“Extinct” Amish Communities: 7 Interesting Facts - Amish America (2024)

By the end of 2024, the number of Amish communities, known as settlements, will likely exceed 700. As recently as 1999, that number was slightly less than 300. The phenomenal growth of Amish settlements is nearly as rapid as the growth of its population.

Although settlement growth is remarkable, there is the other side of Amish history – the settlements that did not make it. They are now extinct.

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Based on David Luthy’s revised (2021) book The Amish in America: Settlements that Failed, 1840-2019, and supplemented by John Hostetler’s book, Amish Society, and John M. Byler’s Amish Homesteads of 1798, plus the resources of the Ohio Amish Library at Behalt near Berlin, Ohio, presented here are seven interesting facts about settlements that no longer exist.

Before presenting these facts, however, let’s first define what a settlement is. The best definition is provided by David Luthy. In the many editions of his publication “Amish Settlements Across America” (2009, Pathway Publishers), he counted as a settlement a place where the following four criteria were met:

  1. At least three Amish households, or two, if one household head is in the ministry
  2. The ability to hold a church service
  3. The Ordnung or church discipline must not allow the ownership of motor vehicles
  4. The families there must identify as Amish

What makes this definition the “gold standard” is that it recognizes a central feature of an Amish community, which is the church service. As well, it is a definition that would be recognized by scholars with backgrounds in sociology and other social sciences whereby a community is defined as a specific locality or space in which people interact, and with which they identify (usually with a place name).

For example, John Hostetler, in his classic book Amish Societydefines a settlement as consisting of Amish families who live in a “contiguous relationship, that is, households that are in proximity to one another” (see 1993 edition, page 91).

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One more observation – it is that this definition is clearly minimalist, that is, only three or two families. If a newly founded settlement fails to add more families, it will soon become extinct. It would be difficult to find an example of a sustained community of such small size.

Also, if an older settlement loses members to the extent that the number of families dwindles to only a few, the same thing will occur – extinction. Hence, a minimalist definition has the advantage of being unambiguous when compared to using a larger number – let’s say five or 10 families – for counting the birth of new communities and determining when they no longer exist.

Here are the seven facts.

1. 270 Total Failures

First, since the Amish arrival in North America during the 1730’s, there are now 270 failed attempts at sustaining a settlement. Please note that these 270 are not failures to start a community, but an inability to sustain the settlement after it began.

2. More failures in recent history

Second, 37 folded before 1900, and another 66 during the first half of the 20th century, as shown in figure 1. Simple arithmetic tells us that the remaining 167 became extinct over the previous 74 years.

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Does this surprise you? It really should not because there were fewer than 70 active or extant settlements as the second half of the 20th century began. Since the decade of the 1950s, 801 settlements were founded, hence, there is a failure rate of about 21 percent (167/801) over these seven-plus decades.

3. The 21st Century

Third, from 1950 through 1999, another 88 settlements did not make it. So far, the 21st century has witnessed 79 more failures, or slightly over three every year; but this compares to nearly 400 founded that are active and sustained, for an average of nearly 17 new settlements founded annually.

4. Average “Lifespan”

Fourth, the average life of extinct communities is about 18.5 years. Variations in the length of time for extinct communities ranges from one year to over 150 years. The short-lived communities were mostly places where either the climate/physical environmental were not compatible with traditional farming practices or localities where the first few families were not joined by others, especially a diener (ordained man, as bishop, minister or deacon).

There are five extinct communities that lasted over 100 years, including two recent cases in Ohio – Plain City (1896-2011) and Hartville (1905-2007). Although both have distinctive histories, they have two things in common. Both were never very large. And, both were located near big cities like Columbus and Canton. Eventually, encroaching suburbs and higher land prices stymied the movement of younger Amish families to relocate there, and gradually both died out.

5. Extinct Amish Settlements: Top States

Fifth, the top states that have played host to now extinct Amish communities are also among the states with the most currently active settlements. These include Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Missouri.

Ranking Pennsylvania and Ohio as the top states for extinct settlements is really not very fair to either state because so many of their failed communities occurred before 1850, when the challenges of establishing a community, often on the edge of the frontier, produced difficulties not seen today. In fact, of the 37 earliest extinctions, only six were not located in Pennsylvania or Ohio.

