Why Emigrate?

by Ernest N. Braun, Niverville, Manitoba

With gratitude to Dr. James Urry for resource materials and revision, and to Dr. Adolf Ens for editing assistance.


In late fall of 1869, news arrived suddenly in Mennonite colonies in Russia that Dmitri Miliutin, the Minister of War, was proposing universal military conscription that would include Mennonites. At the same time something happened in Canada, that would create an opportunity for migration and resettlement: the Hudson’s Bay Company transferred Rupert’s Land to the Government of Canada. Of course the Mennonites learned of this later. The government promptly sent surveyors to prepare the land for homesteaders but in October 1869, Louis Riel stopped the Dominion Lands Survey crew on what is now Brady Road near Whyte Ridge, Winnipeg, forcing the Government to create the province of Manitoba in the spring of 1870. By 1871 this sequence of events resulted in the opening of vast areas f land in Manitoba for homesteading, so the Federal Government promoted immigration to prevent the United States from annexing the territory. This urgent need for settlers to occupy the new Province coincided with the need for land and refuge by Russian Mennonites.

In Mennonite history a pattern of separation, persecution, disunity, and migration repeats— over the centuries. Separation began at the time when the Anabaptist faith was adopted, and its logical result; to be deemed outcasts from the dominant society in Europe, whether Catholic or Protestant. The subsequent persecution is predictable, taking many forms, from torture and death to restriction of rights and the imposition of special taxes. Disunity is very likely, as persecution puts communities under extreme pressure, and any crisis in such circumstances spawn divergent responses. Such a crisis usually is precipitated by change, and the response to change often polarizes the community into those who are willing to compromise to deal with the change, and those who insist on the status quo or simply refuse to compromise. Often the only choice for those who refuse to compromise is to emigrate.

This recurring pattern is of particular interest for the, perhaps unique, migration in the 1870s when one entire colony in Russia (Bergthal), an entire faith sub-group (the Kleine Gemeinde), one entire Molotschna village (Alexanderwohl), along with thousands of other Mennonites, pulled up stakes and moved to America, including — Manitoba. There has been much discussion of this migration in Mennonite periodicals on both sides of the Atlantic, and in non-Mennonite newspapers and journals, both at the time and later.

The basic facts are —: about one-third of the Mennonites in South Russia emigrated in this migration, the greatest numbers coming between 1874 and 1876, with lower numbers in the years thereafter.1

Who emigrated? The emigrants fell into several major groups: a) the entire Kleine Gemeinde, largely Molotschna families who, under Klaas Reimer, had separated themselves from the main Mennonite church in the Molotschna in 1812, and who migrated to Markusland in 1863, and then to Borosenko in 1865, from where they emigrated.  b) the entire Bergthal Gemeinde, the first daughter colony of the original Khortitsa settlement established in 1836 and totally disbanded by this emigration; c) Khortitsa colonists including some Fürstenland leaseholders, descendants of the original Khortitsa Colony, d) various groups from the Molotschna colony (who chose the United States, and e) smaller groups from Volhynia and West Prussia (who also chose the United States). One other related group was the Hutterites, all of whom settled in the United States, some in colonies and some on individual homesteads. 

Mennonite Passengers Arriving at North American Ports, based on Ship Lists



United States






























Canadian numbers to 1880 are from Adolf Ens, Subjects or Citizens and those from 1881 to 1898 from Jake E. Peters, “The Forgotten Immigrants: The Coming of the ‘Late Kanadier’, 1881-1914,” Journal of Mennonite Studies 18(2000): 129-145. United States numbers are tabulated from: David A. Haurey, Index to Mennonite Immigrants on United States Passenger Lists 1872-1904, (North Newton, KS: Mennonite Library and Archives, 1986).

What was the reason for emigration?  Any survey of the documents written by Mennonite leaders during those critical years between 1872 and 1876 gives an almost unanimous answer: ‘for conscience sake’; specifically, the creation of a new Russian law which mandated universal military conscription for all young men in the nation, including Mennonites. Newspaper articles in the secular media of the day in Canada and the USA ascribe the migration to the same cause.

