Remembering the flight from Oklahoma

Drafted American men reporting for WWI service at Camp Travis, San Antonio, Texas (1917-1918). Photo credit: American National Archives, 165-WW-474B-1.

In 2018, our Klaassen family will mark 100 years since my grandfather, his brothers, and their father arrived in Canada. We can easily take our family story for granted, something so well-rehearsed that it contains no more surprises. Or we can treat it as a kind of Heilsgeschichte, the salvation history of a faithful remnant, set apart, when instead it really discloses so much of what still makes for suffering in our world—if no longer for us, then for others.

Our Klaassen story is not just our story. It is inseparable from the story of war, nationalism, dispossession, and migration. We should resist the urge to sentimentalize or limit its reach in our own times, especially after a U.S. presidential election that unleashed the kind of menacing anti-foreigner rhetoric our people and others experienced at the outset of World War I.

Now, of course, we have blended comfortably into mainstream North America. We are not a threat to anyone. But we once were. In the country where our family landed in 1884, in a harbour watched over by the Statue of Liberty, the minds and bodies of Mennonite sons would be subjected to intense and brutal forms of abuse within a generation. Not all of them survived.

Because the Klaassen family is unusually rich in memoirs, diaries, and other documents, as well as the retellings at reunions, the outlines of the Klaassen family’s quarter-century in southwestern Oklahoma and then our flight to Canada are familiar enough.

We know that Jacob Klaassen (1867–1948), my great-grandfather, claimed land near the Washita River, as did his brother and his mother Maria, born in what is now Poland and widowed on the Great Trek to Central Asia. He married Katharina Toews (1871–1908) from Kansas, built a farm, and preached in the Herold Church in the country, in whose cemetery his wife, an infant daughter, and two sons, one killed beneath a grain wagon, lie buried.

We do not often acknowledge that the Oklahoma homestead became available for settlement in the first place because the U.S. Congress had passed legislation taking away “excess” land from the indigenous Cheyenne. The Cheyenne were displaced by two of the most discreditable episodes in frontier history in 1864 and 1867, and settled near the Washita. As a result, the farming district between the towns of Bessie, Cordell, and Corn was a checkerboard of Mennonite and Cheyenne land.

We know that Jacob’s nephew, Johannes Klaassen (1895–1918), who had grown up on an adjacent quarter-section, was one of the first group of three draftees from the community to report to Camp Travis in Texas. We know that he was court-martialed and sentenced to twenty-five years of hard labour at Fort Leavenworth for his anti-war views. And to his father’s great distress, he was sent home in October 1918 in a coffin, dressed in an army uniform.

We know that Jacob had already instructed his oldest sons, Jacob and Martin, to board the train in Clinton under cover of night in the direction of Canada; that relatives in Montana coached them across the border into Saskatchewan; and that Martin, my grandfather, lacking any official papers, was taken from the train in Moose Jaw to prison until his Uncle David Toews could intervene for him.

We know how war disrupts lives and disperses families.

But we also live in North America, where we are tempted to place ourselves inside the powerful settler mythology in which this continent becomes the final destination in the search for freedom—what the historian Tony Judt calls the “narrative of geographical emancipation: escaping the wrong places and finding our way to better ones.”[1] If we do so, we will be hard-pressed to imagine the anti-foreigner hysteria that was manufactured nationally and in Oklahoma in 1917 around the declaration of war.

I say “manufactured” because war and conscription were not greeted with enthusiasm in the Oklahoma countryside. In the months and years leading to 1917, rural Oklahoma had been a hotbed of political activism and agrarian radicalism.[2] There is no evidence that the Klaassen family, steadfastly apolitical, was involved in any of it, but they could not have missed the copies of the Sword of Truth newspaper or the posters in Washita County, warning landlords against mistreating tenant farmers and sharecroppers, who were a major force in organized movements to stop rent-gouging and stabilize land tenure. In this they were often supported by holiness preachers of the kind depicted in John Steinbeck’s novel, Grapes of Wrath. In the 1916 national election, the Socialist candidate for President, Eugene Debs, got one in six votes in Oklahoma and almost 40 per cent in a neighbouring county.

When war was declared, members of a loose coalition of farmers, Seminole-Muskogee and Creek peoples, recent immigrants, African Americans, and “Wobblies”—advocates of One Big Union—led a brief uprising mostly on the eastern side of the state that took its name, the Green Corn Rebellion, from a Muskogee sacred harvest ceremony. The uprising was ill-planned; its objectives were unclear. But the combination of war and rebellion provided a pretext for the political establishment in the towns to crack down indiscriminately on a much wider circle of their opponents. The state established a Council of Defense in each county, comprised of some of those leading citizens. The Councils hired thugs and vigilantes to do their most violent work.

