Who are the Pennsylvania Germans?
In 1681, after William Penn approached the King about granting him permission to establish a colony in America, he traveled throughout the low countries of Europe enlisting hard-working Germanic religious separatists to populate the new Province of Pennsylvania (Penn’s Woods).
Though Penn was a Quaker from Great Britain, he soon found many converts to Quakerism among the German peoples. Germantown, Pennsylvania (today part of northwest Philadelphia), was founded by German settlers, thirteen Quaker and Mennonite families from Krefeld, Germany. Within a few years of settling, these Germans built a log meetinghouse for worship. By 1690, the Mennonite families began to worship separately and eventually built their own log meetinghouse around 1708. Another separatist group, the German Baptists, came from Krefeld to Germantown and established their first Meeting there in 1719. The founding day of Germantown, October 6, 1683, is remembered annually in the United States as German American Day.
As news spread of religious tolerance in the Province of Pennsylvania, more and more settlers from German countries emigrated to Philadelphia, through Germantown and out into surrounding counties. Many Lutheran and Reformed church members emigrated in the 1720’s and Moravian and Schwenkfelder settlers came in the 1730’s. The Amish settled at Northkill in Berks County, Pennsylvania, around 1740, becoming the first Amish community in America.
The combination of Dutch, Palatine and Swiss German dialects blending in Germantown and the surrounding counties, coupled with the infusion of some English, gave rise to the development of a unique dialect in Pennsylvania. Today it is referred to as ‘Pennsylvania Dutch’ or ‘Deitsch’, the term used by settlers to describe themselves as ethnic Germans (Deutsch).
Historically, Germans lived across most of northern Europe in localized close-knit tribes during pre-Christian centuries. Daily life was centered in a small village with one person elected as chief, responsible for the welfare and organization of the whole village. When Irish and Saxon missionaries from the British Isles came with the story of the Gospel to these pagan Continental tribes, their villages were easily transformed into small local congregations with an elected minister or bishop to preside over the people’s every need. Culturally, little has changed today in the expressions of Old Order Christians like the Amish, Mennonites and some German Baptist Brethren. These groups are often categorized as ‘Low’ or ‘Plain’ Pennsylvania Dutch, for their insistence against raised pulpits and professional clergy. Lutherans, Reformed and Moravians had higher seating for their clergy and raised pulpits, so they were considered ‘High’ or ‘Fancy’ Dutch. The ‘High Dutch’ also tended to be less plain in decoration of homes and barns, using Hex signs and wearing fashionable clothing.
Pennsylvania German Fraktur has been a localized craft since these settlers first brought the practice from their homelands. Penmanship exercises quoting scripture and hymns, family records in large Bibles, and bookplates feature a unique stylized colorful artistry that combines traditional German lettering with floral and animal designs. Baptismal certificates and other forms of paperwork have been illumined in this traditional manner, and it continues to be a cherished art among Pennsylvania Germans and their neighbors. For more information on Fraktur, visit http://www.frakturweb.org/
Hard work, good and bountiful food, forthright conversations and close family connections have always been central to Pennsylvania German culture, along with a high degree of respect for heritage and tradition.