Why Germans Came to Philadelphia


by Susan Bockius

West Mt. Airy:  Yesterday and Today

May, 2014 (Article 16)


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 It gives me great pleasure to introduce to you Susan Bockius, the author of this month’s Yesterday and Today column essay, entitled, Why Germans Came to Pennsylvania. Susan is a Mt. Airy native. Her ancestors settled in Germantown in 1741!  Susan has been writing most of her adult life, with numerous published articles on topics like contemporary French stained glass and commissioned studies on topics such as risk management and military intelligence.  Recently retired, she has turned her research efforts to understanding the world of her 17th and 18th century forebears. I have known Susan for many years. I believe that you will find her writing interesting, and a doorway into our neighborhood’s past. Burt Froom 



The wave of German-speaking settlers to Pennsylvania was large, a phenomenon that periodically alarmed both the colony and their countries of origin.  By the time of the American Revolution, it is estimated that German-speakers constituted one-third of the 160,000 to 190,000 people in Pennsylvania. By 1727, the colony had instituted recordkeeping of immigrants, to which was added an oath of allegiance, in large part because of the large number of non-English-speaking immigrants.


On the other side of the ocean, Germany and Switzerland at various times restricted emigration, as their countries seemed to be “emptying out” to foreign shores. A future article on one family’s history will cite an instance of these restrictive actions.


We can discuss the German immigration as having both “push” and “pull” elements.  Motivating Germans to come to the new land, or the “push,” were years of grueling warfare involving their towns and farmlands. These wars were called, successively, the Thirty Years’ War, the Nine Years’ War, and the War of the Spanish Succession.


An earlier article in this series, “New Sweden on the Delaware,” October 2013, introduced the Thirty Years’ War:


[The Thirty Years’ War] killed an estimated seven to eleven million people in Germany and Austria¬ at least one-third of Germany’s population of 22 million in 1600.  Marauding armies stole food from the peasants, and destroyed villages and cities. There was wide-spread starvation… People became homeless refugees… [The Thirty Years’ War partly explains the existence of Germantown, Pennsylvania as a refuge from war and disease.]


Berthold Brecht made the Thirty Years War the setting for his play Mother Courage and Her Children. In his play, Brecht dramatizes an enduring testament to war’s barbarism and its deprivation of the common people.  It was common people like these who were willing to endure the hardships of relocation to half a world away in order to escape what seemed endless warfare.


The “pull” would have been William Penn’s outreach in Holland and in the Rhineland Palatinate.  Penn “marketed” his new land, its agricultural abundance, its tolerance of religious difference, and his political vision of a “Holy Experiment,” with his personal visits, agents, and descriptive tracts in the language of his audiences.



The Holy Roman Empire, an entity underpinned by the Roman Catholic Church, governed central Europe from the Middle Ages to Napoleon’s conquests. The Empire was ruled by an elected monarch (sometimes also anointed by the pope), selected from among seven elector princes, who represented both worldly and spiritual domains. The seven electors were the Archbishops of Mainz, Trier, and Cologne, the King of Bohemia, the Count Palatine of the Rhine, the Duke of Saxony, and the Margrave of Brandenburg. This was often a contentious governing body. And, as religious differences rose with the Reformation, politics were further complicated by religious differences.


In 1517, the monk Martin Luther (1483-1546) posted his 95 Theses on the church door in Wittenberg, beginning the Protestant Reformation.  The Reformation shifted from a purely religious matter into the political sphere with the establishment of the Schmalkaldic League in 1531. This was a defensive union against the Holy Roman Emperor supported by Lutheran rulers and the Palatinate. The Protestant alliance was challenged by the forces of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Periodic warfare between these combatants from 1546 to 1555 finally ended with the Peace of Augsburg, which accepted Lutheranism within the Holy Roman Empire (but not other Protestant faiths) and allowed princes to choose the official religion of their regions.



Palatinate is a term for the lands in southwestern Germany around portions of the middle and lower Rhine River governed by one of the secular princes of the Holy Roman Empire. The term Palatine has an historic imperial reference that, in the context of the Electors, meant something like “Chamberlain to the Holy Roman Emperor.” The time period of this article’s focus begins with the first Calvinist Palatine Elector in 1559 and ends with toleration in Palatinate lands in 1742.


So profuse were the numbers of immigrants to America from the Palatinate that all Germans who came here in the early 1700s were called Palatines.  The conditions in their homeland were so well known that the phrase “Poor Palatines” came into use (as a term of pity, not of penury).


The rulers of the Rhineland Palatinate were distinguished by their early and staunch adherence to Calvinism. (The Calvinist or Reformed tradition is a major branch of Protestantism that follows the theological tradition and worship practices of John Calvin (1509-1564).  Calvin preached and wrote in Geneva.)  The Calvinist line of electors began with Frederick III (ruled, 1559-1576). He was called Frederick the Pious or the Good, for the justice and kindness with which he administered his people.


