Old Colony Mennonites
Old Colony Mennonites, a socio-religious group originating in Manitoba, deriving its name from "Old Colony" which was the name given to the Chortitza Mennonite settlement as the first (1789) Mennonite settlement in Russia to distinguish it from the "New Colony," viz., the Molotschna settlement, established later (1803). In the pioneer days of Russia the Chortitza or Old Colony Mennonites were poorer, less educated, and more conservative than the Mennonites who came to Russia later. This religious and cultural conservatism furnished the roots for the spirit and characteristics of the Old Colony Mennonites of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Mexico. In the total pattern of Mennonite history they could be compared in some respects with the Kleine Gemeinde of the Molotschna, the Hutterites, or the Amish, although more conservative and culturally retarded than any of these. Their utmost concern centered around the preservation of their way of life. From their point of view the total cultural pattern including language, clothing, education, furniture, self-government, mutual aid, village pattern, and all forms of customs were integral parts of their church concept. They preserved the most extreme form of separation from the world and the practice of church discipline by means of the ban and avoidance. Contact with the outside world was kept at a minimum. As to the church concept and the idea of nonconformity to the world, there was a genuine Anabaptist concern preserved in the Old Colony Mennonite attitude, although largely in a petrified form. Not only was the contact with the outside world reduced to bare necessities, but also the challenge that comes through contact with the other religious groups and the outside culture was neutralized. Contact with the German culture from which the Old Colony Mennonites stemmed was completely lost, and contacts with the new environment was not permitted. Thus in the attempt to retain the Mennonite heritage the group deprived itself of the challenges and influences which come through contact with other groups. Even the best concept of the Christian church cannot be realized in a vacuum. New stimulations and a challenge of thoughts and practices by opposing forces and a revitalization through contact with like-minded groups is as important as a sound basic concept. Here lay the strength and the weakness of the Old Colony Mennonites and other conservative groups.
In comparison with the Mennonite immigrants from Danzig and Prussia to Russia who formed the later Molotschna settlement, the Old Colony settlers of Russia were in general of a less educated class. Those coming later had made greater adjustments to the environment of their home communities, i.e., the German culture. All Mennonites of this area were of Dutch background and used the Dutch language from the 16th to the 18th centuries. The Danzig church record of the early days was written in the Dutch language; the change from Dutch to German occurred throughout the book in 1783-1784. At that time the Mennonites of Prussia and Danzig had adjusted to their German environment to the extent of replacing Dutch with High German in school and church, and Low German in their daily life.
The movement to Russia can be considered a protest against adjustment to the environment. When the cycle of adjustment to the German environment was nearly complete the migration to Russia set in, the first Mennonites to go having made the least adjustment, and those coming later being more progressive and more prosperous. This conservative attitude of the Chortitza settlers also prevailed in its daughter colonies, Bergthal and Fürstenland. When the new environment through school and other contacts began to challenge the Mennonite constituency the most conservative element reacted by withdrawing. There had already been severe criticism of the progress made in the realm of education in the days of Cornies. Now around 1870 the Russian government was introducing the Russian language into the schools, raising the requirement in the curriculum, and making the educational system of the Mennonites subject to the Department of Education of Russia. The self-government of the Mennonites in Russia was also being challenged. Complete isolation was becoming extremely difficult. In addition to this some form of service to the government was unavoidable. Thus the news about the possibility of finding a place in the New World where there would be complete freedom along these lines found both willing and attentive ears among the Mennonites of the Chortitza and daughter settlements.
It is interesting to note that the group that became most conservative, the Old Colony Mennonite Church, did not furnish any migration leaders. The elder of the Chortitza settlement, Gerhard Dyck, and his co-minister, Heinrich Epp, went to St. Petersburg and attended the Mennonite meetings dealing with the question of compulsory service and the possibility of immigrating to America. Gerhard Dyck was still of the "old school" but does not seem to have considered immigration to America. His co-minister and successor as elder, Heinrich Epp, helped to usher in an era of progress in the Old Colony in Russia. He had received a good training and had taught at the Zentralschule at Chortitza for 19 years when he became elder. He did not favor the immigration. If there were any ministers of the Chortitza settlement who joined the immigrants to Manitoba they were not very influential. The leadership came from the elder of the Fürstenland settlement that had been established about ten years prior to the migration, Elder Johann Wiebe. However, even before Johann Wiebe left Fürstenland with a group in 1875, some of the Chortitza Mennonites had left in 1874, joining the Bergthal Mennonites of the East Reserve in Manitoba.