The earliest Mennonite historians to address the topic, such as D. H. Epp, P. M. Friesen, and Franz Isaak, were educated and cultured Mennonites who had remained in Russia, and told the story from their perspective, which depicted the ones leaving as “conservative, culturally backward, and even disloyal to their Russian homeland.”2

A new interpretation of events gradually made its appearance early in the 1930s, and more vocally in 1974 during the centennial of the emigration. It seems that the question should be raised in the plural: “what were the reasons for emigration?” —In the last 50 years, historians have provided a — more detailed context for the migration, generally suggesting that the impact of the state of affairs in Russia on the Mennonites was complicated, and that merely naming military conscription or lack of land as causes of the migration may not do proper justice to the subject.3

Several secondary questions emerge: did all the groups emigrate for the same reason, and why did the majority prefer the USA to Canada?

Wie wird’s mit den Schulen, Kirchen, usw. sein?Aber wir verlassen unsere Heimat ja nicht zum Gewinnste, sondern um des Glaubens willen, tröstete man sich. Wir möchten mit unsere Kinder zusammen nach unsere Bezeugung leben und sterben. Daher wollen wir nicht nach hinten schauen, sondern mutig vorwärts gehen und uns auf den Herrn, den Lenker aller Dingen, verlassen, der soll uns führen. J. B. Peters, “Die ersten Pioneere aus Süd-Russland in Kanada”, Steinbach Post, October 11, 1939, 6.

What will happen with the schools, the churches, etc? But one comforted oneself: of course we are not leaving our homeland for gain, but for our faith. Together with our children we would like to live and die according to our convictions. For this reason, we do not want to look back, but instead go forward with courage and depend on the Lord, the giver of all things, who will guide us.  Translation: E. Braun.

Cornelius Toews (delegate of KG) – “Es war die Hoffnung, dass Kanada eine Heimat füer friedliebende Mennoniten, Nachfolger Christi, bieten würde, die unter keinen Umständen einen andern Menschen töten koennen.” Cited by Royden Loewen in Der Bote, June 2000, 5.

“It was the hope that Canada would offer a homeland for peace-loving Mennonites, followers of Christ, who under no circumstances can kill another human being.” Translation: E. Braun.

Johann Wiebe (Elder of Fürstenländer) – “Die Ursache ist wegen der Wehrplicht, dass unsere Kinder dort der Menschen Knechte werden sollten. I Korinther 7:23. D. h. , wir sollten sie zu den Diensten der Obrigkeit hingeben, und auch in der Kleidung, ähnlich den Soldaten sie tragen sollten, und sollten auch das Los nehmen. Und das alles machte uns Angst und Bange, und fürchteten, ob wir uns ganz und gar verlieren würden. Darum machten wir uns auf and gingen nach Amerika, Manitoba, weil uns hier die Freiheiten angeboten wurden, nach des Herrn und seiner Apostle Lehre leben zu können.” Cited by Adolf Ens and Isbrand Hiebert in Der Bote, June 2000, 7-8.

“The reason is conscription, that our children were to become the ‘servants of men’ (I Cor. 7:23) there; i.e. we were to deliver them to the service of the government, and also to wear the garb like that of soldiers, and moreover to accept that destiny. And all that made us anxious and frightened, and feared that we would lose ourselves completely. For that reason we packed up and went to America, Manitoba, for here the freedoms were offered that would allow us to live according to the teaching of the Lord and his Apostles.” Translation: E. Braun.

Part I The Motivation for emigration

Loss of military service exemption

Almost all the early literature points to the new universal military service law as the main cause , with other factors mentioned as footnotes.  Clarence Hiebert in Brothers in Need quotes article after article in the American press citing it as the reason, and Mennonite writers of the day also claim that to be the motivation for emigration. Delegate Rev. Heinrich Wiebe is quoted by fellow delegate Paul Tschetter as saying that the military exemption was the whole reason they (the Bergthaler) were emigrating.4

