The Mennonite settlers in Henderson immigrated from Russia and originally were of Dutch/German origin and broke from the Catholic Church during the Reformation period in the early 1500’s. They are named after Menno Simons who began to study the Bible and believed that infant baptism was not biblical. This resulted in the practice of re-baptizing and therefore they became known as Anabaptists. Persecution followed them because of their beliefs and they left the German Dutch area and emigrated to Prussia where they were promised religious freedom.
After of 150 years of successful farming there, the government began making changes and freedoms to expand were taken away. Catherine the Great of Russia invited them to come inhabit the territory she had just claimed in the Turkish War. She promised free land, religious freedom including exemption from military service. The Mennonites moved to the Ukraine area and settled in colonies and villages as protection from invading nomads.
Here they flourished building their own schools, churches and government which helped them maintain their German language. After a time, Catherine the Great died and the Czars who came into power around 1873 began rumblings about taking away their freedoms.
By this time it was clear that the Russians were not going to allow the Mennonites to expand denying them access to more land. They also threatened to force them to send their children to the Russia schools. Predominately a farming community, they began searching for a new place to live. By 1874, they began to leave Russia in great numbers selling their belongings to those who stayed. About 20,000 Mennonites left Russia between 1874 – 1880.
They arrived in America with some means to begin farming and purchase land. They were promised exemption from military service in America as they had in Russia. Those who chose to stay in Russia eventually suffered greatly especially when World War I broke out when thousands were killed or exiled to Siberia. Today there is hardly a remnant left of those Mennonites who stayed in Russia.
The group that left in 1874 numbered about 168 families. Thirty-five of these families chose to come to Henderson. Others went to Kansas, Iowa, South Dakota and Canada. The railroad agents and a Mr. Grosshans from Sutton were instrumental in getting these 35 families to Henderson. When they arrived in Lincoln they spent several weeks buying land and supplies that they would bring with them to their final destination.
The women and children took the train to Sutton but the men drove the horses and wagons cross country from Lincoln to Henderson. The women and children walked the 17 miles from Sutton to the Immigrant House that had been built by the Burlington River Railroad. On October 14, 1874 they arrived began making their lives in and around Henderson.
The following is excerpts from the book Henderson Mennonites, From Holland to Henderson,published by the Henderson Centennial Committee. This book can be purchased at the Visitor’s Center.
“The winters in Russia were cold and lasting. How glad we were when spring arrived. Now there were many things to do, like plowing, sowing, planting the gardens, trimming trees, chopping shrubs and hauling manure.
The average farm in Russia was about 160 acres. The land was divided among large land owners, who had 160 acres, half land owners with 80 acres and small land owners with 30-40 acres. There were many without land who earned their living by laboring or by small industry.
Everyone was required to join a church. This was a rule among the Mennonites and also a law of the Russian Government. Everyone had the privilege to join the church he or she liked best.
The year 1870 was a year of excitement. Changes were taking place. Immigrants were still coming from Prussia to join friends in nearby villages or on their way to new settlements along the Volga River.
Russia had been good to the Mennonites. It had allowed them almost unlimited freedom. Only the provincial rulers came around. Since the Creamean War, hardly a soldier had been seen in the villages.
The Mennonite Elders, however, had a feeling of uneasiness over recent rumors out of Berdjansk and Odessa. The word was going around that St. Petersburg (Russia’s capital at that time) was secretly revoking the Mennonite Privilege under which their forefathers, and many of them also, had come from Prussia as recently as thirty-five years earlier.
By the end of 1870, the rumors were so persistent and widespread that they could no longer be ignored or passed off as idle gossip.
On September 25, 1872, at Alexanderwohl, a decision was made to send a delegation to America to get first hand facts about the land and the risks in settling there. Many questions needed to be answered. In the words of Leonard Suderman, America was a “country interesting for the adventurer, an asylum for convicts. How could one live in peace under his vine and fig tree amid such people, to say nothing of the native slaves. Such a life might be possible for those who had their pockets full of revolvers’ but for the nonresistant people it would be impossible to find homes amid such surroundings.
In April and May of 1873 delegates from the various communities interested in migrating to America left on their missions. The delegates represented several different communities as well as somewhat divergent view of Mennoniteism. These men traveled in three different groups to the United States. Here they were met by William Hespeler who represented the Canadian immigration agency to help them choose Canadian lands. All groups of delegates and their North American guides met at Fargo, North Dakota. Other delegates traveled to the Dakotas, Nebraska. After further travels in Kansas and Texas, the delegates seemed assured that there was plentiful good land available at a reasonable price. The dangers of the frontier seemed remote with the much feared Indians somewhere over another hill.
With the return of the delegation of twelve and the decision to emigrate, preparations began immediately. Russia was not going to let her citizens go easily. To leave the country, a pass was required and when it became obvious that the Mennonites intended to leave in wholesale lots, many impediments were put in the way of obtaining their passes.
By the time their passes finally came on July 15, 1874, the situation for some émigrés was becoming touchy and it was a great relief to be assured that they could leave soon. Those planning to go were divided into several groups to be able to take passage on two ships. They left the Molotschna by train in four shifts, one every other day beginning on July 20 by Russian calendar, August 1 by our western calendar. The group that homesteaded in Henderson, left Russian on August 16. The ships landed in New York on September 2, where the immigrants boarded trains for the Midwest. On September 8 at 11:00 p.m. the trains arrived in Lincoln, Nebraska. The weary travelers settled in the immigrant house built in Lincoln by the Burlington and Missouri River Railroad. This was to be their home until a decision was made on whether to settle in Nebraska or move to Kansas. Six men were appointed to inspect the country and were out several days. On September 10 the men returned from their inspection of Kansas. At the urging of Fred Grosshans of Sutton, a grain dealer, he took them to see the land north of Sutton which lay in both York and Hamilton counties. Upon their return to Lincoln from Sutton, a decision was made and 35 families cast their lot with Nebraska. For the next month they went about the business of supplying their needs for the winter ahead, preparatory to moving onto the land which had been reserved for them in York and Hamilton counties.
The month’s wait was necessary to allow the B & M Railroad time to build an immigrant house on their land.”
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Last Updated 8/24/2005