- 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
To develop its grants, which extended ten miles on each side of its line and included one of the potentially richest farming regions in Kansas, the Santa Fe exerted every conceivable effort. To its officials the news of a possible mass migration of skilled farmers from Russia seemed like manna straight from heaven. Learning that Schmidt had already corresponded with the Mennonites and that German was his native tongue, the Santa Fe hired him in January of 1873 as its commissioner of immigration. Schmidt met with great success, and it is largely to his credit that the bulk of the Mennonite migration was finally directed to Kansas.
In Russia, meanwhile, some of the more impatient Mennonites, deciding not to wait for the Committee of Twelve to return, had already sold their property, packed their belongings, and journeyed with their families to the United States. On June 26, 1873, a former Crimean purchased 5,000 acres of land in central Kansas and became the first Russian Mennonite to settle in the state. Meanwhile, the Santa Fe was courting others among the early arrivals. Two of them were Peter and Jacob Funk. These affluent-looking gentlemen were escorted throughout the area before they decided on tracts. The Santa Fe wanted $4 an acre for the land; the brothers offered $2.50. After a great deal of haggling, in which the two Mennonites displayed a considerable amount of business acumen, the railroad agreed to their price rather than jeopardize the opportunity of gaining more of these industrious farmers. As soon as the terms had been agreed upon, the Funks produced $50,000 in cash, which they had been carrying on their persons during the entire journey through that bandit-infested frontier region.
Meanwhile members of the Committee of Twelve, completing their wide tour of the continent, seemed generally well-pleased with what they had seen. But at least two of the delegates, Paul and Lorenz Tschetter, still felt that they had not gained enough assurances from the government of the United States concerning military exemptions. Therefore, shortly before embarking for Russia, they visited President Grant in his summer home on Long Island Sound. Here they presented a petition written in German that, among other things, requested an unconditional exemption from military duty for fifty years. Since Grant could not read or speak German, he said that they would have to wait a few days for an answer. In the meantime, they left for Russia. Grant forwarded the petition to his Secretary of State, Hamilton Fish, who examined the requests of the Tschetters and wrote to them, stating that it was not within the power of the President to grant them their specific requests. There was, however, a federal law that exempted conscientious objectors from military service upon payment of a tax, and this apparently satisfied the Mennonites.
The winter of 1873–74 was one of great preparation on both sides of the Atlantic. In Russia, many Mennonites began to sell their property and apply for their passports. In the United States, railroad officials and American Mennonites spent the winter lobbying for favorable legislation at both state and national levels. In April, 1874, a bill was introduced in the United States Senate to reserve large areas of public land for them. There was no precedent for the action, and the bill generated considerable debate; in the end it was tabled, and was never brought up again.
The lobbyists for the Mennonites were more fortunate, however, in the individual states. Kansas’ militia law, like that of the federal government, exempted conscientious objectors but levied a tax upon them. In 1865, under pressure from the Santa Fe, the law was amended to abolish the tax. Several other states passed similar measures. C. B. Schmidt, with his usual quick ingenuity, lost no time in publicizing this action among the Mennonites in South Russia.
By spring of 1874 a strong minority had made the final decision to emigrate and had begun to sell their land and what property they could not take with them. In areas where nearly 100 per cent of the population had decided to leave, there were virtually no buyers, and much to their dismay, the immutable law of supply and demand brought the Mennonites enormous losses. But they took what they could get and prepared to leave.
The Peter Barkman family in the Crimean settlement of Caslov was in a flurry that April. Frau Barkman’s huge wooden chest was being packed with a few heirlooms and the essentials for the long journey. Anna Barkman, just turned eight and still too small to help in the heavy packing, was assigned another task which, her father told her, was a very important job for a little girl. Taking her out to the granary, he instructed her to choose two gallons of the very finest Turkey Red wheat kernels. It took her more than a week of steady work, but finally the precious sack of seed—together with various kinds of fruit seed—was packed into the massive carved chest.
On May 30, the Barkmans, with 34 other families, gathered their baggage and waved good-by to their neighbors. Led by their elder, Jacob Wiebe, a heavily bearded man who looked like a prophet fresh out of the pages of the Old Testament, they left the green fields of the Crimea forever. By August, the travel-weary group had purchased a tract of land from the Santa Fe in central Kansas.