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Manitoba Settlement and the Mennonite West Reserve (1875-1876)

by Lawrence Klippenstein

Manitoba Pageant, Autumn 1975, Volume 21, Number 1

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.

The dramatic significance of the 1870s for Manitoba’s history lies in various facets of development for that period. Of those, immigration must be placed high on the list. For thousands of newcomers it was the beginning of fresh challenges and opportunities as these persons chose precisely that time to pioneer the Western Canadian frontier in the “postage-stamp” province of Manitoba. The numerous centennial celebrations of the current and past years witness to the remaining memories of those arrivals a century ago.

The seven thousand Russian Mennonites who arrived then may have constituted the largest single newcomer group to enter Manitoba in the 1870-1880 period. After investigations began in 1872, the first contingents of settlers began to arrive in July and August two years later, in 1874. They, along with all others following them that fall, headed for a “reserve” of eight townships of bush, swamp, and some dry prairie land located east of the Red River, and south of the Lake Superior-to-Fort Garry Dawson Road just opening during those years.

At least eight trans-Atlantic trips are known to have brought a total of 1533 men, women and children from Russia to Canada in the same year. With very few exceptions all of these families ultimately made their way to the twenty one village communities established in the “East Reserve” before winter came in 1874.

The influx of Mennonite settlers peaked in the following year, amounting to fully twelve per cent of the total immigration to Canada in 1875. At least eight ships, loaded with a total of 3341 passengers left Liverpool, England for Quebec, Canada between May and October. Among these were the S.S. Prussian, with 138; the S.S. Moravian had 667; the S.S. Sarmatian listed 509; the S.S. Peruvian 555, the S.S. Canadian, 561; the S.S. Quebec brought 463; the S.S. Manitoban, 348; and the S.S. Sardinian came with 20 more. The passenger ship lists, which provide this information about the group as a whole, also included the names and ages of all adults and children travelling on each boat. [1]

Many of the 1875 arrivals joined relatives and friends of the East Reserve, usually waiting anxiously for their coming. But as the available arable land was taken up, the search for additional space got underway at once. Jacob Y. Shantz, an Ontario Mennonite businessman, who provided much assistance to the immigrants at the time, now took his son, Abraham, along with two Metis, a driver and a surveyor, and three earlier immigrants from Russia, to explore the open plains west of the Red River.

S.S. Canadian III, 1873

They would have preferred wooded lands or river lots, but other settler groups, or native residents of the province, had staked out most of these already. So they were led to consider the grassy, and to a degree, swampy, open prairie region just north of the International Border, and lying between Emerson on the Red River and Mountain City near the Pembina Hills.

The area had been bypassed by earlier groups. However, as one-time residents of a similar terrain in south Russia, the Mennonites saw the opportunities of the area, and lodged a request with the Canadian government to open another “reserve” for them here. Thereupon seventeen more townships were laid out, to a depth of eighteen miles north of the border between the Red River and the western hills.

The “West Reserve”, as it came to be called was, according to one authority, “really the first permanent agricultural settlement ever established in the open prairies of western Canada without direct access to a major body or current of water”. And, this writer goes on, “it also turned out to be some of the best farm land in the whole province of Manitoba.” [2] When an Order-in-Council of 1876 finally set this land aside for exclusive use by the Mennonites from Russia, it brought the total acreage of the two reserves to just over 500,000 acres, or about 6% of the total area of Manitoba as constituted in 1881.

Sources date the coming of the earliest Mennonite villagers to the West Reserve in July 1875, when nearly 1000 immigrants disembarked at the docks of Fort Dufferin, a few miles north of Emerson and West Lynn at the Canada-US border. Diary entries of one group leader, Rev. Johann Wiebe, describe the last portion of the journey, after landing at Quebec.

“After we thanked and praised God, we had breakfast. Hence, we had floated on the ocean from 5.00 pm. June 19 to the early morning of July 1, or a total of twelve days. We entrained at 7 p.m., July 1, and arrived in Montreal at 6 a.m. the next morning.

Here we had a breakfast of cold tea, fried potatoes, and beef. At 11.00 a.m. we departed for Toronto where we arrived at 6.00 a.m. the following morning, and remained until 10.00 a.m. Friday, July 4. Then we departed for Berlin (Kitchener, Ontario) and Aexanis (Sarnia?), where we em-barked at 9 p.m. From here we were told it was a distance of 818 miles by boat to Duluth. Now the weather was very nice. At 7 p.m. Tuesday night, July 8, we disembarked at Duluth and after spending the night were entrained and continued our journey at 2 p.m., Wednesday, July 9.

