An eminent historian said, "During the whole course of the seventeenth century, there were only seven complete calendar years in which there was no war between European States, the years 1610, 1669-1671, 1680-1682." Add to that a weather induced famine in nearly every decade beginning at the end of the 1620s, epidemics from the Black Death to typhus and tuberculosis, and we can see that the Palatines didn't live in a world different from ours. They didn't live in a world. They lived in hell.
The Palatines, those German speaking refugees from the Rhine basin who formed one of the largest single group of immigrants into the New World up to 1710, fled the Rhineland in 1709 for a number of reasons. Why did our group end up in the Mohawk Valley? How did they get here? How did they know it existed?
To go back to the beginning, pressure for the huge exodus began nearly a century before, and built up bit by bit over the years. Europe had always known war, so the one that started in 1618 was nothing new. But it went on and on, until it got the name of the 30 Years War. That's an entire generation! Children were born, grew up, had children of their own, and knew nothing but wartime, a cruel war with no good guys, no patriotism, fought by mercenaries who weren't paid and were expected to get food and funds and the necessities of life from the peasants whose lives they destroyed in the course of the war. No sooner had a peace been signed in 1648, than brush fire wars flared up, then a steady stream of incursions by the French whose aim was to leave the Rhineland a scorched earth. These conflicts were the way of life throughout the entire 17th century and into the 18th.
These were fair weather wars. When the fall rains began to make the dirt roads of the day impassible, the armies separated and looked for a spot to lick their wounds over the winter. The armies never spent two consecutive winters in the same area. Why? Here's what an official said of his village:
"They collected all of the fruit in the village and loaded it up (and took it away.) They took...the hemp, and all of the wine in the village with them. What they couldn't take of the wine they poured out. They broke all of the stoves and windows, tables, and benches, they broke the legs of the chairs, smashed the chests and cabinets. They collected all of the wagons, loaded them full with wine, fruits, shovels, axes, saws, wine shears, and all copper pots,..all of the flour and grain, they did not leave a sack in the mill...They took all of the plows in the fields and in the village. They broke the locks and scattered the straw and feed all through the streets...Not one loaf of bread was left in the village...All of the tools are gone...When they left the village they carried everything away on 68 carts and 16 wagons.
"This is already the fourth time that they have been in the village. At first they took all of the swine. Then they took the cattle. The third time, they took the horses; the fourth time they took everything which a farmer in the village needs... ..."P.S. They took all weapons and muskets with them."
The disbelieving modern reader immediately says to himself, "they didn't HAVE to destroy everything! They must have left something!" But this is the nature of warfare, to destroy wantonly the lives of non combatants, so that the enemy may not profit from any supplies left behind.
A second and more immediate reason for the 1709 exodus from the Rhine Valley was the last gasp of the ice age, a freezing monster that had made the 1600s hideous with famine after famine. Perceptive peasants recognized the early warnings, and fled. A clandestine policy of British landowners had prepared and circulated "Golden Books" throughout this literate area. Books full of golden promises of free land, free farming equipment, no taxes, all sorts of inducements calculated to appeal to the thrifty German peasant were dangled before him in these books. The German Bauer was considered by many as the most industrious of the European farmers. British agents busily distributed the "Golden Books" up and down the Rhine in the early 1700s.
There were other reasons, and perhaps to some, just as compelling. The wars bred taxes, and the taxes were collected at the point of a sword or the muzzle of a musket. These taxes bled the peasantry dry, and in some cases left no food for the coming winter. Added to war, famine and taxes, as if that were not enough, were the last tags of the Black Death as well as other epidemics, spread by armies and fostered by malnutrition, crop failures and no sanitation.
For instance, in the Hunsrück area of Germany in the heart of the Rhineland, the village of Simmern knew its own version of hell. Arta Johnson, in her People of the Palatinate , relates this bit of history: Simmern's church burial records halt in 1626. After a blank page, and before the regular records begin in 1634, eight years later, came this bleak entry: "In the year 1632 132 young and old died here." We're talking about a very small village. Was the disaster too complete to leave a recorder? What other explanation is there? Was it plague, or simply starvation? Did an offensive army wipe out the town or did a retreating army level it to deprive their pursuers of any help? No one was left to tell the tale. None of the surrounding area could have completely escaped. Other villages must have shared the catastrophe.
There was little chance for a peasant to own his own land. Though the Palatines were not tied to the land like the serfs of the eastern areas of Germany, they certainly had small opportunity to possess land to pass to their children. Mass military conscription was another complaint. Even in the nineteenth century, young men fled surreptitiously out of the country to avoid serving in the army.
With all these things pushing the Palatines from their homeland, the Golden Books gave them a goal to strive for. By the thousands, Palatines passed down the Rhine in the spring of 1709, bound for England. Our nearly 3,000 Palatines, a small part of the whole which strained through the maze of hindrances and road blocks, reached England after a deadly voyage across the English Channel. The authorities pushed them about from camp to camp as refugees all that summer and fall. Then the chosen 3,000 were packed into some ten hastily converted troop ships for the nightmare voyage to America, which was to thin their ranks by almost a third. They were on board those ships from about Christmas Day 1709 until summer 1710.
