The Mennonites date their origin back to the spread of Anabaptism from Switzerland during the 16th century. A then fairly radical group of Anabaptists appeared in The Netherlands under the leadership of Menno Simons (1492–1559). Faced with persecution not only by Catholics but also by less communal-minded Protestants there, these people, who became known as Mennonites, began to move into northern Germany after 1525, particularly into West and East Prussia, where they were invited to occupy undeveloped territories as part of a German eastern colonization scheme that promised them exemption from military service. But by the 1780s, facing numerous problems from the Prussian government, the Mennonites began to leave Prussia to establish colonies in Poland and South Russia (present-day Ukraine). Invited by Catherine II and lured by military and tax exemptions and permission to found their own schools and local governments, they first established the large Chortitza (1789) and Molotschna (1803) colonies, then numerous other smaller colonies during the 19th century.
However, in 1874 Russian nationalism caught up with the German colonists of South Russia. Their military and taxation exemptions were revoked; their political autonomy was disrupted when their colonies were incorporated into larger Russian administrative units; records and schools had to use the Russian language; and “unqualified” Mennonite school teachers were replaced by Russian ones. That year Mennonites, Hutterites and other Russian-German Protestants emigrated to South Dakota. Other conservative Mennonites from the Chortitza colony moved to the East Reserve in the Steinbach area of Manitoba (southeast of Winnipeg). The following year, the conservative Mennonites of the Furstenland and Bergthal colonies moved to the West Reserve in the Morden and Winkler area (southwest of Winnipeg). By 1893 the overpopulation of these Manitoba “reserves” led to the emigration of some of the Mennonites who had settled in Manitoba to the Rosthern and Swift Current areas, respectively in 1893 and 1902.
The Saskatchewan Valley Settlement developed rapidly into a major bloc settlement, similar in many ways to its forerunners in South Russia, which developed in several stages between 1891 and 1918. The initial nucleus of this settlement came into existence in 1891–94 with the settling of the immediate area around Rosthern by immigrants of the Rosenort Gemeinde (later General Conference Mennonites) from West Prussia, Russia, and Manitoba. Furstenlanders migrated from the West Reserve in Manitoba to settle around Hague in 1895. A compact reserve consisting of as many as twenty villages was then established south of Rosthern, between Hague and Osler, by Old Colony Mennonites from Manitoba in 1895–1905. The social organization of the conservative colonies in South Russia was systematically duplicated in north-central Saskatchewan: wide streets (a custom developed in Russia due to the possibility of thatched roofs catching fire), a Schult (village overseer), and German language schools and churches. These adjoining Mennonite settlements then expanded into a single vast settlement with the establishment of additional communities and congregations by Mennonite Brethren from the American Midwest (particularly Minnesota, Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma), directly from Russia, or via Manitoba, in 1898–1918; by Krimmer Mennonite Brethren from Kansas and Nebraska in 1899–1901; by Sommerfelder or Bergthaler Mennonites from Manitoba in 1902; by General Conference Mennonites largely from the Midwest (Kansas, Oklahoma, Minnesota), but also directly from Russia or via Manitoba, in 1910–12; and by Bruderthaler or Evangelical Mennonite Brethren from Minnesota in 1912.
Most of the conservative Mennonites in the settlement arrived immediately from the West Reserve in Manitoba; they or their predecessors had formerly come to Manitoba largely from the Chortitza Colony and some from the Bergthal Colony in South Russia, but later arrivals from Russia as well as from Mennonite colonies in the United States included immigrants from the Molotschna Colony. The exodus of several thousand conservative Sommerfelder, Bergthaler, and Chortitza Mennonites from Saskatchewan and Manitoba to Mexico and Paraguay in 1922–28 was offset by a renewed mass influx of Mennonites, as well as German Lutherans, from Russia. The Canadian Mennonite Colonization Board was organized in 1922, and the Lutheran Immigration Board the following year, to assist the remaining Mennonites and Lutherans in Russia and in postwar refugee camps to escape famine and the new Communist regime. By the time the Soviet government forbade further emigration in 1930, 19,891 Mennonites and 12, 310 Lutherans had been brought into Canada. 7,828 of the Mennonites, joined by small groups of Lutherans, settled in Saskatchewan (close to 3,000 in the Rosthern colony in 1923 alone). The Canada Colonization Association (CCA), the boards, and the ministers co-operated in settling the immigrants on tracts of land recently placed on the market. Commissions of 1.25% were paid by the CCA to a board or vice-versa for finding land and subsidizing settlement.
