Colonial America – Westward to Pennsylvania


Around the turn of the 17th century, settlers in Pennsylvania had been primarily English (mostly Quakers, some Anglicans). Some Swedes, Finns and Dutch had been settled before the English arrived but were quickly outnumbered. The only other immigrant group of any size consisted of Welsh immigrants, who were soon joined by the Scotch-Irish and, hot on their heels, the Germans.

Germans who immigrated to the American colonies in the early 1700’s were almost always referred to as “Palatines”. This was actually a misnomer as not all German immigrants were from the Rhine Valley, but were, as a whole, a very mobile population and as most immigrants traveled down the Rhine at one time or another, gradually came to all be lumped together and called “Palatines”.

Despite the fact that William Penn did market settlement in Pennsylvania to the Germans in his tract Some Account of the Province of Pennsilvania (1608), German immigration was primarily prompted by events that originated in Europe. The end of the Thirty Years War in 1648 saw a population that was nearly destitute and subject to raids and destruction at the whim of the French King, not to mention ever-rising taxes levied by the local nobility. In May and September of 1707, the French plundered the Palatine and an unusually harsh winter of 1708-1709 prompted many Germans to pack up their families and take up the offer of British Government to leave their homelands for security in England. However, once the Germans arrived, the British Government was at a loss of what to do with them. Living in a shantytown outside of London was hardly a solution, so many of the families were sent to New York. They were ordered to pay off their transport by making Naval Stores. Several of these families eventually settled in the Tulpehocken region of Pennsylvania (Berks County) around 1723.

Once the tide of immigrants began to leave Germany, immigrant agents, called Newlanders, worked for the transport companies to persuade Germans to leave their homeland for the colonies. Often the means of persuasion were fraudulent and the wealth they supposedly acquired in the New World was only an act. By 1750, literature was circulating in Germany that both praised life in the colonies and condemned it. Gottlieb Mittelberger published a tract in 1756 called Journey to Pennsylvania, in which he blamed the Newlanders as being the emphasis behind the German immigration to Pennsylvania, a journey which could only end in misery. However, other tracts praised the goodness found in Pennsylvania, such as a tract by Christopher Sauer, which exalted the economic opportunity found in the colony and enticed thousands of Germans to make the long voyage.

The decision to immigrate to the American colonies was a long and expensive affair. First, the family must sell everything they owned and travel for several weeks until they reached Rotterdam. From there, another fare must be bought and more time spent traveling to London where many families, unable to afford the final fare across the Atlantic, entered into indentured servitude to pay their way. Upon a long and nearly insufferable voyage across the ocean, a voyage that most young children did not survive, a family would be literally split up before ever setting foot on land, in order to enter into service to pay for their fare. An adult would normally be required to work for about seven years, whereas a child would normally be bonded until the age of 21. Despite the hardships of the voyage, German immigrants found that they land could be easily acquired as long as one was willing to work it.

Before 1710, the only immigrant settlement near Philadelphia was the town of Germantown (which , according to Philip Klein and Ari Hoogenboom, was actually settled by the Dutch, not the Germans). After about 1720, German religious groups began settling in towns around Philadelphia, such as the Mennonites, the Dunkards (1719), Schwenkfelders (1733) and the Moravians (1741). The Lutherans and Reformed Germans followed, swelling the German population in Pennsylvania. By the late 1720’s, the influx of Germans had so concerned the local government that Governor Keith declared that all Germans entering Pennsylvania must be documented and they must pledge their loyalty to the English crown. By that time, approximately 20,000 Germans had entered the colony and that number would swell to 110,000 by the American Revolution.

Germans tended to settle together, away from other ethnic groups. They were, as a whole, a hardworking people who provided a positive example to other colonists, but English speaking colonists were often distrustful of them, being unable to speak or understand German. (The misnomer “Pennsylvania Dutch” actually refers to the Germans, or the Deutsche.) In fact, in 1753 Ben Franklin wrote to a friend that he feared it would be necessary to have (German) interpreters in the Assembly, and that “unless the stream of importation could be turned from this to other colonies,…they will soon outnumber us, that all the advantages we have, will in my opinion, be not able to preserve out language and even our government will become precarious”. Fortunately, not everyone shared Franklin’s view, and even he lessened his prejudice as time went on. A Shendandoah traveler in the 1760’s commented that “They (Germans) know no wants and are acquainted with but few vices. Their inexperience of the elegancies of life precludes any regret that they have not the means of enjoying them; but they possess what many princes would give half their dominions for – health, contentment, and tranquility of mind”.