One of the most noteworthy migrations of people from their ancestral homeland in Europe to North America was that of a group of Christians of the denomination known as the Mennonites, who migrated from their established colonies in South Russia to the prairies of Kansas in the late 19th century. A quirky group of pious, peaceful believers, the Mennonites lived in close-knit communities separate from the culture, customs and policies of the native Russians. Their fascinating heritage can be traced through their very beginnings in Europe from the time of the Reformation to the new societies they formed in the United States, and is shared by the author’s ancestors, who emigrated in 1873 from a colony in South Russia known as the Molotschna. The question then arises, what factors contributed to the migration of the Russian Mennonites from South Russia to Kansas during this time period? This question is worthy of investigation as one unique component of a broad and world-changing era of human migration, and also as the legacy of the author’s family history.
At the time leading up to the migration, the Mennonites, although not ethnically Russian, had been thoroughly established in Russia for more than a century. Large numbers of Mennonites had traveled east from diverse areas of Europe, primarily from Germany and Prussia but also from Switzerland, France, Poland and Hungary. This first migration occurred in response to a pair of manifestos issued by Catherine II of Russia on December 4, 1762, and July 22, 1763. These provided numerous privileges for the immigrants both in travel and as they settled in their new home. Among these were
perpetual exemption from military and civil service...free exercise of religious practices, [the] right to build and control schools and churches, [and] local self-government for agricultural churches.1 These privileges and exemptions would eventually prove particularly significant in the Mennonites’ debate over whether or not to immigrate to America.
With Catherine II’s protective laws in place, the Mennonites in South Russia lived for more than 100 years as a separate, privileged people keeping to themselves and maintaining their own German language and traditions, especially in their schools and churches. Their method of educating their children
was entirely within the control of local Mennonite communities. Each village in the beginning was free to choose such schools as it desired, or none at all if it so wished.2 This was a critical aspect of their society; since the main purpose of their schools was to
perpetuate the German language, and save the children for their fathers’ religion,3 the control of education became a direct way of preserving the Mennonites’ precious identity. The author’s great-great-great-great-grandfather, Johannes Fast, was a schoolteacher himself first in the Molotschna colony and later in Annenfeld village in the Crimea, contributing to this preservation of heritage by teaching classes entirely in German, mainly on the Scriptures. The Mennonites’ religion, in turn, was the primary focus of their communities and was closely tied up in their local government, another initial allowance of the Russian authorities. They had the freedom to elect their own officials, make and abide by their own local regulations and even punish local crimes. C. Henry Smith says,
In fact the Mennonites with all their special exemptions and privileges almost constituted a democratic state within a larger autocratic state enjoying local autonomy far above the native Russian communities. It was an anomalous situation, and could not last indefinitely.4 Indeed, circumstances began to change quickly for the Russian Mennonites in the mid- to late 19th century.
During the 1860s and 1870s, Czar Alexander II of Russia embarked on a major reform campaign, which included the famous emancipation of the serfs in 1861, consolidation of local rural government, and universal military conscription. These reforms were
largely the result of the growing spirit of militarism of the times.5 The Mennonites were affected directly and severely by these new policies: their educational systems were to be turned over to the Department of Education of Russia; the German language was to be abolished and replaced by Russian; the Mennonites’ representational political committees were to be disbanded; and their allegiance was to be transferred to the Czar.
In short, writes C. Henry Smith,
the days of special privileges were to close, and all German [Mennonites] were to become full-fledged Russians (Smith 44), obviously a threat to their separate, autonomous way of life. Thus, the loss of educational and political privileges was a major
push factor that contributed to the Mennonites’ desire to migrate out of Russia during the 1860s and 1870s. These new prohibitive policies represented to the Mennonites the chipping away of their cherished heritage and freedom to pass on that legacy. Therefore, the incentive to seek a new sanctuary was quickly strengthened.
push factor, perhaps even more significant than the loss of educational and governmental privileges, was the reversal of the point in Catherine II’s manifesto, which had allowed the Mennonites
perpetual exemption from military and civil service.6 Throughout their history Mennonites have consistently embraced the practice of nonresistance and nonviolence, and for the majority of them this necessitated objection to military service. When studying the multitude of historical Mennonite Confessions of Faith, nearly all of them contain an article dealing with
defense by force, or some similar term.7 For example, the 1766 Mennonite Articles of Faith, to which the Russian Mennonites likely adhered, holds that Mennonites must
bless them that curse us [and] do good to them that hate us...therefore...it is our duty carefully to abstain from all war-like weapons and from...hostile resistance.8 Thus, the principle of nonviolence and the practice of refraining from military service were so deeply ingrained in the Mennonite psyche that the loss of this special exemption in Russia upon the establishment of Alexander II’s universal conscription law constituted a crisis. In fact, the author’s forebears at this time began to think that
emigration might be the only way out of their dilemma.9 In a letter written by Johannes Fast, who served as a land scout sent by his village to America, importance is clearly given to the concerns of the village elder, Jacob Wiebe, regarding
official [military] exemption privileges for Mennonite immigrants...everyone who, because of violence done to conscience, gives up his fatherland as a sacrifice.10 The author’s great-great-great-great-grandfather and his friend Elder Wiebe were two of the thousands of Mennonites in South Russia for whom the loss of military exemption privileges was a significant factor in their decision to migrate to the United States.