Any examination of military service as an element in the emigration will require some background in Russian history and politics. The relationship of the Mennonites to the state was not that of citizenship as we understand it today where a citizen has inalienable legal rights from birth. Rather it was a relationship based on a promise made to a subject people by the reigning autocrat, as a special gift which the ruler (ordained by God) was entitled to bestow. This promise was called the Privilegium, and, ideally, it would — safeguard the subject group in specific ways, almost conferring a covenant obligation on the ruler to protect the agreement. Such privilegia were common in early modern Europe before the rise of nation states and constitutional democracies.5

Mennonites had been a stateless people for a long time. In a number of the places they had settled they were denied the rights, however limited, of ordinary subjects. For their part, they have not valued citizenship much in any nation – instead preferring to negotiate separate agreements directly with the highest authority, willing to forego rights in exchange for the privilege of controlling their own religious institutions, education, use of language, local self-government, and most importantly, exemption from military service. The particular Privilegium that was negotiated by Mennonites as part of the agreement to settle in Russia and granted in 1800 by Paul I, was a reworking of an earlier document signed by Catherine the Great in 1787. Article 6 exempts, in perpetuity, all Mennonites and their descendants from military or civil service conscription. The annulment of parts of the Privilegium then was tantamount to a fundamental betrayal of this contract with the Tsar.6


Dimitri Milyutin in 1885. Milyutin was Minister of War during the reign of Alexander I when he proposed the widespread military reforms of the 1870s after Russia was defeated in the Crimean War. Photo Credit: Wikpedia Commons.

Although it may have appeared that way to many Mennonites, the shifting of the political ground did not happen overnight. Over time political change, some already envisioned by Catherine the Great, gradually altered the understanding of government and citizenship as Russia slowly moved towards a Rechts-Staat, a state based on the Rule of Law and not on Divine Right. Successive Tsars adopted a reform platform, some moving faster, others more reactionary. The country was an autocracy, supported by the nobility and the Orthodox Church, with the vast majority of inhabitants peasant serfs, and rural minority groups. Although Nicholas I (1796 – 1855) was a conservative tsar, he tried to modernize the system, but in late 1853 the Crimean War broke out with Britain and France joining the Ottoman Turks in a war against Russia on the pretext of religious control over the Holy Land, but in reality over control of vital Black Sea ports.  Russia lost the war, suffering the humiliation of defeat on its own soil.  Nicholas died during the war, and was succeeded by Alexander II, a more enthusiastic reformer. The loss shook Russia’s confidence in her military capability and betrayed the backwardness of the country.  This required the total reform of Russian society: land, political, educational and military reforms, with resulting social and economic upheaval. The change that affected Mennonites the keenest was the issue of military conscription, one of the reforms of Dmitri Miliutin advanced to modernize the army. 

The so-called “Great Reforms”, introduced by Alexander II in the 1860s, were also intended to move Russia forcibly towards the Rule of Law, and towards a modern centralized nation with common values, in which the distinctions characterizing the “estates” within the country would be removed. The end result was a different conception of the “state” – one in which “everybody had a duty to the state and was subject to the same laws, same rights, same duties and obligations,” This new status included Mennonites, who would no longer be “guests of the state,” but subjects/citizens with specific rights and duties, including military service.7

James Urry points out that in 1870 this matter received an additional impetus when the new state of Germany was created under Prussian domination.  Prussia had already defeated its neighbours, first Denmark and Austria in the 1850s and 60s, and then France, with a conscript army. Prussia’s reformed educational system produced good, disciplined soldiers. Moreover, the new Germany now threatened Russia’s western borders.8The military reforms to deal with this threat included universal military service that would nullify the Mennonite exemption from any form of military service. This sparked an immediate crisis, and Mennonite representatives converged on the highest authorities they could reach in an attempt to speak to the Tsar, but to no avail. Several delegations followed, until it became clear that exemption from the law was not an option, but a form of alternative service was negotiable. Again, perhaps predictably, this created a rift between those who were willing to compromise, and those who insisted on the status quo.  The matter was complicated by the recent history of the Mennonites in Prussia who, when faced with a similar problem when Prussia enacted a conscription law, gave in to the pressure to become loyal citizens. Some Prussian Mennonites had immigrated to Russia and the United States because of this, but most remained in Prussia and accepted the new law, essentially abandoning their stand against taking up arms. When in 1871 some Mennonite leaders realized that the provision for freedom from military service in the Privilegium would be annulled, and that no further exemption from military service would be forthcoming, there was a deep sense of betrayal. Some groups began to cast about for emigration possibilities, and the right to leave was granted by the government, although serious obstacles were placed before them, notably in the delayed issuance of passports and exit visas. The conscription would not be effective for ten years, and during this time those who wished to leave had time to sell their property and emigrate. However, as early as 1873 all Mennonite colonies were required to submit lists of — men over a certain age, with the result that additional mistrust developed and emigration fever heightened. At the same time, the more acculturated Mennonites accepted the new reality, and worked to make it succeed. Various alternative service possibilities were offered, and the Mennonites chose work in the forestry, a four-year (later three-year) program financed and run by the Mennonites.

