European Amish come to Canada in the 1820s

Although Mennonites had not yet filled Woolwich Township, north of Waterloo Township, by 1819 they were looking for more land to develop to the west, particularly the Crown Reserve that became Wilmot Township. As they became aware that more townships were being surveyed by the government in preparation for settlement, in April 1819 they petitioned the Executive Council of Upper Canada to set aside a township, or part thereof, for Mennonites.

The Mennonites received a quick refusal since some government leaders, including Anglican priest (later bishop) and educator John Strachan, believed (correctly) that the pacifists in Upper Canada had financially benefited from the War of 1812.

The council also believed the pacifist sects had not made an appropriate sacrifice in the war effort, and had actually obstructed that effort. While the petitioners wanted a block settlement similar to their experience in Waterloo and Woolwich Townships, they likely also wanted to profit from land development as Mennonites continued to arrive from Pennsylvania.

The government changed its mind about providing land to pacifist groups in 1821, when it tried to develop the “Crown Reserve for the County of Lincoln” (roughly the present Township of Wilmot) in order to defray the expenses it had incurred in purchasing other lands from the First Nations. British immigrants, who would have been preferred by the government, were less able to contend with the pioneer world in the vast rural areas of Upper Canada.

So the government was forced to look elsewhere. The most interested settlers were Mennonites. News of the government offer in November 1821 to reserve a township for Mennonites reached Pennsylvania just about the time an Amish pioneer seeking economic opportunity for himself and his Amish countrymen arrived in North America. Christian Nafziger set out from near Munich in Bavaria in late 1821, and arrived in New Orleans in January 1822. He visited an Amish settlement in western Ohio, and made his way to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, by May. There his hosts advised him to seek land in Upper Canada, probably because of the recently reported Canadian government’s offer. Nafziger soon followed the suggestion.

The Amish in Bavaria were looking for alternative economic opportunities, at least partly because of the Napoleonic Wars and their aftermath. The imposition of military conscription became widespread during the Napoleonic Wars, even though the option of paying for substitutes was available in Bavaria and elsewhere. These policies, which created difficulties for Amish and Mennonites, encouraged widespread consideration of emigration.

Christian Nafziger did not come to North America promoting a mass migration of Amish. Rather, he was searching on behalf of 70 or 80 Amish families from his region of Bavaria. In early September 1822 Nafziger and two or three Mennonites from Waterloo Township traveled to Niagara to meet Lieutenant Governor Peregrine Maitland. Nafziger asked for assurance that land would be granted if the Amish settlers came. Maitland’s civil secretary, George Hillier, reported such a guarantee was not possible. However, the discussion did confirm the parameters of the land grants that would become available—fifty acres, with an adjoining 150 acres that could be leased.

The role of Waterloo Township Mennonite land developers is puzzling. In many ways Jacob Erb and others seemed to use Nafziger’s petition to strengthen their own desire for more land at favorable prices. Jacob Erb’s February 4, 1824, petition said “a great number of Persons [are] ready to settle on said [proposed] Roads.” One suspects most of the “great number” were Mennonites from neighboring Waterloo Township looking for a good land deal.

Nafziger returned to Bavaria, stopping in England on the way. There he conferred with Prince Frederick, Duke of York and younger brother of King George IV. Prince Frederick provided further assurances about land grants. Nafziger successfully encouraged some Amish families from Europe to settle in Upper Canada, but not many.


Wilmot Township settlers in 1830. Ontario Mennonite History 14, no. 2 (September 1996).

In addition, two families he encountered in Pennsylvania came to Upper Canada in October 1823: the Jacob Kropf and John Brenneman families. The Michael Schwartzentruber family, newly arrived in Pennsylvania from Hesse, Germany, and perhaps a few others, also came along to Canada with the Kropfs and Brennemans. They arrived even before the location of the government’s land grant had been confirmed.

Another young couple who came to Upper Canada in 1824 from Alsace was Joseph Goldsmith and his seventeen-year-old bride, Elizabeth Schwartzentruber. At the same time or a bit later in the year, Amish bishop John Stoltzfus visited the emerging Amish settlement, perhaps to see property that his father, Christian, had purchased in Woolwich Township many years before. Stoltzfus ordained two ministers and a deacon for the Amish community while there: John Brenneman and Joseph Goldsmith (ministers) and Jacob Kropf (deacon).

