Esau, Johann Jakob (1859-1940)

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Johann Jakob Esau: engineer and politician; born on 25 July 1859 in Halbstadt, Molotschna Mennonite Settlement, to Jakob and Katharina (Neufeld) Esau. He was the third of eight children. In 1889, Johann married Margaretha Toews, daughter of Jakob and Margaretha (Heese) Toews, in Ekaterinoslav. The couple had four children, two of whom died in childhood. Johann died of a heart attack on 14 September 1940 in Davis, California, USA.

Johann grew up in a comparatively poor family that had suffered various financial losses. Johann initially studied at the village school, but in 1869, he and his brother Jakob received a scholarship from the Crown Prince Alexander (later Tsar Alexander III) to continue their education in the Ekaterinoslav Gymnasium. After they completed their studies, Johann went to the Polytechnical Institute in Riga, where, besides graduating as a mechanical engineer in 1884, he became fluent in Russian.

Although Johann and his brother hoped to work in the Molotschna settlement following their graduation, they were unable to obtain employment in their specialties there. Johann found a job as a laborer in Sevastopol and Baku before being hired as a designer and construction engineer in the Chortitza settlement in 1889, the year he married Margaretha.

Esau went into business producing agricultural equipment and transmissions. When a Belgian steel company eventually bought the plant, Johann stayed on as its general manager. He built a house in Ekaterinoslav, and after receiving honorary citizenship in July of 1903, he entered civic politics. He was elected to the city council that year, and when the city’s mayor died in 1904, Johann he took over the position. When his term ended, he was re-elected and continued on as mayor.

As a representative of the city, Esau spent considerable time in St. Petersburg negotiating with various government ministers and agencies. In December of 1906, Johann was awarded with the Order of St. Stanislav, third class, in recognition of his services. Over the years, he received a number of additional medals, the last one in 1915. In 1909, Johann was advised not to seek re-election as mayor due to rising anti-German sentiment, as well as some personal animosity. Instead, he decided to accept the position of supervisor of construction and business management of the South Russian Agricultural Exposition, held in Ekaterinoslav in 1910.

In the meantime, Johann continued his own personal business ventures, including construction and management projects. He managed the Medical Services for the army during the First World War, and he also helped establish the University of Ekaterinoslav. Once the war was officially over, Johann and his family decided to flee with the retreating Germany army, arriving in Berlin on 5 January 1919.

While he was living in Berlin, Esau was asked to join the Russlandmennonitische Studienkommission from Russia to investigate the possibility of immigration to North America. The delegates visited Mennonites in Europe before leaving for the United States, arriving in New York on 13 June 1920. Back in Germany after the initial negotiations, Johann and another delegate continued their talks with government officials.

Together with his wife and daughter, Johann immigrated to Reedley, California, arriving on 16 November 1922. Later, Johann and Margaretha moved to Davis and maintained only minimal contact with other Mennonites. On 14 September 1940, Johann died of a heart attack in Davis and was buried in the local cemetery.

Johann Jakob Esau was a dedicated and hard-working man whose education and talents benefited many people. Despite the difficulties he encountered, he played an important role in the Mennonite communities of Russia and North America.


Epp, Frank H. Mennonite Exodus. Altona, Manitoba: Canadian Mennonite Relief and Immigration Council, 1962.

Epp, George K. “Urban Mennonites” in Mennonites in Russia. Winnipeg, Canada: CMBC Publications, 1989: 254-257.

Esau, Johann. “Mein Lebenslauf,” published in a slightly edited form by Paul and Katherine Esau in Der Bote as “Erinnerungen von Iwan Jakowlewitsch Esau.” (15 September 1970): 11-12; (22 September 1970): 11-12; (29 September 1970): 11-12. Line drawings used were by Esau himself.

Esau, Margaretha. “Todensnachricht—Johann Jakob Esau.” Der Bote (2 October 1940): 3 and Mennonitische Rundschau (30 October 1940).

Esau, Paul. “Über das Mennonitentum im Ersten Weltkrieg,” Der Bote (20 May 1969): 5-6.

Esau, Paul. “Verdienstorden im Zarenrussland.” Der Bote (3 May 1978): 3; (10 May 1978): 4-5.

Evert, Ray F. “Katherine Esau” in National Academy of Sciences, Biographical Memoirs, vol. 76, National Academy Press, 1999: 90-101.

Huebert, Helmut T. Mennonites in the Cities of Imperial, 2 vols. Winnipeg: Springfield Publishers, 2006-2008: v. II, 163-169.

Mennonite Heritage Centre, Winnipeg, Manitoba: File 3345: 28-40, and additional material from Lawrence Klippenstein.

Toews, John B. Lost Fatherland. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1967: 50.

Author(s) Susan Huebert
Date Published April 2009

Cite This Article

MLA style

Huebert, Susan. "Esau, Johann Jakob (1859-1940)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. April 2009. Web. 7 Dec 2021.,_Johann_Jakob_(1859-1940)&oldid=125893.

APA style

Huebert, Susan. (April 2009). Esau, Johann Jakob (1859-1940). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 7 December 2021, from,_Johann_Jakob_(1859-1940)&oldid=125893.

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