NEW: ROCKPORT TO ALCATRAZ – PART 1
JEREMY WALTNER – PUBLISHER
The Hutterites were flourishing.
Largely in search of military exemption, they had come to the United States from Russia beginning in the 1870s to establish various colonies across Dakota Territory, bringing with them farming equipment and skilled practices that had even generated a personal invitation from President Ulysses S. Grant.
That invitation included a suggestion from the president that these peace-minded people, whose non-violent resistance had grown out of the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, would be free from the threat of military service for at least 50 years.
And so the Hutterites came, settling in on an old way of life in a brand-new location, refining their farming practices and livestock operations all along the way.
Rockport Colony, located on the James River in Hanson County, was one of the Hutterite colonies that thrived in the several decades that followed their arrival. Twenty-five families shared in the ownership and management of 4,000 acres of land, 500 head of cattle, 130 horses and 1,500 sheep.
All was well.
But everything changed beginning in 1914, when Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, which quickly led to what would come to be known as The Great War. Because they were German-speaking people, whispers began growing that Hutterites were enemy aliens who supported Germany in the escalating World War I conflict.
Three years later, the United States declared war against Germany and entered the battle, and in the spring of 1918, the U.S. Government summoned four young men from Rockport Colony to take up a military uniform and fight on behalf of their country. They refused.
That led to ridicule at best and torture at worst for brothers Joseph, Michael and David Hofer, as well as David’s brother-in-law Jacob Wipf, who were transported by military train from Mitchell to the 70,000-acre Camp Lewis at American Lake in Washington state, charged with criminal acts and then imprisoned in isolation at Alcatraz, where they were treated with little dignity and even less humanity.
The following year, after the Armistice of Nov. 11, 1918 ended World War 1, the four Hutterite men were returned to Fort Leavenworth, Kan. for “rehabilitation.” Within three weeks, Jacob and Michael Hofer had died.
They are both buried at Rockport Colony beneath gravestones that read, “Martyr.”
• • •
The story of the four Hutterite men and their harrowing experience in World War I was the focus of a program sponsored by Heritage Hall Museum & Archives Friday and Saturday evening, March 25 and 26 held inside Pioneer Hall. Made possible with support from the South Dakota Humanities Council, both evenings featured stories, reflection and insight from two keynote presenters — Duane C.S. Stoltzfus, a professor of communication at Goshen College; and Dora Maendel, a member of the Fairholm Hutterite Colony in Manitoba.
About 300 people — including several dozen from area Hutterite colonies — gathered over the two evenings to hear Stolzfus and Maendel take turns at the lectern sharing the story.
Stolzfus quickly set the stage: “There’s nothing about soldiering in the Hutterite DNA,” he said, explaining their search for military exemption, the threat they felt in Russia and the hope they found in the unbroken land of Dakota Territory.
But when the war began in 1914, the Hutterites found themselves with three strikes against them.
“First of all, they were a German-speaking people, so they spoke the language of the enemy nation,” Stolzfus said. “Beyond that, they practiced a community of goods, a sharing of goods in a country that prized capitalism and individual opportunity and responsibility. And the third strike is that they were non-resistant pacifists. Their neighbors here in South Dakota called them slackers.”
It’s impossible to know whether these “three strikes against them” is what led to U.S. government to summon these four young Hutterite men to war, but that’s what came to pass following the Selective Service Act of 1917 that authorized the federal government to raise a national army through conscription, better known as The Draft.
Maendel explained that, after the four men received their letters of conscription, they were advised by the minister of Rockport Colony that the best thing to do would be to do exactly as the letters asked them to do.
“Namely,” she said, “to board the troop train and appeal at the designated military camp to the commander there and explain their situation to him — their stand against military activity.”
But even before they arrived at the bustling military camp — the largest of the 15 in the country — Wipf and the Hofers encountered trouble in the form of enlisted young men who took exception with their facial hair, held them down and cut off their hair and beards.
“The account that returned to the community indicates that it was the profanity that bothered the brothers most of all,” Maendel said. “So tearful and demoralized, they arrived at Fort Lewis, Washington.”
Conditions only deteriorated from there as they were questioned, interrogated and eventually court-marshalled for what ended up being a short trial.
Stoltzfus, who authored the book Pacifists in Chains that tells the story of the persecuted Hutterites in great detail, notes that there were others from traditional anabaptist communities who did put on the uniform when given the opportunity to serve in non-violent ways. Among them was a young Mennonite from California named David A. Janzen, whose memoirs provide additional context.
“People were making different decisions about how to respond to this call to serve the country — to serve the common good,” Stoltzfus said. “(Janzen) was caught up in the mission, in the importance of what they were doing. Now he was not going to pick up a gun and serve on the frontlines, but he was participating as a soldier — as a non-combative solider — and he spoke in his letters about why the Hutterites weren’t willing to do what he was willing to do. He said the least he could do was put on a uniform and help in non-violent ways.
“For the Hofer brothers and Jacob Wipf, they drew the line at a different place,” Stoltzfus continued. “When they arrived at this camp they said, ‘We can’t put on a uniform. We can’t fill out a form that asks for our name or how old we are because at the top of the form it says, statement of solider. We’re not soldiers.’”
Stoltzfus said it was a for-ordained conclusion that they would be found guilty, “and they were,” he said, “and sentenced to 20 years of hard labor.”
Shackled in chains and escorted, the four men boarded a train bound for Alcatraz.