Evidently the Bergthal delegation had chosen the East Reserve during their inspection tour in 1873, leaving the West Reserve for the Chortitza and Fürstenland Mennonites, of whom the first arrived at the West Reserve in 1875. Thus the West Reserve became the settlement of the Chortitza and Fürstenland Mennonites, where they founded the Reinland Mennonite Church, which later became known as the Old Colony Mennonite Church. Originally the term was used to distinguish them from the Bergthal Mennonites of the East Reserve. Evidently there has never been any reason to distinguish between the Old Colony Mennonites coming from Chortitza, and the Fürstenland Mennonites, both settling on the West Reserve. The Fürstenland settlement had been in existence only about ten years in Russia and had developed no peculiar characteristics. It was a minority and was therefore included in the name Old Colony Mennonites, the name Fürstenland being dropped in Manitoba.
It has been overlooked by some historians that the majority of the Mennonites who settled on the West Reserve were of the Chortitza or Old Colony Mennonite background and that the Fürstenland group was a small minority. E. K. Francis (In Search of Utopia: 88) was of the opinion that all Old Colony Mennonites came from Fürstenland and therefore calls them Furstenlander. D. H. Epp (Chortitza Mennoniten) gives information regarding the background of the immigrants, stating that the total number of immigrants who left for Manitoba during 1874-1880 from the Chortitza settlement including Fürstenland was 580 families or 3,240 persons. Fürstenland was included because it belonged administratively to Chortitza. This could not possibly have been the number of people coming from Fürstenland, which had been established only about 10 years before, consisting of five villages with 154 family farms. When Johann Wiebe, elder of Fürstenland, wrote to the immigration agent of Hamburg on 12 March 1875, he stated that 169 families consisting of 1,009 persons were ready to leave Fürstenland alone. He must have included almost the whole population of the settlement. The statistics given by Jacob Y. Shantz correspond to the figures given by D. H. Epp. From this we conclude that by far the largest contingent of the total group of 3,240 persons came from Chortitza (Old Colony) proper, and that possibly a third of the total came from Fürstenland.
None of the sources available indicate that there was any basic difference in religious and cultural views between the Old Colony-Fürstenland group settling on the West Reserve and the Bergthal group settling on the East Reserve. The latter had been isolated for some time while the Chortitza Mennonites had been exposed to progressive leadership. If either one was more conservative than the other it would have been the Bergthal group. Differences that developed must have come through conditions in the Manitoba settlements. The roots probably lie in the following explanation. When a religious group adhering to a conservative cultural pattern breaks away from a mother settlement and proceeds to establish a new entity it is likely to make some adjustments in its economic, social, and cultural life to its new environment. For example, the Old Order Amish of Eastern Pennsylvania are somewhat more conservative than those of Ohio and Indiana, who originally came from Western Pennsylvania.
The first differences became evident when a large number of Bergthal Mennonites moved from the East to the West Reserve where they began to adjust themselves to the Canadian system of farming, government, school practices and other forms of culture. The Old Colony Mennonites on the other hand considered the village pattern of community life, self-government, and the parochial school system, which the infiltrating Bergthal Mennonites were willing to sacrifice, an integral part of their way of life and a test of church membership. (For details see Manitoba.)
