The sketches below are from an article, “The Disciples of Menno Simonis (sic), Their Settlement in Central Kansas,” published in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper (New York), March 20, 1875. My grandfather Willems’ family arrived in Mountain Lake, Minnesota, the summer of 1875, and I imagine they looked much like the people in these sketches. Although these sketches were made in Central Kansas, the conditions my family faced would have been much the same. That area of Minnesota is prairie, and Mountain Lake had a Settlement House for the large group of Mennonites who descended on it beginning in 1873.
I came across the article and its illustrations one day while browsing the shelves of the library at the Columbia campus of the University of Missouri, which has a surprisingly large collection of books about and by Mennonites. Titled Brothers in Deed to Brothers in Need: A Scrapbook about Mennonite Immigrants from Russia 1870-1885, the book was compiled, edited & published by Clarence Hiebert, Professor of Religious Studies at Tabor College, a Mennonite Brethren school located in Hillsboro, Kansas.
This thick, large format book is a compilation of photocopied newspaper articles, government documents, ship lists, old photos, sketches and advertisements pertaining to the emigration of Mennonites from Russia to North America between the years 1870, when the Mennonites in South Russia began to seriously considering leaving Russia, to1885, when the largest wave of migration subsided. The arrival of thousands of these strange foreigners—about 15,000 to the prairie states in the United States and about 8,000 to Manitoba in Canada—evoked a flurry of curiosity. Newspapers and magazines sent reporters who researched the history of these people, their beliefs, values and reputation. They wrote long articles informing their readers abound the Mennonites reasons for migrating, describing what they looked like , what they offered to the communities where they settled, what their new neighbors might expect from them:
“The emigrants are a conscientious, hard-working agricultural people, and most of them are the possessors of a moderate capital. A very large amount of money has thus come into this country, as it is estimated that the head of each family brought from $2,000 to $10,000. They will be welcomed by any State within whose limits they settle.”
Those words are from the article which accompanied the sketches above. An even earlier example comes from a long, very thorough article printed in The Chicago Times, August 26, 1873, when the very first Mennonite emigrants began to arrive:
“ELKHART, Ind. Aug. 23.—The 19 families of Mennonites that recently reached this country from Russia, and who have been heralded throughout the country as the advance of a very large immigration, arrived at this place on Wednesday of the week and are furnished with temporary quarters until they decide upon a permanent location. The party consists of exactly 90 persons, old and young, all healthy and hardy-looking specimens, with the blonde complexion so common to the people of their native country prevailing among them. . . .
“The Mennonites are good agriculturalists, but are particularly noted for their plantations of fruit, forest, and mulberry trees. This culture they have followed with great success on steppes that were formerly perfectly bare. The intended emigrants are, according to the best accounts, intelligent, industrious, and persevering. In addition, they are very clean, moral, temperate and economical. They are excessively religious. Petzoulet (?) in his travels in 1835, says that it is his “firm conviction that Russia, cannot show any more diligent or more useful citizens.” There are schools in every village, attendance at which is made compulsory. Education is universally among them. . . .
“…they also bring a large amount of ready money. They are most acceptable as future citizens.”
Not all reports were this positive, and not all their new neighbors welcomed them. However, their agricultural ability was generally praised, and the gold they brought with them was never turned down.