Mennonite Historical Society of Alberta
MHSA Archival Description Record
Title and Physical Description
Old Colony Mennonites have their primary roots in those elements of the Flemish congregations of Danzig and West Prussia which, in 1789, founded the Chortitza "Old" Colony in South Russia. In 1875 the first of some 3,200 persons from Chortitza, and its daughter settlement of Fuerstenland (established 1864), settled along the Canada-United States boundary in Manitoba, west of the Red River. In 1876 the government of Canada accommodated them by establishing the Mennonite West Reserve of 17 townships (1,620 square kilometres) on their behalf. In Manitoba they called themselves the Reinlaender Mennoniten Gemeinde, and recreated a pattern of corridor farms stretching from a main road, an internal self-administration in which ecclesiastical authority dominated, and an economy based on grain crops and livestock. They persisted in viewing themselves, and continued to be viewed by others, as Altkolonisten (Old Colonists).
By 1880 the self-imposed and preferred isolation of the Old Colony Mennonites in Manitoba was beginning to be breached on two fronts. Historically related, but separate and less conservative, elements of the Bergthal Mennonites, who first settled on the Mennonite East Reserve in 1874, began to relocate to the still-vacant portion of the more fertile, open grassland of the West Reserve. In 1880 also, the Manitoba Municipal Act made provision for secular, local government. Moreover, the provisions for homesteading under the Dominion Lands Act were individualistic, permitting the communal aspects of "colony" life as dictated by Old Colony philosophy to continue only if all households participated voluntarily. As a result, the communal life was increasingly difficult to sustain.
By 1890 "progressive" Bergthal Mennonites had created a teacher-training facility featuring instruction in the English language and secular curriculum provided for in the newly proclaimed, but not yet universally implemented, Manitoba Schools Act. The Mennonite Brethren had also established an evangelizing presence in the West Reserve. These internal and external factors in a major way prompted the withdrawal of substantial numbers of Old Colonists to as yet unorganized parts of the Northwest Territories (Hague, SK beginning in 1890 and Swift Current, SK beginning in 1900).
From 1916, compulsory attendance, of all children ages 7-14 in provincially accredited schools, was enforced. This, together with the uncertainties that resulted from a universal military conscription during World War I and the increasing difficulty in enforcing discipline and conformity within Old Colony ranks, prompted a determination to emigrate. Beginning in 1922, the majority of Old Colony adherents emigrated, and established the Manitoba Colony in the Bustillos Valley of west-central Chihuahua State in Mexico, leaving behind in the West Reserve an excommunicated and leaderless group. The Canadian daughter settlements in Saskatchewan established the Swift Current Colony in Chihuahua State, and the Patos (Hague) Colony in Durango State.
Among those who chose to remain in Canada there were still many who wished to avoid what they considered to be the threat of acculturation and secularization inherent in the imposition of the secular school curriculum and English as the language of instruction. Until the early 1960s it was possible to avoid this threat by homesteading where public schools were not yet established, on the agricultural frontiers of northern Saskatchewan and in the Peace River region of Alberta and British Columbia, (Carrot River, SK; La Crete, AB; Fort Vermilion, AB; Worsley, Ab; Ft. St. John, BC; Burns Lake, BC; Dawson Creek, BC; etc.). This was possible because public education policy only required public schools to be established "where numbers merit". When the secular world, and particularly the public schools, penetrated their settlements, the more conservative again moved on. Upon the consolidation of the schools and raising of school-leaving age to 16 years in the late 1950s and early 1960s, this strategy was no longer workable, and a substantial number emigrated to new frontiers of settlement in British Honduras [Belize] and the Santa Cruz region of Bolivia.
In 1921 the Old Colony Mennonites in Mexico obtained documented privileges and immunities "in perpetuity" from President Alvaro Obregón and his government, equivalent to those granted to their forebears by Catherine the Great of Russia.