We were advised that 253 miles to the west lay Moorhead, Minnesota, where we arrived at 4 a.m., Thursday morning, and 10 p.m. we boarded a steamer which was to take us another 150 miles north on the Red River to Manitoba.

However, praise God, early Monday morning (July 14) we reached the immigration sheds at Dufferin a few miles north of the International Boundary. Here we already met many of our brethren and sisters in Christ who came to greet us and who had departed from Russia one week and two weeks before we left. ...” [3]

What happened in the days and weeks immediately following still needs documentation, but plans were made, no doubt, to travel immediately to the reserve land waiting for them just a few miles further west.

Almost overnight the bare prairie became dotted with villages—the pattern of settlement the Mennonites had known in south Russia back home. It is known that a number of these farmhome clusters were begun that very fall; others sprang up quickly the following spring and summer—eventually fifty or more in all. A Winnipeg reporter later described the scene thus:

“The earliest homes of these settlers were built of mud and sticks, thatched with straw or hay. Some of the oldest are still standing. The walls are a delicate lilac, the window sash is a dull red, the shutters gray ... A village of these houses, seen when flooded with mellow October sunshine and against a background of yellow stubble fields, presents a wonderful harmony of color, and is more suggestive of Holland in the sixteenth, than of Manitoba in the nineteenth, century.”

Primitive they may have seemed, but the villages were well-populated and practical to carry out the work of settling down. One of the earliest villages was one called Blumenort (“place of roses” literally), located about 1¼ mile north of the Canada-US border, some twenty miles west of Emerson. Remembering those days, a descendant of one of the first families, Mrs. Anna Peters Krahn, recalled the following in 1952:

“Our temporary home that first winter (1875-1876) was a “semlin” (sod hut) near the present village of Schoenwiese (a few miles west and north of Blumenort). However, early in the spring of 1876 we moved to Blumenort where we joined the original settlers at the site where the village is now located, and which has since been my home.

The original location of Blumenort was somewhat west of the present site and became the common village pasture as soon as the plan was completed to accommodate 20 families with holdings of equal size.”

Blumenort in the beginning years of its development.

The first families were these: the Gerhard Kroekers, Johann Peters, Isaac Bergens, Aron Peters, Jacob Peters, Johann Redekops, Jacob Unraus, Frank Bergens, Frank Goertzens, Peter Fehrs, Jacob Banmans, Peter Wolfes, Herman Kehlers, Heinrich Peters, Isaac Bergens, Jr.; Mrs. Peter Peters, Frank Peters, Cornelius Harms, and Abram Heides. A few years later the village was enlarged to provide holdings for the David Peters and the Gerhard Brauns, and to create space for the first West Reserve steam-operated flour and sawmill, at the east end of the village.

The mill covered an area equivalent to two regular family holdings, and was owned by Johann Wall. Wall had come to Manitoba at the invitation of his sister, Mrs. Henry Peters, who hoped that he might begin such a venture since he was experienced in the business.

Reinland, a few miles further west, was also begun that year. It very soon became a center for all the villages of the area since some of the main leaders of the Reserve chose to make their residence at that location. Included among the early buildings was the first church structure of the Reserve, designed to serve the Reinlaender Mennonite Church to which most of the people belonged at that time. The church is still standing, used now as a community centre by the village residents, and recently the site of a well-attended centennial festival held at the village. [4]

The original village books of Rosenort (place of roses) help to recreate the picture of its beginnings as well. [5] The records go right back to the 1875-1876 period. They allude to the leadership roles of the village “mayor” (Schulze), along with those of the elders, ministers and deacons of the church. Rosenort, like other villages, also had a “fire marshall” (Brandschulze) whose duty it was to organize fire-fighting campaigns, and to send out open letters outlining prevention measures in homes and public buildings. Besides that the village had a “cattle chief” (Herdschulze) who was overseer of animal husbandry activities, and the common pasture, and who helped in securing a herdsman for the cattle of the village.

The “Oberschulze” (grand mayor?) was an official who gave leadership to the entire colony as a whole, managing those general affairs which affected all the villages together. On occasion he would send memos to the village “Schulze”, requesting aid, or giving advice in village management. This might relate to the support of schools, work arrangements for road-building, or assistance of the needy. It could involve work levies that were placed upon able-bodied persons in all the villages in proportion to the number of persons in a particular household. The “Schulze” and the village assembly (Schulzebott) were charged with distributing these responsibilities equitably, and the village secretary (Beisitzer) kept the records of levy contributions made by each household.