The real war, in other words, was often a local one in Oklahoma. A farm leader in Bessie was tarred and feathered. A newspaper editor, insufficiently patriotic, was shot on the steps of the Washita County courthouse in Cordell. A church was burned. German place-names were altered (Korn to Corn); German-language schools and newspapers like the local Oklahoma Vorwärts were forced to close. By war’s end, the Ku Klux Klan was a major force across the state.

In Oklahoma in the summer of 2000, I asked our relatives about any lingering local feelings from the war. The conversation got very quiet. A woman described how, not long ago, she had been afraid to speak at work in defense of Mennonite conscientious objectors (COs) when the subject came up; her boss was connected to one of the old notable families in town. Her husband said people still avoided talking about the war in order to get along.

Oklahoma’s wartime intensity may have been exceptional, but the same popular feelings could be found throughout the Great Plains. They were amplified politically at the national level. President Woodrow Wilson, who had been re-elected in 1916, promising to keep the U.S. out of the war, also seized the moment to target so-called hyphenated Americans. He had already prepared the ground for such a campaign with these chilling comments in his Third Address to Congress in 1915: There are citizens of the United States, I blush to admit, born under other flags, but welcomed under our generous nationalization laws to the full freedom and opportunity of America, who have poured the poison of disloyalty into the very arteries of our national life… The hand of our power should close over them at once.[3]

The construction of national identity is always about defining who is inside and who is outside—who is not one of us. A serious and significant intelligence report prepared at the time for the War Department identified Mennonites, Amish, and Hutterites as dangerous, unpatriotic people, communist in practice, possibly part of a pro-German conspiracy to undermine the war effort.[4] The truth didn’t matter. All members of those communities were automatically under suspicion, and often monitored by the citizen councils of defense.

At one point, close to 200 Mennonite leaders were threatened with sedition charges for signing a joint letter on the subject of war bonds; in that case the Justice Department said no. At other times, the law sided with the mob. A Mennonite pastor in Montana, for example, narrowly escaped lynching at the hands of local notables led by the sheriff. How quickly the public mood could turn—and turn against neighbours.

For President Wilson, conscription served the larger purpose of creating a unified nation. The Selective Service Act of 1917 required all able men, aged 21 to 30, to prepare for call-up. Sociologically, the war effort was a melting pot for young men drawn from immigrant enclaves, rural and urban, by the new draft lottery and sent to one of 16 large camps across the country, mostly in the West, which presumably had more recent immigrants to integrate. There they were issued the same U.S. army uniform—a word that bears reflection.

The Act made provision for conscientious objectors to choose non-combatant roles, but required them, unlike in Canada, to report as soldiers to the designated military camp if drafted and there request an alternative assignment.[5] The Act left the meaning of non-combatant service to the President to define, but no such definition had been given when the first trains filled with young men arrived at the camps.

For declared COs, the physical and verbal abuse that began on the trains continued in the camps, whose commanding officers intended to uphold military discipline by dealing resolutely with pacifists. Uncooperative COs were welcomed with repeated near-drownings, beatings, sexual humiliations involving guns and sticks, and, in at least one case, at Camp Funston in Kansas, a mock execution.[6]

The culture of permission came from the top. Despite assurances given to the Mennonite leaders who travelled to Washington, politicians who had set fire to the popular mood had little room to grant special privileges or show sympathy in public.

About three million men would report to military training camps during the course of the war. Of the three million, about 20,000 arrived in camp with CO certificates extracted from local authorities like those in Cordell. Of that number, about 4,000 continued to affirm those declarations despite intense pressure. Some chose non-combatant service, for example, in the medical corps. Some got farm furloughs.

About 450 were court-martialed and sentenced to hard labour for terms as long as 30 years for refusing to wear uniforms or perform specific duties. Among them were Mennonites, Amish, and Hutterites, but also Quakers, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Doukhobors, liberal Christians, secular Jews, socialists, anarchists, atheists—a melting pot, too. There were more court-martials at Camp Travis than anywhere else, notwithstanding the disciplinary practice of confining men for days in the stockade, without protection from heat, sun, or rain.[7]

Of those 450, at least 27 COs died in military prison. One of them, Johannes Klaassen, was the nephew of my great-grandfather, the cousin of my grandfather.

