Since the history of our forefathers has been written by many able scholars let it suffice to give just a short sketch of our people in order to make intelligible reading to those who may not have access to other historical works.
Most of our people came from Holland where the Mennonite faith developed from the Anabaptist movement in Europe. Dutch noblemen had granted toleration for a time to various elements of these Anabaptist bodies early in their history. However, in the passing of years the liberal rulers died and new ones came to power who either personally or through pressure from other ecclesiastical sources, did not look with favor on these people because of their religious beliefs.
Menno Simons, a former Roman Catholic priest who had left the church, assembled the believers in Holland and organized them into a fellowship or society. Having been their leader, he became their pastor and later their elder.
Not being tolerated any longer in Holland, they had to look about for a new place of abode. Fortunately, about this time the Prussian and Polish nobility of the Vistula River Valley heard of them, and knowing of their ability and skill to transform below sea level land into productive soil, invited them to come and settle on their estates.
Written contracts have been found showing how these Dutch Mennonites by groups leased large tracts of land from the noblemen on long-term leases, usually 30 to 40 years, in which were specified the privileges they would have as well as their obligation to the landlord. Covered were such items as the use of forests for building, lumber and fuel, the right to sell their produce in the nearby towns, fishing and transportation rights on the rivers, building of access roads and other economic rights. Most important of all, however, the contract also covered the right to worship as they pleased, to bury their dead, to build chapels and schools, and to man them with their own teachers who gave religious instruction to the children as well as teaching the three R’s.
They soon built thriving villages where formerly swamps and floods held sway. Two-thirds of the arable land of Poland was at that time uncultivated. These Dutchmen, through superhuman effort, dammed and brought under control the banks of the Vistula and its tributaries drained the swamps and succeeded in making tillable soil of the once devastated area. They knew the value of good stock and took good care of it. They introduced purebred lines and knew how to make good cheese and butter, which had a ready market in the nearby towns. As the land yielded increased income so also had they to pay increased rent.
But the land area was limited and as succeeding generation came to maturity a land dearth arose. They were confronted with the alternative of finding other means of livelihood or other places of settlement. Some made their living by working at masonry, woodsmanship, weaving and other crafts, which yielded but a meager existence; thus they had to seek other places of abode.
During this time Catherine II of Russia had learned about these enterprising people and she decided they were just the kind she needed to build up her country’s economy. She invited them to come there, offering free land, tax exemption for a number of years as well as exemption from military service plus many other privileges. Also about this time, 1772, Poland was divided between Austria, Russia and Prussia, most of the region where our forefathers lived, going to Prussia.
Our forefathers were fairly well satisfied with Prussian rule but their emperor, Frederick the Great, needed soldiers for his many military campaigns and he demanded that they be inducted into the Prussian army. This they resisted and another crisis presented itself.
Many of our people later took advantage of Queen Catherine’s invitation and moved to the rich productive areas of the Ukraine with its favorable climate and rich soil, spreading to the valleys of the Molotschna, and Volga Rivers, where they greatly prospered. Others decided it would be better to be back under Polish rule and moved back into regions not too far from Ostrog where they founded the villages of Karolswalde, Waldheim and others; near Warsaw the villages of Deutsch-Kasun and Deutsch-Wymischle, and Michalin and Heinrichsdorf father on into Russia.
So here is where we meet our immediate forefathers when by about 1871 Poland was taken over by Russia and it meant that all would be integrated into the Russian order of the day. Queen Catherine had died and another ruler had come to the throne that wanted to terminate the special privileges of the Mennonites. Again, compulsory military service was the principle to which they would not consent.
Before going on, mention must be made here that after some few years the Mennonites who remained in Russia succeeded in making an agreement with the Czarist government that in lieu of military service their young men could perform forestry work which was satisfactory to them. However, after the Bolshevik Revolution when unspeakable persecution, oppression, famine and indescribable suffering was visited upon them, they bitterly regretted not having come to America when they had the chance.
Referring again to the Volhynian Mennonites and some of the Russian brethren, after hearing of the opportunities in the New World, they decided to investigate the conditions here so a deputation of twelve men was chosen and sent to America to look things over and examine colonization possibilities. Just previously some literature had been received from several railroad companies that were building new lines to the western frontiers, inviting settlers from Europe and extolling the opportunities of obtaining cheap land on their right of way, thus exciting the landless masses of these regions to look into the offer.