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6. Texas & similar cases

Sixth, some states are outstanding for their record of extinctions. Topping the list is Texas, with nine cases of extinct settlements, and only one currently sustained community which goes by the name of Beeville, in Bee County of south Texas. Most of the nine extinctions were due to the fact that the locations were places where Amish worked in temporary jobs, such as farm laborers, never expecting to stay in the Lone Star state very long. However, in Beeville, the families have purchased land and men there are engaged in a variety of economic activities.

In addition to Texas, North Dakota has four failed settlements out of four attempts, a dubiously perfect score, all in the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th century. As well, the state of Georgia has witnessed three attempts at settlement, all three of which have failed, and Mississippi hosts only one extant settlement (Randolph, in the northern county of Pontotoc), the only survivor out of six attempts. Plus, even though there are now four sustained settlements in Arkansas, it too has seen seven failures.

7. Nine Causes of Amish Community Extinction

Seventh, the reasons why an existing Amish community may become extinct are numerous, and it is likely that nearly all extinctions have more than one cause. Dave Luthy’s book on “Amish Settlements that Failed” includes a list of 9 important reasons (see page 558). These are:

  1. poor land and weather conditions, which explains a number of extinctions in the first half of the 20th century in various western states
  2. confrontations with school laws, a reason that provides the context for extinctions in a number of states, especially since 1900 and the establishment of compulsory education laws, requiring young people to attend school beyond the 8th grade;
  3. changing church affiliations, which often means that the Ordnung or church discipline was relaxed to allow ownership of motor vehicles, or, in the 19th century before the age of automobiles, Amish communities shift over and identified with various Mennonite conferences;
  4. unrealistic location, and even though this may seem similar to the first reason, it can also refer to an Amish settlement that is too far away from other settlements, such as a few failed attempts in Central and South America, and early attempts in the various western states and provinces;
  5. government requirements, which include not only confrontations with school laws, but other disagreements and oppositions to regulations, such as those related to septic systems and the visibility of buggies on public roads, among others;
  6. church problems, that is, disagreements within the community with practices allowed or prohibited by the church Ordnung that eventually compelled some families to leave for more compatible communities, and sometimes discouraging others families to move there to replace the population loss;
  7. temporary residency, which refers to settlements established in states where the Amish work as farm laborers and never settle in long enough to purchase land;
  8. not enough families, which explains many short-lived settlements in which a few families moved in with the hopes that others would follow, but alas, that never occurred; and
  9. no ministry, a reason that can refer to newly established settlements where there are no ordained men and insufficient growth for the community to nominate and select someone, and mostly to communities of any age where the few men in the ministry pass away and are not replaced.

There may be a tenth reason that has emerged since Luthy created his list, and that may become more important through the remaining three-fourths of the 21st century. It is this: development, including such factors as urbanization/residential development, the siting of factories and other economic initiatives.

For example, there is the first attempt at a settlement in Pike County of southern Ohio where an atomic energy plant was to be built. This happened during the 1950s, at the height of the Cold War.

Both fears among families there that the site would be a prime target if nuclear war should break out, and rapid population growth with the influx of hundreds of workers, caused all but one family to move to other localities. As well, the plant itself is a symbol of making weapons for war. The history of the first Piketon community can be found in Luthy’s book on pages 366-371. Since then, and after a second failed attempt, the community of Beaver (started in 1994) is thriving in Pike County.

A more recent example of development as a factor in the extinction of a settlement is the case of Le Raysville (founded in 1966), which is located in the northeastern Pennsylvania county of Bradford. One of the primary reasons for its demise in 2021 was the introduction of fracking and the increased use of rural roads by large and fast-moving trucks associated with this new form of energy development.

Plans are for the next issue (late Autumn, 2024) of the Journal of Plain Anabaptist Communities to include a research note about Amish community extinctions. To register for JPAC, go to plainanabaptistjournal.org. Past issues of JPAC include a number of Amish population studies.

For a count of settlements up to 2010, both extant and extinct over time, see “On the Recent Growth of New Amish Settlements” by Joseph F. Donnermeyer and Elizabeth C. Cooksey in The Mennonite Quarterly Review, Volume LXXXIV (April, 2010).

For a list of extant Amish settlements, updated annually, go to the webpage for the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies, and on the lower left side is a window for “Amish Studies.” Included are a variety of statistics and interesting facts about Amish settlements.

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“Extinct” Amish Communities: 7 Interesting Facts - Amish America (2024)
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