The influx of “Russlander” (Russian Mennonites arriving in the 1920s, as distinguished from the “Kanadier,” who had arrived earlier) was met with some opposition. In 1919 the Canadian government had passed Orders-in-Council prohibiting Mennonites as well as Hutterites and Doukhobors from entering Canada. When the orders were repealed in 1922 by the new Liberal government, English Canadians continued their outcry against the Russian Mennonite “flood,” which “flock to church while our boys fight,” “don’t conform to Canadian school laws,” and bring “unsanitary habits and Asiatic diseases” (Archives of Saskatchewan). Today the Rosthern and Saskatchewan Valley settlement, originally covering at least forty-two townships, includes over 10,000 people of German origin in or near five towns (Rosthern, Warman, Langham, Waldheim, and Martensville), six incorporated villages, and at least seven unincorporated villages or hamlets. The population claiming German origin in these towns and villages typically ranged from about half to over 90% in 1971.
A second, even more extensive Mennonite Settlement developed around Swift Current and Herbert, then spread northeastward to include the Vermillion Hills region. This vast settlement had its origins in two rather different Mennonite colonies established immediately east and south of Swift Current. First to arrive were Sommerfelder Mennonites from Manitoba, who settled in the Main Centre-Gouldtown area north of Herbert in 1900. They were soon joined by General Conference Mennonites and Mennonite Brethren, settling around Herbert in 1903–05; within a couple of years at least 100 Mennonite families had settled there, most from Russian-German Mennonite colonies in the United States. Meanwhile, another Mennonite colony was developing south of Swift Current. In 1904, Old Colony Mennonites from the Manitoba reserves petitioned the Dominion government for a reserve of six townships. Within a year at least twenty villages had been founded in this colony, named after Old Colony villages in Manitoba and Russia. By 1911 there were already approximately 4,600 Mennonites in these colonies.
From these two nuclei settlements, Mennonite settlement expanded rapidly throughout the general region. General Conference Mennonites established churches within the Old Colony area at Wymark, Schoenfeld, Rheinland, and McMahon, while Mennonite Brethren built a church at McMahon and the Evangelical Mennonite Mission Conference churches at Wymark and Blumenhof. To the southeast, Mennonite Brethren established churches at Kelstern (1907), Flowing Well (Gnadenau congregation, 1907), and Woodrow (1909); and General Conference Mennonites at Neville (1914). To the northeast, Mennonite Brethren congregations included Bruderfeld (1901), Main Centre (1904), Herbert (1905), Greenfarm (1912), Turnhill (1913), Beechy (Friedensheim congregation, 1925), and Lucky Lake (1943); while General Conference Mennonites were found around Herbert (1904), Morse (1920s), Gouldtown (1926), Eyebrow (1929), Tugaske, Central Butte, Lawson, Gilroy, and Elbow (all during the 1920s). To the west, small Mennonite Brethren and General Conference Mennonite congregations were established in many communities. Given the expansion and widespread distribution of Mennonite settlement in this region of Saskatchewan, it is difficult to estimate with any real accuracy the total Mennonite population; yet people claiming German origin number in excess of 10,000—close to 5,000 in Swift Current alone. But aside from the strongly Mennonite villages immediately south of Swift Current, only three towns or villages retained majority German proportions in 1971: Herbert, Morse, and Waldeck.
