Mennonite Historical Society of Saskatchewan

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MHSS Participation in Searching
Genealogical Roots and Archiving

by Ed Schmidt

The Mennonite Historical Society of Saskatchewan (MHSS) began in 1973. In its 25th year it moved into its own archive space and relocated to its current location in Bethany Manor's Fellowship Centre basement in 2003. This has opened the opportunity to become more engaged in genealogical data storage and assistance to those who compile family histories of Mennonite ancestors.

Mennonite Heritage Centre Archives in Winnipeg celebrated it 25th Anniversary in the year 2003. It lists its roots as 70 years of archiving by Bernhard J. Schellenberg (1897-1966); Benjamin Ewert (1870-1958); Gerhard Lohrenz (1899-1986); and Henry H. Epp (1925- ). Those who engage in genealogical compilations will recognize the challenges that the computer-age has presented. Benjamin Ewert compiled a "Ewert Stammbaum" that was published by D.W.Friesen printers of Altona, Manitoba; pages 38 and 39 in that booklet are the "Mitteilungen aus dem Leben von Benjamin Ewert." It states that Rev. Benjamin Ewert was 81, which most likely suggests this genealogy was published in 1951; there is no publication date.

Many genealogical records were published in the twentieth century before using computer programs became an option. The California Mennonite Historical Society (CMHS), in 1996, began to make available the GRANDMA Project (Genealogical Registry and Database of Mennonite Ancestry) to integrate available genealogical data in the global context of Mennonites. This project by the end of the year 2007 will contain about a million name files which are slowly being linked into their genealogical connections that span the last few centuries.

Alan Peters made a major contribution to Mennonite genealogical activity when he created a five character code to standardize access to both family and given names. The California Mennonite Historical Society (CMHS) in 1991 launched the cooperative worldwide effort of the above mentioned GRANDMA Project. The goal of this project has been to create a unified database containing as much genealogical information as possible about the ancestors and the descendents of Mennonites of Low German background (i.e. those who trace their ancestry back to the Palatinate, The Netherlands, Prussia, and/or Russia.)

The Saskatchewan Mennonite Historian has printed good articles to assist in compiling family histories. In Vol. III, No. 2, Sept. 1998, pages 12ff, the article "Genealogy: A Beginning" by Edith Fransen was published. In Vol. VI, No. 1, Mar. 2001, pages 20ff "Links to Other Genealogy Sites" was published. In Vol. VI, No. 2, Sept. 2001, pages 20ff, "Speaking Mennonite: Our Colorful Plautdietsch Language" by Victor Carl Friesen was published. Genealogy workshops with Reg Rempel and Judith Rempel have been offered in the past few years. In Vol. IX, No. 2, Sept. 2003, "Saskatoon Hosts Genealogy Workshop" (by Rosemary Slater) records the full day workshop, June 28, 2003 during which time Dr. Tim Janzen ( - also access GRANDMA Project reviewed resources in the field of genealogy of Mennonites of Prussian/Russian background.

The following has been compiled from numerous sources to continue the dialogue on gathering genealogical information that we hope will be made available to the MHSS Archives in Saskatoon. It is intended that this will assist in focusing what has been the primary root interest behind the GRANDMA project compilation of genealogical data.

Ancient Sanskrit, a written language, is considered root to languages of the North-India sub-continent and closest to the roots of what is called the Indo-European group of languages. The Scythian culture horsemen known for their ruling over the peoples where they lived (curved sword like knives for hand combat and agrarian abilities gives us the word scythe) came from Central Asia with an unwritten linguistic skill; however they were also a core linguistic group alongside the Aryan (Sanskrit) people. Migration and trade shape linguistic communications over thousands of years. Trade routes stretched from between the Black Sea and Caspian Sea reach northwest to the Vistula-Nogat delta on the Baltic and south in a more easterly direction to India's mountain ranges; the Low (referring to the Low Countries) German developed in the northwestern branch where it met the celtic influence. This link to PRESERVINGS Vol 26 has several excellent articles on Low German. Preservings - 2006.