Elder Tobias Unruh was the one chosen from the Volhynian Province of Poland to be the representative of our forefathers. These twelve men investigated the situation in the middle states and Canada. When they returned to their people and described to them in glowing terms the opportunities they would have plus the possibility to satisfy their yearning to own land, and the freedom to live and worship unhampered, it was immediately decided to come to America. They did not obtain the promise of military exemption but were quite assured wars were not in the realm of possibility in our country so they were willing to take a chance on that.
Now that the decision had been made to come to America, what an excitement ran through the villages.
In the early seventies (1870) we find our Grandparents living in the village of Antanofka, Russia, near the city of Ostrog. Our people lived on Crown’s lands of the government. The improvements and dwellings on these lands were theirs. They paid a high yearly rental of fifty per cent on the dollar of their income on these farms. This high rent made living very difficult. Nevertheless, by practicing utmost economy and thrift, they managed to survive, and also laid up small treasures.
It was about this time that rumors reached their village that the special religious privileges granted the “Mennonites” in Russia were recalled. This placed the Mennonites into the military ranks of Russia. These were times of great unrest for our people. Once more after a space of peaceful living it appeared as though their faith was tested to the utmost. It now meant, either take the “bloody sword” as they termed it; or suffer the consequences. Meetings were called and prayers offered in behalf of their condition. Memories of their forefathers wandering from country to country still lingered with them. Their great question was, “where can we go?”
As before, mention was made about America inviting settlers. They sent a delegation to St. Petersburg in 1871 to ascertain the facts regarding these rumors. A decision was made. They came to the ultimate conclusion that immigration was inevitable. If they should continue to live the teachings of Christ and the gospel like their forefathers had minded to do. From then on, their minds were directed on migration, seeking a location where they could live to the dictates of their faith and conscience.
In April 1873, a delegation was sent to North America, to investigate the land, the government and the possibilities of settling in America. This delegation returned to Russia on September 10, 1873, after touring the States and Canada during the summer months. The villagers heard the report of the wonderful opportunities America had to offer them, the vast stretches of land to be had, and the kind reception the delegation from their American brethren; nearly everyone wanted to migrate. Arrangements were made for a mass migration.
When the migration in 1874 took place, they found themselves in very poor circumstances to undertake such a long journey across the Atlantic Ocean and settle on the barren prairies in a new country. The Polish Mennonites were some of the poorest of the poor and if it had not been for the generous help of their Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana brethren who helped them, they would not have made it. What made matters worse, when the Russian Government saw that these Mennonites were determined to leave, the Russian Crown transferred these lands upon which the Mennonites were living, to a group of Bohemians, who were now coming to take possession. The buildings of course belonged to the Mennonites, but without land, these improvements became practically worthless. The Bohemians knew the Mennonites were leaving and bought the property at their own price. In many instances they could not be sold and had to be given away. This put them into a very critical condition and the greater majority of the settlement was reduced to actual poverty. Records show that out of 125 families from Antanofka, only 35 families were able to provide their passage across the ocean. Another 35 families could pay their way as far as Antwerp, the seaport, and 55 families could pay their way as far a Brodi, the Russian border.
It was in this plight that they turned to the Pennsylvania Aid Committee in America for help. The American brethren responded to this plea. Since these committees in America were working together with the steamship and railroad companies for reduced rates on fares, the mass migration could be undertaken. It required that all Mennonites who desired aid, pay their way up to the place of embarkment at Antwerp. This also required that the brethren at Antanofka had to form a union in which they pledge themselves one-for-another as security promising their American brethren that they would work and stand together to repay any and all passage money advanced to them.
In a document drawn up March 11, 1874, there appeared thirty-six signatures who had joined in this union. An over-seeing committee, whose duty it was to see that everything was done decently and in order, headed this union. Henry B. Koehn was also one of the members on this committee. He was fortunate to have $250.00, which was enough money for the passageway over the ocean and a meager start in America, but since those without means did not want to let their brethren go without them, the more well-to-do had to help their destitute fellow men too. At least they were able to pay their fare to Antwerp, the seaport. After assisting the needy ones, most everyone’s funds were exhausted, nevertheless, they all were happy that they could all leave together for a land which promised them religious freedom of worship and untold opportunities for their families.
Our grandparents left their home in November 1874, with a group of 115 families. They embarked on the steamer “Vaterland”, a German vessel. They experienced an unusually rough voyage across the Atlantic Ocean. Due to the heavy seas their ship was critically damaged. It lost the use of one of its propeller blades in the English Channel. Another blade was lost about half way over, but they continued their journey, limping with one propeller until it neared the American shore, and here the last propeller blade was lost. The ship, Vaterland, embarked December 4, 1874 in Port of entry, and later docked in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on Friday December 25, 1874 with 722 passengers, of which 700 were Mennonites. They were quartered in the company’s new dock at the mouth of the Schuylkill River until December 27, 1874. Then the whole group with the exception of a few families left for Kansas.
