Manitoba Historical Society
     Keeping history alive for over 141 years


Manitoba History: National Designation for William Hespeler

by Parks Canada

Number 54, February 2007

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct all inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

On 19 February 2007, at Eckhardt-Gramatté Hall at the University of Winnipeg, the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada unveiled a plaque commemorating William Hespeler. Entrepreneur, immigration official, Commissioner of Immigration and Agriculture, politician and philanthropist, Hespeler was recognized as a figure of national historic importance because of his key role in the settlement and development of Western Canada.

A plaque commemorating William Hespeler was unveiled at the University of Winnipeg. Witnessing it were (L-R): Dr. Robert O’Kell, Manitoba Representative, Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada (behind); Dr. Claudia Wright, Acting Vice-President (Research & Graduate Studies), University of Winnipeg; Dr. Angelika Sauer, Associate Professor of History, Texas Lutheran University; Ms Dawn Bronson, Superintendent, Manitoba Field Unit, Parks Canada Agency; Mr. Helmut Hesse, President, German-Canadian Congress (MB) Inc.; Ms Cindy Tugwell, Executive Director, Heritage Winnipeg; Ms Mary DeGrow, great-great-granddaughter of William Hespeler; Ms Penny McMillan, President, Heritage Winnipeg; Ms Bonnie Korzeniowski, MLA, Province of Manitoba; Mr. Grant Nordman, Councillor, City of Winnipeg

A plaque commemorating William Hespeler was unveiled at the University of Winnipeg. Witnessing it were (L-R): Dr. Robert O’Kell, Manitoba Representative, Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada (behind); Dr. Claudia Wright, Acting Vice-President (Research & Graduate Studies), University of Winnipeg; Dr. Angelika Sauer, Associate Professor of History, Texas Lutheran University; Ms Dawn Bronson, Superintendent, Manitoba Field Unit, Parks Canada Agency; Mr. Helmut Hesse, President, German-Canadian Congress (MB) Inc.; Ms Cindy Tugwell, Executive Director, Heritage Winnipeg; Ms Mary DeGrow, great-great-granddaughter of William Hespeler; Ms Penny McMillan, President, Heritage Winnipeg; Ms Bonnie Korzeniowski, MLA, Province of Manitoba; Mr. Grant Nordman, Councillor, City of Winnipeg.
Source: Parks Canada

Hespeler left his native Germany at 19 to join his brother and sisters who had settled in Canada. Upon his arrival, he took up residence in the German-speaking community of Waterloo, where his elder brother had already founded several companies. The two brothers turned out to be excellent businessmen, thereby continuing their family’s mercantile tradition. Toward the middle of the 1860s, however, William grew tired of business; as he approached his forties, he made a career change and became an immigration official for the Dominion of Canada.

William Hespeler (1830-1921), circa 1903

William Hespeler (1830-1921), circa 1903.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Personalities - Hespeler, William 1, N19987.

In 1872, Hespeler was posted to Germany for a few months where he was interested primarily in the recruitment of immigrants from southwestern Germany and Alsace-Lorraine; however, the conditions were not favourable. He then turned to the German-speaking Mennonite communities in Russia and went there to meet some of their leaders. Although not a Mennonite himself, Hespeler was quickly won over and regarded the Mennonites as a superior class of immigrants. His stay in Russia was full of pitfalls, however. On the one hand, the Czar had Hespeler followed by the police because formal recruitment was not allowed on Russian soil. On the other, Hespeler had to contend with the attraction exerted by the American West, which was more southerly and more populated. Consequently, to recruit Mennonites, he had to make use of effective publicity and encourage the Government of Canada to make attractive offers to the immigrants. His approach succeeded and he finally had positive results. He returned to Canada, settled in Winnipeg, and co-ordinated the arrival of some 7,000 Mennonites from Russia between 1874 and 1880. This was the first great wave of immigrants to Manitoba, the one that demonstrated the enormous agricultural potential of the Canadian Prairies.

Niverville’s unique circular elevator, the first built in Manitoba, in 1878. Mennonites brought to Manitoba by William Hespeler reached Niverville in September 1874

Niverville’s unique circular elevator, the first built in Manitoba, in 1878. Mennonites brought to Manitoba by William Hespeler reached Niverville in September 1874.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Niverville 2, N20008.

Hespeler was then Commissioner of Immigration and Agriculture for Manitoba and the Northwest Territories, a position that he held until 1883 and one that enabled him to continue attracting immigrants to the Prairies and to contribute to the area’s economic development. Subsequently, he exercised the duties of German Consul in Manitoba and participated in politics between 1899 and 1903. During the approximately 45 years that followed his settlement in Winnipeg, Hespeler also took part in various philanthropic activities and became very involved in Winnipeg’s German-speaking community, whose culture he wanted to protect.

WILLIAM HESPELER
(1830-1921)

William Hespeler played a key role in the settlement and development of Western Canada. As an immigration agent for the Canadian government, he recruited some 7,000 Mennonites to Manitoba between 1874 and 1880, in one of the first large waves of European migration to the West. These pioneers inspired many other groups to settle the Prairies by demonstrating its enormous agricultural potential. An entrepreneur, politician, philanthropist, and long-time Honorary Consul of his native Germany, Hespeler also made a significant contribution to the economic and cultural growth of German-speaking communities in Manitoba.

Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada plaque text for William Hespeler. Translated into French and German, the plaque will be located in Hespeler Park in Niverville.

See also:

Historic Sites of Manitoba: William Hespeler Plaque (Niverville)

Page revised: 26 October 2019

MHS YouTube Channel

Back to top of page

For queries on the above page, please contact the MHS Webmaster.

Home  |  Terms & Conditions  |  FAQ  |  Contact Us  |  Privacy Policy  |  Donations Policy

© 1998-2020 Manitoba Historical Society. All rights reserved.