(The following was written by Dick Riester, and is reprinted from “Reflections”, a collection of local stories available at the Grove City Welcome Center and Museum. Any opinions made in the article are from the author.)
The Pennsylvanian German farmers were good farmers by practically all standards. They were descended from 30 generations of tillers of the soil. In their old world environment they would have been, on average, well-to-do. Unfortunately, the wars in Europe kept them poor; or if they were on the wrong side of a religious or political fence, they would be cheated out of what they had.
It is impossible to determine the actual number of German immigrants to Pennsylvania between 1683 and 1820, but the general estimate is at least 75,000.
The Germans had a tendency to migrate with countrymen, with neighbors from the same village, and even occasionally as an entire congregation, enabling them to delay assimilation into English culture and create their own society in Pennsylvania. By 1840, a hybrid Pennsylvania Dutch culture had become firmly entrenched, and a significant percentage of Pennsylvania’s population was maintaining its distinctive way of life, by dialect, religion, and rural folk ways.
Most of the early settlers of the Pennsylvania Dutch region are believed to have come from the Palatinate region of Germany. Why then where these people called “Dutch”? One theory suggests that the English-speaking people of the region had trouble with the word “Deutsch”, which means “German”. It was easier for them to say Dutch and since the Germans didn’t seem too upset by it the name came into common use.
Why did these people come in such numbers from one region of Germany? The once fertile farmlands of the Palatinate had been devastated by numerous wars, and the political turmoils of the times left them with an uncertain means of livelihood. Stories of the rich lands in America, and the promise of religious and political freedom, lured them to this country. They were not disappointed.
Wherever there was limestone or black walnut trees, you would find a home. Limestone was good for homes and churches and could be used in fertilizer. Walnut trees growing in healthy stands were a good sign of fertile soil.
These Germans proved during the Revolutionary War that they were loyal to the land they had come to cultivate and populate. They were not among the last to fight for America, but were among the first.
(The conclusion of this story in the next blog entry.)