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This article was written in the early 1950s and does not cover subsequent Mennonite colonization movements.

Colonization is essentially a collective process of transplanting human beings from one geographic area to another. The process occurs when a group of like-minded people separates from a "parent" body or a similar cultural group and transplants itself to a new locality with the express purpose of establishing a separate organization. The essential difference between settlement and colonization is that settlement may occur when individuals, families, and small groups, together or independently, transfer their permanent residence from one area to another, without deliberate effort to maintain the previous cultural patterns or group identity.

The settler adapts his life and customs to the environment around him, whereas the colonist resists adaptation to his surrounding culture and tries to establish the familiar cultural patterns which he has brought with him. This cannot be done individually but must be done collectively.

There is a family characteristic about colonization that is well illustrated in the use of such terms as "mother" and "daughter" colonies. The first inclination of daughter colonies is to reproduce in the new community the same institutions and patterns of life that are found in the parent colony. As a spider spins his web out of his body, so new colonies tend to spin out of their own experiences and traditions a social organization similar to that of the parent body. In Mennonite history this is well demonstrated in the village patterns which have been transplanted by the Old Colony Mennonites from Russia to Canada, to Mexico, and to Paraguay. The Old Colony Mennonites established themselves in small European-type agricultural villages. In each of these countries in the mid-20th century when new colonies were established they became replicas of those established in Russia a century and a half earlier. One could find the identical village patterns, the same space arrangement of houses and barns, and location of orchards and gardens, as that earlier used in Manitoba and Russia. Even the names given to the new villages were the same as those found in the mother colonies.

We may then define a Mennonite colony as a group of like-minded people with common interests and common ideals, living in a well-defined geographic area, the central and integrating idea around which the colony is organized being religious.

Mennonites have traditionally been great colonizers. Movement in groups is, in fact, generally the only way in which they have agreed to migrate. There is a long and conspicuous list of examples of successful colonization. When Mennonites came to America directly from Germany and Switzerland in the early 18th century, they colonized in eastern Pennsylvania. Their subsequent periodic expansion to states farther west was almost always by groups. When in the 1870s the Mennonites from Russia came in large numbers to Canada and the United States, they sent investigating parties ahead to scout carefully for  colonization  possibilities. Invitations to colonize were accepted only where there was opportunity for all migrating members to be accommodated in compact settlements as well as for their children in the future. Likewise, the movements of Mennonites to the Latin-American countries of Mexico, Paraguay, Brazil, and Uruguay are all examples of contemporary Mennonite colonization. From Ontario to British Columbia, and from Pennsylvania to California, Mennonites are settled in rather solid and compact cultural groups.

Among Mennonites, colonization is almost exclusively a rural phenomenon. This is probably true because of their preference for agriculture as a vocation. Rural areas also provide fewer disintegrating threats to the compact nature of Mennonite communities. The penetrating forces of secularism do not seem to undermine and destroy a group's religious qualities as rapidly in the rural areas as they do in the cities. North Kildonan, a suburb of Winnipeg, Manitoba, is one city where Mennonites have colonized, several hundred Mennonite families having settled in this area. It is, however, a rare exception in the history of Mennonite colonization. Schönwiese, near Alexandrovsk, Russia, was also a suburban settlement.

Colonization seems almost essential if Mennonite religious principles and culture traits are to survive. The very genius of the Mennonites is their living in closely knit religious-centered communities. Without the sense of solidarity and mutual edification that close settlement and frequent social contact affords, the ideals of Mennonites can scarcely be maintained. The failure of American Mennonitism to establish itself firmly in any major American city (except Winnipeg) today would substantiate this point. For this reason, in times past and even in the mid-20th century, Mennonites have attributed a basic importance to colonization. It is, in fact, an integral aspect of Mennonite philosophy.

After World War II, when new homes were sought for the displaced Mennonites who escaped from Russia or for those who were uprooted in Germany, it was in areas where large groups could be colonized anew or absorbed in established Mennonite communities. Mennonite refugees were not scattered at random throughout the countries of the world. The movement of 1,200 uprooted Mennonites from the Danzig area to Uruguay in 1949 and 1951 is an illustration. Here through the combined efforts of American Mennonites two large tracts of land were purchased and colonies established. In this way a church could be established and the values, customs, and meaningful ways of life preserved. Thus in Uruguay as in Paraguay, Mennonites attempted to set up colonies that ould enable them to preserve their religious faith in the face of sharply contrasting ethnic, cultural, and religious conditions.

