennonites.” Manitoba Free Press, August 25, 1877, 1.
  3. “The Mennonites in Manitoba.” The Friend, October 1877, 280.
  4. The first approach was made to the British consul in Berdiansk, James Zohrab, in February 1872; there had been an earlier approach by the Mennonite merchant Cornelius Jansen of Berdiansk to the Odessa consul of the United States in 1871, but the Americans only received a formal request for information at the same time as the British, see Ernst Correll ed., “Sources on the Mennonite immigration from Russia in the 1870s.” Mennonite Quarterly Review, 24(4), 1950, 337-38, 340.
  5. “The Mennonites in Manitoba.” The Friend, October 1877, 280.
  6. “The Mennonites.” The British Friend, November 1877, 284; in part from The Manitoba Free Press, August 25, 1877, 1.
  7.  Like Hespeler, Klotz was an Ontarian originally from Germany who operated as Canada’s agent in Hamburg. Here, between 1874 and 1877,  he played a major role in transferring Mennonites onto ships to Canada, in exchanging their funds into dollars and promoting further emigration from Russia; see his reports in Ernst Correll ed., “Mennonite immigration into Manitoba: documents and sources, 1873-1874.”Mennonite Quarterly Review, 22(1), 1948, 51-52, 54-57; Ernst Correll ed., “Canadian agricultural records on Mennonite settlements, 1875-77.” Mennonite Quarterly Review, 21 (1), 1947, 38, 42-45.
  8. Original report, “The Mennonite immigration”, Manitoba Free Press, 9 December, 1876, 1; correction “Our Mennonite settlements.” Manitoba Free Press, 16 December, 1876, 4. The latter article notes that, Jacob Shantz, a Mennonite from Ontario, had toured Manitoba with a Mennonite representative from Russia in 1872 before Hespeler ever got involved. This was Benhard Warkentin, a rich Russian Mennonite touring North America with two friends. He was not a representative of the Mennonites in Russia but later settled in Kansas. Shantz would play an important part in the later Mennonite immigration most notably in getting a government loan to help them settle, see Sam Steiner, Vicarious Pioneer: the Life of Jacob Shantz. Winnipeg: Hyperion Press, 1988.
  9. William Leggo, The History of the Administration of the Right Honorable Frederick Temple, Earl of Dufferin … late Governor General of Canada. Lovell Print. & Pub. Co., 1878, 594.
  10. George Bryce,  A History of Manitoba: its resources and people. Toronto: The Canada History Company, 1906, 368; Dr Bryce had worked with Hespeler during the 1880s in efforts to reform Mennonite schooling and who arranged for Heinrich Ewert’s move to Manitoba from Kansas to assist with this work.
  11. Margaret McWilliams, Manitoba Milestones. Toronto: J.M. Dent, 1928, 155.
  12. Klaas Peters, Die Bergthaler Mennoniten und deren Auswanderung aus Russland and Einwanderung in Manitoba, Hillsboro, Mennonite Brethren publishing house, 1925, see 9-10 on Hespeler. These quotes are from the English translation by Margaret Loewen Reimer, The Bergthaler Mennonites. Winnipeg: CMBC Publications, 1988, 11.
  13. “Die Bergthaler Mennoniten und deren Einwanderung aus Russland.” Mennonitische Rundschau, 11(5) 29 January 1890, 2.
  14. Peter Klassen.  Son Isaac Klassen and daughter Christine Peters were interviewed.
  15. C. Henry Smith, The coming of the Russian Mennonites: an episode in the settling of the last frontier, 1874-1884. Berne, Mennonite Book Concern, 1927, 49-50.
  16. Georg Leibbrandt, “The emigration of the German Mennonites from Russia to the United States and Canada in 1873-1880: I.” Mennonite Quarterly Review, 6(4), 1932, 213; this in spite of Leibbrandt using archival sources that refuted such claims.
  17. Gustav E. Reimer and G. R. Gaeddert, Exiled by the Czar: Cornelius Jansen and the great Mennonite migration, 1874. Newton: Mennonite Publishing Office, 1956, 59.
  18. Is. W. Toews, “Aus- und Einwanderung.” In 75 Gedenkfeier der Mennonitischen Einwanderung in Manitoba, Canada. Steinbach, 1949, 35; John Dyck, Oberschulze Jakob Peters, 1813-1884, Manitoba pioneer leader. Steinbach: Hanover Steinbach Historical Society, 1990, 45.  Lawrence Klippenstein, “Broken promises or national progress: Mennonites and the Russian state in the 1870s.” Journal of Mennonite Studies, 18, 2000, 103.
  19. E. K. Francis, In Search of Utopia,. The Mennonites in Manitoba. Altona: D. W. Friesen, 1956, 37; Frank H. Epp, Mennonites in Canada, 1786-1920: the History of a Separate people. Toronto: Macmillan, 1974, 187; Adolf Ens, Subjects or Citizens? The Mennonite Experience in Canada, 1870-1925. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 1994, 13.
  20.  Steiner, Vicarious Pioneer: the Life of Jacob Shantz, 68 note 22; Sauer, “Ethnicity employed”, 93 note 29.
  21. Angelika Sauer, “Who’s Who in German-Canadian History: Wilhelm Hespeler.” German-Canadian Studies Newsletter, 3(1), 1998, 3.
  22.  Ernst Correll, “Mennonite immigration into Manitoba: sources and documents, 1872, 1873.” Mennonite Quarterly Review, 11(3), 1937, 220.
  23.  Correll, “Mennonite immigration”, 221; corrected with reference to the original letter in the Public Archives of Canada, RG 17 67-6462
  24. Sessional Papers of the Dominion of Canada, 1874, Volume 6, from the Annual Reports of the Immigration Agents, pp. XI-XiV in Ernst Correll, “Sources on the Mennonite immigration from Russia in the 1870s.” Mennonite Quarterly Review, 24(4), 1950, 334; this is a report on the activities of Hespeler.
  25.  In 1972/73 I consulted the archives of the Foreign and Colonial Offices in the Public Record Office in England and also looked at papers in the Public Archives of Canada in Ottawa and none record anything that would support Hespeler learning of the Mennonite migration prior to British contacts.
  26.  Menchikov is a name involved with the Russian nobility but there is no evidence of any links with Mennonites, Germany or Hespeler.
  27.  In fact Hespeler first suggested that James Zohrab accompany the Mennonite delegation to Manitoba, a suggestion rejected by the British government (see Correll, “Mennonite immigration,” 223,-225). The British authorities were concerned with the diplomatic issues of the Mennonite emigration, and Hespeler’s clumsy actions which had created problems with the Russian government, see James Urry, “A Matter of diplomacy: the British Government and the Mennonite immigration from Russia to Manitoba, 1872-1875.” Mennonite Quarterly Review, 87(2), 225-49
  28.  Hespeler eventually lost credibility with many Mennonites when he shifted political allegiance after being elected to the Provincial Assembly in 1900, see James Urry, Mennonites, Politics and Peoplehood: Europe – Russia – Canada, 1525-1980. Winnipeg: Manitoba University Press, 2006, 171-73.
  29.  E. Cora Hind “The Mennonites.” The Colonist [Winnipeg
  30.  Only Hespeler’s other address on the need to increase population through immigration was published, see “Get Population.” The Commercial, 14(26), 1896, 555, 561. On favourable comments on his “history” see “Assisted migration.” The Commercial, 15(26), 1896, 557 and A.C. L., “The Immigration Convention.” The Week (Toronto), 13(17), March 20 1896, 397.


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