William Hespeler — played key role in bringing Mennonite settlers to Manitoba

The man primarily responsible for  promoting Mennonite settlement of Western Canada has been commemorated with a federal government Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada plaque.

“William (Wilhelm) Hespeler was truly a remarkable man,” said Conservative MP Joy Smith (Kildonan-St. Paul) at the unveiling ceremony. “Entrepreneur, immigration official, Commissioner of Immigration and Agriculture, politician and philanthropist, William Hespeler played a key role in the first great wave of immigrants to Manitoba, and helped demonstrate the enormous agricultural potential of the Canadian Prairies.”

The plaque unveiling took place during Heritage Winnipeg’s 22nd annual Preservation Awards ceremony on Monday, February 19 in Eckhardt-Gramatte Hall at the University of Winnipeg.

At age 19, Hespeler left his hometown of Baden, Germany, in 1850 to join his brother and sister who had earlier settled in the German-speaking community of Waterloo, Ontario. Hespeler and his  brother Jacob subsequently became partners in many successful business ventures. 

Appointed as a Canadian government immigration agent on February 2, 1872, he travelled to southwest Germany and the Alsace-Lorraine region trying to solicit immigrants. With the assistance of shipping agents from the Allan Line, he recruited many new settlers, especially from Alsace.

His next stop was Russia in the summer of 1872. Hespeler had heard about Mennonite concerns over Russian Czar Alexander’s removal of their exemption from military service. Letters of protest from Mennonites were sent to the czar and delegates met at various conferences to discuss the change in government policy toward “Russification.”

Hespeler arrived at the height of discussions and had a favourable response in the communities he visited, though not from the Russian government. While in Russia, the czar’s secret police trailed Hespeler because it was illegal to formally promote immigration to another country. He was under constant threat to be shipped off to Siberia. In each village Hespeler visited, the czarist secret police confiscated the pamphlets that he handed out extolling the merits of Canada.

He received no help from the British Consul (Canada’s foreign affairs were then in the hands of the British) at Berdyansk, who coldly advised Hespeler to immediately leave Russia. Hespeler even wrote to Ottawa suggesting it may be time for Canada to exert its complete independence from Britain. 

Hespeler was undeterred and continued to visit Mennonite villages. Although he was a Lutheran and not a Mennonite, Hespeler’s dedication and winning personality ensured that he received a warm welcome from villagers.

Hespeler returned to Germany, satisfied that he had been successful in promoting Mennonite immigration to Canada. He was able to return to Russia for a meeting with Mennonites Jacob Peters and Heinrich Wiebe in Odessa (now in Ukraine), in November 1872, during which he outlined the Canadian government’s proposal to provide free passage for a Mennonite delegation to investigate the potential of the new land.

The Russian Mennonite delegation made its way to Hamburg, Germany, where they booked passage to Canada.

In Berlin (now Kitchener), Ontario, they met Mennonites who had already made Canada their home. Among the Mennonites was Jacob Y. Schantz, a local businessman who would accompany them to Manitoba. 

The first Mennonites came to Canada from Switzerland, southern Germany and Alsace via Pennsylvania in 1786, and were known as “Swiss-German” Mennonites. In contrast, those who settled in Manitoba were known as “Dutch-German” Mennonites.

Although making the trip on Canadian government money, the delegation also travelled through Chicago to Nebraska, Colorado, Oklahoma and Texas to look at settlement prospects in the United States. Once this tour was completed, they journeyed to St. Paul, Minnesota, where they were joined by other Russian Mennonites, forming a 12-man delegation. They departed by steamer from Moorhead, Minnesota, for Winnipeg on June 9, 1873, accompanied by Hespeler.

After their arrival at Winnipeg on Tuesday, June 17, at 5 p.m., the delegates were lodged at the Davis Hotel on Main Street. The next day after breakfast, they took a tour of Winnipeg which then boasted a population of just 3,000 people. 

At Government House, Lieutenant-Governor Alexander Morris welcomed the delegates. Also on-hand were Manitoba Premier and Attorney-General Henry Joseph Clarke and provincial government representatives Thomas Howard, John Norquay, A.G. Bannatyne, and Sheriff Edward Armstrong. Representing the press were Manitoba Gazette publisher Edwin Brokovske and Manitoban reporter Washington Lynn.

The Manitoba officials told the delegates about the province’s great potential and promised that they would do everything possible to make their stay a pleasant one.

On the morning of June 8, the delegates were placed in five wagons accompanied by two supply wagons filled with provisions and tents for the journey to the promised eight townships of land in southeast Manitoba, called the “East Reserve” by federal officials. 