Thus, due to the changing policies of the Russian government, which threatened their beliefs and way of life, the Mennonites’ decision to migrate partly resulted from being
pushed out of Russia. On the flip side, positive opportunities also
pulled them to America, impacting their choice to move as well.
The opportunity for education was one such desirable aspect of the Mennonites’ new home in Kansas. More specifically, the freedom to continue their own traditional form of education, which they had conducted in Russia, helped to draw the Mennonites to settle in the area. As mentioned above, the privilege of operating their German, religion-based schools had been revoked in Russia; would the Mennonites find that missing privilege in their new home? Mennonite historian H.P. Peters highlights the fact that in the 1870s, the time of the Mennonites’ migration,
the different state constitutions provided for...a school system, but...the requirements for education were very low and the school laws were very lenient.11
Article 6 of the Kansas Constitution, regarding the State educational policies to which Peters refers, does provide for the establishment and maintenance of public schools and subsequently lays down regulations regarding these institutions. However, Clause 5 of Article 6 also stipulates that
local public schools under the general supervision of the state board of education shall be maintained, developed and operated by locally elected boards12 and that these local boards may operate the schools as they see fit as long as they remain accountable to the State legislature.
Therefore, the policies of the Kansas government regarding education allowed for the freedom the Mennonites desired. Although rules and requirements were in place for the Kansas educational system, the leniency described by Peters prevailed on the rural, unsettled frontier in which the Mennonites settled. This permissiveness, combined with the legal provision for local schools found in Article 6, Clause 5, created conditions ideal for the establishment of the Mennonites’ unique and customary school system.
Johann Harder, the author’s great-great-great-grandfather and son-in-law of Johann Fast, became a schoolteacher at the Gnadenau School upon his community’s settlement in their new village of Gnadenau, Kan. (near present-day Hillsboro). H.P. Peters quotes Harder as saying,
We always had schools in the old country, therefore the different communities...wished to begin similar schools in this country, for the purpose of teaching the children the most essential things in life.13 Indeed, the curriculum and teaching style was nearly identical to that of the schools in Russia: students were taught the German language and learned the Scriptures along with their reading, arithmetic and other subjects. The purpose of the Gnadenau School and other new schools in Kansas was the same as it had been in Russia: to preserve the values and lifestyle the Mennonites held dear. Without the allowance for their desired educational system in Kansas the Mennonites would not have found as favorable a home there upon their immigration. Thus it was a key
pull factor in their move from Russia.
Additionally, how did the Mennonites’ religious values - including the cherished policy of nonresistance, which had been so crucial in their decision to leave Russia - come into play? Certainly the American reputation of religious liberty and acceptance, embodied in the First Amendment’s promise that
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, served to draw the Mennonites to Kansas. Historically a unique, separate people, the Mennonites found comfort in the idea that this new place with all its rights and liberties would welcome their taste for
local autonomy and respect for the individual conscience.15
The South Russian immigrants established their churches almost immediately upon arrival, taking advantage of their religious freedom and splitting into various factions as they saw fit. The author’s ancestors belonged to the Krimmer Mennonite Brethren, named for their native Crimean region. They established their church in their new village of Gnadenau, where
they displayed the same religious zeal which characterized their spiritual life in the Crimea.16 Thus, the freedom of religion in the United States, including Kansas, was a significant
pull factor and contributed greatly to the continuation of their religious heritage even on a new continent.
Interestingly, however, although the issue was a fundamental factor in their decision to leave Russia, the Mennonites received no absolute guarantees of exemption from the military upon their immigration to the United States. Their eagerness to leave their worsening situation in Russia caused them to look upon the opportunity to emigrate with favor, despite their uncertainty of being granted future privileges in their new home.
