Chapter Seven: Saskatchewan

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“In 1900, [Jacob C. Willems] moved with his parents from Mountain Lake, to Canada and settled west of Waldheim, Saskatchewan in the Brotherfield area.                              Jacob C. Willems Obituary 1964

“Evidence that the farmers were fairly well off financially was the emigration of some 200 families of Mennonites from the community [of Mountain Lake] to North Dakota and Canada between 1896 and 1902. They were not driven away by economic necessity, for they carried away with them long train-loads of livestock, farm equipment, and household goods, but were rather attracted to these other regions by the prospect of easily making large profits from the free or cheap land to be obtained there.”                                                                                                    A History of the Settlement of German Mennonites from Russia at Mountain Lake, Minnesota

Ferdinand Schultz in his history of the Mennonites who settled in Mountain Lake, Minnesota, says that in the years between 1896-1902 about 200 Mennonite families left that area for Canada and North Dakota taking with them “long train-loads of livestock, farm equipment, and household goods.”   Gerhard Willems’ family made up a substantial part of that exodus.[i]  One of his sons moved to Nebraska, another to North Dakota. The majority, however, three sons and two daughters, emigrated to Saskatchewan, Canada., taking their old father Gerhard with them. And this was not just Gerhard’s children. The number who moved included five spouses and at least twenty-six children, a total of at least thirty-six people, plus many siblings of the spouses and their families as well.

Many of the Boldt family also abandoned Mountain Lake. Of the ten children born to Jacob J. Boldt (1832-1896) and Elisabeth Siemens Boldt (1836-1895), at least six left Mountain Lake. Five of them ended their life journeys in California, my great-grandmother Elisabeth arriving in California by way of Saskatchewan. One, Jacob J. Boldt (1861-1949), emigrated to Saskatchewan and spent the rest of his long life there.

It is not hard to believe that people would want to leave Minnesota’s harsh winters and extreme weather. That so many of the Boldt family ended up in California asks for no explanation. But why Canada? Why did so many of the Willems family decide to relocate hundreds of miles further north? The weather in Saskatchewan was worse than it was in Minnesota—the winters were colder, and the average annual rainfall was only about half that in Mountain Lake. And why would anyone decide to pick up and move from one hard won frontier territory to a new frontier area, to go through the work of breaking new land—this time even further north, in a land whose weather was even more extreme than in their current home?

The lure of free land was the main reason. By the 1890s homesteading opportunities in the United States had pretty much dried up. The best land had already been settled. What was left was marginal. However, Canada’s western prairie was just opening up. The Dominions Lands Act, which was modeled on United States homestead legislation, allowed individuals to claim a quarter section of land, 160 acres, for just a $10 dollar registration fee. After three years if one had built a place to live in and cleared at least ten acres, one could get clear title to the land and could then also file on another quarter section of adjoining land. Claimants need only be eighteen years old, which meant that a family with teen-age sons, like Cornelius and Elisabeth Willems, would be in a position to have those sons also claim land as soon as they turned eighteen, thus forming a tight family enclave. They would in effect be providing land for their children as well as good land for themselves with this move.

Not all the Mennonites who settled in Mountain Lake had been able to get good land. Some came after the best land was already taken; some came with little or no money, burdened by the debt incurred in emigrating from Russia. The prospect of free land would have looked like a God-send, an opportunity to improve one’s situation. For those with good farms, those who had prospered, there was the chance for significant profit through the sale of established farms and taking up free land in a newly developing area. There was also the desire to help one’s children with their need for land to farm. A provident family looked out for its children’s future, helped them acquire land to farm.   If one was not rich, could not afford to help one’s children buy land—and if one wanted to keep one’s family together, not see them scattering over the horizon in search of land they could afford, then it behooved the parents of a family with adolescent sons to themselves search out a new home where their children had access to free or cheap land.

Moving to Saskatchewan was not a blind gamble. There were already Mennonites in Saskatchewan. Word of the land, the soil and weather conditions, would have been transmitted throughout the Mennonite world through letters and Mennonite newspapers, the Zionsbote and Rundschau (check).