Religious diversity

The religious argument for emigration is complex. Tensions within the Mennonite community were nothing new, but by mid-19th century several new developments in the religious realm were added to the situation. One of these was the rise of a more individualistic kind of faith, centered on individual “conversion” as opposed to a faith integrated into and inseparable from the life of the community. This movement arose, at least in part, from the ministry of non-Mennonite evangelists from Germany who received sympathetic responses in both the Old Colony and the Molotschna, but less so in Bergthal. The beginning in 1860 of what would become the Mennonite Brethren represents one aspect of this development, although other movements occurred throughout the Mennonite colonies. A groundswell of religious change moved through the Mennonite colonies, emphasizing a more evangelical faith, but in time also generating secular changes as more and more young teachers went abroad to study and came back to take leadership roles but departed from tradition in forms of worship and in their understanding of doctrine.9

The loss of authority by church leaders and the corresponding increase in the power of secular leaders had already been experienced during the reign of Johann Cornies who had died in 1848. One of the ways this manifested itself was in the administration of church discipline. Bishop Johann Wiebe of Fürstenland decried the reliance on state authorities rather than the use of spiritually based methods of dealing with “disobedient” believers. Mennonites in Russia, he suggested, were now being penalized for their apostasy. His understanding of the emigration was that it was, at least in part, an attempt to recreate the Anabaptist ideal, which had been compromised in Russia, so that the “migration was a reform movement.” 10The Kleine Gemeinde held a similar position.

Another factor within the religious context was that the economic development of the Mennonite colonies had fostered a departure from the frugal “Stillen im Lande” subsistence life-style. Subsistence farming had been replaced by a market economy in which prosperity and the pursuit of wealth became important aspects of Mennonite life. Bishop Gerhard Wiebe characterized this change as the loss of proper humility, with a self-sufficient pride in its place. Moreover he also suggested that their political difficulties were a direct result of apathy, lovelessness and factionalism among the Mennonites as they became too complacent about their faith and “fell asleep”.11

Socio-Economic: The Landless Factor

By mid-1800 Mennonites in Russia were becoming a socially stratified society, as they had in Prussia earlier. They possessed a small wealthy, educated class which included merchants, a large property-owning class (Vollwirt), but also a surprisingly large landless class (Anwohner). In 1788-1789 the landless in Prussia had been given an opportunity to improve their lot through emigration to Russia. Eighty years later, the situation repeated itself in Russia, with perhaps an even greater imbalance between the landed and the landless. Delbert Plett has illustrated land distribution for three colonies in 1867, indicating that over 60 percent of Mennonites were landless, as reserve land intended for future expansion had been leased to large landowners instead of serving younger land-hungry farmers.12 The exception to this was the Kleine Gemeinde where in Borosenko up to 90 percent of the families were in the Vollwirt category. Therefore, the offer of a free homestead of 160 acres in Manitoba significantly enhanced the emigration option for the landless in the overpopulated colonies. Had this been the predominant factor, however, it is likely that the majority of emigrants would have been the landless and the indigent, since they had the most to gain.

