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American Refuge
The Impact of European Religious Societies on Immigration and Settlement Patterns in America
© 2005 Rickie Lazzerini
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     America is popularly known as a nation of immigrants. Everyone living in the United States today is an immigrant or a descendent of one. Even the ancestors of Native Americans are believed to have arrived in America over the land bridge with Asia. Most of our ancestors came to this country to take advantage of the opportunities American society had to offer or to escape war, famine, or persecution in their own country. What is not well known is the fact that several groups of European immigrants came to America not to merge with mainstream society, but to create their own societies that were secluded from the rest of the population. America offered the opportunity of religious freedom, something that much of Europe did not. Before and after the American Revolution, European religious groups immigrated to America in order to form isolated communities based on their specific religious or social beliefs.

     Some of these groups are well known, such as the Shakers and the Amish, but there are many others that are not. For example, the Amish are famous for their ability to stay fairly secluded from society throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. What is lesser known is that the Amish descend from the Anabaptist movement in Europe, and share history with three other religious groups that came to America, created separate colonies, and still exist today. The German Separatists make up another category of immigrants who fled religious persecution in Europe. Three groups of Separatists created colonies in America during the 19th century, and one groups' communities, the Amana Colonies, still exist today. There were also individual groups who created colonies in America, such as the Shakers. These groups have very distinct and fascinating histories and have many things in common. All of the groups are of European origin, they all separated themselves from the rest of society in order to live their lives according to their specific set of beliefs, and they all had a significant impact on American immigration and settlement patterns. The fact that these groups separated themselves from the rest of society makes them different from other immigrants and provides a unique opportunity to study specific examples of group migration. The many different groups also provide an opportunity to explore the reasons why some groups failed and some succeeded, and determine if their settlement patterns played a part in their outcome.

The Anabaptists

     The Amish, Mennonites, Hutterites, and Brethren all originated from the Anabaptist movement in 16th century Europe. The Anabaptists arose in Germany and Switzerland after the Protestant Reformation. Anabaptism was founded in Switzerland in 1525 when two university students, Conrad Grebel and Felix Mantz, called for more reforms and a quicker break from the Catholic Church and ritual. They had strong views on the practice of baptism, which they thought should only be done on those old enough to understand its significance. In defiance of the standard, Grebel and Mantz baptized each other as adults, marking the beginning of the Anabaptist (re-baptizer) movement. The movement spread quickly throughout Switzerland and Germany, but their radical views, including their refusal to acknowledge civil authority, soon brought persecution. Thousands of Anabaptists were tortured, beheaded, drowned, and burned at the stake. This terrorism led them to take refuge in northern Germany and Holland. During the following 200 years, four major sects would form from the Anabaptist movement; the Hutterites in 1528, the Mennonites in 1536, the Amish in 1693, and the Brethren in 1708.

     The Hutterian Brethren, or the Hutterites, were formed in 1528 when a group of Anabaptists in Moravia began to live communally. This group took on the name of their leader, Jakob Hutter, who was burned to death in 1536. Their beliefs, which included common ownership of all property and objection to war, caused them to be persecuted throughout Europe for nearly 400 years before they immigrated to America. The Hutterites underwent a series of migrations in order to escape hostility. In Moravia, where they migrated after Zurich enacted the death penalty to all Anabaptists, they enjoyed religious freedom until Moravian leadership changed and they were forced to move to Slovakia. They lived in Slovakia for nearly 100 years before moving to Transylvania in 1621. They would move to southern Romania in 1670 and then to Ukraine in 1677. While in Ukraine, the Hutterites lived among Mennonites, who were non-communal Anabaptists. During the 19th century, the Hutterites became increasingly influenced by Mennonite culture and concluded that they needed to physically separate themselves from the Mennonites or face the consequence of being absorbed by them. They decided to move to America.

     The first group of Hutterites left Russia in 1874 and arrived in New York a month later. They settled in the Dakotas, where they enjoyed relative isolation. Over 1,200 Hutterites came to the New World in the 1870s, but more than half decided to abandon the communal living. The non-communal Hutterites are known as Prairieluet or Prairie People, and settled in the Dakotas as well. The communal Hutterites did not take up Homestead land for fear of being obligated to the federal government and because it would not allow them to settle in a communal fashion. They bought 2,500 acres from a private owner and created three colonies. The first colony was named Bon Homme. The Hutterites of Bon Homme came to be known as the Schmiedeleut (blacksmith people) after their blacksmith leader. The second settlement became known as the Wolf Creek colony, and the Hutterites there were known as Dariusleut, after their leader, Darius Walther. The third colony, Elmspring, was created by Hutterites who arrived in 1877. These people were known as the Lehrerleut (the teacher's people), after the teacher Jacob Wipf. At first the Hutterites went unmolested in their isolated communities. They did not generate much attention and were able to live communally without any outside agitation and showed remarkable growth and stability through the early 20th century.

     The outbreak of World War I brought an end to the Hutterites' peaceful isolation. Their German heritage brought inquiry about their loyalty. Because they were pacifists, they refused military service and the purchase of war bonds. These customs seemed treasonous to their patriotic neighbors, which led to accusations of disloyalty. The Bon Homme community was accused of sabotage, but was cleared of the charge. Another community was robbed of its livestock, and many Hutterite men were forced to join the army, despite their conscientious objector status. The state of South Dakota revoked their status as a corporation and forced them to dispose of all of their property. At this time, seventeen Hutterite colonies existed in South Dakota. All but one disbanded and immigrated to Alberta and Manitoba, Canada. In Canada they were welcomed and viewed as an asset because of their agricultural experience. The Schmiedeleut congregation moved to Manitoba and set up five colonies by 1918. The other two Hutterite groups settled in Alberta. The Dariusleut created six colonies and the Lehrerleut established four. Between 1918 and 1922 the Hutterites established nine colonies in Manitoba and fourteen in Alberta.(1) Many of these colonies branched out and returned to the United States. By 1964, Alberta had 56 colonies; Saskatchewan had 13 colonies, and Manitoba and 39 colonies. The United States had 46 colonies. The Hutterites do not usually accept converts, so natural increase is responsible for the growth and expansion of the colonies. Their experience living communally has taught them that the colonies are the most efficient when the population does not exceed 100. Therefore when the population becomes too large, they create a new colony. Today there are over 425 colonies averaging about 90 members each.(2) About one quarter of the population lives in the United States, the rest reside in Canada. Their religion, lifestyle, and isolation have enabled them to survive as a communal society in America and Canada for over 100 years.

Number of Colonies
 America (Total)
     North Dakota
     South Dakota
 Canada (Total)
     British Columbia
  Table 1: Number of Hutterite Colonies, 2000(3)

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   (1) Victor Peters, All Things Common: The Hutterian Way of Life, (Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 1965), 51.

   (2) Donald B. Kraybill and Carl F. Bowman, On the Backroad to Heaven: Old Order Hutterites, Mennonites, Amish, and Brethren,(Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), 22

   (3) On the Backroad to Heaven, 141.

By Rickie Lazzerini
Kindred Trails Worldwide Genealogy Resources

BA History
University of California, Santa Barbara

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2006 Rickie Lazzerini, All Rights Reserved
This page may be freely linked to but may not be reproduced
in any form without prior written consent from the author.

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