In his recent book, Pacifists in Chains: The Persecution of Hutterites During the Great War, Duane Stoltzfus gives a fascinating, troubling, and very relevant account of the targeting of the bodies and minds of young men. The book follows in close detail the story of four Hutterite men—three of them Hofer brothers—from a colony in South Dakota, who were drafted and reported to Fort Lewis, though they were married with children and might have sought exemptions. They were soon court-martialed for non-cooperation and sentenced to hard labour in Alcatraz Prison, long before it became a tourist attraction in San Francisco Bay.

When the Hutterites refused uniforms and work assignments, they were confined to isolation cells in the prison basement. Dressed down to their underwear, they slept on damp concrete; they went without food for days; and in the deepest row of cells they saw no light other than what entered when the door opened. Sometimes they were manacled, hands together, to the bars above their cell doors, so high that only their toes touched the floor and their limbs ached when they were released. Sometimes they were lashed at the same time.[8]

In November 1918, just after Armistice, the four Hutterites were shipped by train from Alcatraz to Fort Leavenworth with its 40-foot walls above the Missouri River and its Special Disciplinary Barracks, where COs were housed. From the train, they were marched together, in chains, suitcase in one hand, Bibles in the other, through the streets of the town and up the hill. Though official reports later discounted it, others recalled that they ran a gauntlet of soldiers prodding them with bayonets. Finally, they stood outside on a cold November night waiting for the camp commander.[9]

The isolation and manacling resumed. Within two weeks, two Hofer brothers were dead. Their families were alerted of their failing health by telegram; their father, wives, and children arrived in time to say their farewells. One brother died that night. When his wife demanded the next morning to see his body, she found him in a coffin dressed in an army uniform. When the brother died days later, his family appealed successfully to prison officials not to dress him in a uniform for the train trip home for burial.[10]

Though we know less of what Johannes Klaassen endured at Leavenworth, all of this has a very familiar ring, as did the official cause of death: influenza. Certainly, there was a global pandemic in late 1918, helped by the disease vectors of troops moving across oceans and continents. But, as Stoltzfus notes, a place like Leavenworth presented optimal conditions for the spread of influenza: crowded, cold, damp, poorly ventilated cell-blocks, poor diets, and populations of young men, a highly susceptible demographic.[11]

In the last days of the war, Jane Addams, the Chicago campaigner for world peace, women’s suffrage, and the rights of immigrants, who won the Nobel Prize in 1931, and the National Civil Liberties Bureau, investigated conditions at Leavenworth.[12] Needless to say, these were not the sort of friends that Mennonites from Oklahoma or Hutterites from South Dakota would expect to find in the world; but then they could not look for support from the rest of Christianity—certainly not from those who had begun to call themselves fundamentalists, and not from many in the mainline Protestant denominations either.

The Bureau’s report used a blunt word, “torture,” to describe the treatment of CO prisoners. The U.S. government’s response was dismissive: these were radicals. The families received no apologies. Before the last surviving COs were released from prison in 1919 and 1920—against public demands that they should serve their full sentences—some of the Hutterite families had moved to Canada.

This is a powerful, dark story. It is our Klaassen story, too. We would not be here otherwise. The story comes from a time when it mattered a great deal to the U.S. government and all of its agents, at every level, to claim the bodies, the tongues, and the undivided loyalties of young men for a war effort it had disavowed only months before; and when that loyalty was stubbornly refused, their bodies could be abused unto death, though they represented no threat whatsoever to the national security of the United States. They had no secrets to divulge.

The story comes from a time, too, when those young men bore a disproportionate share of the burden for upholding the historic peace tradition of nonresistance that had displaced Mennonite communities to a new continent in a time of war. Conscription put them front and centre. Their own leaders had been caught unprepared by the war, the public mood, and the government’s response; they could not find a common Mennonite position. The young men often felt left to themselves to negotiate a gauntlet of abuse and propaganda. But imagine the parental and community expectations in places like the Herold Church, especially where the identity of Anabaptist Christianity was taken so seriously.

We are now far removed from the circumstances that ripped the Klaassen family out of Oklahoma. We do not worry for ourselves in that way. The daily political news on our troubled continent, however, contains plenty of distressing reminders of 1917. Our story is not just our story. For others, it is far from over.

If we remember our story, it is not hard to imagine a country and some of its noisiest political—and Christian—leaders swept up in anti-foreigner hysteria.

It is not hard to imagine people and places of worship monitored and attacked simply because of the religious identities they represent. Surely, they must be connected to the international enemy.

It is not hard to imagine that recent immigrants can get reported and arrested for speaking in their first language in public—say, in an airport lounge—even if they are expressing everyday things, or holy things. If they want to avoid suspicion, they should speak English!

