Prairie Pioneers: Steinbach Mennonites

The Canadian Prairies, like the Plains of the US, flow west over interminable distances of flat or rolling grasslands, spotted with occasional tree clusters and bushy meadows. Buffalo no longer roam and the geese heading south for the winter make their rest stops coincide with fields of ready-to-serve grains left unharvested by farmers. The birds' droppings by the tons, I suspect, actually probably offer a fertilizer boost for the next crop harvest, although a local farmer indicated he would like to shoot the feathered trespassers.

Canadian Geese and Snow Geese

The city of Steinbach, Manitoba, is located roughly 40 miles south of Winnepeg, the provincial capital of the Province, at the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers. It was first settled by ethnic Kleine Gemeinde ("small church") Ukrainian Mennonites in 1874. More than half the residents of this now large city (Steinbach translated, "Stony Brook") on the eastern edge of the Canadian prairies claim German heritage.

According to some sources, the modern metropolis is widely acknowledged to be an immigration destination of Canada and a model for immigrant integration in the country. That stands to reason, given that the religious sect (the Anabaptist Mennonites) itself had been displaced repeatedly from many European lands since the 16th Century Reformation.

This town's church website declares, "Steinbach Mennonite Church is faithfully following Christ in worship and service by making disciples, building community and reaching out to the world.” And so Steinbach, in 2016, was the fastest growing Canadian city outside of Alberta.

For Anabaptists, baptism is valid when the candidate confesses his or her faith in Christ and chooses baptism of his/her own free will. This was the fundamental basis of the original schism from the Catholic Church and other Protestants. The idea is simple enough but other Anabaptist beliefs and stubborn resistance to "state" controls have often set the stage for eventual conflicts of will, both inside and outside their believer communities.

Following years of argument, banning and other disagreements in 1860s' Ukraine/Crimea, the Russian Kleine Gemeinde emigrants to North America in 1874 settled in three groups, the two larger ones in Manitoba, the smaller one of 36 families at Jansen, Jefferson County, Nebraska.

Besides internal conflict, Russia's determination to withdraw the military exemption previously granted this sect's believers, other political pressures, and the "lure of America" played parts in the migration. Both Canada and the US needed settlers to open up the vast tracts of land in the West.

According to Abe Warkentin, author and editor of a book, Reflections on Our Heritage (Derksen Printers Ltd.), Canada was by far the most aggressive in obtaining colonists. Consequently, after letters were exchanged, the Canadian government asked a German businessman from Ontario, Wm. Hespeler, to go to Russia in 1872 and encourage the Mennonites to come to Manitoba.

In 1873 a Mennonite delegation came in boats and wagons. Although the members of the visiting group were experienced agriculturists, Warkentin wrote, they could see the difficulties of farming in the Manitoba wilderness. "The climate was severe, the land was often marshy, the mosquitoes were over-whelming and the Metis struck the delegates as being undesirable neighbors." The Metis was the label attached to the already established local native Indian (aboriginal)/mixed race European population in this part of the country.

Yet, the delegates decided to stay and see more. They left for the Riding Mountain area in the western part of the Province and found that area to be preferable to the East Reserve properties near what is now Steinbach. But the visitors worried about settling so far from Winnepeg and potential markets for their produce.

A diary of a Russian visitor recorded the following: June 17- "Arrived at our destination. Left the boat and walked into town. This city is fortified and called Winnipeg. Both the city and fort were built only four years ago. ... Upon our arrival Mr. Hespeler and Suderman spoke with the governor. He was very friendly and extended a hearty welcome to our visit. He spoke of the fertile lands and cheap prices that were available in his dominion. Later we were all introduced to the ministry and he commanded them to invite us for lunch. They also wished us many blessings and sang a blessing hymn for us. In the PM teams and wagons were provided by the minister of the public works to take us through the country showing us the land. We saw good land with wheat and barley; gardens with nice vegetables. Everything was good."

In May the next year, 1874, the Mennonites boarded trains in Russia and looked back at their settlements there for the last time. They became Canadians. According to the records, more than 20 villages sprang up in the area east of the Red River, which the settlers themselves designated as "East Reserve". To these villages were given German names like Gruenfeld (Green Field), Blumenort (Flower Place), Silberfield (Silver Field), Gruenthal (Green Valley), and Blumengart (Flower Garden).

From an account repeated in Warkentin's book, given by Klaas W. Reimer (translated from German): In a typical Mennonite village, the buildings stood in a line along one side of the main street. House and barn were built together under one roof because it was cheaper to build, much more convenient for choring, and discouraged thieves.

Behind each combination house/barn were one or more outbuildings and a good-sized plot of land for use as a barnyard, flower or vegetable garden or orchard. "The quarter sections legally belonging to each homesteader were pooled. Each villager was entitled to use a given productive land, and each entitled to use a given and equal amount of hay and wood from the hay meadows and woodlots. This division was voluntary, and unlike that in Russia, unsupported by law. All livestock was herded into a common pasture."

"The school and church were located in the centre of the village and the grist mill generally stood at one end. Social services, such as a co-operative fire insurance scheme and a co-operative welfare assistance fund gave villagers a measure of social security.” This, then, was the kind of settlement which characterized the East Reserve in the years following 1874.

The story of course goes on with both drama and poise, with some tragedy too. Life on the plains in the 19th century, especially in the weather-tested north, was not easy or suitable to all comers. But the new settlers were hardy and persisted and, staving off frostbite and starvation in the first years (with a few exceptions), they built a lasting legacy that continues today.

I, myself, having been raised in a Mennonite culture in upstate New York State during the late 20th century, wandered through the reenactment village located on the edge of the city of Steinbach with the customary awe and wonder, marveling at the achievements of the North American pioneers, settlers, trappers and merchants who forged an unlikely miracle.

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© 2023 by Edgar David Boshart,

Arlington, Virginia, USA, 703-629-0160