Earliest Ontario Mennonites joined their neighbors’ congregations

The small group of Pennsylvania Mennonites who settled near Thirty Mile Creek (between modern-day Grimsby and Beamsville)  did not have a spiritual leader when they arrived in 1786. It is not possible to tell from existing records if they ever sought guidance from their home communities on establishing a congregation.

Conestoga Wagon Trek historical marker

This historical marker about the Conestoga Wagon, located on the Niagara Parkway near the intersection with Netherby Road, commemorates the earliest arrival of Pennsylvania Mennonites in Ontario.

Historian Frank Epp has suggested the 1786 immigrants were “fringe” Mennonites since none of them remained Mennonite. Epp’s assumption seems to be based solely on the fact that they did not become part of the Mennonite congregation that finally organized at The Twenty (Vineland) in 1801; they had begun to fellowship with other denominations in the 15 years before a permanent Mennonite congregation was available.

Tradition has suggested that Staats and Susannah Overholt worshiped with a small so-called Baptist fellowship at Clinton by the mid-1790s, though the earliest record is their charter membership in the Beamsville Baptist congregation that formally organized in 1807, twenty years after their arrival in Upper Canada. It is also possible the Overholts were part of a Tunker (Brethren in Christ) congregation for a time, along with their Kulp neighbors, before joining the Baptists.

Staats Overholt’s family did not join the new Mennonite congregation when it formed in 1801 under the leadership of later Mennonite immigrants, but it is probable they worshiped with the Mennonites or Tunkers occasionally, especially during the years before the Baptist fellowship was functional.

Indeed, the Staats Overholt family had an uneasy relationship with the Baptist fellowship after it was formally organized. Already by early 1808 Staats, his oldest son, Isaac, and their wives declared a “disfellowship” with the Baptist church because “they could not walk with us because we bore arms.” They then returned to the Baptist fellowship for periods of time, though a Jacob Overhault is listed as “Menonist” in the 1818 Lincoln [County] Militia Return.

Overholt’s neighbors, Jacob and Tilman Kulp, might have been Tunkers before they immigrated to Canada, but it is more likely they were Mennonites influenced by the Tunker settlement at Pelham that began in the late 1780s. The only confirmation of their being Tunker is the 1818 militia return, some 30 years after their arrival in Canada.

Affiliation with the Tunkers by some of the Clinton Mennonites need not have included traveling to Pelham Township for worship services, since the Tunkers did not have meetinghouses until much later—in the 1870s. It is more likely that Tunker Bishop John Winger or Minister Christian Stickley traveled occasionally to Clinton Township to the home of the Kulps or others who wished to participate in such a worship service. This could have been as infrequently as several times a year to perhaps monthly.

Early services would likely have included lengthy sermons, singing, and testimonies. The meetings in private homes would have continued the intimate nature of worship that reflected the group’s Mennonite and Pietist roots. The early Tunkers had no hymnbooks of their own, and may have continued to use hymnbooks inherited from their Mennonite roots. Indeed, John Winger’s family records are said to have been kept in an Ausbund, the hymnbook used by Mennonites in North America until they began to create their own in 1803.

In an earlier post, I discussed whether these early Mennonite immigrants were Loyalists.

To learn more about Mennonites in Ontario, read In Search of Promised Lands.

Were Early Mennonite Immigrants in Canada Loyalists?

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).

Conestoga Wagon Trek historical marker

This historical marker about the Conestoga Wagon, located on the Niagara Parkway near the intersection with Netherby Road, is where Abraham Boehm lived in 1788.

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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