While the Rosthern-Saskatchewan Valley and Swift Current-Vermillion Hills settlements are the only really extensive Mennonite settlements in Saskatchewan, there are many smaller Mennonite concentrations widely scattered throughout the prairie portion of the province, mostly dating from the Russlander migration—the last substantial emigration from the Mennonite colonies in Russia—during the 1920s. The migration of Russlander resulted not only in the expansion of existing Mennonite colonies in Saskatchewan, but also in the foundation of new settlements as large farms were broken up in the Dundurn-Hanley, Herschel, and other areas.
Some ninety families settled marginal lands to form the Meeting Lake settlement, situated in the Thickwood Hills northeast of North Battleford, in 1926-30. By 1947 more Mennonites immigrated to the Meeting Lake settlement and other settlements from Eastern Europe in the wake of World War II. Today the Meeting Lake and Thickwood Hills settlement includes about 1,500 people of German origin in and near two incorporated villages (Medstead and Rabbit Lake), three unincorporated villages or hamlets (Fairholme, Mayfair, and Glenbush), and at least twenty named localities. Mennonites and other Germans formed about a third (34.3%) of the population of Medstead in 1971 and over a quarter (26%) at Rabbit Lake, but probably predominated in the smaller communities. Bruderthaler established a congregation at Fairholme in 1927; the Mennonite Brethren church at Glenbush dates from 1928, the General Conference one from 1934; and other General Conference congregations were established at Rabbit Lake in 1926, and at Mayfair in 1928 and 1936. South of this settlement, some Mennonite families settled in the Lorenzo, Fielding, and Speers areas.
At an early date a Mennonite concentration had developed closer to the main Rosthern settlement, in neighbouring rural districts north of the village of Borden. Mennonite Brethren had settled at Hoffnungsfeld as early as 1904, General Conference Mennonites at Great Deer in 1912, as well as in the Clear Spring and Concordia districts. Other General Conference Mennonite congregations established in the northwestern region included Meadow Lake (1935), Pierceland (1931), Compass (1933), Daisy Meadow, Dorintosh and Capasin (1931); while Mennonite Brethren churches were also established at Meadow Lake (1935), Pierceland (1939), and Compass (1938). In the west-central region an early Mennonite congregation was established by Mennonite Brethren in Christ at Alsask in 1910. During the 1920s Russlander Mennonites affiliated with the General Conference settled in the Herschel-Fiske area, as well as around Springwater, Harris, Ardath, Superb, Major, and Glidden. During the 1920s and 1930s a Mennonite Brethren concentration developed in the Lashburn-Waseca-Maidstone area.
Mennonites from a variety of different backgrounds settled in compact pockets in central Saskatchewan from an early date. Some Old Mennonite families from Ontario established a small congregation at Guernsey in 1905. Nearby, General Conference Mennonites from Kansas and Oklahoma formed the Nordstern (North Star) congregation at Drake in 1906–13. As Mennonite settlement spread, other General Conference churches were established at Watrous (1930) and Lampard, a Mennonite Brethren church at Watrous, and Mennonites also settled around Colonsay, Nokomis, and Lanigan. The Nordheim Congregation, affiliated with the General Conference, was founded in 1924 by Russlander at Sheldon Farms, west of Hanley, and at Pleasant Point, east of Dundurn.
In the east-central region, a congregation at Wynyard was established by the Evangelical Mennonite Mission Conference, one at Foam Lake by the Mennonite Brethren, and Mennonites also settled around Parkview, Wishart and Sheho. To the northeast, a Sommerfelder Mennonite reserve was founded in the Carrot River area as early as 1908; later, General Conference congregations served Carrot River (1926), Lost River (1916), and Petaigan (1931), with a Mennonite Brethren one at Carrot River (1926) as well. Similarly, an isolated Old Colony Mennonite settlement in the Swan Plain region, a marginal, heavily treed area near the Manitoba border, was later served by a General Conference mission. In south-central and southeastern Saskatchewan, Mennonites settled in the Truax-Dummer-Parry-Brooking area during the 1930s, as well as around Carnduff and Fleming.