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1957 Article


Mennonites and their history are characterized by severe persecution and subsequent migrations. The Mennonites of Swiss background migrated primarily to South Germany, France, and Pennsylvania; most of the Mennonites east of the Mississippi River are of this background. Smaller groups of Swiss Mennonites also went to Holland, Polish Russia, and Prussia.

During the 16th century the Mennonites of the Low Countries went primarily eastward to Danzig and Polish Russia, and only during the second half of the 19th century did their descendants begin to come to America, with the exception of the first Dutch-German Mennonite families who settled in Germantown, Pennsylvania. Those coming during the 19th century settled mostly in the prairie states and provinces, and are thus located west of the Mississippi River. Almost all Mennonites that have migrated to South America are of this background.

Dutch-North German Mennonite Migrations

When Anabaptism established itself in the Low Countries under most adverse conditions, migration to other countries was often the only chance for survival. The Anabaptists from Flanders went to the northern provinces of the Low Countries. On the other hand, German East Friesland became the haven of religious refugees from the Low Countries as a whole. Menno Simons, Dirk Philips, Leenaert Bouwens, David Joris, and many other early leaders and their followers found shelter there. Another German province which soon became a haven of Anabaptist refugees was Schleswig-Holstein. Wüstenfelde near Oldesloe became a Mennonite settlement with Menno Simons as leader. Soon Altona and Friedrichstadt  attracted refugees.

As early as 1530 Anabaptists found their way to the Vistula Delta and the migration to this area continued for a long time. Menno Simons and Dirk Philips were instrumental in establishing congregations here. From here the Mennonites moved along the Vistula River even into Poland after the triangle between Danzig, Elbing, and Marienburg had been occupied. Until the middle of the 18th century the surplus population was absorbed in new settlements along the Vistula. Thus far all migration had been on a scale involving small groups. From now on organized large-scale migration of Mennonites of Dutch background became common.

When Catherine the Great issued her Manifesto in 1763 inviting farmers from Western countries to settle in the Ukraine, the Mennonites of Prussia and Danzig were soon attracted, because they were continually encountering restrictions in their economic and religious life. Later the matter of exemption from military service became important. The approximate number that immigrated to Russia in 1787-1870 was 1,907 families, with a total of some 8,000 persons. This constituted a true mass migration of Mennonites in comparison with previous movements. Of this number about 400 families settled at Chortitza, some 1,049 at Molotschna, some 438 at Samara, and 20 families were reported to have gone to Vilna.

While the migration eastward was still in progress the Mennonites of Russia and Prussia were again studying the map to find a place where they would find complete exemption from military service, which they were in danger of losing in Prussia and Russia. In 1873-84 some 18,000 Mennonites left Russia to settle in the United States and Canada. Although the Chortitza settlement (Old Colony) was much smaller than the Molotschna settlement, it furnished almost half of the emigrants. Only a small number of the Samara Mennonites, the newest settlement, left. The chief reasons for this mass migration were unwillingness to accept a compulsory alternative service program and the objection to a Russianization program inaugurated by the Russian government. Only a small number of Prussian Mennonites joined this movement, whereas all of the Swiss Volhynian Mennonites of Polish Russia joined, half of the Swiss Galician Mennonites came to America, and many of the Low German Mennonites of Poland came to the United States as congregations (Karolswalde, Michalin, etc.).

An even larger migration of Mennonites from Russia occurred after World War I, when in 1922-30 some 25,000 Mennonites went to Canada (21,000), Mexico, Brazil, and Paraguay. The reasons for this mass migration were the threat of a complete disintegration of the religious, cultural, and economic way of life of the Mennonites. A much larger number would have escaped if the "Red gate" had not rather suddenly closed. During the German occupation of the Ukraine in 1941-43 some 35,000 were evacuated by the German army to be settled in the Vistula area where they had come from some 150 years ago. Because of the outcome of the war nearly two thirds of them were forcibly repatriated by the Russian army in 1945-46, while some 12,000 found their way to Canada and South America.