An essential ingredient to successful Mennonite colonization has always been the practice of mutual aid. Members of the transplanted communities have looked after each one another's welfare. Often the resources of the whole group have been pooled and made equally available to all. At other times the wealthier advanced funds to the poor, who after becoming economically established repaid their loans. Aid was not confined to material assistance, but counsel and mutual encouragement were provided through conscious and unconscious group efforts. Mennonites in one country have repeatedly come to the aid of their brethren in other countries in case of need.

The successful record of colonization in older areas has often been used to open the door for entrance (and special privileges) to new areas. Sometimes this has been solely a result of the obvious and well-known achievements and reputation by Mennonite scholars and leaders. Sometimes studies have been prepared by government officials for governmental agencies considering applications or subsidies. The first type is well illustrated by the Russian government in 1786 and following, seeking out the West Prussian Mennonites for colonization purposes, because of their reputation as farmers, as also the United States and Canadian governments seeking Russian Mennonites as colonists in 1873. The second is illustrated by memoranda prepared by representatives of Russian and American Mennonites in the period after World War I and World War II for Mexico, Paraguay, I.R.O. (International Refugee Organization), and the United States State Department. The third is illustrated by the action of the Uruguayan government in securing a report by a Uruguayan social scientist in connection with the movement of West Prussian Mennonites to that country.

The following table of successful Mennonite colonization movements lists only the major ones, ignoring minor groups and daughter colonies:

  1. Holland to the Vistula and Nogat deltas in West Prussia, 1540-1600 (see West Prussia).
  2. Switzerland to the Palatinate, 1650-90 (see Palatinate).
  3. Switzerland and Palatinate to Eastern Pennsylvania, 1710-50 (see Pennsylvania).
  4. West Prussia to the Ukraine, 1789-1820 (see Russia).
  5. Palatinate and Alsace to Galicia and Volhynia, 1789-1820 (see Galicia and Volhynia).
  6. Alsace and Switzerland (separately) to Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, at various places, 1815-60 (see Ohio, Indiana, Illinois).
  7. Ukraine to Kansas, Nebraska, Minnesota, Dakota, and Manitoba, 1873-80 (see the articles on the relevant states or provinces).
  8. West Prussia to Kansas and Nebraska, 1873-80 (see Kansas and Nebraska).
  9. Ukraine to Caucasus and West Siberia (separately), 1905-1914 (see Caucasus and Siberia).
  10. Manitoba to Mexico, 1922-25 (see Mexico).
  11. Russia and Siberia to Canada, 1922-25 (see Canada).
  12. Manitoba to Paraguay, 1926-28 (see Paraguay).
  13. Russia and Siberia via Germany to Brazil, 1930 (see Brazil), and to Paraguay, 1930 and 1947-50 (see Paraguay).
  14. Ukraine to Canada via Germany, 1947-50 (see Canada).
  15. Prairie Provinces of Canada to British Columbia, 1935-50 (see British Columbia).
  16. West Prussia and Galicia to Uruguay via Germany, 1949-51 (see Uruguay)
See also Colonies, Colonists, Mennonite


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Smith, C. Henry. Coming of the Rus­sian Mennonites. Berne, 1927.

Smith, C. Henry. The Mennonite Immigration to Pennsylvania in the Eighteenth Century. Norristown, 1929.

Umble, John S. "Factors Explaining the Disintegration of Mennonite Communities." Proceedings of the Seventh Annual Conference on Mennonite Cultural Problems (North Newton, 1949): 112-128.

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Author(s) J. Winfield Fretz
Date Published 1953

Cite This Article

MLA style

Fretz, J. Winfield. "Colonization." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1953. Web. 6 Dec 2021.

APA style

Fretz, J. Winfield. (1953). Colonization. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 6 December 2021, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, pp. 644-646. All rights reserved.

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