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Diary of a Mennonite Delegation, 1873

by Lawrence Klippenstein

Manitoba Pageant, Autumn 1972, Volume 18, Number 2

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

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

Migrations are a part of the Mennonite story from its very beginning. Usually they were major undertakings, and involved preparation and planning, especially if the question of finding new farming land was important for the move. This made the survey parties, or delegate deputations as they were called, a crucial factor in the enterprise as a whole.

The exodus from Russia to the USA and Canada in 1874 and later on followed this pattern also. It became a reality in large measure because of studies and recommendations made by men who sought very seriously to provide the best information needed to make the correct decisions needed for a move.

The first party of the Russian Mennonite delegation of 1873 left their villages in February of the year. These men hoped to team up with other smaller groups, a total of twelve members in all to visit North America that spring.

In Berlin (Kitchener) Ontario. and Elkhart, Indiana they met local Mennonite leaders to get their bearings for a trip west. It would take them to the states of Minnesota, Dakota, Nebraska and elsewhere in the US, as well as to Manitoba in Canada. By late August that summer they had completed their work, and arrived back in south Russia from where they had come.

Several of the delegates kept detailed records of what they had seen and experienced. Their diaries still suggest the excitement of that trip, along with accounts of where they went and what they did during that time.

The Manitoba section of that trip has a facet of interest all its own. The province was still the frontier of Canadian settlement in the West. All twelve joined the visit to the East Reserve in June, 1873. Some did not stay to continue the survey of the Assiniboine River district from Winnipeg west. But the trip of 1873 was undoubtedly an experience which they would not forget for a long time, and even a brief summary of their comments, as given here, helps to explain why.

June 13, Friday, 1873.

The twelve delegates, along with half a dozen travelling companions and guides, left Moorhead, Minnesota, on the steamboat, International, down the Red River headed for Fort Garry, Manitoba.

In the Russian Mennonite delegation were the following: Heinrich Wiebe, Cornelius Buhr and Jacob Peters from the Bergthal colony; Paul and Lohrenz Tschetter from the Hutterian Brethren; David Klassen and Cornelius Toews from the Kleine Gemeinde, Borsenko colony; Leonhard Sudermann of Berdiansk, Russia; Jacob Buller, Tobias Unruh and Andreas Schrag of Volhynia, and William Ewert, representing the Prussian Mennonites. Also in the party were Jacob Y. Shantz, an Ontario Mennonite businessman, H. M. Hiller of New York; William Hespeler, a Canadian immigration agent, J. B. Power of the Northern Pacific Railway (USA), George Chapman, and John F. Funk, an Old Mennonite minister from Elkhart, Indiana.

The distance to Winnipeg from Moorhead via the river was about 650 miles. By land, and stage coach, the distance was reduced to about 240 miles — so winding and crooked is the Red.

June 15, Sunday.

The crew and passengers of the International joined the survey party for church services. Preaching was both in the English and German languages. The text for the English sermon by Funk was taken from 1 Tim. 1:15. Rev. Wilhelm Ewert preached in German from Matt. 13:45-46. Between the sermons the group sang "Was Kann Es Schoenres Geben?" Funk wrote later, "What struck us as the most singular of all was the fact that, as we bowed in prayer, without any special request, the whole congregation knelt." (Herald of Truth, Sept., 1873, p. 153)

June 16, Monday.

The International crossed the border into Canada. There had been no mishaps except getting stuck on a sand bar for about four hours earlier in the trip.

June 17, Tuesday.

The group arrived at Fort Garry near Winnipeg at 5 a.m. They were lodged in the Davis Hotel, just north of the present corner of Portage and Main. Paul Tschetter wrote, "In the afternoon we were called before the governor. He was very kind and friendly, and spoke much but all in the English language" Mennonite Quarterly Review, July, 1931, pp. 200-201). Several delegates joined brief tours of the town of Winnipeg — population about 3000 —, located half a mile from the river and the Fort.

June 18, Wednesday.

A party of twenty-five men set out on five wagons to explore the area of the East Reserve around Oak Point (Ste. Anne). They were photographed before they left, much to the displeasure of several delegates who thought this to be worldly, and not keeping with their high purpose.

Travel was slow due to bad roads and rain. One of the drivers got lost, delaying the journey even more. By nightfall they reached their first point of destination, Oak Point, where they looked for lodging overnight. Refused by the clerks at the government post, they were invited to stay at the Hudson Bay Co. store just being completed at the time (still standing today!) Funk wrote of the man in charge, "He also baked some eggs and supplied us with bread, tea, etc., of which we made an excellent supper .. . we spread our buffalo robes and blankets on the floor, and laid down to sleep, feeling that he who feeds the fowls of the air, and clothes with beauty the lilies, had surely not forgotten us, though we far in a distant land." (Herald of Truth, Sept., 1873, p. 155).

June 19, Thursday.

Thoroughly refreshed, the men prepared to continue their tour that morning. Sudermann declared, "It was worth giving thanks, and Psalm 19 expressed it well for us!" (Eine Deputatione reise von Russland nach Amerika, 1897, p. 35).

By nightfall they had arrived at the northeast corner of the Reserve. Five tents were pitched, and they settled in. Funk could not get over the mosquitoes — and the slough water which they were compelled to drink from time to time! As he wrote to his wife, "I forget all my compunctions against drinking a little wine when I taste the water around."

June 20, Friday.

Breakfast over at 6 a.m., the group travelled along the east side of the Reserve. They met a local farmer whose wife spoke German, and they were delighted to be able to converse, and with the hospitality of the Canadian family. They crossed several streams as they travelled along. Tschetter commented, "The mosquitoes were terribly bad."

June 21, Saturday.