Once in their promised land, they found themselves indentured servants condemned to make tar for the Queen's navy, and all protests about their promised farms were brushed aside. Governor Robert Hunter, a military man, put the whole assemblage, men, women and children alike, under military rule in seven tar camps in the Hudson Valley. The tar making scheme, for several reasons, was a total failure. After two years, while the law abiding and peace loving majority made the best of their situation in the Hudson Valley, the more rebellious of the Palatines escaped to Albany and Schenectady, with the Schoharie Valley, their promised "Land of Schorrie" as their eventual destination.
In the spring of 1713, our Palatines, restless troublemakers to a man (and woman), began their ten year struggle in the Schoharie Valley in their seven dorfs. The first years in Schorrie dealt out privation and starvation. These pragmatic dreamers, these bearded Palatines with their work-hardened wives made the Schoharie bloom and blossom. They believed they had achieved their goal: land, land of their own to bequeath to their children.
Their dreams of plenty seemed to be fulfilled, but they had made an implacable enemy of Governor Hunter. The land, which they had bought in good faith from the Indians, they learned had been resold to a consortium of rich speculators from New York City, and the Palatines were ordered to lease, or leave. Four or five years of argument and angry confrontation culminated in a deputation sent to England. Even here, among the Palatines in the envoy, quarrels broke out and instead of presenting a united front, the two factions made their separate pleas for Schorrie.
They failed. By 1720, the distilled dissidents in Schorrie were looking elsewhere for their promised land, their land of milk and honey. Many of the Palatines put up the money, and stayed. Others floated down the Susquehanna River in spring flood to settle the Tulpehocken Valley in Pennsylvania. The narrow minded policy of the government of New York province, in making large grants of land available to rich speculators while discouraging the small farmer, stemmed the flow of German immigration and turned it south to Pennsylvania.
Only the restless and impatient Palatines left Europe for America. Troublemakers, it was said, left the Hudson Valley for Schoharie. Distilled troublemakers left the Schoharie for the Mohawk Valley. These people we know as the Palatines of Tryon County, with a heritage of overcoming impossible odds.
In the early 1720s they began their lives afresh in the Mohawk Valley, some in villages like German Flatts, reminiscent of the old country which they had left, and others in the isolated farmsteads which were to become the norm for the new world. They built the tiny log cabins typical of frontier life, pushing back the primeval forest for their fields and meadows. If the men worked from dawn to dark, summer and winter, the women did that and also bore and raised children, took full responsibility for poultry from egg to feather bed, sheep from cosset lambs to shawl, caring for the milk from cow to butter. Slowly, miles from civilization, they built their own society, with time out for French and Indian raids, with men serving in militia. Until they built their own mills, they carried their lumber and grist to Schenectady and Albany. They raised churches as well as barns, built and fortified their stone farmhouses, cleared fields, supplied Albany with wheat, beef, butter and lumber. They watched children grow, marry, raise children of their own, and saw the land grow tame as it became productive.
The first generation of Palatines tended to marry other Palatines, the boy or girl next door, although there was a smattering of intermarriage with the Dutch and also, though rarely acknowledged, with Indians. The second and third generations mainly kept the German language, the Lutheran religion, the Palatine naming customs, and they stayed largely with their own society in choosing spouses. British names from New England, mangled in spelling by the German pastors, did filter into the church registers as spouses as the years went by.
When the pastor taught the boys to read and write, it was in German, and not in English. Sermons were thundered from the pulpits in German. Tryon County was largely German speaking, though Dutch and English were penetrating the wilderness. Of course, the business men were bi- or tri- lingual, needing English and Dutch to conduct business in Albany. It would be surprising if some were not competent to discuss matters in the Mohawk language, as well.
By the fourth generation from the pioneer immigrants, land, good land, was becoming scarce again. The same restlessness that drove the original Palatines from the Rhine basin in Germany was beginning to stir the young families of the Mohawk Valley. Young men and young women were finding Dutch and New Englanders living next door to marry. An exodus from the northeast, propelled by wheat rust and worn out land, was diluting the strong German influences on the Mohawk. The process of Americanization was in full swing. What was once Tryon County, now narrowed to Montgomery County, became the mother county to populate the rest of New York State, and its sons and daughters spilled over into what was then the west: Ohio, Michigan, Illinois all had their pockets of Palatines.
Generations of New York State school children learned first about the immigrations of the Pilgrims and their kin, and secondly, about the Dutch. The Palatines were never mentioned to my generation, nor to any before mine. Perhaps the largest ethnic group to land in New York up to that time was neglected, overlooked, never spoken of. They never existed, as far as my history books were concerned. No patriotic pedigree oriented society took them up. They slipped into the DAR and SAR rosters unnoticed, they had no support group to call attention to their presence. For all we knew, the Mohawk Valley was settled exclusively by New England, with perhaps some Dutch farmers as a minority. Not until the last half of the twentieth century did the Palatines find a niche in the history books.
Although Lutheran ministers had been writing about them for nearly a century, the ministers' audience was small. The Poor Palatines of Daniel Defoe's pamphlet are at last coming into their own, and one stronghold of their own was Tryon County. Genealogists now have Hank Jones's work and the Palatines to America organization to turn to in their search for roots. After nearly 400 years, the Palatines are at last becoming respectable!
Nan Dixon is author of Palatine Roots: The 1710 German Settlement in New York as Experienced by Johann Peter Wagner. Palatine Roots is found in many libraries, is available from inter library loan, and may also be purchased from Nan. The book is in its second printing.