The debt incurred by the Manitoba and Swift Current Colonies in purchasing contiguous tracts of 600 square kilometres and 300 square kilometres from the Carlos Zuloaga estates at the unrealistic price of $20.50 per hectare in gold, when equivalent land could have been had for $4.00 or less per hectare, proved so burdensome that the Swift Current Colony eventually relinquished some 20 percent of its area, while the Manitoba Colony struggled for 35 years before finally discharging its obligations. The Patos (Hague) Colony (1924 ff.) escaped a similar dilemma because initial land purchases were restricted to immediate need.
Since 1944, the Old Colonists in Mexico have initiated or participated in at least 17 colonization ventures in 5 states, of which some 13 have been at least a qualified success.
Of the approximately 7,000 Old Colony Mennonites who emigrated from Canada in the 1920s, some 5,500 remained in Mexico. Their net reproduction rate has consistently been one of the highest documented for any group, averaging over 4 percent, and occasionally exceeding 5 percent per year. Despite emigration to Belize (1958 ff.), Bolivia (1966 ff.), Paraguay (1972 ff.), Argentina (1986 ff) and the United States and Canada (totaling at least 10,000), by 1988 the Old Colony population in Mexico had grown to some 40,000, representing a doubling time of approximately 16 years.
In 1977, some 100 Old Colony families and 20 families of General Conference Mennonite Church (GCM) affiliation but Old Colony background from Mexico and Canada attempted separate settlement ventures at Seminole, Texas. Great difficulties were experienced in meeting United States immigration requirements, despite active intervention by Senator Lloyd Bentsen and Representative George Mahon. Precipitation proved inadequate to sustain the intended dry farming. Excluded groundwater rights, however, eliminated the option of irrigation on 1,685 of the Old Colony's 2,600 acres. In 1979 the venture was liquidated in default of arrears of principal and interest. The General Conference Mennonite group had fared somewhat better, managing to retain its 1,172 acres of land. Those of both groups who had their immigrant status confirmed through ratification of a private Texas bill in 1980 have maintained a presence in the Seminole area, some as farmers
Despite majority emigration including that of their spiritual leaders, Old Colony Mennonites reorganized and have maintained a presence in all their original areas of settlement in western Canada. Since colonization in Latin America began in the 1920s, there has been a persistent return immigration of people of Old Colony background to Canada, capitalizing on retained Canadian citizenship or that of immediate ancestors. In the 1930s, returnees from Mexico tended to relocate in their former home communities, or on the frontiers of settlement -- especially in the Peace River country of northwestern Alberta. In the late 1950s and mid-1960s small numbers of people of Old Colony background from Chihuahua participated in settlement ventures in the Clay Belt of northern Ontario (Matheson), soon abandoned; and in the Rainy River area (Stratton) of Ontario. Old Colonists from Mexico began arriving in southern Ontario in 1954. Since the late 1960s the preferred Canadian destinations have been intensive farming and industrial regions, focusing on the Essex County, Regional Municipalities of Haldimand-Norfolk and Niagara of Ontario, where many have become affiliated with the Evangelical Mennonite Mission Conference (EMMC).
Variations in Title Proper
Source of Supplied Title
Source of Acquisition
Originals and Reproduction
Series A. Reinlaender Gemeinde Buch (Chortitza,
Fuerstenland, & Manitoba). — ca 1880-1903. — 424 tif images organized
into 5 electronic files
Series B. Reinlaender Gemeinde Buch-B (Manitoba
& Manitoba Colony, Mexico). — ca 1903-1942. — 343 tif images organized
into 7 electronic files
1-7 OC-B000 notes, index.tif
Series C. Reinlaender Gemeinde Buch-C (Swift Current,
Saskatchewan & Swift Colony, Mexico). — ca 1904-1951. — 553 tif images
organized into 11 electronic files
1-15 OC-C000 notes.tif
Series D. Reinlaender Gemeinde Buch-D. — 1928-2000.
-- 546 tif images organized into 13 electronic files
Alphabetical indexes to the registers have been prepared by William Harms of Altona (Series B) and Bruce Wiebe (Series C). The index to the 1930-1940 Manitoba Colony, Mexico register is combined with an index to the subsequent register which includes an additional 3,000 families.