They were encouraged by the railroad companies of the United States, who viewed the Mennonites as high-quality agriculturalists and potential customers for their unsettled land. The Santa Fe Railroad company even sent a German settlement agent, C.B. Schmidt, to the South Russian villages in order to entice the Mennonites to migrate to the American Midwest. In an article entitled
Foreign Immigration Work for Kansas Schmidt describes his visit to the Molotschna Colony itself. There, in response to the villagers’ questions, Schmidt
assured them there was a provision in the Constitution of Kansas exempting from military duty all those who had religious scruples.17 The provision to which Schmidt refers can indeed be found in the Kansas Constitution: Article 8 Clause 1 indicates that
all citizens of any religious denomination whatever who from scruples of conscience may be averse to bearing arms shall be exempted from military service.18 However, this refers only to the Kansas state militia and has nothing to do with special exemption from the U.S. military - hence, Schmidt’s promise was shaky at best. However, since, as historian James Juhnke suggests, the Mennonites were
already predisposed to settle in Kansas...this provision could be grasped as sufficient legal protection for the doctrine of nonresistance.19 The reason for this predisposition was to a great extent the alluring offers of the railroad companies, as evidenced by the persistent courting of agents such as Schmidt. Therefore, although religious freedom was a significant impetus, the more legitimate
pull factor was land.
As land scouts for their village of Annenfeld, Johannes Fast and his wife Elisabeth experienced the vast land available at the frontier of the late 19th-century United States a full year before any of their fellow villagers did. In a letter written home to his family on Feb. 24, 1874, Johannes says,
I am not here in order to get rich but to eat my own bread with thanksgiving and to do my day’s work in peace, and then to go over into the Sabbath rest. I believe I can do that here20 (Harder Ed. 12, page 1).
This telling statement by Johannes, a simple, common man, reveals the general mindset of his fellow Mennonites in South Russia: they simply wanted to be allowed to go about their lives as they always had. The United States, they believed, offered freedom
such as the Mennonites had had and were losing in Russia. A key aspect of America’s appeal - and more specifically the attractiveness of Kansas - was the availability of land, which would allow them, as Johann had hoped, to produce and
eat their own bread. The Mennonites formed primarily an agricultural society, with farming as their main occupation. In the mid-1870s, the time of the Mennonites’ migration, the United States still had an open frontier with immense unsettled territories, obviously an attraction for poor South Russian immigrants looking for farmland. The railroad companies took advantage of this desire for land, both by sending agents such as C.B. Schmidt to persuade the Mennonites to immigrate and by subsequently selling the territory to them cheaply in alternating blocks. The Mennonite Encyclopedia describes a purchase by the first Mennonites to migrate to Kansas of
land from the Santa Fe Railroad...for $2.50 per acre...With this land purchase, the die was cast for Kansas.22
In addition, it was not only the inexpensiveness and quantity of land offered in Kansas, but also the quality of the land, which attracted the Mennonites. The Kansas prairies bore a great geographical resemblance to the terrain of South Russia.
The weather, the crops, and the general conditions were very similar to those of the Molotschna settlement. Winter wheat and even watermelons could be expected to grow here just as in Russia.23 The familiarity of their potential new home offered the Mennonites the opportunity to build new lives for themselves within their traditional economic niche.
Johannes Fast expresses this positive outlook in his letter home to Elder Wiebe:
What I have seen here in Kansas has been inviting to me, and regarding the law of nature Kansas ranked first for me. The climate here is considered to be healthy and...according to the law of nature, the winter is shorter...and the summer is longer...So we advise you, dear children, to come here.24 From a villager’s perspective, the land would be suitable for maintaining the Mennonites’ agricultural way of life. They weren’t alone in their desire for agricultural success in the United States. President Ulysses Grant expressed support for the Mennonites’ immigration, having heard about their outstanding farming capabilities; although no official governmental sanction of the Mennonites’ immigration was ever passed, they were fully allowed to settle in Kansas and similar areas, where they pursued their economic goals.25 The Mennonites actually became prime contributors to agriculture in the United States; with the introduction of the hard winter wheat the Mennonites brought from Russia, Kansas became a major wheat producer. The region has even been dubbed
bread basket for the world, with Kansas Mennonites at the forefront of this agricultural development.26
Through the investigation of both secondary sources pertaining to the broad histories of Russia, the United States and the Mennonite denomination, and through the insight of primary sources written by individuals (including the author’s ancestors) who were directly involved in the issue, it becomes clear that a few specific factors arose as contributing causes to the migration of the Mennonites from South Russia to Kansas in the 1870s. The Mennonites were influenced by negative factors, which
pushed them out of Russia, including the loss of their autonomous governmental and educational systems and the revocation of their exemption from the military. They were also induced to migrate by positive factors, which
pulled them to Kansas, such as the opportunity for local education, the allowance for religious freedom and the availability and quality of land. When analyzed, these push and pull factors reveal themselves to be merely different sides of the same coin: that of the Mennonites’ desire to preserve their heritage and lifestyle, whether through government, education, religion or agriculture. Thus these factors emerge as the causes of the migration, a fascinating study of a community’s relationship to its culture amid the events of this specific period in history.