The School Question
Before the Mennonites had come to Manitoba they had made certain that they would have the "privileges" which they had enjoyed in Russia. They obtained from the Canadian government "the fullest privileges of exercising their religious principles" and they had the same privilege extended to "the education of their children in school." The greatest change in matters pertaining to schools came during World War I. The School Attendance Act passed in 1916 did not prohibit private schools provided they conformed to the standards set up by the school administration. However, if a school was found to be inadequate it was condemned. Once a private school was condemned the Minister of Education had the right to appoint school trustees who would establish a public school with compulsory attendance. Naturally, the Old Colony Mennonites were unwilling to have their children thus driven into public schools, and the government was determined to achieve just that. Repeated delegations were sent to the provincial and dominion governments without avail. Numerous petitions were written to the proper authorities. Some of these throw valuable light on the situation and express the Old Colony idea of education very well. They called the attention of the government to the fact that they had had their own schools in Russia and that when this privilege was threatened the Dominion government had graciously granted them the same privileges in a letter dated 23 July 1873, understanding full well the great significance which the Old Colony Mennonites attached to the school question. This correspondence further reveals the Old Colony ideas about their own curriculum and equipment and also that they maintained 22 schools, which were in session 7 months in the year and were attended by all children from the ages of 7 to 13 for girls and 14 for boys. The ministers inspected the schools and enforced regular attendance, with the result that there were no illiterates among them. This petition of 18 January 1917 was signed by Elder Johann J. Friesen and Oberschulze Franz F. Froese. The government was now determined to establish district schools for all, and teachers who hoisted the flag each morning and lowered it again in the evening without a single child attending the school, were hired for the Mennonites. When the Old Colony Mennonites continued to send their children to their own government-condemned schools, the government made public school attendance compulsory. An epidemic of fining and jailing Mennonite preachers started. The government was determined to force the Mennonites to compromise and the more liberal of them gradually did so. Not, however, the Old Colony and Sommerfeld Mennonites. The broken promise, and persecution and suffering for a conviction, were like oil on a fire.
On 15 July 1919, the Old Colony Mennonites decided to send Klaas Heide and Cornelius Rempel of Manitoba, Johann Wall and Johann P. Wall of Hague, SK, and Julius Wiebe and David Rempel of Swift Current, SK to investigate South America for settlement possibilities. On 23 August 1919, they left New York, arriving in Rio de Janeiro on 9 September. After losing one of their companions, Johann Wall, and interviewing the authorities of Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina, they returned without the anticipated results. They were received very cordially everywhere and were made to feel that they were welcome, but when it came to putting in black and white the guarantees or privileges, they found that these countries were not what they were looking for. They wanted a complete exemption from military service and the assurance that they would have no problems pertaining to the schools. Next on the list of consideration were the states of Alabama and Mississippi in the United States. A number of delegations were sent to Mississippi during April and May of 1920. An agent by the name of Peters came to see the Mennonites in Canada, making the offer very appealing to them. In pressing the question pertaining to privileges they got in touch with Attorney-General Palmer of Washington, D.C. The files of the National Archives of Washington contain numerous documents pertaining to this case. The American Legion of the South got very much excited about the prospect of getting nonresistant Mennonites in their states.
At a meeting on 1 June 1920, although the Mennonites had not received the desired "privileges," it was decided to send a delegation of five to make the down payment of $2.00 per acre totaling $250,000. When the delegates arrived at the United States border they were sent back. David Harder, one of their chroniclers, reports, "We could not find out why the border was closed for us; we were compelled to accept it as guidance from God who wanted to spare us unforeseen hardships. Very likely the offer of freedom was the hoax of a land speculator." In addition to this the American Legion exerted pressure to stop the delegation at the border. But this did not stop the Old Colony Mennonites in their search for a new land. The State of Minnesota and the Province of Quebec were considered with similar outcome.
On 24 January 1921 a delegation including Julius Loewen, Klaas Heide, and Cornelius Rempel of Manitoba, and Johann Loeppke and Benjamin Goertzen of Saskatchewan, left for Mexico. At El Paso they met with J. F. Wiebe who brought them a welcome from the President and the Minister of Agriculture. Wiebe, a son of the founder of the Krimmer Mennonite Brethren Church, Jacob A. Wiebe, formerly mayor of Herbert, SK, and an elder of the Krimmer Mennonite Brethren Church of that place, became a significant intermediary for the Old Colony Mennonites and the railroad and land agents in Mexico. On 16 February they met President Obregón, his brother-in-law Arturo J. Braniff, and the Minister of Agriculture in Mexico City. They presented their request for privileges and related in great detail their practices and way of life, which evidently found full approval with the highest government officials, so that Johann Loeppke thanked the President with tears in his eyes. They returned with the Privilegium approved and signed by the president, addressed to the Old Colony Reinland Mennonite Church, stating: (1) You will not be under obligation to do military service; (2) you will under no circumstances be compelled to swear an oath; (3) you will be given complete freedom to practice your religious principles and to live according to the rules of your church without being molested or in any way restricted; (4) you will have full permission to establish your own schools with your own teachers without any interference of the government; (5) regarding property, our laws are liberal and you are free to follow your own rules along these lines and the government will not interfere if the group will manage its property in its own way.
