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Mennonites Become Waterloo Pioneers

For the week of Monday June 27, 2011

On June 29, 1805, American Mennonites signed a deed granting them 60,000 acres of land in Upper Canada (now Ontario). The small community they created would later become the cities of Kitchener-Waterloo.


Waterloo Pioneers Memorial Tower
© Parks Canada / Elliot Worsfold

Mennonites living in the United States were not a popular group during the American Revolution. Refusing to fight in the war due to their pacifist beliefs, they were heavily criticized by their fellow Americans for not aiding the war effort. Because of this, Mennonites faced heavy taxes and, in extreme cases, lost their farms and were jailed. As a result, they began looking for a place where there would be greater respect for their religious beliefs and found their answer in Canada. Lord Simcoe, Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada, invited the Mennonites to settle in Upper Canada with the promise that they would be exempt from military service.

The first two Mennonite families to settle in the present-day area of Kitchener-Waterloo were headed by Joseph Sherk and his brother-in-law Samuel Betzner. They became the first white settlers in the region. In 1800, a First Nations guide escorted Sherk and Betzner along the Grand River Trail to visit the different tracts of land for sale. Together, Sherk and Betzner purchased over 400 acres, primarily because of the rich agricultural land and the clean water the Grand River provided. They convinced many other Mennonite families to follow them to the region, who usually arrived by horseback or wagon along the Grand River Trail.

Joseph Sherk’s tombstone
© Parks Canada / Elliot Worsfold 

The Mennonites proved to be skilled pioneers and led very traditional lives. Men tended to focus on brick laying and farming, while the women would spin, weave, and prepare herbal remedies for the community. They lived in homes made of logs, with moss filling any gaps. Settlers from Pennsylvania continued to arrive in large numbers until the 1830s.

In 1923, the Waterloo Historical Society began to construct a tower on the land where Sherk and Betzner first farmed in honour of the Waterloo pioneers. The finished structure was named the Waterloo Pioneers Memorial Tower. The tower contains an observation deck where visitors can see the graveyard where Sherk and Betzner are buried, as well as the Grand River Trail.

For establishing the first large inland settlement in Ontario, the Waterloo Pioneers was designated a national historic event in 1924.

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