History: Gold or not, West Coast beckoned

May 27, 2019 by

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By the mid-19th century, North American Mennonites and Amish had barely crossed the Mississippi River, venturing west only as far as southeastern Iowa.

That changed with the discovery of gold in California in 1848. An estimated 300,000 people went to California in search of wealth and prosperity, creating a white presence on the Pacific Coast and dislocating the indigenous population.

First Mennonite Church of Paso Robles, Calif., 1939. — Mennonite Library and Archives, Bethel College

First Mennonite Church of Paso Robles, Calif., 1939. — Mennonite Library and Archives, Bethel College

Among the fortune-seekers was Johannes Dietrich Dyck from Prussia in 1850, likely becoming the first Mennonite to cross the Rocky Mountains. He was a successful miner in California but was never able to translate that to financial gain. Returning east, he lost his gold in an attack by Native Americans. Dyck went back and found more gold, which was quickly stolen.

He finally sailed home in 1858 and eventually migrated to Russia, where he became a renowned civic leader. He was the grandfather of Mennonite historian and seminary professor C.J. Dyck and longtime Mennonite Central Committee worker, speaker and author Peter J. Dyck.

While Dyck returned to Prussia, other Mennonites and Amish would make their way west in the following decades. They sought economic opportunities, better health or adventure. The first worshiping bodies on the West Coast were apparently Old Order Amish who had moved to Oregon in the mid- and late 1870s. But those communities were short-lived.

Swiss Mennonite immigrants settled in the Wil­lamette Valley in western Oregon in 1876 and 1877. Thanks to Mennonite bishop C.B. Steiner of Wayne County, Ohio, they were organized into a congregation by 1884 and possibly earlier. But it lacked unity as it eventually drifted into separate conservative and progressive groups. The conservative congregation, which never joined a Mennonite denomination, died in 1928 due to a lack of leadership. The progressives, meanwhile, formed Waldo Hills Mennonite Church, later renamed Emmanuel Mennonite Church, a member of the General Conference Mennonite Church until it withdrew in 1984.

Another Oregon congregation was started in 1883, four years after Amish Mennonites from Indiana began moving to the Woodburn area of the Willamette Valley. Several times during the 1880s, Amish Mennonite bishop Jonathan P. Smucker traveled from his Nappanee, Ind., home to Oregon to visit the fledgling settlement. He organized a congregation in 1883, reinstating several expelled members and baptizing five or six people. Smucker organized a second congregation in 1887.

Given its Indiana connections, the Woodburn congregation would join Indiana-Michigan Amish Mennonite Conference, one of several progressive Amish Mennonite bodies established as they separated from the Old Order Amish. Most Amish Mennonites would become part of the (Old) Mennonite Church, with their conferences eventually merging with MC area conferences.

Like Oregon’s first Old Order Amish districts, the two Amish Mennonite congregations didn’t last long. Neither did an MC congregation at Eugene, started in 1887. The oldest congregation in the state is Zion at Hubbard, started by Amish Mennonites in 1903.

To the north, Amish Mennonites Jacob and Magdalena Kauffman, originally from Iowa, traveled by covered wagon from Kan­sas to Washington state in 1878. They were joined by more people in later years when railroads from the east were built. The first Mennonite congregation in the state was organized in 1893 by the General Conference Mennonite Church at Colfax in southeastern Washington. It became a member of the GC Pacific District Conference.

Initially called First Mennonite Church, it later changed its name to Onecho Mennonite Church in 1954. It changed its name again in 1964, to Onecho Bible Church, a year after withdrawing from the Pacific District due to the conference’s emphasis on peace and justice.

The second Washington congregation — and the oldest in the state — is Menno Mennonite Church at Ritzville, started in 1900 by GC families from South Dakota.

The first Mennonite congregation in California was also affiliated with the General Conference Mennonite Church. During the mid-1890s, two groups, one south German and the other Prussian, emerged near Paso Robles, about halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. The two groups worshiped together as San Marcos Mennonite Church, founded in 1897. But it existed only six years, as cultural differences and traveling distances between the two groups prompted them to part ways in 1903.

The south Germans continued as First Mennonite Church of Paso Robles, while the Prussian group started as Willow Creek Mennonite Church. When a fire destroyed Willow Creek’s meetinghouse in 1967, most of its members joined First, reversing the 64-year-old split.

Also in 1903, the same year as the San Marcos separation, First Mennonite Church of Upland was founded. Both it and First of Paso Robles are members of Mennonite Church USA.

Rich Preheim is a writer and historian from Elkhart, Ind. He is working on a history of Woodlawn Amish Mennonite Church.


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