Christian Nafziger came to Waterloo Region in August 1822 searching for a better life for himself and his family.
Nafziger was a peasant farmer from Bavaria when he decided to go to North America, so he walked from Bavaria to Amsterdam, where he presented his case to a wealthy Dutch Mennonite man, who gave him a free ticket to go to North America by ship. His ticket took him to New Orleans, and he made his way over 2,000 kilometres north to Pennsylvania. The story goes that he walked the whole way, having no money for other transportation.
When he arrived in Pennsylvania, there was no more cheap farmland there. The Mennonites who had already settled in the area suggested he go further north to Canada, which had become the new frontier. Those Mennonites gave him a horse for the last 800 kilometres of his journey.
When Nafziger arrived in the Grand River area, he was able to apply to the Lieutenant Governor Peregrine Maitland to open up land for about 70 Amish families. The request was approved. Maitland agreed to open up the Crown Reserve, which is today known as Wilmot Township, to Nafziger and other settlers. The deal was that the government would survey the land and divide it into 200-acre plots. Fifty of those acres in each plot would be given to a family for free in exchange for clearing a road, building a house, clearing land for agriculture, and that they would stay for a number of years. The other 150 acres of the plot would be available to the family to buy for a reasonable price per acre. Nafziger returned to his home in Europe, stopping in England to confirm the deal with the King on the way.
Amish families started to arrive by August of the next year, even though the government had not yet had the agreed land surveyed. While the families waited for the land to be surveyed and for their homes to be built, the Pennsylvania Mennonite families already there helped them. Nafziger and his family immigrated to Canada in 1826 and settled on Lot 6, North Bleams Road.
This year, the Mennonite Historical Society of Ontario held celebrations to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Nafziger’s journey.
That included bus tours of local historic sites, acapella hymn sings, an Indigenous awareness workshop, an event last Friday for the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation, which was a speaking presentation focusing on the question – what stories are we not telling about settlement? Other activities included a worship service held on Sunday evening. There was also an extensive exhibit of items from families of early Amish settlement including tools used on the farm and in the kitchen by early settlers as well as art work, needlework, handicrafts and many other items.
This month, Dr. Mark Louden, who wrote “Pennsylvania Dutch: the Story of an American Language,” will be giving presentations at Conrad Grebel University College and Grace United Church in Tavistock.
Fred Lichti of Elmira is the chair of the Amish Bicentennial Committee.
“I don’t (serve on this committee) because I think the Amish story is the most important story or the best story or the most holy story, but I do it because it’s my story. And it’s our story. And everybody and every person has a story,” he said. “(My story) helps me to know who I am, it helps with my identity and it helps to explain my values, my principles in my faith.”
Lichti says there are three main areas in Canada that the Amish settled including the Niagara Peninsula, Markham and Waterloo County.
By 1829, enough families had immigrated to Waterloo County, that they began to cross the Nith River and settle in South Easthope and Zorra Townships. Then, in the 1850s they began to settle in Wellesley Township, which was considered the clergy reserve by the government.
Lichti notes Black settlers were already in Wellesley Township, but were unable to buy the property they were on, subsequently heading elsewhere.
“They had schools, they had churches, and all we have left now are the cemeteries. So when I do my heritage tour, I make mention of that,” he said.
Marion Roes attended the weekend’s events. Roes has published books on local history, and saw the event as an important opportunity.
“My husband’s roots are Amish, and I’ve done his family history book quite a few years ago, and I’m interested in the history of Waterloo Region and slightly beyond and all the Mennonites, Amish and those groups’ histories – 200 years is quite a celebration. I knew I would learn something,” she said.
“History is important, I think, for everybody to be aware of, whether it’s the Amish that came here or the history of the first peoples that were here and the relationship among them and how they helped each other, or how they intermingled no matter how little it was, because by the time some of them came there weren’t too many indigenous, if any, people in the area. But I think our history is important to know, just generally. Some people are more interested in their own family history, but the background of the community is important too.”
Today, Lichti says the term Amish refers now to Old Order Amish who are more “tradition-minded,” as he puts it. They continue to keep old traditions and ways of living.
The Amish Mennonite community split between “tradition-minded” and “change-minded” around 1886 when members disagreed about building meeting houses. The tradition-minded people wanted to continue meeting in each other’s homes and barns. The change-minded group continued to change and adapt as modern society developed.
In the mid 1900s, the more “change-minded” Amish Mennonites dropped the term Amish from their church names, says Lichti. Later this group helped form what is now known as the Mennonite Church of Eastern Canada.
Going forward into the future, two main areas the Mennonite Church of Eastern Canada is focusing on is reconciliation with Indigenous people, and helping refugees, says Lichti.
“I would like (my ancestors’ story) to evoke other people’s stories,” he said. “Where are your roots? Where did your ancestors come from? What values, traditions and faith did they bring with them? Because we’re all immigrants other than the Indigenous people.”
“And then, the second thing would be, my hope is that telling this 19th century refugee story can build capacity for compassion and engagement with today’s refugees.”
According to the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia, the Old Order Amish denomination doubles in size every 20 years. This means it is one of the fastest growing denominations in North America, though the Amish population is much greater in the United States. That’s due to the large family sizes and high rates of retention in the faith.
As more pressure is put on land use, Lichti says Old Order Amish Mennonites are spreading out. The Young Center for Amish Studies at Elizabethtown College reports there are 373,850 Amish adults and children. They live in Canada, the United States, Argentina and Bolivia.
“The Old Order Amish are using the play book that they have used for centuries and that is to pull up stakes and find a place where there’s cheaper land and you can live your faith in relative freedom,” he said.
Lichti said all the offerings and funds raised from the bicentennial celebration events were sent to the Mennonite Central Committee and divided amongst refugee programs, Indigenous friendship program and Ukrainian development work.