Land Distribution (Canada and Latin America)

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After the American Revolution some Mennonites of Swiss origin in Pennsylvania moved to Ontario, which at that time was known as Upper Canada. One of the reasons for migrating was the availability of land, since inexpensive land in Pennsylvania had become scarce. Some of the land in Ontario was free; other land was available at an inexpensive price.

The first Mennonite settlement in Ontario was founded in 1786 in the Niagara Peninsula about 32 km (20 miles) west of the Niagara River. The second settlement was established about the same time in what became Waterloo County. In both of these settlements, land was purchased by individuals. When it was discovered that the Mennonites who had purchased the land in the Waterloo Township area had been defrauded and were about to lose their land, a stock company was formed by a group of Pennsylvania Mennonites. This stock company collected money in Pennsylvania, bought 60,000 acres (two-thirds of Waterloo Township), paid off the mortgage, and made the land available to Mennonites. A number of years later another similar stock company was formed to purchase 45,000 acres in Woolwich Township immediately north of Waterloo Township. This land was in turn sold to individual Mennonites. The land near Markham, Ont. was purchased directly by individuals.

The first Amish settlement in Ontario was inspired by Christian Nafziger from Bavaria, who took out an option on a large tract of land in Wilmot Township, west of the Mennonite settlements. Amish began to settle on this land in 1824, with individuals taking out title to their own land.

Russian Mennonites who moved to Manitoba in the 1870s also were looking for large tracts of land (block settlement) sufficient for their expanding populations. Many of the people who immigrated had been landless in Russia. In the Bergthal Colony in Russia in 1874, for example, there were 350 landless families. This included about half of the colony. When the Bergthal Colony decided to move, they devised a financial system whereby even the poorest could afford to migrate. The colony decided that all members who had money invested in the local financial institution (Waisenamt) would contribute 10 percent of their account toward the travel costs of the landless. This allowed everyone to move without a travel debt.

In addition to desiring land adequate for their population, Russian Mennonites who moved to Manitoba (3,000 Bergthaler, 690 Kleine Gemeinde, and about 3,240 Reinländer) desired to establish the traditional Russian Mennonite institutions. They established the civil administration of village and Gebietsamt (municipality) which was responsible for schools, roads, land distribution, and financial organizations. They also established church organizations (Gemeinden), each of which was led by an Ältester (elder) and ministers. The churches provided the religious rationale and basis for the institutions and patterns of living.

All three churches, the Bergthaler, Kleine Gemeinde and Reinländer, decided that in Manitoba they would establish the Russian Mennonite village pattern. Even though villages contravened the Canadian homestead provision which required each homesteader to live on the land to which he claimed title, the Canadian government acceded to the Mennonites' request and allowed them to settle in hamlets. Because the government decided that a hamlet had to have a minimum of 20 householders, original villages normally contained 20 farmyards, 10 on each side of a central street, with 20 quarter-sections (160 acres [65 hectares] per quarter-section) of land surrounding the village. Each quarter-section was legally registered in the name of one of the householders, but the village and the land within the 20 quarter-sections was divided according to the traditional pattern of a street village (Straßendorf), a large common pasture, and long narrow strips of land (kögel) upon which crops were grown. This redistribution of land generally had no basis in law, but was undergirded by the authority of the church. In those areas where church authority broke down or where churches split, the villages frequently disbanded. In Manitoba a tension was thus established between the wishes and the legal rights of the individual on one hand, and the good of the community on the other.

Some of the Bergthal villages in both the East and West Reserve in Manitoba fell apart fairly early. When the young people needed more land, land acquisition became an individual or family matter. This tended to cause economic differences to increase with the rich becoming richer and the poor becoming poorer.

