As my aunt was sharing her discoveries about our maternal side’s ancestry leading back to the American Revolution, I began to wonder about the origins of my paternal side. I began tracing the different names on my father’s compiled family tree (Gross, Hofer, Tschetter, and Wipf) and noted the listings of the births and deaths. At first, these were familiar locations but as I moved further and further through each generation, they began to change. I found Russia, Transylvania, and Carinthia. It was quite different from my maternal side, which showed a one-step immigration from England over to this country. What could cause my paternal side to move like this? I decided I needed to investigate this further.
One name that stood for me was Lorenz Tschetter, who journeyed from his home in modern-day Ukraine to Dakota Territory. In 1873, he lived with many of his fellow Hutterites in the Black Sea region in a community called Huttertal. This group had its roots in Moravia since 1536 when Jacob Hutter was burned to death for his religious beliefs. Then around 1736, 67 people moved to Romania to yet again avoid religious persecution. They moved into present-day Ukraine around 1770 at the invitation of Catherine the Great of Russia. She had obtained, through war with the Ottoman Empire, a large land mass north of the Black Sea. She needed people to farm that land so as to provide food for her massive population. In exchange, she promised the Hutterites and Mennonites religious freedom and military exemption. In the 1870s, Tsar Alexander II began the process of Russification in response to revolutions occurring across his vast lands holdings. He attempted to unite the multiple different ethnic groups into one nation by forcing communities to abandon their own languages and cultures, by beginning to draft young men into his armies, and by threatening religious freedom. He needed the diverse ethnic groups to think of themselves as Russians so they would no longer begin wars within his country and instead he could use them in his own armies to defend against other nations.
Hutterite and Mennonite delegates traveled to St. Petersburg and petitioned to be exempt from military service. The loss of their language and culture was unthinkable to them. As they realized the Tsar was never going to agree to an acceptable resolution, they began to look for an alternative. They felt their only option was to once again move to a new place where there would be tolerance of their religious beliefs.
The groups formed a delegation including Lorenz and his nephew Paul Tschetter and sent them to America and Canada to search for an acceptable solution. The instructions to the delegates included obtaining several guarantees from the government where land could be purchased:
- Religious freedom and exemption from military service
- Land of good quality, in quantity sufficient to meet their needs, at moderate prices and easy terms
- The right to live in closed communities, have their own form of government, and be able to use the German language as they had been permitted to use it in Russia
This list clearly outlines those ideals that the Hutterites held most dear. These were what beliefs they stood for and could not compromise. They knew they must preserve their culture and way of life as this was part of their beliefs and to do this, they needed to be able to live as their own group united by their common language and religious beliefs.
The group left on April 14, 1873, and traveled to the United States, including 13 days across the Atlantic Ocean. Paul Tschetter’s diary details his eye-opening adventures in this new country. Farming was the main occupation for the majority of the people so the delegates searched for suitable agricultural land. During three months, the groups traveled through Manitoba, Dakota Territory, Minnesota, Nebraska and Kansas. The Tschetters felt so determined to obtain a more definite promise from the government before returning to their community in Russia that they traveled to meet President Grant. They asked him for an exemption from military service and obligations, the right to speak German, and to be excluded from jury duty, among others. They returned home before Grant would give his answer. Eventually they did receive a response in which Grant expressed that it was up to the state in which they settled to decide upon these issues. However, he felt that for the next 50 years, the United States would not be entangled in another war where military service would be necessary. Seeking a new opportunity, these groups gathered their precious belongings, sold their land, and ventured into a new frontier in pursuit of preserving their Hutterite cultures and values. In 1878, Lorenz Tschetter and his family settled in the Olivet, South Dakota, area on an individual farm near many of his fellow Hutterites who also chose not to live in the established colonies. These families eventually united with local Mennonites.
President Grant was slightly off in his prediction, because the United States became involved in World War I in 1917. Once again, the Hutterite and Mennonite communities’ religious beliefs and culture became subject to government rules and regulations as well as local prejudices. When the United States entered the war against Germany, patriotic spirit rose. Anything that appeared German was under attack. Sauerkraut was renamed “liberty cabbage.” Frankfurters were renamed “hot dogs.” The non-Hutterite neighbors did not understand why those groups persisted in speaking German and living together rather than assimilate or why they wouldn’t buy war bonds to support the U.S. government in the war. They retaliated by vandalizing the Hutterite farms. The Hutterite groups tried to explain that their creed forbade taking part in any form of military service. Their understanding of the gospel emphasized reconciliation and peace. These strong religious beliefs also led to the Hutterites and Mennonites becoming conscientious objectors. Despite the First Amendment to the Constitution stating freedom of religion, the United States government in World War I did not provide for religious conscientious objectors. They were just as narrow-minded as the neighbors of the Hutterites.
One of the most glaring examples of the persecution of Hutterites for their beliefs was the incarceration of my relatives: Michael, Joseph, and David Hofer and their brother-in-law Jacob Wipf. In 1918, these four men felt the prejudices of others as they entered the trains on their way to Fort Lewis, Washington, as was mandated by the draft boards. They endured having their beards cut off by other draftees on the train. Upon arrival, they refused to wear the military uniform, sign the admission papers, or perform any duty as they felt any service was supporting the war effort. They were imprisoned first in a guardhouse at Fort Lewis and then in Alcatraz prison. They were left in darkness, filth, and solitary confinement. They were starved and beaten. When the war ended, their sentences of 37 years were continued. On their first night after they were transferred to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, they were left in the cold and without any clothing. Joseph and Michael developed pneumonia. Their wives barely arrived to see them one last time before they died. The other two men continued to be abused and tortured until they at last were freed to their family members. This incident prompted a partial migration of people from the colonies of South Dakota to Canada.
Now through my readings and research from books in my local library as well as my father’s collection, I find myself at an interesting intersection of genealogy and history. My maternal side fought on the side of the patriots in the American Revolution at the Battle of Trenton and the Battle of Princeton. When faced with the threat of assimilation to a foreign culture and loss of their own Hutterite beliefs, my pacifist paternal side immigrated to the United States, whose Constitution, written by the patriots of the American Revolution, established the First Amendment right of freedom of religion. My Hutterite and Mennonite ancestors did find, for the most part, a country willing to let them maintain their own culture, beliefs, and traditions which continue to be passed down through each successive generation.