Mennonites in Kansas
German Mennonites from Russia brought with them cultural traditions and valuable agricultural knowledge when they came to Kansas in 1874. They had left their native Germany more than 100 years earlier.
At that time Germany was war weary, recovering from the Seven Years’ War. Catherine the Great of Russia was a fellow German who was interested in building an agricultural region along the Volga and Karaman rivers. She was confident that the German people could further her plan by introducing modern agricultural methods. As an incentive, she promised colonists freedom from taxes, assistance with their move, and exemption from military service. These offers proved appealing. Between 1763 and 1768 more than 25,000 Germans, mostly from the west central region, established 104 colonies on the Russian plains. There in farming communities they lived in relative peace and prosperity for more than 100 years, having limited interaction with the local population.
After Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War and as other European countries made military advances, Alexander II revoked the military exemption and expanded the Russian army. Many of the German-Russian Mennonites sought a more sympathetic arrangement in the United States. The Santa Fe railroad’s efforts to encourage settlement resulted in a number of Mennonite families moving to Marion, Harvey, and McPherson counties.
According to tradition, Mennonite families loaded kitchen crocks and traveling trunks with hard winter wheat seed before leaving Russia. They planted their first crop in the rich farm lands around Goessel. Although corn was the primary grain grown in Kansas at the time, wheat proved better suited to the Great Plains. In 1888 newspapers claimed “In wheat, Kansas can beat the world.” Bernard Warkentin was a Mennonite immigrant and immigrant agent who established a grist mill and helped to ensure the success of wheat in Kansas.
Mennonites founded Bethel College in North Newton in 1887, the oldest Mennonite college in North America. The college was moved to Halstead in 1883, then to its current location in 1888. The Bethel administration building is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The Mennonites also founded Tabor College in Hillsboro in 1908.
Entry: Mennonites in Kansas
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: April 2015
Date Modified: April 2015
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