East Reserve (Manitoba, Canada)

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"Reserve" was the name given to a contiguous tract of land set aside by the Canadian government for a certain number of years for exclusive occupation by a homogeneous group of settlers, to be divided according to their own plans. Two different reserves were provided for the immigrant Mennonites from Russia. One, the East Reserve, was identical with the land grant of seven (later raised to eight) townships (each six miles square) offered to the Mennonite delegates from Russia in 1873, and coextensive with the present Municipality of Hanover, which lies just east of the Red River, its northern boundary being about 20 miles southeast of Winnipeg, its southernmost boundary about 20 miles north of the United States border. Its total acreage is 185,000 or 290 square miles. The West Reserve was established three years later, and made about two and one-half times as large as the East Reserve. Its boundaries were changed several times but corresponded roughly with those of the present Municipality of Rhineland and portions of adjoining municipalities, lying just west of the Red River, including 17 townships (612 square miles). The names are still locally used to indicate the two major Mennonite settlements in Manitoba, although the old grants cover only the nucleus of the two rural areas of present-day Mennonite concentration in Manitoba. They represented the two largest compact Mennonite settlements in Canada (or the United States), and manifested many unique characteristics.

East Reserve, Manitoba

The East Reserve had never been meant to accommodate all intended Mennonite immigrants from Russia, at that time still estimated as 40,000 in number. Doubts as to the desirability of the area offered to them by the government had already arisen in the minds of the delegates of the land search committee of 1873, so that they, before returning to Russia to report, had requested the privilege of selecting, at a later date, some other portion of the country under the same conditions under which the original grant was made. When the first rather dry year (1874) was followed by several unusually wet seasons, it became quite clear that the East Reserve not only had a shallow stony soil texture in many parts, but suffered also from excessive moisture. As late as 1941 only 45 per cent (75,000 acres) of the land was improved, in contrast to the Rhineland Municipality of the West Reserve where 96 per cent (220,000 acres) was improved.

While all other early settlers came from woodlands and consequently sought the wooded hills further west, Mennonites had been adjusted in Russia to life in the open steppes and preferred the open prairies. They knew how to strike living water from level ground, how to build comfortable huts, and how to heat them, too, without a stick of wood; they also knew how to plant shelter belts for protection against the icy winds of the northern plains. Moreover, the open-field system of farming which they practiced, unknown among other settlers, did not require any wood for fences at a time when barbed wire had not yet been made available to provide cheap enclosures for the scattered farmsteads of the West. Thus the West Reserve, laid out between Emerson and Mountain City, at a depth of 18 miles north of the United States boundary, was really the first permanent agricultural settlement ever established in the open prairies of Western Canada without direct access to a major body or current of water. It also turned out to be some of the best farm land in the whole province of Manitoba. When this area was finally set aside "for the exclusive use of Mennonites from Russia" by Order-in-Council of 25 April 1876, the two Reserves together included 25 townships of over 500,000 acres, that is, about 6 per cent of the total area of Manitoba up to 1881.

The colonists who settled the East Reserve were composed of two groups: (1) the smaller Kleine Gemeinde group (some 35 families out of an original 100 who had left Russia, 30 families being diverted to Jansen, Nebraska en route, and 30 families refusing to settle on the wet land of the East Reserve and locating instead near Morris, just west of the Red River in what was called the Scratching River Colony), a schism of the Molotschna settlement in 1812, which had left the Molotschna in 1865-66 to settle in the Borozenko settlement and in part in Fürstenland, near the more conservative Mennonite Church groups which had settled in these areas from the Chortitza settlement (often called the Old Colony) ; and (2) the much larger (507 families) Bergthal group, which had left the Chortitza settlement in 1836-52 to found the Bergthal settlement (and which was accordingly Old Colony). The Bergthal settlement had consisted of 540 families living in five villages of the Bergthal volost, all but 34 families (who stayed in the Old Country) of which joined in the mass migration to North America. Of the total number of migrants, 453 families moved to Manitoba and settled in the East Reserve in 1874-79, while 53 families went to Mountain Lake, MN. The Bergthal group in the East Reserve was joined by 45 families from the Chortitza settlement in Russia, and 9 families from Puchtin. From this group a gradual drift of a considerable number of families to the West Reserve set in early, which by 1887 composed almost half (220 families) of the total Bergthal group (246 families remaining in the East Reserve). The West Reserve was settled first by the "Fuerstenland" group, from the Fuerstenland settlement in Russia which had been established in 1869 by settlers from the Chortitza settlement and was almost as large as the Bergthal settlement, and also "Old Colony." This group emigrated en masse to Manitoba and occupied much of the West Reserve in 1875-79, forming a compact settlement. The rest of the West Reserve settlement was composed of the Bergthal transfer mentioned above.