As it was, the poor could only emigrate from the Bergthal Colony and Kleine Gemeinde group, since they received community support because both groups emigrated en masse. It is true that steps were taken to address the landless issue: Khortitsa established the lease colony of Fürstenland in 1864, and other Khortitsa settlements arose in Yazykovo in 1869, in Nepluyevka in 1870, and in Schlactin/Baratov in 1871. Molotschna daughter colonies were established in Crimea in 1862, in Borosenko in 1865, and in Zagradovka in 1872.13 In the end large numbers of landless farmers, particularly young married couples, still had no prospects for the future, since they lacked either the resources to emigrate without community assistance or to establish themselves in daughter colonies.14

Landownership and landlessness were further complicated by increasing industrialization. As James Urry points out, at this time “Mennonite society in Russia was in the process of a transformation from an agrarian to an industrial society.” 15 Although rural areas in Russia were still driven by peasant agriculture, Mennonite colonies were an exception. The Mennonite genius for innovation and enterprise transformed each village into mixture of agriculture and business, giving the landless employment opportunities and providing reliable labour for the entrepreneurs. Even from this brief look at the situation, one may conclude that it is possible to exaggerate the influence of the landlessness factor in the decision to emigrate.


Eduard von Todleben was a noted General of the Crimean War. He was of German descent and was sent to by Alexander II to persuade Mennonites not to emigrate. He offered the compromise of alternative service in the forestry service that was important in convincing the majority of Mennonites to stay in Russia. Photo Credit: Wikipedia Commons.

A series of crop failures in the three years leading up to emigration may also have been a factor behind emigration fever, but in 1874 there was a bumper crop. This factor may not have influenced the decision of the KG and the Bergthaler to emigrate, but may have significantly affected other individuals not part of a larger communal movement. The last-minute intervention of General von Totleben in spring of 1874 with offers of compromise persuaded many Mennonites to stay in Russia and the bumper crop helped many of the undecided to remain.


Education: tradition vs modernity

Additional factors constituted a concern for Mennonites in South Russia in the late 1860s and early 1870s. A major change involved school reforms involving more extensive and secular curricula. These reforms offered several challenges to the Mennonites: their schools had been conducted in German, but the new national consciousness brought pressure to teach in Russian. This was the second major shift in language for the Mennonites in less than a century. In Prussia they had abandoned the use of Dutch in religious services for High German although in everyday life they spoke Low German. In Russia, the Russian authorities had consolidated the attachment to German outside religious contexts as it was the language of official communication with government for all “German” colonists. As such they standardized the language for Mennonites and expanded its use outside of religious contexts. It was the language of instruction in schools. Mennonites thus learned a better High German than they had been used to in Prussia and some used this to gain access literary German, and to identify with German literature and folk history. The later move to Russian as the language of administration and instruction in schools was resisted, despite the fact that Mennonite secondary schools had already begun to teach Russian before the emigration crisis.

The loss of German as the language of instruction, and the loss of control over the curriculum, meant that the main institution that acculturated Mennonite children to long-established Mennonite ideals in the home and the meeting house, would pass into the hands of the state, with the fear that the children would be lost to the faith. It was partly the influence of the new schooling on Mennonite life that Wiebe inveighed against as having brought “Weltweisheit” (worldly wisdom) and “Hoffart” (arrogance) into the community, instead of the “heavenly manna” they were accustomed to.16 The pattern again follows true to form: this change exacerbated the difference in mindset among the various Mennonite groups. The majority of Mennonites were willing to accept the changes, and in fact some welcomed them. Eventually many prominent families would send their young men and some—- women to universities in Russia and abroad.

Political: progressives vs conservatives

The new laws and reforms applied equally to all the Mennonite colonies, and would have resulted in mass emigration had they been interpreted the same way by all Mennonites. The fact that only about one third of 54,000 Russian Mennonites emigrated suggests that other variables were at play. The aggregate result of all the factors could perhaps be summed up as representing unprecedented rapid change. It appears that the significant and radical changes affecting all Mennonites in South Russia did not pose the same level of threat to all Mennonite groups. For example, it is instructive that the option of serving in a forestry service, albeit seemingly organized on military principles, was acceptable to the majority of Mennonites. Increasing use of a state school model and the Russian language also did not appear to be enough of a threat to prompt radical action. As the Mennonite world was increasingly commercialized and industrialized, for some Mennonites a landless population was actually a desirable aspect of colony life, providing reliable labour for large agri-business estates, and agri-business factories, and offering a diversified cottage industry. Accepting citizenship with its attendant new responsibilities towards the state also did not appear to be a critical hindrance to the majority of Mennonites, and may even have been welcomed in some parts of the Russian Mennonite world, just as it had in Prussia.

