Early Germanic Immigrants to the Shenandoah Valley

All the pioneers in this history had ancestors who lived in the German speaking provinces of the Rhine River watershed in western Germany and Switzerland. This area experienced severe devastation and economic difficulties in the seventeenth and eighteenth century which explains the desire of many to find a new life elsewhere. The result was considerable population movements within the region as well as emigration to more distant lands in Europe and America…

The history of these families is witness to human endurance in the face of the horrors of war, pestilence and intolerance, as they dealt with the everyday problems of earning living and raising a family. Here also can be seen the bravery and courage it took to make the arduous journey across the Atlantic, the backbreaking work of clearing the forests and building homes and the daring it took to seek out ever new frontiers.

The disastrous Thirty Years War, from 1618 to 1648 was the last of the religious wars of the Reformation and was also the most destructive. While Switzerland was relatively untouched, whole areas of Alsace, and the central Rhine region known as the Palatinate, were completely devastated and depopulated. It took years for much of Germany to recover from the Thirty Years War and many parishes were not sufficiently populated to renew regular religious activities and record keeping until the late seventeenth century.

There was considerable population movement in the years following the Thirty Years War and many Swiss people, particularly Anabaptists, migrated down into Germany where they found temporary refuge and tolerance. By the eighteenth century population growth and the renewal of warfare put pressure on the most insecure people to emigrate from the region. The wars involving the major powers, such as France, Spain, Austria and Prussia, were not as terrible as war in the previous century but caused considerable economic hardship for the common people and disrupted their lives. The Anabaptist felt particularly insecure because as refugees they were viewed as strangers and were often persecuted and victimized in wartime because of their pacifist philosophy.

By the early eighteenth century the British began to allow large numbers of German settlers (often referred to as “Palatines”) into their North American colonies…

All the emigrants in this book were born within fifty miles of the Rhine. The Rhine begins in the Swiss Alps and flows northward, through the German states, for more than 700 miles, entering the North Sea at Rotterdam in Holland. As the first step in the long journey to America, emigrants went to the nearest city or town on the Rhine and found a boat going down the river to Rotterdam.

Emigrants from Switzerland went to Basel, the uppermost river port, over 500 miles from Rotterdam. Approximately 80 miles down river from Basel is the ancient Alsatian city of Strasbourg where emigrants from Alsace would join the voyage. A little further on travelers from Baden might board at Karlsruhe. At Mannheim the Neckar River joins from the east and passengers from the Kraichgau region and Wurttemberg would board…

There were so many separate sovereign German states in the eighteenth century that travelers leaving Basel paid tolls and taxes to more than thirty separate governments by the time they reached Rotterdam. The trip from Basel to Rotterdam took four to six weeks.

At Rotterdam Swiss and German emigrants found English ships waiting to carry them to America. As many as three to four hundred people were crowded into small wooden ships, along with their possessions, provisions and assorted cargo that might include everything from munitions to livestock. The voyage, usually made during the summer months, took eight to twelve weeks. Most of the eighteenth century Swiss and German emigrants landed in Philadelphia and so their first sighting of America would have been Cape Henlopen and Cape May at the entrance of Delaware Bay. A remarkable account of the journey down the Rhine and the subsequent crossing of the Atlantic was left by Gottlieb Mittelberger, a German emigrant who made the journey in 1750 and arrived in Philadelphia aboard the “Osgood” in August of that year.

Mittelberger, from a village on the Neckar, describes the journey down river as slow and expensive because of the many customs stops along the way. In Rotterdam he and his companions waited five weeks for passage to America and had to spend considerable portion of their meager funds for food and lodging. Aboard the ship the people were “…packed in like herring” and there was no fresh food or water; only foul worm infested salt meat and biscuits and brown stinking water. Lice and rodents were a constant menace and disease was rampant. On this voyage at least 32 children died and were cast overboard. Many adults also died and a high percentage arrived ill. During a fierce storm they all feared they would perish because it appeared that the ship would break apart. (From “Gottileb Mittelberger’s Journey to Pennsylvania in the Year 1750…” translated and published in Philadelphia in 1898…

