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The Mennnonites and the Quakers

The Mennonites and Quakers that sought refuge in Upper Canada as early as 1786 were invited and welcomed to Upper Canada by Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe because of their qualities of honesty and hard work, as well as their sense of community building, which would be of great benefit in the wilderness.

The Quakers and Mennonites of 18th century Lancaster County, Pennsylvania were hard to distinguish in terms of dress. The similarities in their teachings overlapped where slavery was concerned as well as a refusal to bear arms.

mennonite cemetery
The Mennonite Burying Ground on King Street in Vineland, Ontario. The sign at the entrance reads: Mennonite Burying Ground, 1793.

Simcoe would have preferred to populate Upper Canada with members of the Church of England who would have been more accepting of British ideals, such as a strong military presence, however insufficient numbers of Anglicans were available.

Simcoe enticed the Quakers and Mennonites to Upper Canada with promises of the benefits of British law, an abundance of land, and respect for their pacifist ideals.

The reasons for this early migration were varied but generally the Mennonites and Quakers would refuse to bear arms for the United States military and would face severe persecution for it. Often a close relative would be a Loyalist and at that time anyone associated with allegiance to Britain was viewed as an enemy of the state.

It was also a matter of economics that forced many settlers to immigrate to Upper Canada. For twenty or thirty years many of these settlers had farmed in Pennsylvania and New York. As family size increased it became necessary to subdivide family land holdings. Often the ensuing inheritance would not be sufficient to support a family. As a result the second generation Mennonite and Quaker sons looked for cheap land outside their immediate vicinity.

Perhaps the most compelling reason for the Quakers and Mennonites to leave their homes in the United States was the slave based economy of the southern states. Quakers and Mennonites were confronted with the stark reality of just how brutal slavery really was. The state made it illegal for slaves to read the Bible and even made it an offense to free your own slaves, as many had attempted to do. Often times freed slaves were recaptured and sold back into slavery.

The Quakers and Mennonites witnessed fathers being separated from their families and children ripped from the arms of their helpless mothers. It became increasingly clear that the climate of slavery and capitalism that prevailed in the southern states did not coincide with the Christian philosophy of the Quakers and Mennonites.

The early Quakers and Mennonites that settled in Upper Canada found few amenities. However, unlike other groups of refugees to settle in Upper Canada the Quakers and Mennonites travelled and migrated in groups that usually consisted of extended family members.

A typical Quaker or Mennonite settler belonged to a network of closely related families who had moved at least once in the Colonies before coming to Upper Canada.

mennonite cemetery gravestone
An interesting inscription on a gravestone in the Vineland Mennonite Cemetery in Vineland reads: IN Memory of JOHN son of William and Rosanna Everet Who Departed this Life 1st January 1841 Aged 17 years 5 months, and 15 Days Pray all young men, as you pass by, Upon this grave but cast your eye; I, in my prime, was snatched away, As you may be this very day.

One location sought out by the Quaker and Mennonites was the Niagara Region. Many were landless immigrants who came from south eastern Lancaster County, Bucks County and from Sussex County, New Jersey. Some of these very early Mennonite settlers took up land along the Twenty Mile Creek.

Others were granted land in Bertie Twp, Wainfleet Twp., Thorold Twp. and Pelham Twp. Quaker settlements sprang up at Black Creek and The Short Hills in Pelham Twp.

One of the earliest Quaker to settle in the Niagara Region was Ezekiel Dennis. He came with his family from Richland in Bucks County, Pennsylvania in 1786 at which time he received 500 acres of land for his family to settle on.

He requested and received another 200 acres at Point Abino on Lake Erie in Bertie Twp. Other Dennis family members would follow. A nephew to Ezekiel, Levi Dennis would settle in Pelham Twp. and a niece Anne Dennis would marry Daniel Willson in 1780 and settle in Pelham Twp. as well. Many more extended family members would settle on lands in Bertie Twp. and Humberstone Twp. along the shores of Lake Erie.