Sunday, August 29, 2010

From Prussia to Paraguay, part 1

Some of my readers have asked me about my heritage. It's such a long story, that I decided to make a little series of how a german/english speaking girl like me is living in Paraguayan Chaco in South America.
It all started in Prussia. Whoever is looking for Prussia on a current world map won't find it anywhere.
It was part of today's Germany and Poland.

So, here goes my story:
From Prussia to Paraguay, my heritage

My ancestors were dutch-german Anabaptists (following the teachings of Menno Simons) living in Prussia as early as 1530.

Catherine the Great from Russia invited farmers in 1763 to settle in the Ukraine. Many Mennonites were attracted to this offer, because they were encountering restrictions in living their faith. They also wanted to be excused from military service. In the years from 1787-1870 about 1907 families (8000 people) migrated to various parts of Russia, such as Chortitza, Molotschna, Samara and Vilna.

Map of the Russian Mennonite colonies in 1875. Source:

Most Mennonites from this group are traditionally multilingual, with Plautdietsch (low-German) and German as their first languages.

The colonists formed villages of 15 – 30 families, and this concept is still used in our colony in Paraguay. Each farm had about 70 ha (175 acres) of land to it, and some villages had a communal plot of land for funding large projects or for use by the poor in lean years. (This is also done in one of the villages in our area.) In the beginning the Mennonites raised cattle, sheep and general crops to provide for their household. But as they got to know the land better, they diversified into growing mulberries for the silk industry, they produced honey, flax and tobacco and marketed fruits and vegetables for city markets. By 1830, wheat was their main crop.

Quote by wiki:

“Expanding population and the associated pressure for more farmland became a problem by 1860. The terms of the settlement agreement prevented farms from being divided; they were required to pass intact from one generation to the next. Since agriculture was the main economic activity, an expanding class of discontented, landless poor arose. Their problems tended to be ignored by the village assembly, which consisted of voting landowners. By the early 1860s the problem became so acute that the landless organized a party that petitioned the Russian government for relief. A combination of factors relieved their plight. The Russian government permitted farms to be divided in half or quarters and ordered release of the village's communal land. The colonies themselves purchased land and formed daughter colonies on the eastern frontier extending into Siberia and Turkestan. These new colonies included Bergtal, Neu Samara Colony and the Mennonite settlements of Altai.

As wheat farming expanded, the demand for mills and farm equipment grew. The first large foundry was established in Chortitza in 1860 and other firms followed. By 1911 the eight largest Mennonite-owned factories produced 6% of the total Russian output (over 3 million rubles), shipped machinery to all parts of the empire and employed 1744 workers. The annual output of Lepp and Wallman of Schönwiese was 50,000 mowers, 3000 threshing machines, thousands of gangplows in addition to other farm equipment. Flour and feed mills were originally wind-powered, a skill transplanted from Prussia. These were eventually replaced with motor and steam driven mills. Milling and its supporting industries grew to dominate the industrial economy of the colonies and nearby communities.”

To be continued...


  1. I'm so glad you're doing this. I've been so curious and knew it would be a fascinating story. I look forward to more.
    You're so great with words.
    (Don't forget to grab my Meet and Greet button. You're one that has made it all possible.

  2. I love this. I´ll be sending people here to read it too.

  3. So interesting. I'm not certain - still in the exploring phase - but I believe I have some Mennonite in my ancestry also. My American ancestors were from Alsace i.e. the German/French border area. From what I've learned, these folks left Alsace to come to America for religious freedom as well. So cool!

  4. This is incredibly interesting, Brenda. I'm hooked, so I hope it doesn't take too long to continue. Even Hubs is reading along...he loves history and culture!

  5. When I was about 11 I wrote a fictional story for school in which I pretended Catherine the Great was one of my ancestors haha! (I posted it here last week actually

  6. Betty sent me, so I will be around. I find your history fascinating!


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