A total of 24 men were on  the trip.  The Mennonite delegates were Heinrick Wiebe, Cornelius Buhr and Jacob Peters from the Bergthal colony; Paul and Lohrenz Tschetter from the Hutterite Brethren; David Klassen and Cornelius Toews from the Kleine Gemeinde, Borsenko colony; Leonard Sudermann of Berdiansk, Russia; Jacob Buller, Tobias Unruh and Andreas Schrag from Volhynia; and William Ewert representing the Prussian Mennonites. 

Also in the party heading for the East Reserve were Hespeler,  Norquay, the Manitoba minister of agriculture and future premier, Schantz, H.M. Hiller of New York, J.B. Power of the Northern Pacific Railway (U.S.), George Chapman and John F. Funk, an Old Mennonite minister from Elkhart, Indiana.

Granting large tracts of land to specific groups of immigrants was a new federal government policy for settlement in the West. The Mennonites would be the first to take advantage of this policy, followed a year later by Icelanders who would settle in New Iceland along the west shore of Lake Winnipeg. Hespeler also assisted in the settlement of Icelanders in Manitoba. 

The Mennonite “East Reserve” was on the east side of the Red River along the Rat River. There would later be a “West Reserve,” which, as its name implies, was west of the Red River. 

“If the schemes are undertaken in good faith and carried out by responsible men, there is no doubt it will have a good effect in aiding emigration,” commented the Manitoba Free Press on August 31, 1874, on the government’s new policy “of forming parties of Colonists.”

By noon, the 24-member party had covered 16 kilometres when a drenching rain broke out. They had to leave the supply wagons behind when they became mired in the mud. To save their horses, which were labouring in the heavy gumbo, the men walked alongside the wagons to an immigration house where they expected to be sheltered. The agent at Oak Point (Ste. Anne) refused to let them stay, arguing he had received no instructions to look after them. The men were forced to spend the night at a Hudson’s Bay Company store.

“He (the HBC man in charge of the store) also baked some eggs and supplied us with bread, tea, etc., of which we made an excellent supper ... we spread our buffalo robes and blankets on the floor, and laid down to sleep ...,” wrote Funk in Herald of Truth, September 1873.

The next day during supper, they were exposed to one of Manitoba’s more famous indigenous creatures — mosquitoes. They huddled around the campfire with heavy buffalo blankets over their heads to channel the smoke and keep the persistent mosquitoes at bay.

The next morning, they reached the townships on the east side of the Red River. Their torment continued, forcing the party to spend the night standing, fully clothed and with nets over their face for protection against the biting insects.

They only toured four of the townships before deciding to return to Winnipeg. In Winnipeg,  the two Tschetters, Ewert, Schrag, Unruh and Funk had had enough of Manitoba and left for the Dakotas to tour other potential U.S. sites for settlement.

With the addition of William Wagoner, another immigration agent who was originally from Prussia, the Kleine Gemeinde and Bergthal delegates started out at 2 p.m. on Monday, June 23, on their tour of western Manitoba. The tour would include stops at the Whitemud River at Westbourne and possibly Neepawa, as well as points along the Assiniboine River such as Poplar Point and Portage la Prairie.

It was a brief tour, with Buller, Sudermann and Shantz soon leaving for Winnipeg, while Hespeler and the others followed at a more leisurely pace.

It was Dominion Day (now Canada Day) in Manitoba when Hespeler and his party experienced what the Manitoba Free Press called “The White Horse Plains Outrage.”

A few kilometres from House’s Hotel at White Horse Plains, a Metis, only referred to in the newspapers as McKay, met the party. Apparently, McKay had celebrated July 1 with a little too much gusto and was “drunk” when he stopped the party.

McKay engaged George Rath, the driver of the lead wagon, in a “spirited” conversation. McKay was said to have struck Rath with his whip and Rath retaliated by knocking McKay’s hat to the ground. After picking up his hat and leaving the scene, McKay was heard to have threaten to kill Rath.

McKay returned with Metis companions Jackson and Desjerlais. When McKay again threatened Rath, his two companions took away his gun and broke it, ending the encounter on the plains.

When Hespeler’s party reached House’s Hotel, they faced a large party of angry Metis.

“Hespeler pled with them and told them they would be punished ... He also told them he would protect the Mennonites with his life,” wrote H.J. Gerbrant in his book, Adventure in Faith. “All night long he stood guard at the door of the Mennonites, one hand on his sword and one on his revolver.”

A dispatch rider named Warner got a message through to Lieutenant-Governor Morris in Winnipeg, which read: “We are attacked by halfe (sic) Breeds — we are in danger of our lives — please send soldiers at once as we can not leave the place.”

The 50-man Provisional Battalion was dispatched. They reached the hotel at 5:30 p.m. on July 2. When the soldiers arrived, there were only five Metis left to surround the hotel and prevent the delegation from escaping. Two of the men were arrested and quickly released, while the three Metis involved in the original incident were imprisoned.