In Russia itself great migrations have taken place. Between 1850 and 1914 many new settlements originated in the Ukraine, Crimea, north of the Caucasian Mountains, along the Volga River, Siberia, Central Asia, etc. After the Revolution mass exiles and concentrations in slave labor camps contributed to the dispersion of Mennonites. Large numbers were sent to northern European Russia and to Asiatic Russia. Again during the invasion of the Ukraine by the Germans in 1941 many Mennonite settlements were dissolved, the total population having been sent to Asiatic Russia by the Soviet government. This happened to the settlements east of the Dnieper River with the exception of those which the invading German army was not expected to reach.  Kazakhstan, east of the Ural Mountains, is known as a new center of the Mennonite population.

All the Mennonites of Prussia and Poland fled in 1945 when the Russian army approached. Some were interned for some time in Denmark, while the others escaped to West Germany, where many of them have established new homes. A large number of the Danzig and Prussian and some of the Galician Mennonites migrated to Uruguay and Canada in 1948-52.

Migrations have also taken place among the Mennonites of America. After World War I many Old Colony Mennonites moved from Manitoba and Saskatchewan to Mexico and some Sommerfelder Mennonites moved to the Chaco of Paraguay. In general, the Mennonite population trend in Canada and the United States has been from the east to the west and from the country to the city. A considerable number of Russian Mennonites from Paraguay have come to Canada. There have also been some migrations within the boundaries of Brazil. Witmarsum was dissolved and New Witmarsum and Bage were established. -- Cornelius Krahn

Swiss-South German Migrations

The first migrations from Switzerland or South Germany were of Anabaptists fleeing persecution to a haven of refuge with Hutterites in Moravia, throughout the 16th century. This was not on a mass scale but included a considerable number of families, sometimes blocks or a whole congregation. Hutterite missioners invited the harried families to come, promising toleration and the security of a large group fellowship. The numbers leaving sometimes were so large, or other resources taken along so great, that the civil authorities took steps to stop the movement, both by counter-persuasion and by penalties, including confiscation of property and imprisonment, both of those departing and the missioners. To go to Moravia meant of course for the Swiss Brethren not only a migration but a conversion to Hutterianism.

The next migration, also caused by persecution, which became very severe in Switzerland in the 17th century, was from the cantons of Bern and Zürich down the Rhine to Alsace and the Palatinate on both sides of the Rhine, as well as certain adjoining territories such as Durlach or Zweibrücken. Since the earlier Anabaptists in these territories were almost completely wiped out by 1600-30, all the later Mennonite settlements in these areas were made by emigrants from Switzerland. The heaviest movement was in 1650-90. Some Bernese Anabaptists migrated to the Jura region of the Bishopric of Basel early in the 18th century, and about 1711 some immigrated to Holland. In 1714 the Anabaptists were ordered expelled from Alsace, and many left to found the community in Montbéliard, at that time ruled by Württemberg. From 1700 on there was an almost constant internal migration of families from Alsace westward into interior France, northward down the Rhine into Hesse, into Wittgenstein, and finally into Waldeck, where it reached its limit. Mennonite farmers were seeking land to rent and tolerable living conditions and freedom of worship. Mennonites from the Palatinate moved eastward in South Germany into Württemberg, Franconia, and Bavaria from about 1800 on. Others went from Alsace and the Palatinate to Galicia about 1784-85, and some of them later to Volhynia. Shortage of land forced some migration of Swiss Mennonites into Alsace in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

But the greatest migration of the Swiss-South German Mennonites, both from Switzerland direct and from France, Germany, and Galicia-Volhynia, was to North America. This migration was of the greatest significance for the future of the Mennonite movement. Beginning in 1683, one hundred years before the emigration from West Prussia to Russia begun in 1788, it lasted much longer (200 years) and ultimately moved more people. It was, of course, a part of the great Atlantic migration from western Europe to America, in which the Mennonites played a small role, although they have the honor of founding the first permanent German settlement in America at Germantown. This total migration falls into six successive waves: (1) Lower Rhine to Germantown, 1683-1705, 100 persons; (2) Palatinate and Switzerland to Eastern Pennsylvania (Franconia and Lancaster districts), 1707-56, 3,000-5,000 persons, mostly Mennonite, possibly 300 Amish; (3) Alsatian, Bavarian, and Hessian Amish to Ohio, Ontario, Indiana, Illinois, 1815-80, possibly 3,000 persons; (4) Swiss Mennonites to Ohio and Indiana, 1830-60, possibly 500 persons; (5) Palatine Mennonites to Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, possibly 300 persons; stragglers of the last three groups continued to come after the Civil War (1861-65) until toward the end of the 19th century; (6) Galician and Volhynian Mennonites to Kansas and South Dakota, 1875-80, about 400 persons. A total of possibly 8,000 persons crossed the Atlantic in the two centuries. Almost all of the first three waves found fellowship together in what is known as the Mennonite Church (MC). Including some Amish who never joined (remaining Old Order) and the schismatic groups, Oberholtzer (GCM), Holdeman (CGC, a minority part only), Reformed Mennonites, Evangelical (Defenseless) Mennonites, and Central Conference (GCM), the total Mennonite membership in the United States and Canada in 1956 of the descendants of these 8,000 immigrants of 1683 to 1883 number approximately 120,000 or three fifths of the total Mennonite membership. Since only 10,000 of this number are in Canada, the 110,000 in the United States (not counting the United Missionary Church) were over two thirds or about 70 per cent of the total number of Mennonites in the United States. A small Dutch group from Balk came to New Paris, Ind., in 1853.