Let me risk one more step. The more I have learned about the events of 1917 and 1918, especially about the treatment of COs in American military prisons, the more I am struck by the echoes in what has happened more recently at Abu Ghraib in Iraq and at Guantanamo naval base, which was chosen, in fact, over Leavenworth as the place to house prisoners swept up in an indiscriminate global dragnet after 9/11; for it was thought to be beyond reach of either international or domestic law. I am not suggesting exact parallels here. But the culture of permission was much the same. So was the enlistment of rank-and-file soldiers in a familiar catalogue of cruelties: isolation, exposure, sexual humiliation, simulated drownings, manacling.[13] The prisoners were less than human. They deserved what they got.

My point is that if we are true to our Klaassen story, then we also know enough to refuse enlistment in the political campaigns that now swirl around us—the campaigns that give permission, that draw hard lines between those inside and those outside. For we have been outsiders longer than not. We have felt the hand of power, in those chilling words, close over us. That is the story we know. That is why we are here. Let it not happen to others.

Written by Roger Epp, a professor of Political Science at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. This article is adapted from a talk he gave at a Klaassen family gathering in Saskatchewan on August 6, 2016. The article was first published in the March 2017 issue of Mennonite Historical Society of Alberta newsletter. It was reprinted with permission in Mennonite Historian 43/4 (December 2017): 1, 4-5, and 8.

1. Judt is describing the various east-to-west migrations of his own Jewish family (Tony Judt, with Timothy Snyder, Thinking the Twentieth Century [New York: Penguin, 2012], 24).
2. In these paragraphs, I am drawing partly on what I have written in We Are All Treaty: Prairie Essays (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2008), especially chapter 6, and on the historical sources indicated there.
3. Woodrow Wilson, Third Annual Message to Congress, December 7, 1915, The American Presidency Project, at
4. See Allan Teichrow, “Military Surveillance of Mennonites in World War I,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 53 (1979): 95–127; and “World War I and the Mennonite Migration to Canada to Avoid the Draft,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 45 (1971): 219–249. In the latter article, Teichrow writes: “For a man of German ancestry who happened also to be a conscientious objector, America was in some ways the worst of all possible places in 1917–18” (pp. 227-28), especially Oklahoma, where “mob violence . . . always lurked beneath the surface” (p. 246). He notes that Mennonite group emigration was greatest from Oklahoma.
5. Duane Stoltzfus, Pacifists in Chains: The Persecution of Hutterites during the Great War (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013), provides a very good recent overview of the circumstances in which Mennonites as well found themselves. See also Melanie Springer Mock, Writing Peace: The Unheard Voices of Great War Mennonite Objectors (Telford, PA: Pandora Press, 2003); Gerlof Horman, American Mennonites and the Great War: 1914–1918 (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1994); James C. Juhnke, “Mennonites in Militarist America: Some Consequences of World War I,” in Kingdom, Cross, and Community: Essays on Mennonite Themes in Honor of Guy F Hershberger, eds. J. R. Burkholder and Calvin W. Redekop (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1976); and Mary Ellen Snodgrass, Civil Disobedience: An Encyclopedic History of Dissidence in the United States (New York: Routledge, 2009), 195–197. Three valuable online sources of documents and oral histories are the Bethel College Library World War I Oral History Collection at; the Swarthmore College Peace Collection at; and the Home Before the Leaves Fall Project at
6. Stolztfus, Pacifists in Chains, 36–38.
7. The Bethel Oral History Collection contains an interview with Peter Quiring, who had enlisted with Johannes Klaassen from the Herold Church and whose family had also been on the trek to Central Asia. The audio files are available at and See also John W. Arn, The Herold Mennonite Church, 1899–1969 (Newton, KS: Mennonite Press, 1969), which provides local details of the war at pp. 13–17. Transcripts from the court-martial of a Quaker CO at Camp Travis can be found at
8. Stolztfus, Pacifists in Chains, 117–121.
9. Stoltzfus, Pacifists in Chains, 159–161.
10. Stoltzfus, Pacifists in Chains, 172–174.
11. Stoltzfus, Pacifists in Chains, 174–175.
12. Stoltzfus, Pacifists in Chains, chapter 8. The NCLB report by David Eichel was released in December 1918 under the title What Happens in Military Prisons: The Public is Entitled to the Facts.
13. Confidential reports prepared by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and leaked to newspapers in 2004, for example, identified the use “humiliating acts, solitary confinement, temperature extremes, use of forced positions”—each “a form of torture”—against prisoners at Guantanamo, as well as similar abuses at US military prisons in Iraq. See Neil Lewis, “Red Cross Finds Detainee Abuse in Guantanamo,” New York Times, November 30, 2004, at; and “Red Cross report details alleged Iraq abuses,” The Guardian, May 10, 2004, at