Are you one of the millions of Americans who have a German in your family tree? In an earlier series, Tracing Your 19th Century German Ancestors, I distinguished the largest wave of German immigrants to the U.S. who came in the 19th century from the smaller group who came in the colonial period. Colonial Germans, or as they are better known, the Pennsylvania “Dutch” (a misnomer of Deutsch, or German), make up one of the founding groups of European settlement of North America. Though likely less than 100,000 arrived in the colonial period, millions of Americans today have a Pennsylvania German, as we will call them in this series, in their family tree. In this nine-part series, my colleague and specialist in Pennsylvania research, Alice Childs, and I hope to answer the important questions of Pennsylvania German research.
- Who were the Pennsylvania Germans?
- Why did they immigrate?
- How did they fit in with the rest of colonial America?
- What are the key records they left behind and how are these records found?
- How can DNA be used to research Pennsylvania German ancestors?
The most important factors to help you understand and find records of your Pennsylvania Germans throughout this series are:
These two factors organized much of the lives of our Pennsylvania German ancestors. Understanding that your Pennsylvania German likely had a particularly strong drive to own land, and stay a part of a cohesive community is key. Identifying your ancestors’ FAN club (family, associates, neighbors who often, in the beginning, were people from the same German village) and records involving land are major strategies for Pennsylvania German research. Let’s try to understand why land and community were so important to the Pennsylvania Germans.
Who were the Pennsylvania Germans?
As I explained in an earlier blog post “Tracing Your 19th Century German Ancestors- Part 1: Which Germans?,” the Pennsylvania Germans came primarily from the southwest part of German lands (Palatinate or Pfalz, Baden-Württemberg, Hesse, Switzerland, Alsace, and also the Netherlands), first in small numbers in the late 17th and then in larger numbers in the mid 18th century. The reason most commonly given for the seemingly strange choice of German (mostly) peasant farmers to immigrate all the way across the Atlantic to an English colony was that they were fleeing religious persecution and the aftermath of the terrible Thirty Years War. While these were some of the reasons, there was more to the story.
This map shows today’s German states. The southwestern states of Baden-Württemberg (orange), Rhineland-Pfalz (aka Palatinate in yellow), Hessen (red), Saarland (green), plus Schweiz (aka Switzerland in gray), and the portion of Frankreich (aka France in gray) that is Alsace-Moselle today and adjacent to Baden and Palatinate were the primary areas of German emigration in prior to the 19th century. Fogleman estimated about 85,000 (p2) between 1700-1775.
The “Island of Pinßel Fania”
Why did so many Germans leave behind everything they knew to risk going to a faraway English colony in the 17th and 18th centuries? William Penn had received a charter from Charles II in 1681 for the colony of Pennsylvania. Penn hoped to create a haven in the New World for Quakers, who had been so persecuted in England. For his colony to succeed financially Penn needed settlers.1 If the Germans’ need for land and Penn’s need for paying settlers for his land in his new colony pulled them, what pushed Germans from their homeland? It often depends on when they came.
Three 18th Century Waves
Pennsylvania German immigration can be thought of as having three general phases.2 The earliest Germans (about 1683) came to North America more because of religious persecution due to the aftermath of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648). By 1707-1714 many began to come because of a crop failure crisis. This second group sometimes is referred to as the (Poor) Palatine Germans. They were refugees in England before settling in New York. The last group (1717-1775) was the largest and the one focused on in this blog post.
Why did Pennsylvania German Immigration peak in the mid-18th Century?
In his excellent book, Hopeful Journeys, German Immigration, Settlement, and Political Culture in Colonial America 1717-1775, Aaron Spencer Fogleman traces many of the factors behind the Pennsylvania Germans’ immigration to and cultural behavior in North America. Fogleman explained that since the 11th century a cycle of farming innovation, population explosion leading to out-migration, then population decline, followed by in-migration can be traced in southwest Germany. In other words, southwest German lands had a long history of people on the move.3
Until the 20th century, the most devastating and scarring war in German lands was the Thirty Years War (1618-1648). Fogleman reports that 40% of the population of southwest Germany was lost by death or dislocation.4 In the decades after 1648, just prior to when Pennsylvania became a colony, the population of southwest German lands spiked. Since partible inheritance (i.e. where the family’s land was divided among descendants, as opposed to the oldest or the youngest son inheriting everything as in other parts of Germany) was practiced in this part of Germany, smaller and smaller parcels of land were inherited, squeezing the peasant farmers.
Hopeful Journeys pointed out that in addition to the pattern of in and out-migration in southwest Germany, that out-migration was abetted by the authorities. “By the eighteenth century, these regions had a centuries-long reputation as a place where one could recruit large numbers of potential settlers.”5 Fogleman stated that the population of Europe increased dramatically in the 18th century (about 70% between 1720-1800).6 Demographics and government policy explain a great deal of the push that these mostly peasant farmers felt. Fogleman explained that at least 900,000 (one historian estimated)7 emigrated from southwestern German lands in the 18th century. Less than 15% or only about 85,000 of those were estimated to have come to North America. What motivated this 15%?