By 9 a.m. they were on their way back to Winnipeg. Funk noted, "After a short drive we stopped for dinner, and a portion of the deputation, feeling satisfied with what they had seen of Manitoba, desired to return to the States, and examine certain parts of the country there, while the remainder of the party wished to see the country west of Winnipeg, in the vicinity of Lake Manitoba." (Herald of Truth, Sept., 1873, p. 155) Those heading back included the two Tschetters, W. Ewert, Schrag, Tobias Unruh and John Funk. By midnight of the day they were back on board a ship leaving for Moorhead, Dakota. The others reached Winnipeg about 5 p.m., having, as Funk put it, "spent two days on the lands designed for the settlement of the Russians."

June 22, Sunday.

Jacob Shantz and Heinrich Wiebe attended an English worship service, whereas Sudermann preferred to take a walk, since he understood very little of the English language. "All businesses were closed down for the day," he noted in his diary, "Even the billiard tables at our hotel, and in the shops nearby, celebrated the day."

But Sudermann, along with Shantz did attend a Methodist service in the afternoon. Indians and Metis were with them in the audience, and the men were pleased with their experience in the church.

June 23, Monday.

At 2 p.m., the party left Winnipeg, following the Assiniboine River, and covering 11 miles by evening.

June 24, Tuesday.

On the move by 6 a.m., the group broke camp, stopping only after they reached Long Lake and Poplar Point, about 43 miles west of Winnipeg. Ten miles further on they were invited to stay overnight with an Irish farmer, and four of the men accepted the offer, the others apparently preferring their tents!

The twelve Mennonite delegates of 1873, with their guides and travelling friends. They were photographed in front of the Dominion Lands Office before visiting the East Reserve on June 18-21 of that year.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

June 25, Wednesday.

Two horses wandered away during the night, so departure in the morning was delayed. The main trail veered to the north as the party set out to see some land belonging to Hespeler (Sec. 10, Township 13, R6W) and Shantz (Sec. 10, Township 13, R. 7W). They followed the Rat River (now Willow Bend Creek), crossed the Whitemud near the present site of Westbourne, and spent the night in a Hudson Bay Co. store, just west of Westbourne. They were now 84 miles west of Winnipeg. Settlers in the area included Anglo-Saxons who had just moved in, as well as Metis, and Indian families residing in their tents.

June 26, Thursday.

After travelling along the Whitemud for about 32 miles they came to the "Mountains" (possibly Neepawa). Buller and Sudermann, along with Shantz decided now to bypass any visit to the 14 townships of the "West Reserve", and to return to Winnipeg as quickly as possible. They hoped to meet the party already gone, at Moorhead. "It seems," Sudermann wrote. "as if the Bergthaler delegates will decide to settle in Manitoba."

June 27, Friday.

Buller, Sudermann and Shantz managed to cover 32 miles of the way back to the Fort.

June 28, Saturday.

The delegates became very impatient about their slow progress. The driver seemed completely unhurried, apparently hoping to add a day's wages to the endeavor by slowing down. He suggested staying in Portage over Sunday, and Buller proposed that they walk the rest of the way to Winnipeg! The idea was voted down, and they all spent Sunday seeing the sights of Portage. There were several mills, including one of the Dutch variety.

June 29, Sunday.

Sudermann with his friends read ch. 16 from the Gospel of John as morning devotions. They then attended services at an Episcopalian church. In the afternoon they chatted with various persons about the productivity of the area, its climate, settlement prospects, etc.

June 30, Monday.

By noon they had arrived at Poplar Point again. Twenty-five miles west of Winnipeg, they stayed for the night at a lodge. For supper they had eggs, potatoes, pickled meat, tea and fresh strawberries. Several Metis women served at tables. In a large garden the men noticed cabbages, peas, beets and onions, growing well, but somewhat late.

July 1, Tuesday.

By 11 p.m., the three men had arrived back in Winnipeg. Dominion Day celebrations were well advanced, with races and other activities filling the waking hours, and most of the night. On the way into town the party had met people moving west with newly-purchased wagons and supplies on their way to homesteads and settlements.

For the delegates left behind, Dominion Day proved to be a unique experience, if somewhat troublesome to all those involved. At about 4 p.m., Hespeler and the remaining five delegates became the centre of a dispute in which local residents tangled with the driver for the Mennonite group. As a consequence the travellers found themselves held up in House's Hotel at White Horse Plains. There was a very real danger that they would be at-tacked, and possibly seriously injured.

Hespeler however did manage to send a message to the cavalry post at Winnipeg, and promptly received the help of a police detachment sent to put down the troublemakers. If this had not happened, the plans for a major Mennonite migration to Manitoba might well have dissipated right there and then.

Even as it was, it is suggested that Klassen, who had been very well impressed with the Portage areas, agreed that they should settle in closer to the centres of protection, as well as trade activity, rather than in the more risky regions out on the prairies.

Since no records are available of the conclusion of the trip by the Kleine Gemeinde and Bergthal delegates, it must be assumed that they got into Winnipeg a few days later without further incident. It has been intimated by other sources that the delegates finally left Winnipeg on July 8, 1873, possibly after making another visit to the East Reserve. The latter point is however, still unclear.

By the time of their departure the Bergthal and Kleine-Gemeinde delegates had reaffirmed their decision to recommend a move to Manitoba. Later in the month J. H. Pope, federal minister of agriculture, received official notice of this plan. By July 26, an answer was on its way back. The statement of privileges which it included was really everything that the delegates might hope for, although there were some ambiguities which would create fairly serious problems later on.

It must be said, nonetheless, that the delegates of 1873 in their survey trips through Manitoba, definitely helped to shape the destiny of thousands of Mennonite families who followed them to the North American continent during the next few years.

Page revised: 20 July 2009

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