I Was Confused By Mennonite Settlement Patterns… Until I Read This

There’s something I’ve been pretty fuzzy on for quite a while: the whole village vs land ownership thing. Okay. So, when the Mennonites arrived here in the 1870’s, they settled into villages. Yet at the same time, they also owned sections of land. This kind of blows my mind. Like, it seemed to me that there must be something I’m missing; some detail I must’ve glossed over. I mean, it just doesn’t make sense.

I first learned of this at a local history lecture in 2016, which was presented by the EastMenn Historical Committee. That particular lecture was also a book launch for the Historical Atlas of the East Reserve, which we bought that night, and I’ve been slowly digesting this information ever since.

I remember looking up at the screen, which depicted a map of the area surrounding Mitchell and Steinbach, illustrating the many village locations while at the same time also naming the settlers who claimed each quarter section.

While at the same time of course I was also experiencing great discomfort with the idea of settlement and pioneers claiming land… I was simultaneously confused by this village thing.

Okay, so let me get this straight: wherever the village was, someone owned that land. Just one person. But they all lived on it. And some individuals might own a piece of land a mile or two away (or further) — whilst living on someone else’s land. This weirds me out.

Turns out, the Canadian Government was also perplexed by the Mennonite’s tendency to settle in villages.

I’ve finally gotten my hands on a Historical Atlas of the West Reserve. I’ve wanted one for quite some time (ever since I began reading the East Reserve atlas) and at last have purchased one from the Mennonite Heritage Archives. I’ve been reading my way through it like an atlas-addict. It contains letters from government agents, flummoxed by the Mennonite villages, considering these people each had their own piece of land, but they were not settling on their land — rather, they insisted on living in villages like they did in Russia.

Here is an excerpt from one letter written by a Dominion Land Surveyor to Ottawa in 1881:

“I was somewhat surprised to find, apparently, so little agricultural improvements thereon; the Reserve seemed to be void of habitations, save for a few Villages far away. Coming however to the first one, called Halbstadt, and seeing there about 60 large grain stacks, and again, the second Village over 70, and the third, one with over 100 stacks, most of them consisting of wheat. I had to consider the matter of improvements in a different light, for so large an accumulation of grain requires a large acreage for its production, and many hands for its collection. Having inquired into the method of forming settlements practised by the Mennonites, I learned that at present there were 55 villages in the Reserve, presided over by Schulzen (foremen), one for each Village, who have to report on all municipal or communal matters to the Oberschulz (leader). All the householders constituting a Dorf must reside within the community to which they belong, and not on the respective quarter sections allotted to them.”

Here is the photo accompanying the above paragraph:

It’s kind of enigmatic, because I’m assuming the same fellow who wrote the letter to Ottawa had also taken this photo to illustrate his point. But, I’m not sure, because the photo has no label or caption. I’m assuming this is outside Halbstadt in 1881… but who can really know for sure?

Anyway. Now finally I understand a little more about the villages vs land ownership. Sometimes, it takes two years of reading for things to sink in, I guess.