 The Land

 “Three landscapes confront the visitor to the western interior of Canada: The prairies, which roll seemingly without end west and north from the Red River toward the Rockies and the arctic; the parkland, where a profusion of birds and lands, gentle hills and valleys, and fertile soil suggest a crescent-shaped oasis at the northern edge of the prairies; and the boreal forest, with rock outcroppings, cold lakes, and miles of spruce and pine as little traveled today as they were 400 years ago.                                     Gerald Friesen, The Canadian Prairies: A History  

One tends to think of Saskatchewan as one, vast treeless prairie, an arid region with millions of acres of wheat rippling in the summer wind, lying cold and dormant under winter snow. What actually dominates the map of Saskatchewan, however, is lakes, thousands of lakes of all sizes. Over half the provinces is classified as boreal forest. The vast prairie is there, but it is at the bottom of the map. In between the prairie and the boreal forest is a narrow region of land classified as “parkland.” The parkland, too, is prairie, but prairie “dotted with bluffs of aspen or aspen and oak. Here the soils were a rich black, high in organic content and possessing perhaps the best agricultural potential in the country when moisture was adequate” (Friesen, 7,8). Here in the parkland on the strip of land between the North Saskatchewan and South Saskatchewan Rivers about 75 west of where those rivers converge is where Gerhard Willems’ children settled

 History of the Land

       “The deep cold of winter is best endured where the boreal forest meets the parkland—in those protected valleys where trees and game provide sustenance, shelter, and fuel in the most difficult months of the calendar” (Friesen, 4).

The North and South Saskatchewan Rivers reach high into the glaciers of the Rocky Mountains. Before the coming of the railroad, they were the highways of the northern prairies. Cree, Assinboine, Blackfoot, Ojibwa and other native peoples of the Canadian interior used them to carry furs trapped in the remote reaches of the rivers’ tributaries to the trading posts of the Hudson’s Bay and Northwest trading companies. The valley where the two rivers converged was a major trading and over-wintering area. Rich in birds, game and other resources, the valley with its high, steep banks provided critically necessary food and shelter during the winter, a refuge important to the native peoples.

In his book on the Canadian prairies, historian Gerald Friesen includes a description of the Saskatchewan Valley that was written in 1876 by Alexander Morris who was there to negotiate a land use treaty, (Treaty 6) between the Crown and the northern plains Cree nation, the treaty that paved the way for the opening of the land for settlement by non-native people. The place described was the North Saskatchewan River valley below the bluffs where my grandfather, Jacob Willems, would later claim homestead land:       

“On my arrival I found that the ground had been most judiciously chosen, being elevated, with abundance of trees, hay marshes and small lakes. The spot which the Indians had left for my council tent overlooked the whole.      

The view was very beautiful: the hills and the trees in the distance, and in the foreground, the meadow land being dotted with clumps of wood, with the Indian tents clustered here and there in the number of two hundred” (Friesen, 143).  

That description of the land below the bluffs was written in 1876. My grandfather filed his homestead claim in 1905. The tents and the Cree people were long gone from that beautiful encampment. The years between the signing of Treaty Six and the coming of my grandfather and the other Mennonites to the land between the North and South Saskatchewan Rivers had brought great change to the lives of the Cree and the other native people, tragic change—dispossession from land desired by white settlers and the destruction of their traditional way of life. By 1879, the great herds of bison on which the native people depended for food and hides were gone, killed off by commercial hunting. The native people were starving, desperate, and the Canadian government used that hunger to force them onto reserves. The verdict of current historians is scathing. I quote here an article on “Treaty Six” in the online Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan: “The government believed that keeping First Nations in a state of near-starvation would bend them to its will: it also realized that this policy was likely to cause death and illness—and it did.”[ii] The Canadian government’s goal according to historian Michael Cottrell : “extinguishing Aboriginal sovereignty and land title, and … segregating Aboriginal people on reserves in order to facilitate White settlement of the region.”[iii]

My grandfather and the other Mennonites who filed homestead claims in the parkland near the North Saskatchewan River very likely had little awareness of the people who once roamed and hunted the land they saw as empty, free. The parkland was the choice land, the best land for farming. This was the land the Canadian government wanted for White settlement.

 Rosthern Mennonite Settlement

 “A compact reserve consisting of as many as twenty villages was established south of Rosthern …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.”                                                        Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan

The Willems family began to arrive in the Saskatchewan River area in 1899, but not in the area south of Rosthern where the conservative Mennonites from Manitoba had their farms and villages. The Willems’ homesteads were southwest of Rosthern, on the bluffs above the North Saskatchewan River a few miles west of the village of Waldheim, a region that attracted many Mennonite Brethren. This is where my grandparents met and married. It is where my father was born, and it is where old father Gerhard Willems’ long life finally came to an end.

 The Death of Gerhard

 Cornelius and Elisabeth Boldt Willems, my great-grandparents, migrated to Canada with their children in the spring of 1900. They were not the first of the clan to make the journey. Other family members awaited their arrival. Cornelius’ sister, Elisabeth Willems Quiring (1862-1927) and her husband, Johann (1862-1923) and their three children moved to the Rosthern area of Saskatchewan 18 April 1899. Two weeks later, old father Gerhard Willems joined them. Not quite a year later, on 12 March 1900, as the family’s first winter in Saskatchewan was ending, Gerhard died.