The Kleine Gemeinde group in the East Reserve settled in five villages in the northern part of the East Reserve, viz., Blumenhof, Blumenort, Gruenfeld-Kleefeld, Steinbach, and Rosenfeld. The 24 villages permanently established in the East Reserve by the Bergthal group were Osterwick, Hochfeld, Reinfeld, Chortitza, Schoenthal, Kronsthal, Bergthal, Rosenthal, Ebenfeld, Schoenfeld, Rosengart, Blumstein, Schoensee, Burwalde, Kronsgart, Hochstadt, Gruenthal, Gnadenfeld, Friedrichsthal, Hochstadt, Reichenbach, Barkfeld, Neubarkfeld, and Tannau, in addition to part villages and those which were soon abandoned such as Pastwa.

The founding of colonies such as the East Reserve was nothing new to the Mennonites. To their minds, a Reserve in Manitoba was in no way different from a daughter-colony in Russia or elsewhere in the world. Accordingly, they simply followed a pattern which they considered to be the reflection of their own sacred traditions, although in reality it was largely a result of the master plan provided by the Russian Colonial Law. This pattern included (1) village habitat, (2) open-field system, (3) separation between church and civil government, (4) autonomy both on a village and regional level, corresponding to village commune and district volost in Russia, and (5) a series of subsidiary institutes such as school, Waisenamt, and fire insurance.

The settlement pattern of the Mennonite village in the East Reserve, as it had been in Russia, was that of the northeast German colonial Gewanndorf characterized by a combination of line village with open-field economy. Each holding included a Hauskörgl (message, toft) along the village street and one strip in each of the "Gewanne" (open fields) into which the total area belonging to the village was divided. The toft provided space for house and farm buildings, barnyard, flower and vegetable garden, an orchard, and a small piece of plowland to be used for bulkier crops for home consumption, such as potatoes or cabbage. The fields were larger areas of plowland selected in such a way that the value of all land in each field, as determined by distance, soil quality, moisture, etc., was uniform, providing an equitable share in the available arable land of each villager. The size and number of fields varied greatly according to local conditions. The remaining village territory was set aside for utilization as woodland, hayland, and pasture. As the name open-field system indicates, there were no enclosures because all livestock belonging to individual villagers was pastured in common under the care of a herdsman, and in this way prevented from wandering about and damaging the crops. Moreover, after harvest the arable fields themselves were used for stubble pasture. Each homesteader was entitled to send out a definite number of animals with the village herd and to take a fixed amount of hay and wood from the common lands. Additional rights in these common lands and services were sometimes granted to either villagers or outsiders; in this case the rent or other payments collected were added to the income of the commune. This village system was ultimately abandoned in Manitoba, being finally discontinued in the East Reserve in 1909.

The open-field system is closely associated with the practice of crop rotation. A four-crop rotation with summer fallow (called Schwarzbrache) had been introduced by Johann Comies among the Mennonites in Russia, and was brought by them to Canada where fallowing was particularly important in order to preserve moisture in the soil. As a rule, Flurzwang is an obvious concomitant of the open-field system, whereby all the owners of individual strips in a given field are compelled to plant the same crop or fallow at the same time. Since headlands and roads were usually kept at a minimum to facilitate weed control and save valuable plowland, all farmers had to agree upon a rigid rhythm in their operations so as to give each one access to his property in season. This frequently required the close cooperation of several farmers or even of the whole village, particularly during harvest when time was at a premium.

The village organization briefly described above may be called the solidaristic type of settlement. For it presupposes and fosters strong social coherence, intensive interaction on a face-to-face level, readiness to co-operate and offer mutual aid, and a common value system which leaves few alternatives in one's everyday conduct, and which is enforced by strict social controls based on both inner and external sanctions. In fact, it would appear that it cannot be made to work adequately unless these sanctions have a distinctly religious connotation. For whenever hedonistic and other secular values become dominant, undermining the inner consistency of the total system of constituent group norms perceived in a religious context, the solidaristic type of rural community organization soon tends to collapse, yielding to characteristically individualistic forms of social and economic behavior.

Such was the settlement pattern which the Mennonites intended to reproduce faithfully in Canada's West. Yet, allowance had to be made for the essentially individualistic property system embodied in the Dominion Lands Act. According to it, legal title to land could not be vested in whole village communes as had been the case in Prussia or in Russia, but had to be acquired by each homesteader individually. Moreover, the unit of land measurements was a regular square, nowhere following the natural topography of the country. Planning after the traditional pattern was further restricted through the withdrawal of four sections in every township, sections 8 and 26 being reserved for sale by the Hudson's Bay Company, while sections 11 and 29 were set aside for sale by the Provincial Government for the support of schools.

Accordingly, in selecting the sites of future villages, the Mennonite pioneers had to do some careful surveying and figuring so as to fit the precise number of prospective villagers to the available surrounding area, measured in terms of quarter-sections to be taken up by each of them. They also had to consider the quality of the land, access to water and wood, the location of the village site in relation to its area of land, and its adequacy for building purposes. Once this problem in geometry was solved, however, the individual claims for homesteads were entered haphazardly, for legal ownership in any particular quarter-section had no real significance when the land was finally divided and laid out in common fields with individual strips in each of them, in common pastures, and so on.