“There is little doubt that the dastardly outrage committed upon the Mennonite delegation by the French halfbreeds on Tuesday last at White Horse Plains was in itself a casual or impromptu occurrence,” a Free Press editorial said. “It seems more likely that directly the affair may be attributed to a recklessness begotten of drunkenness.”

A letter to the editor in Le Metis by “Un Amis” (a friend) ridiculed the government for sending out the army to settle an “ordinary Dominion Day brawl.”

The courts ruled the cause of the incident was the over-consumption of liquor. The three accused were made to post a $200 bail bond.

The Free Press editorialized that the Metis had a “growing disposition ... to resist any immigration which does not speak their language and attend their places of worship ...” and that the incident was “only the latest of a number of attempts at inculcating these ideas by force of arms.”

The potential for animosity arose because the Mennonites were German-speaking Protestants, while the Metis were French-speaking Roman Catholics. 


The Protestant sect was formed by Menno Simons, a Dutch priest who left the Roman Catholic Church to join the Anabaptists in 1536, who stressed the principles of peace, non-violence, Christian discipline and separatism from the secular world. Followers of Menno thus became known as Mennonites. 

The delegates had faced millions of blood-thirsty mosquitoes, prairie gumbo holding wagons fast and armed confrontation, but they still chose to settle in Manitoba. It is a tribute to the persuasive powers of Hespeler, and the favourable terms offered by the federal government at his urging, that the Mennonites opted to relocate their families to Manitoba.

“We beg to say that we have found the said province to answer for our future homes and, if it is the wish of God, we will, joined by our Colonists, go to Manitoba and make it our future home,” wrote Klassen, Wiebe, Peters and Toews to  J.H. Pope, the federal agriculture minister.

John Lowe, the deputy secretary of agriculture, wrote the men back, indicating that the government would hold its bargain of exemption from military service, free grants of 160 acres of land to each person over 21 in the eight townships, as well as passage of $30 for each person over eight, $15 for each child under eight and $3 for each infant under a year from Hamburg to Fort Garry.

The terms became official when the report of the “15 Privileges” was signed by Canadian Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald and Governor-General Lord Dufferin on August 13, 1873.

It was through Hespeler’s pressure on Ottawa that the favourable settlement terms were ironed out. He firmly believed the Mennonites were the right settlers for the West because of their extensive agricultural skills honed over the decades in Russia. 

The “Dutch-German” Mennonites originally came to Russia from the Netherlands and Germany to escape military conscription. Catherine the Great (1729-96), who was originally from Germany, sponsored their settling in Russia, promising them religious freedom and exemption from military service. While in Russia, the Mennonites became exceptional farmers and created prosperous communities.

In preparation for the arrival of the first Mennonites, Winnipeg newspapers published articles on their history, lifestyle and beliefs.  

“It is expected at least 500 families of these quiet industrious people will come to Manitoba during the present season,” said the Free Press on May 23, 1874, “and it will very much depend on how they are treated ... whether or not the great body of Mennonites ... shall settle in our Prairie Provinces ...

“This people ... sober, quiet, industrious, peace-loving and devout, wish to settle together in this new world, and the advance guard, as it were, is soon to be in Canada. Need we say how desirable it is to secure the whole body of settlers, so eligible in almost every respect?”

The first group of 380 Mennonites disembarked at Winnipeg from the steamer International on July 31, 1874. Local merchants did a booming trade before the settlers reboarded the International for their southward journey to the East Reserve. 

The Free Press said shops were busy “in the extreme ... particularly hardware stores, places where agricultural tools and implements were sold, and those dealers in provisions were besieged by crowds of the new comers.”

The newspaper said many bought hay forks, scythes, (grinding) stones, coffee mills, frying pans, groceries, tinware and “sundry odds and ends, useful and pleasant to have by the Manitoba pioneer.”

The International took them to the junction of the Red and Rat rivers (Pointe de Chene) and then went about 10 kilometres inland to four 6.2-by-31- metre (20-by-100-feet) immigration houses close to modern-day Niverville.

“The individuals composing the party seem to be composed of exactly the right sort of stuff physically, for pioneer life ... An idea has got abroad that a foreign immigration ... of large bodies of people not speaking the English language is not desirable here, but it must be remembered that this Province must of necessity depend upon agriculture to a great extent for its prosperity, and, that being the case, no more desirable people can be persuaded to make their homes here than these,” wrote the Free Press on August 8, 1874.

An earlier article had commented that Manitobans should congratulate themselves for having attracting “so valuable an acquisition to our population.” 

There were many such arrivals throughout the summer and fall of 1874. In 1875, 12 per cent of the total immigration to Canada was Mennonite.

By the end of 1880, there were 6,931 Mennonites living in Manitoba. From the village of Bergthal, Russia, alone, 83 per cent of the 3,000 people that had been living there came to Manitoba during the period 1874-76.

