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Presentation Immigration and Relocation in U.S. History

The Call of Tolerance

William Penn in 1666

German immigrants were among the first Europeans to set foot in North America. They helped establish England's Jamestown settlement in 1608 and the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam--now New York--in 1620. German adventurers could be found roaming the farthest reaches of the New World for many years afterward. It was religious tolerance, though, that first brought large numbers of Germans to North America.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, many European powers forced their subjects to follow an official state religion. Therefore, when William Penn toured Germany in 1677, spreading the word of a new kind of religious freedom in the American colonies, he found a receptive audience. Many Germans, especially Protestants, were persuaded to join him in his colony of Pennsylvania. Members of smaller sects, who were often persecuted in Europe, were especially eager to escape harassment, and German Mennonites, Quakers, and Amish emigrated in substantial numbers. Germantown, Pennsylvania--now part of Philadelphia--was established by 13 Mennonite families in 1683, and thousands of their fellow freethinkers and religious dissenters soon followed suit.

Old Mennonite Church, Germantown, Pa.

The journey to the colonies was not an easy one, though. Many of the first German immigrants came from the small Palatinate region in southwestern Germany. They began their travel by riverboat on the Rhine River, and then made their way to Holland. It took several weeks to reach an Atlantic seaport, and another eight to 10 weeks of difficult and dangerous ocean travel before they reached the shores of North America. To pay for their voyage, many impoverished immigrants resorted to selling themselves or their family members into indentured servitude--agreeing to be legally bound to an employer in America for several years, until their debt was paid. The conditions of indentured servitude could be very harsh; for instance, if an indentured child died before the contract was completed, the child's parents or siblings might be forced to work the remaining years of that contract, in addition to their own. Indentured servitude, unlike slavery, was entered into voluntarily, but it is still easy to see why German immigrants might have made a significant contribution to the anti-slavery movement in the United States.

WPA Poster: The Pennsylvania Germans

Drawn by the prospect of inexpensive land, German immigrants quickly moved to settle on the fringes of the new colonies. Soon the river valleys of New York and Ohio were dotted with new German towns, and German settlements sprang up in Maryland, the Carolinas, and Georgia. Their stronghold, though, was still Pennsylvania. By 1745, more than 40,000 Germans lived in the colony, founding towns and villages with such distinctively German names as Manheim, Dunker, and Berlin. Many of these early communities maintain their German character to this day, especially in the Pennsylvania Dutch regions. (The term Pennsylvania Dutch was the result of Anglophone mispronunciation of the German word Deutsch, which means "German.") The Amish, who are members of an especially reclusive religious denomination, still speak German, reject modern conveniences, and retain the dress and way of life of the Pennsylvania German farmers of centuries ago.