This statement was taken to Canada as the key that opened the gate to Mexico and became the most cherished document since the days when the Mennonites had received similar invitations and promises from Russia and Canada. Upon their return to Canada this Privilegium was hailed as an answer to prayer. Meetings were called immediately to make the necessary preparation to sell the property, to purchase the land in Mexico, and for the trip. After repeated trips to Mexico the delegation returned on 10 September 1921, with reports that they had purchased 230,000 acres of land for the Manitoba Old Colony Mennonites for $8.25 an acre, making a down payment of $2.25 per acre. The land was located in the San Antonio Valley in the province of Chihuahua and was purchased through the agent Charles Newman of El Paso, and J. F. Wiebe of Herbert, Sask. It was here that the Manitoba Old Colony Mennonites later settled. The Hague group bought 35,000 acres of land near the village of Patos in the province of Durango.
Now the integrity of the group and the spirit of their brotherhood was tested. It was the intention that the group would transfer from Manitoba and Saskatchewan to Mexico as a whole. Those who did not have the means would be helped through the brotherhood. The Waisenamt, a type of savings bank, and other agencies of mutual aid were to take care of this complicated task. The land was to be sold in blocks and not individually by the farmer. It was hard to find buyers of large tracts of land except speculators who tried to take advantage of the situation. At Swift Current 100,000 acres were sold for 44 dollars per acre. The sale, however, became so involved, that it had to be taken to court and resulted in a loss of 10,000 acres to the Old Colony Mennonites. In Manitoba, McLeod, Black and Company was willing to serve as agent promising to sell the land by 21 August 1921; no land was sold by that date, and gradually the land owners began to sell the land individually. Other property, with the exception of that which was to be taken to Mexico, was being sold at auctions. Because of the many sales, prices declined rapidly.
By 11 February 1922, the Oberschulze Franz Froese had a list of immigrants to fill four trains. On 1 March the first train left Plum Coulee, MB, followed by three from Haskett, MB on 2, 7, and 11 March. Two more trains left at this time from Swift Current, SK. J. F. Wiebe made the arrangements for transportation. All trains arrived safely at San Antonio or Cuauhtémoc, where they were unloaded. Of the 4,526 Old Colony Mennonites in Manitoba in 1922, 3,340 went to Mexico by 1926. This would indicate that about three fourths of the group participated in the migration. Only a little more than 1,000 of 3,250 (or about one fourth) Swift Current (Saskatchewan, Canada) Old Colony Mennonites (who settled right next to the Manitoba Mennonites in Cuauhtémoc) were willing to emigrate. The situation in Hague, SK was similar. Only 946 of 3,932 went to Mexico, establishing the Patos settlement in the province of Durango in 1925. Records show that this settlement had a population of only 770 the next year, indicating that some must have returned or transferred to the Cuauhtémoc settlement. (These figures are based on the official Old Colony church record made available through Johann P. Wall of Patos, Durango.)
The question should be raised why only approximately half of the 12,000 Old Colony Mennonites of Canada went to Mexico at that time, and also why the participation among the Mennonites in Saskatchewan was so much smaller. The latter question is answered in part by the fact that resistance to adjustment to environment is usually weaker in daughter settlements. It is also possible that the opportunities to sell their farms were not as good as in Manitoba. In general, failure to sell the land as a unit was a breakdown of an otherwise well-functioning organization and mutual aid system. The resulting individual responsibility had a disintegrating effect on the morale and the united front of the Old Colony Mennonites. The departure of the strong conservative leaders to Mexico accentuated a slackening in discipline and practice among those who remained behind in Canada. Lack of unity among the leaders was also a disturbing element. Elder Loeppke, originally one of the staunch promoters of the migration, took up temporary residence in Mexico after World War II, and returned to Canada from time to time. Another reason why so many stayed in Canada was the approaching depression, which made it impossible to sell property at the expected price. Without strong conservative leadership the members gradually became accustomed to the prohibited innovations such as cars and other conveniences, and the willingness to pay the price and go to Mexico decreased. Thus there are really two Old Colony Mennonite churches since the departure of the most conservative element to Mexico. Those in Mexico today hardly recognize their Canadian brethren because of the adjustments the latter have made and their unwillingness to pay the price and make the sacrifice of joining them in Mexico. Unlike the Chortitz and Sommerfeld Mennonites the remaining Old Colony Mennonites in Canada made only a few attempts to migrate to a foreign country after World War II. Elder Johann Loeppke led a small group to Mexico, settling with the Kleine Gemeinde at the Los Jagueyes Ranch north of Cuauhtémoc. His successor as elder at Hague, Jacob Günther, attempted to reach Costa Rica with a few families in 1951. After an adventurous trip by truck to Mexico and New Orleans they returned, not having been admitted to Costa Rica. In 1934 some families including a number who had been in Mexico moved up the Peace River Valley in Alberta until they reached Fort Vermilion. Some 40 miles from town they established a settlement that was joined after 1937 by numerous families from Manitoba and Mexico, so that in 1948 there were 65 families or about 400 persons, living far from civilization.
