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  • A Brief History of Hutterite Demography
  • Simon M. Evans (bio) and Peter Peller (bio)
Key Words

birthrate, Canada, census, demography, Hutterites, population growth, United States

The Hutterites are a religious sect, an ethnic group, and a communal brotherhood; they possess a culture and an economy, and elude easy classification. Their Anabaptist origins group them with the Mennonites and the Amish, but their adherence to the principle of holding all things in common sets them apart. Among the many immigrant groups that have found a “Land of the Second Chance” on the western Great Plains, the Hutterites are unique in the degree to which they have resisted assimilation. They have held on to their language, their schools and socialization processes, their clothing and their lifestyle.1

The colony is the essential unit of Hutterite culture. It is within the confines of these communal villages that the brethren live out their lives. Their spiritual life and their daily work are fused together, for it is in sharing their energy and talents with their brothers and sisters that they do God’s will. Daily, in the garden, kitchen, machine shop, or kindergarten, they try to live up to Jesus’s injunction to “love one another.” In 1874 the Hutterite refugees from southern Russia founded three colonies along the James River in Dakota Territory. Today there are some 470 colonies distributed across four Canadian provinces and six states in the United States.

There are a number of reasons why the growth in numbers of this sect, and the successful diffusion of their colonies, should be of interest to those who study the changing human geography of the Great Plains. The theme of rural depopulation is a familiar one. Away from urban growth poles, transportation nodes, or industrial sites, wide areas of the Plains are characterized by a stable or declining population that is older, less educated, and has a lower per capita income. These regions are more reliant on government transfers, including pensions, and their communities live on the defensive, [End Page 79] struggling to maintain schools, hospitals, and other public services in the face of population losses and government cutbacks. The proliferation of Hutterite colonies does something to mitigate this trend. Locally, along the James River in South Dakota and the Assiniboine in Manitoba, around Great Falls and Lewistown, Montana, and along the Milk River Ridge or the Peace River Country in Alberta, the establishment of several new farm villages of between 60 and 100 people can breathe new life into a rural county.

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Fig. 1.

Hutterite colony in the middle of prairie farmland, along the Rosebud River, Alberta.

Photograph by Simon M. Evans.

Moreover, each Hutterite colony adds a new element to the cultural landscape of the Plains. The characteristic assemblage of barns, gardens, feedlots, agricultural machinery, and secluded residences leaves a “footprint” that is easily identified from the air. It is markedly different from that of even large corporate farm enterprises.

Finally, the Hutterites make a growing contribution to the agricultural economy of the regions they inhabit.2 In some jurisdictions they play a dominant role, for example in the production of hogs and turkeys in Manitoba and the provision of eggs and chickens in Montana. During the summer, Hutterite garden produce is widely available at farmers’ markets in towns across the northern Great Plains, and this provides an important opportunity [End Page 80] for the Brethren and the general public to interact. Some forty years ago, John Bennett demonstrated that Hutterites were preadapted to succeed in the Plains environment.3 His ideas continue to resonate. Beset by environmental change and market pressures, western farmers have reason to admire, and perhaps to envy, the attributes of the colonists: their diverse outputs, flexibility, ongoing capital inputs, and their capacity to adapt and to innovate. But the role Hutterites play in the settlement patterns of the Great Plains is closely tied to their population growth, and that is the subject of this paper.

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Fig. 2.

Hutterites live in multifamily dwellings and eat in a communal kitchen dining room, seen on the left. Their “living space” is carefully separated from...


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pp. 79-101
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