On the margins

The War of 1812: Part 2 of 3

July 4, 2012 | Viewpoints | Number 14
By Jonathan Seiling |

The previous article, “Landscapes of war, a people of peace,” June 25, page 12, noted the challenge of identifying “the Mennonite experience” in the War of 1812, and the fact that the war was significant as the first testing of conscientious objection in Canada. But how diverse were those experiences, and did Mennonites in 1812 pass the test?

Short answer: Some did, some didn’t. Mennonite history is full of such examples of voluntary enlistment, especially in North America. Unfortunately, it is still difficult to assess to what degree “resistant” Mennonites—those listed in militia roles—were excluded from the church. Some joined other faith traditions, some remained, and, based on inter-marriage with other Mennonites, appear to have been accepted as Mennonites.

Mennonites officially claimed the Dordrecht Confession as their statement of faith (English translation printed in Upper Canada, 1811). However, doctrinal and ethical norms were far from stable, possibly due in part to the influences from such other religious movements as Methodists, Baptists, United Brethren, Brethren in Christ and Quakers. Some of these Christians officially shared a commitment to nonresistance.

The challenge of identifying which Mennonites failed to remain nonresistant is about equal to the challenge of knowing who were the “official” Mennonites in that era. Membership records do not exist for that era and genealogical data or census records are presumptuous substitutes at best. Migrations to the three main regions—Niagara, Markham and Waterloo—happened gradually and ministerial leadership generally followed settlements, not the other way around.

Waterloo Region
The War of 1812 never reached the Waterloo settlement, although after the autumn of 1813 Waterloo was threatened by the marauding invaders pillaging homes in the Western District of Upper Canada and further east. Beginning with the American conquest of Lake Erie in the summer of 1813, and the advance of troops from Detroit up the Thames River, the British/native forces began to retreat.

Waterloo Mennonites, and at least one more from the Hamilton settlement, were conscripted to haul supplies toward Detroit, and to help evacuate the forts and the approximately 7,500 British and native people stationed in the Western District.

Prior to this transport operation, some Mennonites resisted complying with officers who could legally requisition their boats, wagons, sleighs and men to drive them for the journey that lasted several weeks. One conniving Mennonite, Cornelius Pannebecker, removed the wheels of his wagon and actually convinced the officer it was broken! Elizabeth (Gabel) Bechtel stood up to an officer at sword-point, who threatened her life until she finally showed him where she was hiding the team of oxen.

At the Battle of Moraviantown on Oct. 13, 1813, the group of Mennonite men accompanying the transport operation fled for their lives, leaving at least 14 wagons behind, which they would never see again. The collective loss of those wagons and the exorbitant wartime prices required to replace them were massive burdens for the Waterloo community. Their efforts to gain compensation from the government continued for more than a decade, and they only received a fraction of their original value.

One Mennonite living at Long Point, John Troyer, claimed as a doctor to have treated wounded soldiers. His claim for compensation was flatly rejected.

The North York settlements
Although most of the Markham community, including Vaughan and Stouffville, would never experience the same proximity to live warfare as either the Waterloo settlement or Mennonites throughout the Niagara Region, their losses were noteworthy as well.

Some of them complied with the authorities, as Mennonites did elsewhere, but several were sentenced in district court and fined for their refusal to provide teams of horses, wagons or sleighs, among other items. Such resistance to the demands of the colonial government was surely related to their practice of nonresistance, but there were other factors.

Like Mennonites elsewhere, they lived amid a general population that also refused to support the war for various reasons. Noncompliance by some Upper Canadians arose from a complex range of motivations, not the least of which included a desire for a democratic republic over their continued servility under a Crown dominion.

Settlers in the Markham and Waterloo areas, although marginal to the conflict, struggled to uphold their hopes for a peaceful life while adjusting to the demands of the new frontier, its governing authorities and their faith tradition.

Niagara Region
The settlements in Niagara were older, more established and closer to the colonial administrative and key industrial centres. The presence of Mennonites in the various Niagara settlements today represent a small fraction of their original size compared to their proportion in 1812.

Relative to the District of Niagara, the Mennonite settlements in Waterloo and Markham have endured the test of time; yet we might note that the war spared their homes and livelihoods, for the most part. That was not the case in Niagara.

The third article of this series will focus on the details of the Niagara Mennonites’ experiences in the war, including Rainham, Port Colborne, Vineland-Jordan and Willoughby-Bertie (around Fort Erie), and Hamilton, and a possible relationship between the level of suffering during the war and Mennonite settlement patterns over the long term.

See also:
Part 1: Landscapes of war, a people of peace
Part 3: Longing for peace in Niagara

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