Mittelberger also provides an account of the cost of the journey. The passage across the Atlantic was ten pounds in British money or 60 florins in German money for each adult. The Rhine passage from Mannheim to Rotterdam was 40 florins. By adding in the cost of provisions, tolls and tariffs, he estimated that the trip cost him 200 florins. Using figures from several contemporary inventories some idea of the value of a German florin can be estimated. The house and lot of Lorentz Schnepp (father of Johannes, the immigrant) at Geisweller in Alsace was valued at 153 florins in 1729. His personal property, including furniture, clothing, tools and livestock was worth 54 florins. One sheep was worth six florins. Werner Bley’s real estate in Hornbach, near Zweilbrikern, which included several outlying fields and a copper still was valued at 513 florins in 1757. When his son, Philipp Bley and his bride left Hornbach for America in 1748 they were given good valued at 45 florins, including an oxcart worth 20 florins. In other words it took all ones worldly fortune to emigrate to the New World.

Why were these people willing to make such sacrifices and endure such hardships? They were seeking escape from a semi-feudal and poverty ridden society in which population growth threatened to make conditions worse. The New World had an abundance of land that would allow them to maintain an agrarian way of life with greater chances of prosperity. Particularly important to Swiss and German farmers was good grass land that could support livestock. The rocky, limestone-rich hills of Pennsylvania and Virginia were especially attractive because the abundant limestone sustained the pasture land and hay fields. The Shenandoah Valley, in particular, must have reminded them of their Rhineland homes. The green hills and mountains and the swiftly flowing streams made it possible to raise their livestock, grow wheat, barley and oats and build mills just as they did in Europe. It is further apparent that many wanted to preserve their old way of life since large family groups and people from the same villages often migrated together. They were quick to reestablish their churches and communities, frequently giving them names from the Old World. The German language was used well into the nineteenth century in churches and schools and even longer in the homes.

In addition to religion and language, many other aspects of their culture were kept and have given a distinct character to the Shenandoah Valley. The Swiss and Germans had a distinct architectural style, preferring stone structures where possible. When building log houses they used stone foundations and put a large stone chimney in the center rather than at the end. They built stone spring houses and root cellars often completely vaulted over with stone. Many now think of these solid structures as fortifications from Indian attack but in reality this was typical German architecture brought over from Europe. Because so much of their farming centered around livestock, they built large “bank” barns where the cattle and sheep could be kept out of winter weather and where large amounts of hay and grain could be stored. Soon their English and Scots-Irish neighbors were adopting this practice and the large bank barn became a standard American landmark.

For the Swiss and German settlers, dietary habits and customs remained very much the same as in Europe. Food crops in the eighteenth century were primarily grain, cabbages and root vegetables such as beets, carrots and turnips. Apples were important and can be kept during the winter in a root cellar and so most pioneers where quick to establish an orchard. Curiously enough the potato, a “new world” product, which we associate with Germanic diet, was not introduced into Europe until the mid-eighteenth century and it was not known here until the late eighteenth century when it was introduced from Europe. The primary source of meat was pork, which had to be cured with salt for keeping. The cows produced milk, and butter and the greater portion of milk was processed into various kinds of cheese (“Kasse”). In the late eighteenth century, not only was the potato added to their food crops but the cultivation of corn was also added and this became a major source for food for cattle and hogs.

So while much of the Old World culture remained, the pioneers were also quick to adjust to new ways of doing things and were soon helping create a new American way of life. In Europe they had lived in small villages and farmed parcels of land on the outskirts. There was also a complex political and social hierarchy of allegiances to overlords, landlords and princes in which the common people had only duties and no rights. In America they acquired individual tracts of land, established family farms and chose their own occupations. There was no established social hierarchy and political duties were accompanied by rights even under the British colonial system. From this new social and political system came a sense of self-reliance and individualism that was not strong in the European peasant communities. The states of the Rhine region, including the Swiss cantons, each had an official church, usually Lutheran or Reformed (Calvinist). These two religious groups did not mix with one another, and the Lutheran and Reformed states generally did not tolerate Catholics, Anabaptists and other dissenters. On the American frontier, however, the various denominations learned to live and work together in a spirit of toleration and respect. The families represented here include Lutherans, Calvinist and Anabaptists (Mennonites) yet by the third generation in America there was considerable intermarriage between them and newer evangelical forms of the faith such Methodism began to appeal to many.

Excerpt of From the Rhine to the Shenandoah, by Daniel W. Bly, published by Gateway Press. It is reproduced here with the permission of the author.