The Reinländer Mennonite Church on the West Reserve in Manitoba retained the village pattern, and land acquisition for its growing population was a community concern. The Reinländer church attempted to negotiate for larger tracts of land upon which villages could be established in the traditional pattern, and in which people could apply for homesteads or purchase land. Consequently the Reinländer church negotiated with the Canadian government for a large tract of land in the Hague-Osler area in 1895, and in the Swift Current area in 1905. Both regions were part of the Northwest Territories at the time of negotiation, and within the province of Saskatchewan since 1905. The terms of the reserve were that the land was set aside for exclusive Mennonite settlement, but all the land was purchased or taken up in homestead individually. The wealthier people were consequently able to purchase more land for themselves and their children than were the poor families.

The major reason for the Mennonite emigrations to Mexico and Paraguay from western Canada in the 1920s was the resolve by a number of churches to prevent the Saskatchewan and Manitoba governments from assuming control of their schools. In addition to this principal reason, the leadership of the churches had begun to view with some unease the growing general wealth, and the increasing disparity between the wealthy and the poor. Some leaders felt that a difficult pioneer experience in a new land might help to level the economic ability of the members and create a more united church.

The groups which emigrated in the 1920s, namely the Reinländer (Old Colony) and Sommerfelder to Mexico, and the Sommerfelder, Saskatchewan Bergthaler, and Chortitzer to the Menno Colony in Paraguay, all decided to establish the village system in their new settlements. They laid out their villages in the traditional Russian Mennonite Straßendorf pattern.

When the Sommerfelder Church settled in Mexico it decided to allow its members to decide whether they wanted to acquire legal title to their land communally through a corporation from which the land would be purchased by individuals, or whether they wanted to own their land by individual title.

The Old Colony Church in Mexico, in contrast, decided that each colony, namely the Manitoba, Swift, and Durango colonies, would be owned communally in the name of a corporation consisting of men selected by the church in each of the colonies. The land was subsequently divided into villages, and the people, even before they left Canada, were able to select which land in which village they wanted to purchase. Those in Canada, who were wealthier, could purchase more land. All purchases were, however, made from the corporation and not from the government. In this way the church could control who initially bought land and to whom land could subsequently be sold. It is also evident the vexatious problem of economic disparity was built right into the initial Old Colony settlements in Mexico. Since the 1950s in the Old Colony settlements in Mexico, the economic disparities between rich and poor, landowners and landless, have become ever greater.

The Old Colonists who emigrated from Mexico to Belize, Bolivia, Paraguay and Argentina retained the Mexican pattern of land ownership. They settled in villages. The land on which the villages were laid out was owned by a corporation established by the church. The church was thus able to control the purchase and sale of land. This was considered an important protective device because nearly without exception, Mennonite churches from Canada or the United States carried on missions directed at the Old Colonists. If the land was not controlled by the church, the church feared that members who converted to these mission churches could break up the village communities as had happened in Manitoba before the emigration to Mexico in the 1920s.

Colonies in Paraguay which were founded by Mennonites who moved from Canada (Menno Colony, 1926; Bergthal and Sommerfeld, 1948) and from Europe (Fernheim, 1930; Friesland, 1935; Vollendam, 1948; Neuland, 1948) have also followed the pattern in which the land comprising the colony is legally owned collectively by the colony. The colony controls who can sell and purchase land. In some colonies, such as Menno Colony, the colony's producer-consumer cooperative handles the transactions of land. In the Fernheim colony the principal town, Filadelphia, has been opened up to permit non-Mennonites to reside in it. Generally, though, control of land purchase allows colonies to prevent non-Mennonite Paraguayans from moving into colony communities.

Mennonite missions in Paraguay have converted numerous members of two nomadic peoples, the Lengua and Chulub (Chulup), to the Mennonite faith. From their Mennonite mentors these nomadic people have learned the practice of settled agriculture. During the past number of years, Paraguayan Mennonites, with help from West German Mennonites, have helped these people purchase their own land.


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Author(s) John J Friesen
Date Published 1990

Cite This Article

MLA style

Friesen, John J. "Land Distribution (Canada and Latin America)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1990. Web. 14 Dec 2019.

APA style

Friesen, John J. (1990). Land Distribution (Canada and Latin America). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 14 December 2019, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 505-507. All rights reserved.

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