By the 12th Century there were communities of tradesmen and farmer "Low Landers" reclaiming land from the Vistula River delta for cultivation and also to control flooding. In a few centuries these flood controls decayed and crumbled in neglect; however, a linguistic form was established among the people. The transition from the 15th to the 16th centuries was a restless time in European culture and religion. In 1526 the Vistula River broke through the water restraining barriers. In this period Anabaptist craftsmen, many who were persecuted for their faith, moved to where they were welcome and by 1530 had begun arriving in Danzig. Dirk Philips was present in Danzig by 1550. Across northern Europe the Dutchman, Menno Simons gained influence in the Anabaptist expression of faith; Dirk became the first Mennonite bishop in Danzig in 1569.

I copy from a 1996 (page 16, December) edition of the Plett Foundation PRESERVINGS (see Significant Links to connect to PRESERVINGS and Low German in the vol 1-13 Index) for the full article. "While they speak Low German, there are Missouri Germans who meet in celebration but are not Mennonite, but our 'te Hus' (Tea House, or at home?) feeling is no accident. Picture it this way: two thousand years ago we were all living off the coast of the North Sea. There on the bleak moors and in the heart of the forests our parents worked and hunted, played and sang, made war and finally accepted Christianity. The dividing line between Holland and Germany was basically undefined; the language from Amsterdam to Danzig was Low German. When he needed refuge, Menno Simons was as much at home in German East Friesland as he was in the West Friesland of Witmarsum. Then five hundred years ago, religious persecution came."

Most of the time Mennonites adapted to the Low German in the areas of extended residence. It was not a refined language; its rhythms suited the rhythms of the earth and its vocabulary expressed the common business of work and home. It was crude without being dirty though in translation it often appears to be both. It is almost impossible to capture its essence in translation. It is "earthy," with a constant tendency to topple over into the comic. It abounds in idiomatic "pithy sayings and old saws." It embodies the folk wisdom of peasants and craftsmen. Like the millennia that supplied historic roots of Low German, its dialectic variants were a dynamic that it allowed them to change easily, growing and contracting with the experience of those who used it, changing from region to region and even, more subtly, from village to village.

Mennonites lived through many political upheavals in the area that can generally be defined as stretching north and south along the Vistula River and its tributaries. By the time a census was done in 1776 there were more than 12,000 names (mainly heads of households) recorded as living on the land that they tilled. Between the 16th and 18th Centuries their written-record keeping was done mainly in the Gothic Script that in language transitioned from the Dutch (and often grammatically expressed Low German) to the "High" German. Victor Friesen demonstrates the consonantal shifts between the linguistic developments of northern Europe.

From their earliest expressions of faith, for which they were persecuted, many Anabaptists formed indigenous communities that included all the services necessary to live productive lives. These communities included both facilities for worship and education. The nobility that granted permission for these communities would do the "head count" census from time to time. However, from the late eighteenth century, those responsible for order in these extended faith communities were required to keep records relating to worship and educational practices; these records were used to define family groupings. Taxing and service to the nobility and state were based on these records. What began as a requirement of the nobility was adopted as an ongoing practice in many of the descendent Anabaptist related Mennonite Church congregations even though they no longer defined specific ethnic communities. These records later became significant when exemption was sought from conscription and participation in military conflicts that were being waged.

In the above text a number of articles and projects have been referenced and as interest is gained they should be accessed. This introduction is a launch site to what has become a bridging activity of exploring the roots among the ancestors of many Mennonites that have experienced Saskatchewan in Canada.

Go to GRANDMA on this site to read Tim Janzen's description of the program.

[last updated - Sep/1/2022]
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Mennonite Historical Society of Saskatchewan

Room 900 - 110 La Ronge Road,
Saskatoon, SK, S7K 7H8
Archive Hours: Monday: 1:30 - 4:00 p.m. Wednesday: 1:30 - 4:00 p.m. & by appointment on Wed. evening.