That information comes from a long letter I found in the Zionsbote, the Mennonite Brethren newspaper founded in 1884. The letter was written by Johann Quiring, Gerhard’s son-in-law. Below is a translation of the section of the letter that describes Gerhard’s last days. These are the earliest words written by one of the participants in my family’s history that I’ve come across:

 Zionsbote 11 April 1900

 Our dear father Gerhard Willms[iv] was overtaken by a stroke on March 6th in the morning when he wanted to come to breakfast and he was outside when suddenly he was so wonderfully taken. It was 40 feet from his door to our door. He said he wanted to go left, and he was irresistibly moved to the right, so that he didn’t have his own will, and fell to the ground. It cannot have been longer than 5 or 10 minutes that he laid there, because I had looked at the thermometer glass only a short while before; he had already been there because it was his first job first thing in the morning when he got up. The thermometer hangs on his house. When little Peter, who always slept with him, came to say, “Grosspapa [grandpa] is lying outside,” we all ran to him and because he was a healthy [robust, heavy?] body, I could not lift him well; we brought him into the house as good as we could. He had settled with his hands in the snow and since was 24 degrees cold, his fingers were somewhat frozen. When we had him in bed, he could speak again after an hour. He could no longer move the right side, however, which was so-to-say dead from head to foot, just how we laid him. We had to lift our dear father out of bed, and again lay him down throughout the entire time that he spent this way. He could still speak for three days, then he lost his speech entirely and so he could only nod and turn his head. When he had laid so for three days, we asked him whether he had a joyous hope, when he should depart from this world. Yes, he said, he could believe that Jesus’ blood had redeemed him. Then we sang to him several songs. …  

Then he said, “Soon, soon, I am there.” He had kept very quiet till the end. On March 12th at 7:30 the hour came when he could go over into the dwelling above, where the struggle has its end, where there is no more affliction and pain. It is so, as the apostle says, “Death, where is your sting? Grave, where is your victory?” On Friday, March 16th, we accompanied him on his last journey to his resting place, to which a number of neighbors and brothers and sisters [in faith] had been invited. The Lord gave us his blessing there. May this serve as a report to all his children and grandchildren, because his children live scattered; one still [lives] in Russia by the name of Gerhard Willems, specifically in the Crimea, and one in Nebraska by the name of Johann Willems, and others in Minnesota. The dear father Gerhard Willems reached the age of 79 years, 4 months and 1 day. He produced 16 children, seven of whom have already preceded him into eternity. As much as we know, he became grandfather to over 76 children, 21 of whom have gone before him. He became great-grandfather to three children. He is from the Crimea, South Russia, immigrated to America in 1875, and settled in Minnesota and lived there until 1899. In that year on April 18th we moved from Minnesota to Saskatchewan; in about two weeks he followed us. He has always been quite active and lively; only now and again he had pain in his body. He lived with us almost eight years and it always went well for us with him. We now greatly feel the loneliness, yet we do not deny him the rest. The condition of health is rather good; winter still doesn’t want to lessen, in spite of the fact that spring stands at the door. Today it is very nice. We wish all of the brothers and sisters and readers of the Zionsbote a heart-felt “live well”                                                                    Johann Quiring[v]


Old Gerhard’s life journey was long, long in distance and years. Born in the Mennonite village of Nuendorf in the Vistula River delta near what is now Gdansk, Poland, he traveled with his parents to the Molotschna Colony in what is now Ukraine when he was just a toddler. On 8 March 1841, he married Katharina Rempel (1823-1875)*. Around 1862, Gerhard and Katharina moved to the Crimea, where the last five of their 16 children were born, and where, in 1875, Katharina died just before Gerhard and ten of their 12 surviving children emigrated to North America. In the course of his almost 80 years Gerhard traveled from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea; crossed Europe to the North Sea where he set sail across the Atlantic before traveling by train to the middle of the North American prairie, settling first in Minnesota then ending his life in Canada. He embodied within his individual lifespan much of the history of his Mennonite people. And he left descendants, many descendants. The children Katharina bore him brought forth many children of their own, who in turn brought forth children of their own, and so it has proceeded until the number is virtually uncountable.

*[Gerhard & Katharina’s story can be read on the following link: ].

The Death of Cornelius

“After [Gerhard Willems] died he was put in a grave and it was covered with boards. In the Spring when some of the sons came from Minnesota, his body was viewed and then buried.”                                                                 Willems Family Genealogy

“…On Saturday, August 9th, the beloved brother Cornelius Willms died at the age of somewhat over 47 years from dropsy. He leaves the sorrowing wife with nine children. He had a longing to be released and rejoiced to see the Lord. Tuesday, the 12th, was the burial, at which the brethren Jacob Wiens and Abraham Buhler shared with us the Word of God…”  Jacob Buhlers, Zionsbote, 3 Sep 1902.

