- Historic Sites
The Mennonites Come To Kansas
Their religion and customs were strange, but these master farmers from the Russian steppes turned a treeless prairie into America’s granary
August 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 5
“If everyone in Russia were like us,” countered the Mennonites, “there would be no need to enforce law and order.”
But they were given no pledge of total exemption. Only one outlet remained: emigration from Russia. Where could they go?
Cornelius Jansen, a Mennonite who was a Prussian consular official, had the answer. From the moment the new policy was announced by the Russian government in 1870 Jansen had had no doubt that emigration would be the only solution. While the other Mennonite leaders had traveled over Russia seeking audiences with the Imperial Council, the Czar, and innumerable other officials, petitioning and pleading for the preservation of Mennonite rights, Cornelius Jansen had begun a silent campaign for emigration. Many Mennonites had emigrated from Holland and Germany to Pennsylvania in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries (large settlements of their descendants live there and in neighboring Ohio to this day), Jansen wrote to them, gathering every particle of information he could obtain about conditions in North America. After communicating with the American and British consulates in Odessa, he became favorably impressed with the possibilities that the New World offered. To him emigration became a religious crusade; he pursued his objective with the zeal of a missionary.
In the Frankfurter Zeitung , Jansen had read an article by a German emigrant, C. B. Schmidt, who was selling farm machinery in Lawrence, Kansas. Schmidt had become an avid booster of Kansas and had corresponded abundantly with German newspapers, lauding its opportunities, Jansen’s interest was immediately aroused. Writing to Schmidt, he asked if Kansas had enough room for several thousand settlers if they chose to come. Schmidt, peering over the letter at the vast stretches of virgin soil, chuckled and replied that it could accommodate several hundred thousand.
The more Jansen learned about America, the more enthusiastic he became. He began to travel across South Russia, speaking in dozens of villages and distributing hundreds of pamphlets encouraging a migration to America. In early 1873, he began to sell his own property and prepared to leave Russia. But on March 27, before he could complete his arrangements, the inevitable knock on the door signaled the arrival of a uniformed Russian officer and a foot soldier. In a courteous tone, the officer read the decree of His Imperial Majesty, Emperor of all Russia: “For spreading among the Mennonite inhabitants false ideas of their condition, and persuading the Mennonites to cease being Russian subjects and to emigrate to America,” the Prussian citizen Cornelius Jansen was to be expelled forever from Russia. He eventually settled in Nebraska, where he became a well-to-do rancher.
His expulsion only increased the conviction among his co-religionists that their freedom in Russia had ended and that the only course to follow was emigration. True, there was strong opposition in the Mennonite camp. The poorer among them believed that the journey would be beyond their means. The very wealthy hesitated because of the tremendous financial sacrifice involved in disposing of their property. And there was general ignorance of America on the part of the Mennonite leaders. As Elder Suderman put it: “America was a country interesting for the adventurer, an asylum for convicts. How could one live in peace … amid such people, to say nothing of the native savages?” It might be all right for someone with his “pockets full of revolvers,” but no doubt it was a rather dangerous land for a peace-loving people.
Nevertheless, in the spring of 1873, the Committee of Twelve, an official delegation of Mennonite leaders from South Russia, Polish Russia, and Prussia, toured the United States and Canada. They came with a fourfold purpose: to locate cheap, fertile land; to obtain assistance in transportation; to determine whether they could enjoy religious freedom and be exempted from military service; and to establish their right to live in closed communities with their own German schools and local self-government.
As representatives of a mass migration movement they came at one of the most advantageous moments in American history. This was a time when railroads were being built all across the central and western sections of the United States. To encourage the settlement of the country, the government had granted millions of acres to railroads that successfully completed their lines. In 1872, the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe had finished its tracks through Kansas to the Colorado line, thereby earning a grant of three million acres. A map of this area in central and western Kansas resembled a checkerboard, railroad land and government land being located on alternate sections.