The arrival of the Amish continued until controversy arose from the 1828 decision of the Upper Canada government to transfer ownership of the recently surveyed Crown Reserve west of Waterloo to the new Anglican-controlled King’s College (later University of Toronto). This transfer introduced complications for the Amish settlers. It raised the prospect that their land costs would become much higher than they had assumed from Christian Nafziger’s 1822 conversation with Lieutenant Governor Maitland. Indeed, concerns raised by this controversy led to the early departure of some Amish families for the United States.

For more information on Amish and Mennonites in Upper Canada, read In Search of Promised Lands.

Ontario Mennonites and British Royalty

Since today is Victoria Day, I thought it would be interesting to reflect on various ways Mennonites have thought about, and related to, the British crown. There are not a lot of accounts, though I must confess it is also not something I’ve spent time researching. So below are some random thoughts.

We discussed earlier whether the first Mennonite settlers in Canada came because they favored the British monarchy to revolutionary democracy. I believe that wasn’t the primary motivation, though they were comfortable living under the presumed stability of a constitutional monarchy.

King George IV

Lithograph of George IV in profile, by George Atkinson, printed by C. Hullmandel, 1821. Wikipedia Commons.

Christian Nafziger, an Amishman from Bavaria, came to Canada in 1822 looking for land for some of his Amish compatriots. He sought assurance from local officials that land would be granted if the Amish came to Upper Canada. The response he heard in Niagara-on-the-Lake from the Lieutenant Governor was a bit equivocating, so on his return to Europe he stopped in England and sought and received assurances from “His Royal Highness.” Scholars now think this was not King George IV, but rather the King”s younger brother, the Duke of York.

When Mennonite immigrants have come to Canada, to obtain citizenship they have had to pledge allegiance to the British monarchy. They have done so unhesitatingly, though they always maintained concern about their rights and privileges as conscientious objectors.

George VI during 1939 royal tour

George VI and Elizabeth touring Queen’s Park in Toronto, 1939. Wikipedia Commons.

On June 6, 1939 the Mennonite Conference of Ontario delayed the beginning of its annual conference meeting from morning until mid-afternoon, so that delegates could join the welcome to King George VI in Kitchener. King George VI and Queen Elizabeth stopped briefly at the Kitchener train station during their royal tour of Canada in May-June, 1939. Later in their conference sessions, the delegates (all ordained bishops, ministers and deacons) sent a letter to Prime Minister Mackenzie King, saying “on the event of their visit to Kitchener, we joined in the general welcome to their MAJESTIES, to their Dominion of Canada.” The letter conveyed the conference’s “most hearty and dutiful appreciation” for their  visit. It noted that Kitchener had once been known as Ebytown, after Bishop Benjamin Eby, the first Mennonite bishop in Waterloo County.  It went to say, “We appreciate the expression of Christian faith and practical Christian spirit of THEIR MAJESTIES. We admire the exemplary and practical home life of our GRACIOUS SOVEREIGNS, and pray that God may ever bless them and all those who are dear to them.” It closed by expressing appreciation for the religious liberty available to Mennonites in Canada. The letter was signed by moderator Curtis Cressman and secretary Gilbert Bergey.

Queen Elizabeth II

Elizabeth II during a walkabout in Queen’s Park, Toronto, 6 July 2010. Wikipedia Commons

In times of war, Ontario Mennonites have prayed for the monarchy, as most Mennonites do for their government in difficult times. Respect for authority means that Old Order Mennonite schools today will have a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II hanging in their classrooms.

And then of course, there is the story of Ontario Mennonite native, John Rempel, who served as chaplain at Conrad Grebel College, Mennonite representative to the United Nations, and faculty member at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary and currently heads the Toronto Mennonite Theological Centre. On a trip to England he had occasion to be introduced to the Queen. He told the Queen that he was a Mennonite from Canada. It’s said that the Queen turned to an aide and asked, “Do we have any of those here?”

Perhaps you have your own story of Mennonites and British royalty. Comment by clicking on the button above.