In 1948 a total of c1700 Sommerfeld and Chortitz Mennonites from southern Manitoba and Saskatchewan founded the two colonies of Sommerfeld and Bergthal in southeastern Paraguay. These colonies, like Menno Colony in the Chaco, are not true Old Colony Mennonites.
In Canada the adjustment of the Old Colony Mennonites of Manitoba and Saskatchewan is noticeable not only to their environment but also toward the other Mennonite groups. According to Benjamin Ewert (Mennonitisches Jahrbuch (1951): 22) the number of Old Colony Mennonites in Manitoba in 1950 was 1,165, of whom 551 were baptized members. They have 6 ministers and 4 places of worship. This would indicate that they have decreased in number. The total number in Saskatchewan is estimated at 2,000 with a membership of 1,000 with 10 ministers and 6 places of worship. If this figure is correct, there are only over 3,000 Old Colony Mennonites in Canada today, whereas there should be about 20,000 if they had increased like their brethren in Mexico. This makes it evident that many of the Old Colony Mennonites in Canada are no longer counted as such.
In 1936 the Manitoba group of Old Colony Mennonites in Mexico numbered 3,340. By 1949 the group had increased to 7,706. In 1953 the number was 8,768. The Swift Current group adjacent to the Manitoba group in Cuauhtémoc numbered 1,000 at the time of their settlement in Mexico. In 1949 it was 2,232 and in 1953 it was 2,694. The Durango group coming from Hague, SK, originally 946, had 2,861 in 1949 and 3,281 in 1953. In 1946 the North settlement was established as a daughter colony to make provision for settlement by landless families from the Manitoba and Swift Current settlements. It had a population of 2,652 in 1949, and by 1953, 3,590. In 1949 the total population of all Old Colony Mennonites in Mexico was 15,451, which had increased to 18,333 in 1953, in spite of the fact that numerous families had returned to Canada during the years of drought after 1950. This return was particularly noticeable in the Swift Current settlement, which had a population of 2,232 in 1949 and 2,694 in 1953. This slight increase indicates that many of the families must have returned to Canada. No exact figures are available on this movement to Canada. It is likely that next to the Hutterites the Old Colony Mennonites in Mexico were the fastest growing Mennonite group in the world. The Old Colony Mennonites of Mexico aimed to preserve their cherished heritage and the institutions that were a part of it. They continued the village system with the Schulze and Oberschulze, the Waisenamt, the school system, and the total way of life to which they were accustomed. Some sought better income by going to town or returning to Canada, which was not approved of by the leadership. There were times when the school system was in danger of becoming subject to the Department of Education in Mexico. The greatest problem, however, was how to maintain and inspire growth in spiritual and cultural values in complete isolation as Mexico offered it to the Old Colony Mennonites. Under the most primitive and sacrificial conditions the Old Colony Mennonites have reprinted the Bible, the Gesangbuch, and other educational means. They collected $672.00 among their impoverished church members to purchase 120 copies of the German Martyrs' Mirror, which indicated their effort to help the congregation and its members in spiritual growth. However, their complete isolation from other Mennonite groups probably counteracted the few efforts made to improve the cultural and the religious life. In their cultural, home, and family life they illustrated at least outwardly, what Mennonite life in Russia was like in the 1850s-1870s. Worship services, singing, linguistic peculiarities, furniture, and family relationships were preserved here with few changes.
