In the 1600s, a wave of religious persecution which began with the Protestant Reformation swept across Europe, leaving war, famine, and death in its wake. It began in Germany, and in the course of time, Germany saw more turmoil, chaos, and persecution than any Christian nation of its day. (1) When German princes and barons waged war over matters of faith, their subjects were the spoils, and with each new regime, a new religion was foisted upon the people—as many as four times in one lifetime. Tired of starving when troops of soldiers trampled over their fields, tired of war and oppression, many Germans sought not so much freedom of religion, but the freedom to remain the same religion all their lives. (2) And so the German people flocked to America, seeking the peace of which they dreamed.
Where Did They Come From?
The people who became known as the Pennsylvania Germans came from the Rhineland in the south of Germany, as well as nearby parts of France and Switzerland. (3) Among them were Mennonites, Amish, Moravians, Lutherans, Reformed, and French Huguenots.* Some, such as the Lutherans, faced fewer persecutions in Germany than the rest; they sought religious security, yes, but also America’s abundance. (4) Others found that only America could offer them a home where their neighbors didn’t conspire to see them dead.
Why Do Some People Call Them the Pennsylvania Dutch?
There is a great debate over whether these German immigrants and their descendants should be called the Pennsylvania Germans or the Pennsylvania Dutch. Historically, they have always been called the Pennsylvania Dutch, for at one time, the English word “Dutch” actually referred to those who spoke German. It is derived from the German word “Deutsch,” hence the easy confusion. (5)
But the Pennsylvania Dutch in reality have no ancestors from Holland…yet today, many who are unaware of their people’s history mistakenly believe this is the case. A movement arose in the late nineteenth century by those who wished to start calling themselves the Pennsylvania Germans, to better reflect their origins. (6)
A large number of Pennsylvania Germans still call themselves the Pennsylvania Dutch, and use terms such as “Dutchy” to describe those Pennsylvania Germans with thick accents. The term will probably always be around in some form or another, and indeed across the country, it is the term by which they are best known.
Who Were They?
Today’s Pennsylvania Germans are like any other Americans, with the obvious exception of the Amish and to some degree the Mennonites—they are a modern people unified in culture with the rest of the nation, save enough local heritage to give them a unique charm. But in the earliest days, the Pennsylvania Germans were unlike other Americans. They had their own religions, their own style of dress, their own architecture, their own language. (7) Even up to the 1920s and 1930s, some Pennsylvania Germans only spoke English outside the home. **
Religious faith was so greatly valued by the German immigrants that they undertook perilous journeys—sometimes selling themselves as little more than slaves in exchange for passage—to seek religious freedom. (8) Faith thus remained an indispensable part of life in Pennsylvania, as did the value of hard labor. But the Pennsylvania Germans were a joyous people who took pleasure in their simple life, which shines through in every part of their culture: from the festive barn raisings of the Amish to the Pennsylvania German philosophy on food—eat lots and lots of it! They were a farm people who saw God’s bounty as something to be enjoyed, for it came from above. (9)
In America, where only Catholics and non-Christians were viewed with disdain, the Rhineland refugees found a haven they could never find at home. Though retaining their German identity, they did not look back longingly as did many immigrant groups, wishing to return. (10) The Germans took the fertile limestone lands of Pennsylvania and made a new home (11), one which made them richer than they could ever be under a prince or baron’s thumb.
* German Catholics, like everyone else, suffered persecution as well, but they were unable to come to America. Though Penn’s colony welcomed all religions, the English were not as tolerant, and did all within their power to keep Catholics out of America. (12)
** My grandmother was one of these. She didn’t even learn English until she started school, where she had a teacher who spoke no German.
(1) Johnson, Elizabeth. Landis Valley Museum: Pennsylvania Trail of History Guide. Stackpole Books: 2002. pg. 7
(2) Klees, Fredric. The Pennsylvania Dutch. Macmillan: 1952. pg. 138
(3) Klees, Fredric. The Pennsylvania Dutch. Macmillan: 1952. pg. 147-148
(4) Klees, Fredric. The Pennsylvania Dutch. Macmillan: 1952. pg. 74
(5) Johnson, Elizabeth. Landis Valley Museum: Pennsylvania Trail of History Guide. Stackpole Books: 2002. pg. 9
(6) Johnson, Elizabeth. Landis Valley Museum: Pennsylvania Trail of History Guide. Stackpole Books: 2002. pg. 9
(7) Klees, Fredric. The Pennsylvania Dutch. Macmillan: 1952. pg. 1-2
(8) Stoudt, John Joseph. Early Pennsylvania Arts and Crafts. A.S. Barnes and Company, Inc: 1952. pg. 194
(9) Klees, Fredric. The Pennsylvania Dutch. Macmillan: 1952. pp. 320
(10) Klees, Fredric. The Pennsylvania Dutch. Macmillan: 1952. pg. 318, Macmillan
(11) Stoudt, John Joseph. Early Pennsylvania Arts and Crafts. A.S. Barnes and Company, Inc: 1952. pg. 21
(12) Klees, Fredric. The Pennsylvania Dutch. Macmillan: 1952. pp. 138-141