Many cite that Pennsylvania Germans came for religious freedom. Though like most German immigrants, Pennsylvania Germans were mostly Lutheran or Catholic, far more 18th-century than 19th-century German immigrants belonged to smaller sects. Fogleman argued that though religious freedom may have been a factor, especially with these smaller sects (e.g. Mennonites, Amish, Moravians), generally religion may be exaggerated as a push factor. What likely spurred the third wave of Pennsylvania Germans, that 15% or so of the Germans leaving southwest Germany, to make the quite uncertain journey to a faraway English colony? Land. The rumors of great stretches of land may have enticed those who would become the Pennsylvania Germans to risk the uncertainties of North America as opposed to simply immigrating within Europe.
Land and Community
The desire for land and community lies at the heart of understanding Pennsylvania Germans. Hopeful Journeys argued that “German-speaking immigrants would become hypersensitive to political matters involving land issues.”8 The farmers of southwest German lands were generally not passive as one might imagine of peasants. Pennsylvania Germans had been collectively fighting back against the aristocracy impinging on their land rights back home. When they came to America, the Pennsylvania Germans were used to sticking together to fight the powers that be. This collective behavior was no doubt fostered further by the language barrier in America. Land and this collective behavior explain much of what motivated our Pennsylvania Germans ancestors, and so understanding this will help us in finding their records.
Fogleman shows this cohesiveness by explaining that half of the Pennsylvania Germans were too poor to pay their ship’s passage, and so had to put themselves in the market as indentured servants.9 Who often bought the rights of these indentured servants? Most often it was other Germans with whom they had a connection, either familial or being from the same village. Paying off one’s debt was key to staying in the good graces of the community that was the key to survival, so very few German indentured servants appear to have reneged on their obligation. This strategy of cooperation had helped them survive in German lands, and it helped them overcome their poverty and the language barrier in a faraway English colony. These close family and community ties make researching the FAN clubs of your Pennsylvania German that much more helpful as a research tool.
As explained in a previous blog post on the book American Nations, Pennsylvania Germans were part of what author Colin Woodard called the Midlands. In the colonial period the clash between the Quakers, Germans, and Scots-Irish defined Pennsylvania politics. Frustrated by German political clout, Benjamin Franklin fell prey to the American tendency to otherize immigrant groups:
“Those who come hither are generally of the most ignorant Stupid Sort of their own Nation…and as few of the English understand the German Language, and so cannot address them either from the Press or Pulpit, ’tis almost impossible to remove any prejudices they once entertain…Not being used to Liberty, they know not how to make a modest use of it…I remember when they modestly declined intermeddling in our Elections, but now they come in droves, and carry all before them, except in one or two Counties…In short unless the stream of their importation could be turned from this to other colonies, as you very judiciously propose, they will soon so out number us, that all the advantages we have will not in My Opinion be able to preserve our language, and even our Government will become precarious.
Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion.”10
Even though Germans, Quakers, and the Scot-Irish clashed over who would control the Pennsylvania government, the Germans and Quakers, in the end, had more in common and formed the moderate Midlands. What they had in common was the desire to be free of zealous (Yankeedom) or hierarchical (Tidewater) overlords, and to be left alone. Pennsylvania Germans’ desire for land and autonomy, plus their being the only major colonial immigrant group to speak a language other than English, meant they formed a somewhat insular community. They tended to stay together in the decades after the colonial period even when some migrated to Ontario or to Ohio, Indiana, through to the upper midWest (e.g. Illinois, Wisconsin.). Pennsylvania Germans stayed within their communities to a striking degree, and only truly gave up the widespread use of German after World War II.
While most colonial Germans did settle in Pennsylvania after landing in Philadelphia and first settling in the counties surrounding it, not all ended up in Pennsylvania. For example, some landed in Charleston, South Carolina. The effects of Germans in the south can be seen in this interesting article about the German origins of mustard-based BBQ sauce in South Carolina. Another group settled in New York, called the Palatine Germans, and have a unique history of passing through England before coming to America. Besides Pennsylvania, New York, and the Carolinas, colonial Germans also settled in Virginia and Maryland.
Wherever your Pennsylvania German ancestors first settled, acquiring land and staying close to their community was most likely on their minds. Understanding the land, probate, church, ship’s lists, and tax records of colonial America will be key to walking in their footsteps. Alice will help us understand how to find these records in the next posts. Lastly, I will come back to discuss using DNA to help us find our Pennsylvania Germans.
- Farinelli, Jill. The Palatine Wreck: The Legend of the New England Ghost Ship. Germany: University Press of New England, 2017., p18
- Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pennsylvania_Dutch: accessed 29 Jan 2022) > Subtitle “Immigration to the United States”
- Fogleman, Aaron Spencer. H. Hopeful Journeys, German Immigration, Settlement, and Political Culture in Colonial America 1717-1775. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996) Chapter 1
- Fogleman. Hopeful Journeys, p 24
- Fogleman. Hopeful Journeys, p 28
- Fogleman. Hopeful Journeys, p 23
- Fogleman. Hopeful Journeys, p 31
- Fogleman. Hopeful Journeys, p 34
- Fogleman. Hopeful Journeys, p 73
- National Archives: Founders Online (https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-04-02-0173 : accessed 29 Jan 2022) > “From Benjamin Franklin to Peter Collinson, 9 May 1753” > 4th paragraph from the bottom