A Shared Ger­man Ver­nac­u­lar

The Amer­i­can­ism, Pa Dutch, has al­ways in­di­cated a broader group of im­mi­grants in pre-Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion­ary pe­riod from Europe’s Rhine Val­ley

The Community Connection - - LOCAL NEWS - Richard L.T. Orth

This proper Amer­i­can­ism, Penn­syl­va­nia Dutch, has al­ways in­di­cated a broader group of im­mi­grants who came to Amer­ica in the pre-Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion­ary pe­riod from Europe’s Rhine Val­ley, which should be pre­ferred by all se­ri­ous schol­ars over the term Penn­syl­va­nia Ger­man or Ger­man-Amer­i­can, since the lat­ter of which are not Amer­i­can­isms. Hardly had Wil­liam Penn be­came the pro­pri­etor of the Bri­tish colony of Penn­syl­va­nia in the New World when Ger­man Protes­tants ac­cepted his in­vi­ta­tion, as early as 1683, to be­gin a Holy Chris­tian set­tle­ment by his “So­ci­ety of Friends,” known as Quak­ers. These Ger­man Quak­ers and Men­non­ites ar­rived in his “City of Broth­erly Love,” Philadel­phia, un­der their leader, Fran­cis Daniel Pas­to­ri­ous, and founded a sub­urb of Philadel­phia, known as Ger­man­town. This is where Christo­pher Sauer printed the first Ger­man Bi­ble in the Free World, and thus, Quak­ers and Men­non­ites were able to wor­ship God with­out be­ing forced to join a na­tional church or get any gov­ern­ment in­ter­fer­ence within Penn’s Com­mon­wealth. In time, Ger­man­town be­came the printing cen­ter for the PA Deitsch re­li­gious texts and doc­u­ments for the Penn­syl­va­nia Dutch Protes­tant re­li­gions, un­til the Ephrata Clois­ter’s press was be­gun. Shortly there­after, PA Ger­man print­ers were es­tab­lished in all the ma­jor cities of the PA Dutch Coun­try where the Chris­tian re­li­gion was fol­lowed. The lure of go­ing to Amer­ica where there was both free­dom of op­por­tu­nity and an abun­dance of farm­land and ma­te­rial re­sources war­ranted many Rhinelanders to sell them­selves into servi­tude just to pay off their ocean pas­sage by Colo­nial sea cap­tains.

These large num­bers of Ger­manic peas­ants, beg­ging for a new be­gin­ning, soon out­num­bered Wil­liam Penn’s English colonists to num­ber a third of the set­tlers in the early Com­mon­wealth of Penn­syl­va­nia. The fact that so many Con­ti­nen­tal Euro­peans shared a Ger­man ver­nac­u­lar, did not seem right for them to be given a Ger­man la­bel by Dr. Arthur D. Gra­eff, a very strong ad­vo­cate of the term, “Penn­syl­va­nia Ger­man” in the 1960s. Only could Penn­syl­va­nia Ger­man be proper when re­fer­ring to folk art, namely il­lu­mi­nated birth cer­tifi­cates of these peo­ple, since the ba­sic text used on these doc­u­ments was in Ger­man, writ­ten in an 18th Cen­tury script known as Frak­tur. But when talk­ing about the so­cial in­ter­ac­tion of the Penn­syl­va­nia Dutch cul­ture that evolved from 1683 to the present, among the sev­eral groups of Swiss Amish and Men­non­ites and French Huguenots, the ex­clu­sive use of the term “Ger­man” is not fair to these other as­sim­i­lated groups of vary­ing eth­nic­ity!

There can­not be any mis­take that the Ger­man dialect is still the tongue that binds all the Penn­syl­va­nia Dutch. But “Penn­syl­va­nia Ger­man” pro­po­nents of the past and present have been blinded to the melt­ing pot process, that through ac­cul­tur­a­tion, the Penn­syl­va­nia Dutch cul­ture is in and of it­self a unique Amer­i­can in­sti­tu­tion. As a more ur­ban Penn­syl­va­nia Dutch­man who grad­u­ated from col­lege, I was not ex­posed to the Penn­syl­va­nia Ger­man Dialect, and amused by old-timers whom I in­ter­viewed early on teased me. A small nar­row-minded group of Penn­syl­va­nia Dutch who did not be­lieve my pedi­gree, be­cause I could not “Sch­wetz Deitsh” (speak Dutch).

Al­ways ad­mir­ing the re­search and writ­ings of Doc­tors Shoe­maker, Yoder, Stoudt, Weyge­andt, Kauffman, Robacker, along with his­to­ri­ans and folk­lorists Frances Lichten, Fred­eric Klees, Robert Bucher, Richard Shaner, Al­liene DeChant, Florence and Rus­sell Baver, among nu­mer­ous oth­ers, I was cer­tainly knowl­edge­able of the cul­ture and its rich, near 350-year history.


Pa. Dutch were work­ing true-grit in­di­vid­u­als. Pic­tured is an old photo of farmer John Hoch of the Oley Val­ley. Photo taken in the early 1900s by Aman­dus Moyer.

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