This group of immigrants has been widely distributed by internal migration. A considerable movement to Southern Ontario from Eastern Pennsylvania took place in 1785-1840, accompanied by a southward movement to Maryland and Virginia. A movement westward (also from Virginia) across the Alleghenies into Western Pennsylvania and Ohio and finally from Ohio and Ontario to Indiana and Northern Illinois took place in 1800-60. All this was Mennonite. An Amish movement westward from Eastern (and Western) Pennsylvania into Ohio, Indiana, and Iowa (some to central Illinois) took place in 1800-60. Some Amish from Illinois and Ontario reached Iowa and Nebraska in 1845-80. Mennonites from Pennsylvania and Virginia reached Missouri and Kansas in 1865-90, and some went into North Dakota, Oregon, and Alberta in 1890-1920. Some Amish reached Oregon from Ohio and Missouri, also Iowa and Nebraska in 1880-1910. A small movement of Mennonites from Ontario reached Saskatchewan and Alberta in 1907-20. All these westward movements were part and parcel of the general internal westward migration in both the United States and Canada. Whereas the migrations across the Atlantic had as a major motive the search for religious toleration and freedom from military service, with economic betterment, the internal migrations were solely motivated by the search for cheaper land and economic betterment.

The Dutch Mennonites rendered significant financial aid to the harried Swiss and Palatine Mennonites in their migration to Pennsylvania in the first half of the 18th century. It is doubtful if many could have succeeded in the move without this help, since most of the Swiss were penniless exiles, and the Palatines had suffered heavily from the French invasions and the heavy exactions and economic restrictions of the successive Palatine rulers. -- Harold S. Bender

1990 Article

This section will discuss the migrations of Mennonites of European origin since the 1950s. The reasons for the migrations varied. Mennonites have migrated to maintain an agrarian way of life, to escape the pressures of governments, to escape the influence of Mennonites conforming to the world (nonconformity), to improve economic opportunities, and to carry on mission and evangelism.

In North America one of the most significant migrations has been urbanization, a continent-wide phenomenon, largely due to the mechanization of agriculture. Even though Mennonites were historically agriculturists, since the 1950s many Mennonites have been forced to relocate to urban settings in order to find jobs and professions. The increased individualism, mobility, and freedom present in urban settings has forced a restructuring of organizations and patterns of interdependence.

An indication of the rapid urbanization of Canadian Mennonites is that in the 1951 census 20 percent of Canadian Mennonites were identified as urban, 16 percent as rural-nonfarm, and 64 percent as rural-farm. In 1981 the corresponding figures were 51 percent urban, 26 percent rural-nonfarm, and only 23 percent rural-farm.

Canadian Mennonites have responded to urbanization by establishing churches in cities across Canada. For example, in 1987 Winnipeg had 40 Mennonite churches with a combined urban membership of about 10,000. Canadian Mennonites have also built a plethora of other institutions as a means of creating new community structures. The institutions include elementary and secondary schools, colleges, credit unions, and nursing and retirement homes. In Canada, Mennonites of Russian/Prussian descent have urbanized more rapidly than have those of Swiss background. In both groups, however, large numbers of adherents have chosen not to identify with Mennonite churches when they migrate to the cities.

In the United States Mennonites who have moved into towns and small cities have frequently established Mennonite churches. Mennonites who have moved into the larger urban centers have had greater difficulty founding Mennonite churches, and thus have often joined non-Mennonite churches.