Other families took up residence in villages further west, right next to the low slopes of the Pembina Hills. Possibly typical of these was the Jacob Braun family which came with the first group of July 1875. They were with nineteen families which in the late summer of that year, built temporary shelters not far from the border town of Haskett, founded sometime after this event. One of them, David Wall, went out looking for a more permanent place to settle down.

On Section 6, Township 2 and Range 4 he found both water and shelter from the blustery prairie winds. In the Spring of 1876 all the families followed him to homestead the surrounding land. On the southwest quarter of this section they laid out the main street of a village in a north-south direction, with farmsteads on both sides. They called the village “Osterwick”, perhaps because it was near Easter when they arrived, and possibly because some may have come from a village by that name in Russia. [6]

The Brauns brought nine children with them to Manitoba, all surviving to old age. They were Katherina (1855-1936); Gerhard (1857-1932); Jacob (1859-1929); Johann (1864-1943); Isaak (1866-1919); Peter (1869-1917) ; Maria (1870-1963) ; Helena (1873-1966) and Anna (1875-1948). A memorial marker was recently erected in their memory at their burial place near Glencross south of Morden, Manitoba.

Building a home and farm was demanding work for the Brauns. Logs had to be hauled from the Pembina Hills to the village for a house and barn. Trimming, squaring and cutting to size were all done by hand. Two wells were built on yard in due time, one with a chain bucket pump that was operated with a crank.

At first home amenities were few. Light came from a candle wick. Wooden-soled slippers for the family were made at home, as were fur coats, mittens, socks and other clothing which members of the family wore. Bread was baked out-of-doors in a special oven heated with flax straw and badger brush, and the meat supply came from the slaughtered animals of the farm. The nearest doctors and dentists were fifty miles away in Emerson so bone-setters and mid-wives were drawn from the midst of the villagers themselves.

There was a sense of unity within these early settlements, almost a “closeness” against outside society and strangers who might be passing through. Partly it was a fierce independence from groups and agencies of the larger non-Mennonite society which might endanger the long-established mores and thought patterns which they considered their own. These people cherished a set of social and religious values which emphasized the worth of togetherness and the welfare of individual members of the groups and which placed high priority on the revered traditions of the church.

Jacob and Maria Fast who were among the first Mennonites to come to the West Reserve in 1875.

What the West Reserve, now the municipalities of Rhineland and Stanley, would be like a hundred years later no one in 1875 or 1876 could have possibly foreseen. Settlement had begun, however, and all the elements of vigorous community growth were there from the start. Pioneering is always hard, and much has changed in that regard. People came in good faith that Manitoba could provide a living for body and soul, and the intervening years have proven that therein the Mennonites of 1875 were not wrong. [7]

Notes

1. These lists are available in microfilm and printout forms at the Mennonite archives of the Conference of Mennonites in Canada, 600 Shaftesbury Boulevard, Winnipeg, Manitoba R3P OM4. Inquiries are welcomed.

2. The best-written work on the Mennonites of Manitoba is probably still E. K. Francis. In Search of Utopia. The Mennonites in Manitoba, Winnipeg, Manitoba, 1955. Cf. pp. 50ff.

3. Rev. Wiebe apparently used the Russian calendar for dating. It was about 12 days behind the one used in Canada and all Western countries at that time. That would date the arrival in Manitoba on 26 July. However, this date needs to be confirmed with other sources.

4. The story of Reinland will be told in a forthcoming publication, Reinland. An Experience in Community, authored by Peter D. Zacharias of Grunthal, Manitoba.

5. These books have been in private hands, but have been copied at the CMC Mennonites Archives in Winnipeg.

6. The village books of Osterwick have been copied for the above archives also.

7. Additional sources of material for this article were: Peter Brown. The Brauns of Osterwick, Winnipeg, 1972. Frank Broan. A History of Winkler. Winkler, Man., 1973. P. V. Penner, ed. “Centennial Supplement,” Red River Valley Echo, Altona, Manitoba, 15 November and 20 December 1967. Abe Warkentin. Reflections on Our Heritage. Steinbach, Manitoba, 1971.

See also:

Historic Sites of Manitoba: Mennonite West Reserve (Rosenfeld, RM of Rhineland)

Page revised: 16 March 2013

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