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.

The War of 1812 finds the Mennonites

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.

Waor 1812 Plaque at The First Mennonite Church (Vineland)

Jonathan Seiling, who has done extensive research on the War of 1812,  with a plaque commemorating the Ontario Mennonite response to the War of 1812. Located at The First Mennonite Church (Vineland). Courtesy Jonathan Seiling.

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

Niagara River in 1810

The Niagara Riv er in 1810 . Mennonites lived along the river between the Chippewa River (left hand side of map) and Black Creek (creek immediately to the right of “Proposed Road” text). Courtesy Brock University Map Library.

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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