In contrast to the urbanization of many Mennonites, in both Canada and the United States, other Mennonites have migrated in order to maintain a rural lifestyle. Attracted by the availability of good quality land and relative isolation from political and cultural pressures, the surplus populations of Old Colony, Reinländer, Sommerfelder, Chortitzer, and Saskatchewan Bergthaler churches have migrated to the Peace River and other northern areas of Alberta and British Columbia.

In the United States, Old Order Amish and Mennonites, as well as some Conservative Mennonites, have migrated to acquire sufficient land for their people. They have been buying land in the states of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, New York, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin as well as in those areas of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan that previously had no Amish or Old Order communities.

A few groups in the Unites States and Canada have also used rural migration as a mission strategy. Through group relocation in various parts of North America, they have attempted to form nuclei of churches which were expected to grow by drawing in people from the surrounding population. The Church of God in Christ Mennonite (Holdeman), Beachy Amish, and Conservative Mennonite churches have migrated not only within North America, but also into Latin America, for this reason.

Some Mennonites in Canada found migration to frontier lands inadequate to meet the threat of urbanization and acculturation. Beginning in the early 1960s, a few hundred Mennonites migrated to Bolivia. A number have since returned to Canada.

Numerous migrations have been carried on since the 1950s by Old Colony Mennonites in Mexico. Old Colonists, who had migrated to Mexico in the 1920s, were committed to an agrarian way of life. To protect their agrarian community life they also reject most forms of modern technology, especially technology which made them dependent on the larger society.

Since the 1950s, a dramatic growth in population due to a decline in infant mortality has forced Mexico Old Colony Mennonites to found numerous new settlements. Some new settlements were established in Mexico, but Mexico's restrictive land purchase laws made expansion difficult. In 1958 a new settlement was established in Belize (British Honduras). In 1966 the Old Colony settlements in Belize totalled about 2,800 people. These settlements alleviated the population problem in Mexico only slightly, and in 1967 Old Colonists in Mexico began new settlements in Bolivia. By 1986 nine settlements had been founded in Bolivia by Old Colonists with an adult population of about 5,200. In 1969 the first Old Colony settlement was established in East Paraguay to meet the needs of surplus populations in Mexico. Some Old Colony Mennonites from Belize and Bolivia have joined the Mexico Mennonites in East Paraguay. In 1987 the total number of Old Colonists in Paraguay was about 5,000. In the mid-1980s a new settlement by Old Colonists was founded in Argentina, and by 1987 numbered about 1,000.

In these various migrations a selection process which frequently developed was that those Old Colonists who migrated were the conservers, namely those who felt that the others had left too many of the old ways and had compromised the true faith (Conservative Mennonites [Dutch- Prussian-Russian]). In addition, those who migrated had to have the financial means to pay for migration and resettlement.

The Old Colonists in Mexico who were landless and too poor to follow the migrants south, had to look to other options. Many of them trekked north as individuals and as families to the Aylmer region of southern Ontario to work as seasonal laborers. (A return to Canada was possible because many of them had retained Canadian citizenship). This migration resulted in a large Old Colony settlement of about 10,000 to 12,000 people. Part of the group has become settled in Ontario, but a large portion migrants back and forth to Mexico on a seasonal basis. Other Old Colonists have been migrating back to Manitoba from Mexico since the 1950s. In both Ontario and Manitoba they rarely have the opportunity to become landowners and thus become tenant farmers, laborers, or seasonal workers.

A group of about 500 Old Colonists established a settlement at Seminole, Texas in 1977. Restrictive United States immigration laws have made further settlement in that country impossible. Despite all these emigrations, the Mexico Old Colony population has remained large. In 1984 it numbered about 29,000 adult members.

Kleine Gemeinde Mennonites who moved to Mexico in 1948 have also been forced to found new settlements. In 1958 they founded the Spanish Lookout settlement in Belize. In 1983 the Belize Kleine Gemeinde founded a new settlement in Nova Scotia. In 1968 a group of Sommerfeld Mennonites from Mexico founded a settlement in Bolivia, This church was named the Sommerfelder Mennonite Church.