The Manitoba Mennonites in Cuauhtémoc had their own church, the Manitoba Mennonite Church, and also their own civic organization. The same was true regarding the Swift Current group and the North settlement, the Ojo de lad Yegua Church, except that the latter was under the elder of the Manitoba settlement. The Durango or Patos settlement formed an independent civil as well as spiritual entity. These three congregations of Old Colony Mennonites of Mexico worked in close harmony and considered each other in good standing. This was not the case with the Loeppke group settling at Santa Clara, north of the Manitoba and Swift Current settlement, nor with those Old Colony Mennonite congregations that stayed in Manitoba and Saskatchewan.
Old Colony Mennonite Church, 1958
Old Colony Mennonites have their primary roots in those elements of the Flemish congregations of Danzig and West Prussia which, in 1789, founded the Chortitza "Old" Colony in South Russia. In 1875 the first of some 3,200 persons from Chortitza, and its daughter settlement of Fürstenland (established 1864), settled along the Canada-United States boundary in Manitoba, west of the Red River. In 1876 the government of Canada accommodated them by establishing the Mennonite West Reserve of 17 townships (612 square miles/1,620 square kilometers) on their behalf. In Manitoba they proclaimed themselves the Reinländer Mennoniten Gemeinde, and set about recreating a cultural landscape characterized by a Straßendorf/Gewannflur pattern of occupance, an internal self-administration in which ecclesiastical authority dominated, and an economy based upon grain crops and livestock. They persisted in viewing themselves, and continued to be viewed by others, as "Altkolonisten" (Old Colonists).
By 1880 the self-imposed, preferred state of isolation of the Old Colony Mennonites in Manitoba was beginning to be breached on two fronts. Historically related but separate and less conservative elements of the Bergthal Mennonites, who had commenced settlement on the Mennonite East Reserve in 1874, began to relocate to the still vacant portion of the more fertile, open grassland of the West Reserve. In 1880 also, the Manitoba Municipal Act made provision for secular local government. Moreover, the provisions in respect to homesteading under the Dominion Lands Act were individualistic, rendering the continuation of the communal aspects of "colony" life, as dictated by Old Colony philosophy, possible now only with universal voluntary participation. The communal life thus was becoming an anachronism that was increasingly difficult to sustain.
By 1890 "progressive" Bergthal Mennonites had created a teacher-training facility featuring instruction in the English language and secular curriculum provided for in the newly proclaimed but not yet universally imposed Manitoba Schools Act. The Mennonite Brethren had also established an evangelizing presence in the West Reserve. In sum, these internal and external factors in a major way prompted the withdrawal of substantial numbers of Old Colonists to as yet unorganized parts of the Northwest Territories (Hague, [SK] beginning in 1890; Swift Current, [SK] beginning in 1900).
The universal enforcement, from 1916 onward, of compulsory attendance of all children ages 7-14 in provincially accredited schools, uncertainties engendered by a universal manpower registration (conscription) during World War I, together with increasing difficulty in enforcing discipline and conformity within Old Colony ranks, prompted a determination to emigrate. Beginning in 1922, the majority of Old Colony adherents emigrated, and established the Manitoba Colony in the Bustillos Valley of west-central Chihuahua State in Mexico, leaving behind in the West Reserve an excommunicated and leaderless rump. The Canadian daughter settlements in Saskatchewan established the Swift Current Colony in Chihuahua State, and the Patos (Hague) Colony in Durango State.
Among those who chose to remain in Canada there were, nevertheless, many who wished somehow to avoid what they considered to be the threat of acculturation and secularization inherent in the imposition of the secular school curriculum and English as the language of instruction. Until the early 1960s it was possible to avoid this threat by homesteading beyond the fringes of built-up settlement, on the agricultural frontiers of northern Saskatchewan and in the Peace River region of Alberta and British Columbia, (Carrot River, La Crete, Fort Vermilion, Worsley, Ft. St. John, Burns Lake, Dawson Creek, etc.) When the secular world, and particularly the public schools, penetrated their settlements, the more conservative would move on. Upon the consolidation of the schools and raising of school-leaving age to 16 years in the late 1950s and early 1960s, this strategy was no longer workable, and a substantial number emigrated to new frontiers of settlement in British Honduras [Belize] and the Santa Cruz region of Bolivia.
In 1921 the Old Colony Mennonites obtained documented privileges and immunities "in perpetuity" from President Alvaro Obregón and his government, equivalent to those granted to their forebears by Catherine the Great of Russia.