“Mr. Hespeler this season has done wonders, but he has had too much to do, and we hope that another season will see better arrangements for looking after people who come here to settle,” said an editorial in the Daily Nor’Wester on August 31, 1874. “One man alone, or even with the aid of an assistant, cannot attend to the work.”

Yet, it was primarily the work of one man, who believed so wholeheartedly in his cause, that helped ensure Mennonite success in Manitoba.

To accommodate recently-arrived immigrants and those who would visit Winnipeg from the East Reserve, Hespeler built the Mennonite Hotel (later Lorne House and after the Theatre Royal) on Main Street. It was built in the “Russian-style,” according to the  Free Press, and was to be 2-1/2 storeys and meassure 9.3-by-15.5 metres (30-by-50 feet). When the hotel was converted into a theatre, it was advertised as fireproof because it had an earth floor. It was also reported that it was only a single-storey log building when it was made into a theatre in 1875.

“This will be a great boon to our Mennonite settlers, and Mr. Hespeler is deserving of credit for his enterprise, as it takes more of the philanthropic than the speculative,” according to the Free Press.

Hespeler visited the settlers in the fall, anxious to see if they were prepared for a prairie winter. On his second visit later that fall, he was relieved to encounter families quite comfortable and warm, having constructed loghouses plastered with a mixture of mud, sand and hay. 

Life on the prairies that winter would be harsh, but the Mennonites proved to be resourceful in meeting the challenge. Still, food became scarce and diseases such as pneumonia and tuberculosis took their toll. But through persistence and hard work, the Mennonites thrived in their new communities.

Hespeler also built the West’s first grain elevator in 1878 at Niverville, a Menonnite community he helped plan.

Hespeler’s other contributions to Winnipeg included establishing the first German Society club and choir and serving 15 years as the president of Winnipeg General Hospital. He also supported the establishment of a German Lutheran congregation in Winnipeg.

The first German language newspaper Der Nordwesten (The Northwestern) was published under the guidance of Hespeler and Pastor Schmieder. Its circulation was 12,000 by 1900.

Hespeler was the Commissioner of Immigration and Agriculture for Manitoba and the Northwest Territories from 1872 to 1883, after which he became the German Consul to Manitoba, an unsalaried position he held until 1907. 

He was elected as a city alderman in Winnipeg’s south ward in 1876 and 1878.

On November 25, 1876, he was appointed by the federal government to the provisional council of Keewatin (immediately north of Manitoba’s then border) to deal with the smallpox epidemic that was ravaging New Iceland.

By 1876, he was also a justice of the peace.

He served as an Independent MLA for Rosenfeld from 1899 to 1903 and was Speaker of the House.

“On that date (April 5, 1900) a naturalized British subject — a citizen born outside this domain — was elected for the first time in the British Commonwealth to the speakership of a parliament, and he was therefore, declared the ‘first commoner’ of a territory represented by it,” wrote biographer Werner Entz.

Actually, Hespeler was not the first non-British-born subject to be a speaker in the British Empire, but he was one of the earliest.

He served as speaker for four years before announcing his retirement from politics. “The Honourable William Hespeler hardly found his match for precision and competence in maintaining order,” wrote a Winnipeg newspaper (from the German-Canadian Yearbook). “His diction, which was coloured with a heavy German accent even though he had been in Canada for many years, betrayed a Classical English education. His words were carved and polished, and proved the maxim of a famous Oxford professor, who claimed that persons of foreign birth often speak the purest English. He was always courteous and pleasant, and in so doing, maintained the traditions of Parliament, in which he unfortunately sat for too short a time.”

In 1903, he received the Order  of the Red Eagle of Brandenberg from the German Kaiser. The Grand Duke of Baden dubbed him a Knight of the Order of the Lion of Zachringen.

From 1886 to 1905 he served as manager of the Manitoba Land Company and became known as an expert in Western Canadian development.

In 1906, he invested in the construction of a luxury apartment block in Fort Rouge, which was designed by noted architect John D. Atchison.

For his many local contributions, a Winnipeg street bears his name.

The First World War (1914-18) adversely affected Hespeler’s standing in the community. Despite all that he had done for his adopted country, Hespeler suffered from the anti-German sentiment then running rampant in Canada. Undeterred by the resentment, he turned his attention to helping German immigrants who had lost their jobs because of the war.

But it was the promotion of Mennonite settlement that was Hespeler’s legacy to Manitoba.

“What gain they are to this country!” proclaimed Lady Dufferin, the wife of the Canadian governor general, when she visited Manitoba’s Mennonite communities in 1877. 

Hespeler died in Vancouver in 1921, his contributions mostly forgotten, and was interred in Winnipeg at St. John’s Anglican Church cemetery. 

His obituary said he was a man “who was at one time so foremost in the life of the province.”