Staats Overholt (“Staats” was his mother’s maiden name) had a difficult start in life. His father, Mark, died in 1754, leaving his widow, Elizabeth, and three young children in difficult financial circumstances. But Staats persevered and eventually married Susannah Hunsberger, with whom he had six children. Staats and Susannah lived in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, along with many fellow Mennonites. When the Revolutionary War came, Staats and most of his fellow Mennonites chose to pay hefty fines in order to avoid mustering with local militia units. Three years after the war ended, when their oldest son was approaching the age for militia service, Staats and Susannah chose to move to Canada, along with several other families from Bucks County. Were Staats Overholt and his fellow 1786 immigrants Loyalists? Or was Staats primarily seeking for land he could afford to buy for his six children? The motivation for Mennonite emigration from well-settled Pennsylvania farm country to a land with few buildings and covered with trees has long been debated by descendants of early Ontario Mennonite.
The Niagara Peninsula was part of Quebec under the French sphere of influence until it was taken by the British in 1759 during the French and Indian War. When the Revolutionary War began, Fort Niagara became a gathering point for Loyalists, and it became a launching point for British military activity. The territory on the west (Canadian) side of the river was then minimally inhabited. In 1781 the Ojibwa Nation surrendered some of this land to the British; it than began to be informally settled by individual Loyalists who had been displaced by the fighting further south. In May 1784 the British obtained additional Ojibwa land (about three million acres).
Initially there were many Loyalist settlers who had served in British militias during the Revolution. After the war even more Loyalists began to settle on the Canadian side of the Niagara River, even though land surveys had not been completed. Indeed, the land survey on the Niagara Peninsula was not completed until after the first Mennonites had arrived.
Historians are not certain when the first self-identified Mennonites came to Canada. It is likely that individual Amish or Mennonite families found their way to the Maritimes before the Revolutionary War. Loyalist soldiers with Amish and Mennonite heritage also arrived in Canada by the end of the war. But the first settlers who have been clearly identified as Mennonites. such as Staats and Susannah, came to Niagara in 1786.
Were these Mennonites Loyalists? Without question some of these families had Loyalist impulses. The Pennsylvania Test Act of 1777 deprived Mennonites and Tunkers of many civil rights if they did not renounce the British Crown. These lost rights included the ability to vote, hold political office, take people to court who owed money or, initially, even transfer property by deed. The Test Act was not repealed until 1789.
A prime example of a Mennonite loyalist would have been Abraham Boehm, a Mennonite farmer in Lancaster County. In 1780 he was accused of selling cattle to the British, and later of helping deserters from the Continental Army escape to British territory. He was imprisoned and fined an amount that equaled half the value of his farm. He had to borrow money to pay the fine. In 1788 he sold what he had left, and moved to just across the Niagara River into what became Upper Canada. Even with his experience in Pennsylvania, Abraham was never formally recognized as a United Empire Loyalist, because he had never served in a British militia.
It is my belief that some Mennonites and Amish who came to Canada before 1790 can be thought of as Loyalists. But those who came later were seeking lower priced “promised lands.”
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