“West Reserve” is the term traditionally used for the area of southern Manitoba first settled by Mennonites from Russia when they arrived in 1875 and later. It included seventeen townships of land arranged just west of the Red River along the US-Canada border, set aside by the Manitoba government for Mennonites only. However, the area did include non-Mennonite groups which had already been settled on the eastern and western edges by then. The boundaries of this area were officially ratified in 1876. The new population came almost entirely from so-called Chortitzer and Fuerstenlaender communities in south Russia.

There is also evidence even today of the frequenting of this area by Metis and other indigenous groups (Cree and Ojibway) which were being settled in reserves of their own at this time. The designated “Mennonite” land all lay within the borders of what the aboriginal community ceded to the Canadian government under Treaty No. 1 four years before the Mennonites moved in.

From what we know Jacob Y. Shantz, a government appointee from Ontario brought in to assist the new immigrants, had surveyed the area a little earlier. He had realized that what had been set aside in an area somewhat to the northeast and across the Red River, and occupied the year before, would not be adequate for all the families that were coming in 1874 and would continue to do so for several more years. That area had come to be called the East Reserve.

The first Mennonite settlers set foot on the West Reserve in July of 1875. They found temporary shelter in what was then known as Fort Dufferin and immediately set out to explore the designated area, establishing initial sites for villages, where they began to build temporary residences and outbuildings for their farm animals. Eighteen villages were laid out already in 1875.

By virtue of the settlement contract, each family was entitled to receive 160 acres, which would accrue free of charge to the claimants after paying the registration fee for a patent and taking possession, as evidenced by the construction of at least one building on the property and showing evidence of beginning to bring it under cultivation. The village of Reinland, west of present-day Gretna, became a central administrative centre for the area. Most of these first villages, soon to total more than 25, were established in the western part of the reserve, closer to available woods and better drained than elsewhere on the reserve.

In a few years, beginning around 1878, several hundred families from the East Reserve, mostly from the Bergthaler group there, decided to move again, reestablishing themselves in the eastern part of the West Reserve, where land was judged to be more fertile, and drainage better, than in the East Reserve where they took up land originally. Another 25 or so villages were thus added to the larger West Reserve community.

All the Mennonite groups set about building schools and places of worship in central locations as soon as possible, along with local village governing bodies, and as soon as the government could organize the area of municipalities with centralized councils of their own. Altona and eventually Morden emerged as municipal centres. West Lynne and Emerson, just to the southeast of the main reserve area, and Mountain City out west, served as business centres, with a major route known as Post Road connecting many of the villages and some town centres at the time.

About 4,000 persons came during the founding years of the West Reserve, with relatively rapid increase of population. The coming of the railway in 1882 quickly added a half dozen or more railway towns to the structure of the reserve. After some years, the designation of “West Reserve” for the region disappeared, but local residents, especially the seniors, still recall what they were told about life in a “Mennonite” reserve.

Calendar of Events
  • March 9 – Steinbach and Area Garden Club Meeting – 7:00 PM
  • March 10 – Southeast Implement Collectors Meeting – 7:30 PM

About the Author

Gary is responsible for the overall management of MHV. Guiding the staff, informing the board, and networking with officials, volunteers, corporate sponsors, individual donors and other guests. He has a business diploma and a MA in Global Studies from Providence Theological Seminary. With his family he did humanitarian work for 18 years in Asia, including being a CEO of a Compost Enterprise in China. He loves to discuss the Mennonite story and how it is relevant in our world. Learn more about the MHV.

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