While this method of land division, which was actually contrary to the intentions of the Canadian land laws, was made possible by the special concessions granted to the Mennonites by the Dominion Government, it rested on an entirely voluntary basis. Whoever claimed, or would claim in the future, full possession of the particular quarter-section legally entered under his name, could in no way be prevented from doing so. Unlike in Russia, the law of the country did not support the open-field system, so that its institution and maintenance depended entirely on the strength of inner sanctions and social controls among the group itself. Although in the beginning the wishes of most group members favored the establishment of compact villages, there were even then a few who preferred to settle individually on their own pieces of land.

A second adjustment was indicated by the topography of the country. Since this was different in the two Reserves, certain definite variations in the overall settlement pattern resulted. According to the earliest survey maps the East Reserve looked like this: In the northwestern corner there was rolling prairie land interspersed with marshy patches, willow brush, and undergrowth. To the east, part of a big swamp, most of which lay outside the Reserve, made a dent into otherwise open land. Next to it there was more shrub and bush. In the center of the Reserve only the environs of the present town of Steinbach were marked "clear prairie" or at least "prairie with bluffs of poplar and tamarack." From there a high gravel ridge ran southwest to the present site of Gruenfeld, and a small ridge just north of it. Most of the center was broken land marked on the maps as poplar, willow, tamarack, slough, burnt stumps, granite stones, gravel, and lots of weeds as a whole; though drainage seems to have been better here than in townships to the south where numerous sloughs are shown on the maps.

In the beginning, village sites were obviously chosen in natural clearings or on high land. The two gravel ridges alone gave rise to six or seven villages. Several sites chosen in a dry season had to be abandoned afterwards when the water level rose again. The villages founded in wooded land were inevitably strung along the banks of a river or creek; in these cases the village street followed the characteristic slant of the country from southeast to northwest. In open country, however, the rows of houses were parallel to section lines, usually running east and west as a protection against the north winds.

Although the location of some villages was changed in the course of time, while many others have disappeared altogether, an inspection of mounds marking basements and foundations, together with accounts gathered from old-timers, have made it possible to reconstruct the exact location of most of them. In 1877, when population density in the East Reserve was higher than at any other time before 1900, 38 villages were in existence. Five of them, on better soil and larger than the average, were occupied by the Kleine Gemeinde people, while all the others belonged to the Bergthal group. Not all the places mentioned, however, were fully organized village communes. Some were either small hamlets (Schanzenburg, Pastwa, Strassberg, Heuboden, Tannau, Eigengrund, Eigenhof, Ebenfeld, Vollwerk, Lichtenau, and Landskron), or incomplete villages planned to accommodate large numbers of later immigrants who never arrived. Most of the settlements laid out in the early years in township 7-4 East, and east and south of the gravel ridge, either on wet or on poor soil, were soon abandoned when better land west of the Red River became available, causing a partial exodus from the East Reserve (Pastwa, Strassberg, Neuendorf, Felsenton, Hamberg, Schoenberg, Schoenhorst, and Neuhorst, somewhat later also Burwalde). On the other hand, a few new hamlets and villages were founded in later years in areas left unoccupied during the first period of settlement (Blumengart, Silberfeld, and Neubarkfeld, a daughter colony of Barkfeld).

The Kleine Gemeinde group suffered a serious schism in 1881, when the elder and over a third of the members withdrew to join the Church of God in Christ (Holdeman), Mennonites. By 1885 also almost half of the Bergthal families had transferred to the West Reserve, and a full separation between the two groups occurred in that year. The East Reserve Bergthal Church then changed its name to Chortitz Mennonite Church to demonstrate its full disapproval of the other group. Thus from 1885 to the 1950s there were three basic groups in the East Reserve: Chortitz, Kleine Gemeinde, and Holdeman group. In 1944 these groups had respectively the following population-3,223, 1,365, 957, while three newly established congregations of the General Conference Mennonites had 1,101. There were also two smaller Mennonite Brethren churches established in 1927-29, and one Evangelical Mennonite Brethren church established about 1900. In 1954 the baptized membership of these groups in the East Reserve (and closely adjacent territory) was as follows: Chortitz 1,480; Kleine Gemeinde 1,248; Holdeman 1,012; General Conference 900(?); Mennonite Brethren 427; Evangelical Mennonite Brethren 312, a total of 5,379.

Emigration from the East Reserve had established or contributed to the following new settlements: Holdeman group to Swalwell, Alberta; Kleine Gemeinde to Chihuahua State in Mexico; Chortitz to the Paraguayan Chaco (815 persons and 13 families). Practically none of the Chortitz group went to Mexico.


Francis, E. K. In Search of Utopia: The Mennonites in Manitoba. Altona, MB, 1955.

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

Author(s) E. K. Francis
Harold S. Bender
Date Published 1955

Cite This Article

MLA style

Francis, E. K. and Harold S. Bender. "East Reserve (Manitoba, Canada)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1955. Web. 13 Jun 2021. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=East_Reserve_(Manitoba,_Canada)&oldid=91613.

APA style

Francis, E. K. and Harold S. Bender. (1955). East Reserve (Manitoba, Canada). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 13 June 2021, from https://gameo.org/index.php?title=East_Reserve_(Manitoba,_Canada)&oldid=91613.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 2, pp. 125-129. All rights reserved.

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