After 1793 Quakers, Mennonites and Tunkers (Brethren in Christ) in Upper Canada could avoid militia service if they were willing to pay an annual fine. This was similar to arrangements that existed in the United States.
Within 20 years of this understanding, Upper Canadian Mennonites faced their first challenge in relation to war. That was a ongoing conflict between the United States and Great Britain that resulted in the War of 1812. Prior to the war, concern about the impending conflict led Upper Canadian Mennonites to take several steps. In 1810 they petitioned the government to recognize their unbaptized sons under the age of 21 as also exempt from militia service. This petition was accepted. In 1811 they reprinted an English translation of the Dordrecht Confession of Faith in Niagara-on-the-Lake. This was done to better inform their government and their neighbors of their long heritage as a peace church.
For Mennonites in the Waterloo and Markham areas the war, when it came, was not terribly onerous. They paid their fines to avoid militia service, and they allowed their horses and wagons to used by the military to transport goods, sometimes with their sons as drivers. Although there were some scary incidents, these Mennonites prospered as they received top dollar for the products their farms produced. The scariest incident took place in the fall of 1813 when a large number of young men from the Grand River settlement were pressed into service to assist Major General Procter in his retreat from Detroit in September. The British forces were overtaken and scattered by a larger American force in the Battle of the Thames (near present-day Chatham). In the chaos of retreat the Mennonite young men were ordered to flee as they could. They mostly abandoned their horses and wagons, but were successful in personal escape, except for Adam Shupe (1793–1878), who was briefly captured before being released by General William Henry Harrison. Twenty Mennonite and Tunker farmers made claims for the losses of wagons, horses, and other materials experienced in that retreat
The story was more serious on the Niagara Peninsula, where a significant number of Mennonites were caught between the two sides. Christian Zavitz, the owner of the mill at Port Colborne saw his cargo boat seized for military purposes within weeks of the war’s beginning. Later in 1812 he was forced to house and feed about a hundred men of the Norfolk Militia in his house and outbuildings. At the end of 1814 his property was looted by American raiders, though one of the raiders was fatally wounded by Canadian militia men guarding his mill.
Suffering similar losses were nine Mennonite families who lived right on the Niagara River between Niagara Falls and Fort Erie. Their properties were overrun by soldiers from both sides during the war, and their buildings and food were frequently requisitioned for both American and British militia use. One such family was that of Ulrich and Magdalena Miller Strickler. Ulrich built a stone house and generally prospered as a farmer on his 210 acres. However, at different times during the war his home was occupied by both American and British forces. In 1815 he made claims for losses of produce and goods taken by the American troops in the summer of 1814 and those taken by the British troops later that same year after the Americans had retreated. The list of losses caused by the British included “Rent for 4 weeks for the House” which was used for a commissary and “Rent for the Barn” used for barracks. The request for rent for the two buildings was listed at 110 York pounds. Magdalena’s brother, John, submitted claims for twenty gallons of whiskey taken by the British in November 1812; horses, grain, and a rifle taken by the Americans in 1813 and 1814; five buildings damaged by the Americans in 1814; and a large quantity of food supplied to the British army.
A few Mennonite young men did serve in the militia because they were over the age of 21 and had not yet joined the church. One such was Henry W. Wanner, who at age 24 was unbaptized at the time of the war, and thus was not exempted from militia duty. He was reported to have served in one of the skirmishes with American troops in the Niagara area, but either refused to fire a shot or shot into the air in order to avoid injuring anyone. He then became ill with “camp fever” (typhus) and was allowed to return home.
To learn more about the War of 1812 and the Mennonites read In Search of Promised Lands.
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