Cornelius and Elisabeth Willems with their family moved to Saskatchewan in 1900, the same year old Gerhard Willems died. Cornelius was likely one of the sons who viewed the old man’s body before it was buried. Two years later, he, too, would be buried. He was only 47 years old when he died—of “dropsy” according to the Zionsbote death notice, the old term for edema, the accumulation of water in body tissue that accompanies congestive heart failure.

There is no obituary for Cornelius written by the family in the Zionsbote archives. All the family information was written many years later. The only mention of his death we have from the period of his death is a chronicle written by the correspondent to the Zionsbote from the Brotherfield Mennonite Brethren church that Cornelius helped organize. Cornelius had just begun the work of homesteading when he got sick. The desperation of that time was remembered when one of his children wrote an obituary for his wife, Elisabeth, when she died December 8, 1943:

“In the year 1900 they settled in Saskatchewan, Canada, where they made their home at Brotherfield, in the hope of making their life work on the farm easier. Man thinks, but God arranges. God’s ways were appointed differently. In the year 1902 her husband, our father, became ill and was taken from her side through death on August 8th. Alone with nine children, of whom 8 children were born in Mountain Lake and one in Canada, she looked into the dark future, and in looking to the Lord, who is the Lord over widows and orphans, she overcame this pain…. Happy was marriage, difficult was the pain of parting.”                             EBWZ Obituary Zionsbote 5 January 1944[vi]

Elisabeth Boldt Willems was 43 years old when her husband died. She was a widow with nine children living on a homestead on the Canadian prairie, a daunting situation. However, she was not, strictly speaking, alone.   She was fortunate to have two, unmarried, fully grown sons—Cornelius, named for his father who was twenty years old, and my grandfather, Jacob C., who turned nineteen the day before his father died. Those two sons had probably already taken over the work of the homestead during their father’s illness. Elisabeth also had teen-aged daughters to help her in the house—Elisabeth, named for her mother, who turned seventeen on September 12, and Anna, who turned fifteen on September 14. Even the two middle sons, Gerhard and Heinrich, who were ten and almost twelve, were old enough to help their older brothers. Even little Maria, who turned eight on October 22, would have had chores. She could have been a big help with looking after the two littlest ones, Margareta, who was two, and Katherina, who was four.

Children, however, even full-grown sons, are not the same as a husband. They are not life partners, intimate companions. In that sense, Elisabeth was truly alone. Children grow up and leave home. They need to live their own lives, start their own families. How long would her two oldest sons be willing to stay at home and work her homestead? How long could she count on their help? The future must indeed have looked dark, frightening.


[i]Only one of Gerhard’s children remained in Minnesota after the 1896-1902 exodus—his son Bernhard who died there in 1912. Three of Gerhard’s children died in Mountain Lake before the family moved north: Peter [1848-1877]; Katharina [1856-1890] and Maria (1866-1895). Only one of Gerhard’s children remained in Minnesota after the 1896-1902 exodus—his son Bernhard who died there in 1912. Three of Gerhard’s children died in Mountain Lake before the family moved north: Peter [1848-1877]; Katharina [1856-1890] and Maria (1866-1895).

[ii] Bob Beal, “Treaty Six” ((2007 University of Regina and Canadian Plains Research Center).

[iii] Michael Cottrell, “history of Saskatchewan” (2007 University of Regional and Canadian Plains Research Center). [iv] Note re spelling: The spelling Willms/Willems is used throughout old documents, often is the same document as in this letter.

[v] Translated by Peggy Goertzen, 13 June 2006 on behalf of Loretta Willems. Peggy is the Director of the Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies at Tabor College, Hillsboro, KS.

[vi] Translated by Peggy Goertzen on behalf of Loretta Willems, 4 June 2006.

Copyright: Loretta R. Willems, 1 June 2015

6 thoughts on “Chapter Seven: Saskatchewan

  1. Another interesting installment, Loretta — the history is fascinating, and the story of your great grandfather’s death quite touching. — Loretta C.


  2. I echo the comments above, about how much research you have done. — I find the detailed reports of “death stories” so fascinating. Like a genre of its own. — Have you perchance read Rudy Wiebe’s memoir about growing up in Saskatchewan’s boreal forest? (Of This Earth) — And one more (unrelated) comment, enjoying the quotes from Gerald Friesen; he was my thesis advisor; an excellent teacher and fantastically knowledgeable historian.


    • Hello Dora. Yes, I have read Rudy Wiebe’s memoir-twice. It felt like such a gift when I found it. The same is true of Gerald Friesen’s history of the Canadian Prairie. I noticed that he had been on your MA committee and envied you. It’s nice to know that he was an excellent teacher. Not all good writers are good teachers I’ve found. And yes, those Zionsbote death stories are a real treasure. It would be wonderful if a collection of them could be made on line.

      Liked by 1 person

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