The debt incurred by the Manitoba and Swift Current Colonies in purchasing contiguous tracts of 600 square kilometres (150,000 acres) and 300 square kilometres (75,000 acres) from the Carlos Zuloaga estates at the unrealistic price of $20.50 per hectare ($8.25 per acre) in gold, when equivalent land could have been had for $4.00 or less per hectare, proved so burdensome that the Swift Current Colony eventually relinquished some 20 percent of its area, while the Manitoba Colony struggled for 35 years before finally discharging its obligations. The Patos (Hague) Colony (1924ff.) escaped a similar dilemma because initial land purchases were restricted to immediate need.
Since 1944, the Old Colonists in Mexico have initiated or participated in at least 17 colonization ventures in 5 states, of which some 13 have been at least a qualified success.
Of the approximately 7,000 Old Colony Mennonites who emigrated from Canada in the 1920s, some 5,500 remained in Mexico. Their net reproduction rate has consistently been one of the highest documented for any group, averaging over 4 percent, and occasionally exceeding 5 percent per year. Despite emigration to Belize (1958ff.), Bolivia (1966ff.), Paraguay (1972ff.), Argentina (1986ff) and the United States and Canada (totaling at least 10,000), by 1988 the Old Colony population in Mexico had grown to some 40,000, representing a doubling time of approximately 16 years.
In 1977 some 100 Old Colony families and 20 families of General Conference Mennonite Church (GCM) affiliation but Old Colony background, from Mexico and Canada, undertook separate settlement ventures at Seminole, Texas. The Old Colony families were led by Bishop Henry Reimer, who purchased the Seven-O Ranch southwest of Seminole on 4 March 1977. Great difficulties were experienced in meeting United States immigration requirements, despite active intervention by Senator Lloyd Bentsen and Representative George Mahon. Precipitation proved inadequate to sustain the intended dry farming. Excluded groundwater rights, however, precluded irrigation on 4,160 of the Old Colony's 6,420 acres (1,685 out of 2,600 hectares). On 3 April 1979 the venture was liquidated in default of arrears of principal and interest. The General Conference Mennonite group had fared somewhat better, managing to hold on to its land (1,172 acres). Those of both groups who had their immigrant status confirmed through ratification of a private bill (Special Bil 707) by Senators Bentsen and Boren (October 1980) have maintained a presence in the Seminole area, some as farmers, a few in business, the majority as laborers.
In 2006 there were approximately 5,000 Mennonites in the Seminole area. Old Colony Mennonites organized the Gaines County Mennonite Church, while other Mennonite groups active in the area included the Evangelical Mennonite Church, the Reinlander Church, the Gospel Mennonite Church (EMMC), and the Sommerfelder Mennonite Church.
Despite majority emigration including that of their spiritual leaders, Old Colony Mennonites reorganized and have maintained a presence in all their original areas of settlement in western Canada. Since colonization in Latin America began in the 1920s, there has been a persistent flow of people of Old Colony background to Canada, capitalizing on retained Canadian citizenship or that of immediate forebears. In the 1930s returnees from Mexico tended to relocate in their former home communities, or on the frontiers of settlement, especially in the Peace River country of N.W. Alberta. In the late 1950s and mid-1960s small numbers of people of Old Colony background from Chihuahua participated in settlement ventures in the Clay Belt of northern Ontario (Matheson), soon abandoned, and in the Rainy River area (Stratton) of Ontario. As of 1990 no further group agricultural settlements had been attempted in Canada by Old Colony Mennonites. Old Colonists from Mexico began arriving in southern Ontario in 1954. Since the late 1960s the dominant destination in Canada has been the intensive farming and industrial region focusing on the Ontario county of Essex, and the Regional Municipalities of Haldimand-Norfolk and Niagara, where many have become affiliated with the Evangelical Mennonite Mission Conference (EMMC).
See also Amish; Chortitzer Mennonite Conference; Conservative Mennonites; Elder; New Reinland Mennonite Church; Sommerfeld Mennonites; Schisms; Zion Mennonite Church; various colonies mentioned above. -- HLS
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Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, pp. 38-42; vol. 5, pp. 651-654. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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To cite this page:
MLA style: Krahn, Cornelius and H. Leonard Sawatzky. "Old Colony Mennonites." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1990. Web. 21 May 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/O533ME.html.
APA style: Krahn, Cornelius and H. Leonard Sawatzky. (1990). Old Colony Mennonites. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 21 May 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/O533ME.html.