Specific changes in the political sphere affected the Mennonites. In 1818 the government had set up a separate agency to administer foreign colonists (Fürsorgekomitee). It treated Mennonites as a distinct group of colonists, allowed local self-rule and used High German for all administrative communication. This agency was to be abolished in the reforms of local government in the1870s and Mennonites would be administered in the same way, and in the same units of local government, as all Russians. As such the language of administration would be Russian. New courts were established with trial by jury, juries on which Mennonites would have to serve.17 None of these reforms specifically targeted Mennonites.

Other political considerations need to be factored in as well: Traditionally separation of church and state featured strongly in Mennonite thought, but the rapid development of a Russian national consciousness, fueled by the rise of nationhood in European countries, called the Mennonite relationship with rulers into question.  As of old, Mennonites held to an older system of “citizenship”, in accordance with the principle of being ‘in the world, but not of it’.Officially Mennonites belonged to the State Peasant estate, but they lived as a separate people, who negotiated their special Privilegium with the autocrat.18 This erosion of the special relationship provided by the Privilegium divided Mennonites into those who were willing to redefine their place in the larger society and in fact become patriotic Russian “citizens”, and those who adamantly refused to do so.

It may be that there was a further complication. The formulated rationale for emigrating put forward by the leaders of various groups, especially the Bergthaler, involved a collective motivation for emigrating. But each family needed to buy into this motivation or opt out. The reasons that individual households decided to sell everything, houses, land and property, usually at a loss, and travel to America, a far-away land with a different government, different languages, a different climate, with little hope of return, may also have an entirely different cast. No survey exists giving the specific reasons of individuals for joining the emigration. However, it is clear that every family needed to make its— own decision, but one that for the Bergthal Colony, the Kleine Gemeinde and the Alexanderwohl group involved the dissolution and sale of their colony by a majority vote in a community assembly. The choice for many was also set in the context of their next-of-kin’s decision to emigrate, for this threatened family ties, and the potential loss of community if they did not join in the emigration. All of this created considerable pressure on an individual family to leave with the group. Further, the option of staying for these people would mean relocation anyway, so even financially there would be some hardship. At the same time, none of the serious challenges that they faced in Russia would be addressed by remaining.

In summary then, the decision to emigrate cannot easily be ascribed to one factor or even a few categorical factors. By 1870, like everybody else in Russia, Mennonites were experiencing the effects of a paradigm shift on many fronts, and it was their faith distinctive that precipitated the crisis for them. Many nuanced variables came into play at that point, variables that split a people geographically, if not spiritually, as some emigrated and most remained in Russia.

Part II Why emigrate to Manitoba instead of the USA?

Sixty percent of the Mennonites (approximately 10,000) who left Russia in the 1870s settled in the USA, raising the question: did a new Privilegium guaranteeing exemption from military service not play as important a role for those people? No definitive answer has appeared in the literature, although Alberta Pantle claims that “most of the delegates did not seem concerned with the question of special rights in the United States” although she provides no support for her comment.19 Perhaps the audience that Paul Tschetter had with President Grant in which the prediction that no foreign war appeared in the offing for at least fifty years, eased the fears in that regard.