On December 29, we find them in St. Louis, Missouri. The report says it took thirty-five buses and ten freight wagons to transfer them and their baggage across the Mississippi River, to the Missouri Pacific Railroad Station. Here a special immigration train of fifteen coaches picked them up and took them on their way to Kansas. They arrived in Hutchinson, Kansas, on a cold wintry day, with the thermometer registering 12 degrees below zero. Here the whole group unloaded, remaining in Hutchinson for several days after which a small group was transferred to Great Bend, Kansas, and approximately one hundred families were taken to Florence, Kansas.
A local relief committee known as the Kansas Aid Committee was organized by the Mennonites in America to meet the most urgent needs of these destitute people who had landed in a new country, where they had no home, or shelter, without money, without food or job; and only very scanty clothing. The Pennsylvania Aid Committee, the Mennonite board of guardians, the Kansas Aid Committee and the Santa Fe Railroad Company cooperated together in supplying food, housing facilities and traveling fares, much of this aid was free gratis. Thus with help of the American agencies they survived their first winter in Kansas. Springtime was on its way. There was very little to encourage these helpless immigrants, for the advent of spring only brought them relief from cold weather. The Kansas aid Committee was eager and helpful to place these people on farms so they could become self-supporting.
A settlement program was worked out between the Kansas Aid Committee and the Santa Fe Railroad Company, in which the Santa Fe stepped in as a kind father to these ill-stricken people, and sold them lands, with prices ranging from $3.50 to $5.00 per acre. The terms on this land were: no payment down the first five years and no taxes nor interest for the first two years. In addition to the above they gave free transportation for any necessary business transactions, plus free freight rates on their building materials and farm equipment. The Kansas Aid Committee undertook to finance these poverty-stricken people now settling on the prairies. Funds were provided in forms of repayable loans. Most of these loans were limited to $200.00 to each settler. From this loan a dwelling had to be erected, a share in a yoke of oxen, a share in a plow, wagon, milk cow and livelihood until they could raise crops, or find gainful employment.
Surely we can’t help but feel that Divine guidance was with them for they could not possibly have known that in a few generations the area they were leaving would be visited by the most terrible upheaval in history; namely, the first World War followed by the tragic Bolshevik Revolution and then again by World War II.
In reading of the terrible fate, which befell those who remained in Russia, Poland and Germany it, staggers the imagination as to why such cruelty should be inflicted on a peace-loving group. However, several factors contributed to the particular treatment which was meted out to them by the Soviet government:
1St. Through previous agreements with the czarist government they were enjoying special privileges as to military exemption, plus the start they received in early colonization arrangements with Catherine II.
2nd. They were German and did not mix with the Russian population by inter-marriage, had their own local government in their villages, schools and language. Thus in the mounting Russian nationalism this was looked upon with disfavor and suspicion.
3rd. They were industrious farmers and workers and naturally prospered, thereby, coming to enjoy a higher standard of living than the surrounding Russian population, which caused envy.
4th. Their strong Christian faith also was a thorn in the atheistic and materialistic program of the Communists.
5th. Their ministers and teachers were considered the spiritual leaders of their people and thus were the first ones to come under suspicion of the Soviets, and became the victims of the most inhuman treatment that diabolical minds could devise.
With cold-blooded and malicious intent they were systematically disrupted, dispossessed of all they had, families separated and sent to far off Siberia and other places to slave labor camps, often the men to one place, the women to another and children to a different area. Many suffered a slow agonizing death in prison. Many starved to death because the famine which came upon the country was a direct result of this inhuman policy for the most enterprising, industrious and intelligent farmers were exiled where they could produce food neither for themselves or others.
Thus we see what we, who were no better, escaped by the narrow margin of just not being there! Do we deserve this good fortune? Then let us hold in honor those to whom we are so greatly indebted, and treasure the more our own form of government.
They were not the type to seek fame and fortune but they were of the common ordinary type of whom Abraham Lincoln said, “God must have loved them for he made so many of them”. They not only made a great economic contribution but their freedom loving nature fitted in with our constitutional government. They strengthened and undergirded the laws and institutions in which our society believes and has put into action, such as freedom of religion, of speech and of conscience, communication and thought.
S.S. VADERLAND – Departed Antwerp (seaport) – Arrived Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Dec. 1874
Among those of the manifest were Abraham J. Koehn, his wife, Helena, children: Heinrich (Henry A. Koehn, our grandfather Koehn) Lusiana (Susanna), Eva and Helena (Lena).