The Pennsylvania Germans


German Immigration into Colonial Pennsylvania

The first German immigrants came to Pennsylvania in 1683, just two years after William Penn received the land from King Charles II of England. About 15,000 German-speaking immigrants arrived over the next several decades. These first-comers arrived, and either remained in the Philadelphia area or dispersed immediately into the forests to select land of their choice.

The English leaders of the colony became concerned about the ever-increasing number of foreigners with different customs and language who were settling in Pennsylvania. In 1727, measures were taken to determine who these people were. Ship captains were ordered to make lists of their passengers. Upon arrival in Philadelphia, the adult male immigrants (who were well enough to do so) walked to the courthouse and signed an oath of allegiance to the English King. Soon a second Oath of Abjuration renouncing the Catholic pretender to the English throne was required.

The journey to Pennsylvania from Swiss and German villages was long, hard, and expensive. The emigrants made their way to the Rhine River and boarded riverboats headed for Rotterdam. This segment of the journey lasted four to six weeks. Boats were detained and passengers were taxed at the customs house of each small principality they passed through. In Rotterdam, delays of several weeks were common, and many emigrants were out of money before boarding ship. The English ships had to pass by customs in an English port before starting across the Atlantic. Depending on the winds, the ocean voyage lasted from seven to twelve weeks. Tightly packed passengers were ill fed and subject to filth, disease, and storms.

Survivors of the terrible voyage arrived in Philadelphia, usually in September or October. Those who could pay the captain for their passage were released. Some were fortunate in having friends or relatives meet them and pay or loan the necessary funds. For the remainder, the ship became a marketplace. Merchants from the area bargained with the immigrants to work for them for a certain number of years in return for payment of their debts. These "indentured servants" served their time, then went on their way to establish their new lives in Pennsylvania.

More detailed information about the immigration process can be found in the introduction to the monumental Pennsylvania German Pioneers by Ralph B. Strassburger and William J. Hinke. This three-volume work contains all of the ship lists and oath signatures that have survived. Unfortunately, only a few of the indentured servant contracts are extant.

Ralph B. Strassburger and William J. Hinke, Pennsylvania German Pioneers, 3 volumes (Pennsylvania German Society, 1934; reprint, Camden, Maine: Picton Press, 1992), I, pp. xii-xlv.


Acquiring Land in Colonial Pennsylvania

A prime motivation for the arduous journey across the ocean was the hope of acquiring one’s own land in America. Although the procedures varied somewhat over the years, in the mid-eighteenth century, the proprietors of Pennsylvania used a basic three-step procedure for granting title to land.

The settler applied for a "warrant" for a specified acreage in a particular location. The warrant was an order to survey the tract. When the survey was completed, it was "returned" to the land office. Then, for additional money, a "patent" was granted. The patent was a final deed from the proprietors that conveyed all rights to the tract of land.

In reality, sometimes this process took several generations. Many settled and built their homes first, then later warranted their land with "improvements." Some settlers obtained a warrant but decided to move on to a new location, thus voiding their warrant. Some sold their rights to warranted land to another party. Often, the man who obtained the warrant did not have sufficient funds to get the patent, and his son or grandson finished the process.

After the initial patent deed from the proprietors of Pennsylvania, all subsequent transactions between private individuals were in the form of deeds, which may or may not have been recorded in the county courthouse.

These two references provide detailed explanations.

Munger, Donna Bingham. Pennsylvania Land Records. Wilmington, Del.: Scholarly Resources, Inc., 1991.

Sergeant, Thomas. The Land Laws of Pennsylvania. 1838. Reprint, Laughlintown, Pa.: Southwest Pennsylvania Genealogical Publishing Company, 1992.

The above text was written by my sister, Anne, based on her research


The Pennsylvania German Language

The immigrants brought with them their German language with varying dialects. In the early years, the English-speaking scribes could not record many of their wills because they were written in High German or "Deutsch." 

The settlers usually stuck together with families and friends who shared their language and customs. However, isolated from the European development of the German language and constantly modified by English, the Pennsylvania German language acquired unique characteristics of its own.  It was the language spoken at home, even when English was learned in school and used for business outside the home. In the conservative Amish communities it is still used today.

Church services were traditionally held in the High German language.  It was always a difficult decision for churches to begin holding services in English.

This paragraph was adapted from text created by my sister Anne.

horizontal rule

Return to Galen's Heritage page

Return to Life and Interests

horizontal rule