Jacob Y. Schantz was an Ontario Swiss Mennonite who became very involved in the settlement of Mennonites in Manitoba. Schantz had been to Manitoba with Bernhard Warkentin in 1872 and accompanied the 1873 delegates on their tour of the northern states and Manitoba. He was also instrumental in negotiating loans from his own church and the federal government to assist Mennonites in the early years of settlement. Photo Credit: Gameo

Of the twelve delegates, only four viewed Manitoba with favour. —, Wilhem Ewert of Prussia, Andreas Schrag and Tobias Unruh of Volhynia, Herold der Wahrheit publisher John F. Funk of Indiana, and the two Hutterite delegates cut short the tour after seeing what became the East Reserve, and returned to Dakota. Near the end of the excursion to land west of Portage La Prairie, Leonhard Sudermann of Berdyansk, Jakob Buller of the Molotschna Colony, and Jacob Shantz, also returned to Fort Garry somewhat earlier than the rest and headed back to the Dakotas. This left only the Bergthaler and Kleine Gemeinde delegates to take a second look at the areas offered and negotiate an agreement with the Federal Government of Canada. 

At least seven of the twelve delegates therefore summarily dismissed Manitoba as an option. Most of these seven had already investigated lands south of the border, areas which offered better land and less isolation. Moreover, Bernhard Warkentin, who had been living in the United States for a year and had travelled extensively in both Manitoba and the US, provided first-hand reports favouring the latter, as did John Funk and various railroad representatives who accompanied the delegates. Funk writing in Herold der Wahrheit, gave three reasons for their choice of the United States: “1) milder climate; 2) proximity to commercial centres for discharge of produce, 3) republican form of government.”20 Funk, an enthusiastic exponent of settlement in the USA, may not be an impartial authority, but at the very least the first two advantages he mentions appear to be based on practical considerations. The third argument has been subject to debate over time.

Braun06 Braun05

Bernhard Warkentin on the left and Johann Funk on the right were instrumental personalities in the migration of Mennonites to the United States. Warkentin had toured Manitoba and large parts of the United States in 1872. Warkentin toured Kansas and Texas with the two delegates Jacob Buller and Wilhelm Ewert and became a prominent miller in Kansas. Johann Funk was a Swiss Mennonite Church minister and publisher of Herold der Wahrheit and its English version Herald of Truth from Elkhart, Indiana. He accompanied the 1873 delegates for most of their tour, including Manitoba. Photo Credits: Gameo

One further factor that has been taken for granted by most historians is the impact of the efforts by the American Mennonite community to induce the Russian Mennonites to choose the American West and not Canada. Even those who were already committed to Manitoba were confronted at Fargo and strongly pressured to abandon the wilderness in Manitoba, and to settle instead in the USA.  Perhaps even more obvious is the fact that, as in Canada, there were already large Mennonite communities in the USA who had not lost their historic non-resistant faith. Therefore the fact that the Federal Government of the United States never passed legislation granting privileges or rights to the incoming Mennonites does not seem to be an issue.  The fact is that the States of Nebraska, Kansas and Minnesota did pass laws exempting Mennonites from militia duty, so in reality the absence of a Privilegium became moot for the moment.

In addition to the Canadian promise of universal military exemption, Manitoba offered block settlement, not available in USA as a political promise, but this advantage was nullified as the huge blocks of land that Railroad companies had been granted were used as a means to recoup the money invested. Land agents and railroads sent representatives to Russia to entice the emigrants to the American West, offering alternate sections within ten miles of the tracks to various Mennonite groups, thereby managing, by various mechanisms, to accommodate the Mennonite desire to establish village settlement. E. K. Francis wrote that one factor in favour of Manitoba was the fact that land was quite a bit more expensive in USA, at $3 per acre, whereas land in MB was free for the first 160 acres and only about a $1 per acre for another 480 acres.21 This factor, which likely influenced the Bergthalers most as there were few who had means to buy land, was somewhat vitiated by the eagerness of the railroads in the United States to offer easy terms of repayment. This quick review of the issues suggests that in general the basis of decision of those who chose the US may — have been less ideological (i.e., less concerned with a need to secure a new iron-clad Privilegium), and influenced more by pragmatic considerations involving climate, land, market logistics, and politics.


