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Hespeler documents reflect Manitoba Mennonite history


William Hespeler

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Alf Redekopp studies a packet of documents pertaining to the life of William Hespeler, the German-Canadian immigration agent who encouraged thousands of Mennonites to emigrate from Russia to Manitoba in the late 1800s

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This document signed and sealed by Queen Victoria officially recognizes William Hespeler as “Consul of the German Empire for the Province of Manitoba Canada.”

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April 5, 2012
-Deborah Froese

Winnipeg, MAN. —At first glance, the creased and yellowed pages simply appear old, but a closer inspection reveals something more. Some of the documents bear the personal signatures of 19th century rulers such as Queen Victoria and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Prussia—and they have a Mennonite connection.

These papers pertain to the life of William Hespeler (1830-1921), a German-Canadian businessman who served as a Member of the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba. He was also the immigration agent who encouraged thousands of Mennonites to emigrate from Russia to Manitoba when they sought escape from Imperial reforms. Hespeler’s appointment as an immigration agent came from the first Prime Minister of Canada, Sir John A. Macdonald.

On Feb. 12, Jeremy Hespeler-Boultbee of Victoria BC, great-grandson of William Hespeler, gave the papers documenting Hespeler’s life and work to the Mennonite Heritage Centre (MHC), the archival ministry of Mennonite Church Canada.

“Hespeler was largely responsible for Mennonites coming to Manitoba, particularly the Bergthaler Mennonites from South Russia,” says Alf Redekopp, MHC Director. “Klaas Peters, who wrote a booklet about the history of the Bergthaler Mennonites, referred to Hespeler as ‘Our most highly esteemed friend, our dear old friend.’”

 “For me, the most important parts of the material are the documents that Hespeler took to Russia to convince the Mennonites to come to Canada,” Redekopp says. That material includes documentation of the 1872 exchange between the Canadian Government and Russian Mennonites regarding potential rights and freedoms, including exemption from military service.

“The most fascinating documents were those that have the signatures of monarchs and rulers such as Queen Victoria, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Prussia, Grand Duke Friedrich of Baden and Zahringen – Karlsruhe, and English King Edward VII,” Redekopp adds.

The document signed by Queen Victoria provides official recognition of Hespeler as “Council of the German Empire for the Province of Manitoba Canada.” Her seal is embossed on the upper left-hand corner of the paper.

Redekopp also points to the 1867 document issued on April 30th by the Governor General of British North America, when Hespeler, who was born in Baden-Baden, Germany, officially became naturalized as a British subject. At the time, Hespeler resided in the village of Berlin, in the Province of Upper Canada, and changed his name from “Wilhelm” to “William”. This took place just two months before the federal Dominion of Canada was formed on July 1, 1867.
“It’s great to see that part of Canadian history,” Redekopp says. “The Heritage Centre doesn’t often see material from the period before Mennonites came here.”

Hespeler’s reach as an immigration agent extended beyond Mennonites; he also helped Icelandic immigrants and Jewish refugees from Germany plant new roots in Manitoba. He worked to ensure all immigrants to Manitoba had the supplies and shelter they needed upon arrival, including the development of a plan for the town of Niverville, Manitoba.

As a businessman, Hespeler was a grain merchant who oversaw the construction of the first grain elevator on the Prairies.

Hespeler was married three times and spent his last year of life as a widower in Vancouver, living with his only son, Alfred. Little is known about his family or religious life, or why he is buried in an Anglican cemetery in Winnipeg with other Winnipeg pioneers. Some of the documentation received by the MHC indicates his military service as a German citizen was deferred—which may provide a line of connection with Mennonites.

“I imagine he would be Lutheran, but there is little documentation. It is said that he helped establish a German Lutheran congregation in Winnipeg in 1888,” Redekopp says.

A street in northeast Winnipeg, an area historically populated by Mennonites, is named after Hespeler.