Since the 1950s, hundreds of Paraguayan Mennonites from the Menno Colony have migrated. Some migrated to Bolivia in 1956 and founded the Gruenthal Mennonite Church. Others moved back to Manitoba because the Canadian economic opportunities were attractive. Mennonites in those colonies in Paraguay founded by refugees from the Soviet Union in 1930 and in the late 1940s, namely Fernheim, Friesland, Neuland, and Volendam, have migrated in even larger numbers to Canada. Some Mennonites from these later four colonies have moved to the Federal Republic of Germany. A few Mennonites from Brazil and Uruguay have also migrated to Germany.

One of the largest migrations of Mennonites in the 1970s and 1980s has been the migration from the Soviet Union to the Federal Republic of Germany, and to a lesser extent to Canada. This migration began in 1972 and continued strongly for about a decade. The migration became possible because of an agreement between the Federal Republic of Germany and the Soviet Union to allow family reunification. According to lists published in September 1987, 12,849 Mennonite immigrants from the Soviet Union had landed in the Federal Republic from 1972 to 1987. -- John J. Friesen


Dutch-North German:

Mennonite Life Maps and Charts. North Newton, KS, 1953.

Müller, Ernst. Geschichte der Berner Täufer. Frauenfeld, 1895.

Quiring, Horst. "Die Auswanderung der Mennoniten aus Preussen 1788-1870." Mennonite Life 6 (April 1951).

Smith, C. Henry. The Story of the Mennonites. Newton, KS, 1950.

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

Unruh, B.  H. Die niederländisch-niederdeutschen Hintergründe der mennonitischen Ostwandertingen im 16., 18. und 19. Jahrhundert. Karlsruhe, 1955.

Yoder, S. C. For Conscience Sake. Goshen, IN: Mennonite Historical Society, 1940.

Swiss-South German:

The internal German migrations are well surveyed in:

Crous, Ernst. "Germany" Mennonite Encyclopedia II: 491-93.

Those of the Bernese in Europe and in the 19th century to Ohio and Indiana by:

Gratz, Delbert. Bernese Anabaptists and their American Descendants. Goshen, IN, 1953: 57-78, 128-40.

See also:

Smith, C. Henry. The Mennonite Immigration to Pennsylvania in the 18th Century. Norristown, PA 1929.

Smith, C. Henry. Story of the Mennonites. Berne, IN 1941.

Since 1950s:

Doell, Leonard. The Bergthaler Mennonite Church of Saskatchewan 1892-1975. Winnipeg, MB: CMBC, 1987.

Friesen, Martin W. Neue Heimat in der Chacowildnis. Altona, MB: D. W. Friesen, 1987.

50 Jahre Kolonie Fernheim. Paraguay: Kolonie Fernheim, 1980.

Lehman, James O. "A Grand Migration Scheme." Mennonite Quarterly Review 59 (1985): 383-97.

Mennonite World Handbook (1984).

Mennonite Yearbook & Directory (1986-87).

Penner, Peter. "Kleinegemeinde Settlers Make a Mark in Nova Scotia." Mennonite Reporter (18 February 1985): 9.

Redekop, Calvin W. Strangers Become Neighbors: Mennonite and Indigenous Relations in the Paraguayan Chaco. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1980.

Sawatzky, Harry Leonard. Sie Suchten eine Heimat: Deutsch-Mennonitische Kolonisierung in Mexiko, 1922-1984. Marburg, Germany: N. H. Elwert, 1986; earlier version in English: They Sought a Country. Berkeley: U. of California Press, 1971.

Schmiedehaus, Walter. Die Altkolonier-Menoniten in Mexiko. Winnipeg: CMBC, 1982.

"Troubles Continue for Seminole Settlers." Mennonite Reporter (19 March 1979): 1.

Wiebe, David V. They Seek a Country: a Survey of Mennonite Migrations. Freeman: Pine Hill Press, 1974.

Wiens, Peter. Mennonites in Paraguay. Filadelphia, Paraguay: Fernheim Colony, 1987.

Author(s) Cornelius Krahn
Harold S. Bender
John J. Friesen
Date Published 1989

Cite This Article

MLA style

Krahn, Cornelius, Harold S. Bender and John J. Friesen. "Migrations." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 16 May 2022. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Migrations&oldid=143668.

APA style

Krahn, Cornelius, Harold S. Bender and John J. Friesen. (1989). Migrations. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 16 May 2022, from https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Migrations&oldid=143668.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 3, pp. 684-687; vol. 5, pp. 586-587. All rights reserved.

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