When in spring of 1874 Bishop Gerhard Wiebe was compelled by General von Totleben to speak for his colony, the reason he cited for the emigration was “Die Gemeinde ist bang vor der Zukunft. . .” (The congregation dreads/is worried about the future).22 To support that conclusion, he mentions that the landless and the Anwohner as well as the landowners left their houses and farms without receiving a cent for them, and departed from their homeland because of this fear. At enormous sacrifice they left their established life for the unknown, opting for some of the least desirable land (Manitoba) of all the territories examined by the delegates, because as E. K. Francis pointed out, “Above all, they wanted to be absolutely assured that the experiences which now drove them from Russia would never be repeated again.”23

All the factors noted above may well come down to this reality: the inertia of a settled life style, a known paradigm, and comfortable circumstances, at least for the leaders and trendsetters, could not be overcome by the gradually increasing religious ferment, threats to language and schools, or even commercialization of agriculture and the introduction of a cash economy of paid labour. Only an overwhelming immediate and unforeseen threat to the core of the community could overcome that inertia; and the sudden loss of the military service exemption was that threat. For the conservative Mennonites, it was the straw that broke the camels’ back. For the progressive, acculturated Mennonites, conscription merely confirmed what was largely tacitly accepted; namely, that an isolated separate existence apart from any participation in the civic life of their host country was no longer feasible, and compromises needed to be made, if possible on the most favourable terms.


  1. Although the land annexed by Catherine the Great was called New Russia at first, and then South Russia by Mennonites, the current name is Ukraine. For sake of simplicity, the generic word Russia will be used.
  2.  Harry Loewen, “A House Divided: Russian Mennonite Nonresistance and Emigration in the 1870s” in John Friesen, ed. Mennonites in Russia: Essays in Honour of Gerhard Lohrenz, (Winnipeg: CMBC Publications, 1989), 127.
  3.  See James Urry and Frank H. Epp in Mennonite Reporter, November 25, 1974.
  4.  Clarence Hiebert, comp. and ed., Brothers in Deed to Brothers in Need: A Scrapbook about Mennonite Immigrants from Russia, 1870-1885, (Newton, Kansas: Faith and Life Press, 1974) and E. K. Francis, In Search of Utopia, (Steinbach: Crossway Publications, 2001), 42-43.
  5.  James Urry, Mennonites, Politics, and Peoplehood: Europe – Russia – Canada 1525-1980, (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press), 2006, 43.
  6.  An English translation is in William Schroeder, The Bergthal Colony, (Winnipeg: CMBC Publications, 1974), 78-80. See also Cornelius Krahn, “Views of the 1870s Migrations by Contemporaries.” Mennonite Quarterly Review, 48 (1974), 447.
  7.  James Urry, email correspondence with E. Braun, April 6, 2014.
  8.  James Urry, email correspondence with E. Braun, July 31, 2014.
  9.  Gerhard Wiebe, Ursachen und Geschichte der Auswanderung der Mennoniten aus Russland nach Amerika , (Winnipeg: Der Nordwesten, 1900), 13.
  10.  Peter Zacharias, Reinland: An Experience in Community (Reinland, Manitoba, Reinland Centennial Committee 1976), 29.
  11.  Wiebe, 13-17.
  12.  Delbert Plett, Pioneers and Pilgrims, (Steinbach: D. F. P. Publications, 1990) 262-263.
  13.  Wiliam Schroeder and Helmut T. Huebert, Mennonite Historical Atlas, 2 ed. (Winnipeg: Springfield Publishers, 1996), 117.
  14.  Plett, 265.
  15.  James Urry, “Chortitzer, Kleine Gemeinde, and Russländer: Conflicting views of life on the East Reserve, 1874-1940,” in John Dyck, ed.  Working Papers of the East Reserve Village Histories, 1874-1910, (Steinbach: Hanover Steinbach Historical Society, 1990), 122.
  16.  Wiebe, 13.
  17.  James Urry, email correspondence with Ernest Braun, September 1, 2014.
  18.  James Urry, email correspondence with Ernest Braun, June 23, 2014.
  19.  Alberta Pantle, “Settlement of the Krimmer Mennonite Brethren at Gnadenau”, Marion County, Kansas Historical Quarterly, February, 1945, 261.
  20.  As quoted in F. H. Epp, “Mass migration from Russia to Manitoba”, Mennonite Reporter, Nov. 25, 1974, 13.
  21.  Francis, 43-44.
  22. Wiebe, 31.
  23.  Francis, 36.


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