A surviving story of this ruler touches my family. One Oliverius Bockius was a teacher at the University of Heidelberg. In 1564, Oliverius traveled to the Netherlands to visit an associate.  Both the associate and he were arrested during a religious purge. Elector Frederick intervened and Oliverius was allowed to return to his Heidelberg post. The memory of this Calvinist ruler persists. The stained glass window shown here, created in 1907, pictures Frederick III.


 Palatinate Elector Frederick III. Pictured in a stained glass window created in 1907, in the Reformed Church, Appenheim, Germany.  Photo by the author.


Frederick’s Calvinist heirs continued with his son Ludwig V (ruled 1576 to 1583) and Frederick IV (ruled 1583 to1610).



An earlier article in this series introduced the Thirty Years’ War and how it influenced Sweden’s establishment of a colony in the new world.  Here, we review how that war affected the Palatinate.


The next in the succession of Palatine Electors was the Calvinist Frederick V, who ruled from 1610 to1623.  Frederick was sought by Bohemia to be its Protestant king, and he accepted in 1619. The Catholic League opposed his election, and their forces easily defeated the Protestants in 1620. From his brief reign, Frederick has been called the “Winter King.”  Frederick fled Bohemia. His undefended Palatinate lands were ravaged by the Catholic forces, then declared forfeit. The Catholic Maximilian I of Bavaria took over Frederick’s Palatinate lands in 1623 and continued his rule until 1648.


In 1630, Gustavus Adolphus, King of Sweden, entered the Thirty Years’ War to bolster the Protestant cause.  He invaded Germany and recaptured Palatine lands, while allied with France.


The Peace of Westphalia concluded the Thirty Years’ War in 1648. Everybody got something:  Sweden and France gained land, and the Dutch Republic and Switzerland were recognized as independent states. The Calvinists were accepted, along with Lutherans and Catholics. Many areas remained relatively integrated political regions, but the central swath of Germany was further subdivided. The area in and around the Palatinate was among the most complex.


Map of Central Europe following the Peace of Westphalia, 1648 (click to zoom in)


Following the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, the Protestant line of succession in the Palatinate resumed.  Charles I Louis (ruled1649-1679) spent his reign replenishing his territories. His heir and namesake, Charles II, ruled briefly (1680-1685), and was followed by Charles’ cousin, Phillip William (1690-1695), a Catholic.  The return of a Catholic Palatine elector, coupled with the marriage of Charles II’s sister to the Duke of Orleans, supported French King Louis XIV’s aspirations to gain territory in the Palatinate.



Beginning in 1670, King Louis XIV began investigating the borders of his French territory.  Often his agents for this investigation concluded that treaties or other settlements had intended that small portions of land should belong to France.


This “Reunions” policy grew into a full-blown offensive in 1688 when the armies of Louis XIV crossed the Rhine.  The German Princes, the Holy Roman Emperor, and other European powers opposed him in the Nine Years’ War (1688-1697).   In short order, Louis controlled Trier, Mannheim, Worms, Heidelberg, Speyer, and the fortress of Mainz.  The Germans mustered a formidable opposition and the French scorched-earth retreat from the Rhineland resulted in the torching of twenty major towns and numerous German villages. In 1689, the Germans positioned three armies along the Rhine and took back what had been lost. But it was a hollow victory, because their lands having been scourged in both the coming and the going.


By 1693, the combatants were in economic and social crisis: The stress of war had brought economic hardship and widespread starvation, as harvests failed and famine spread widely. In France and northern Italy, some two million people died of non-military causes. Starvation and displacement invited disease: the bubonic plague visited again, as did typhus and scurvy.


The Seventeenth Century in Europe was also a distinctive climatic period, called by recent researchers “The Little Ice Age.”  Geoffrey Parker writes in The New York Times of March 23, 2014:


During the 17th century, longer winters and cooler summers disrupted growing seasons and destroyed harvests across Europe. It was the coldest century in a period of glacial expansion from the early 14th century until the mid-19th century. The unusual cold that lasted from the 1620s until the 1690s included ice on both the Bosporus and the Baltic so thick that people could walk from one side to the other… The fatal synergy between human and natural disasters eradicated perhaps one-third of the human population.


In general exhaustion by 1696, both sides were eager for a negotiated settlement. The resulting Treaty of Ryswick of 1697 granted Louis his desired Alsace, but removed him from Lorraine and the right side of the Rhine.



Charles II of Spain (1661-1700), the last king of the Spanish Hapsburg dynasty, chose the grandson of Louis XIV to assume the Spanish throne, titled as Philip V.  The other European powers opposed this potential union of French and Spanish interests.  The Holy Roman Empire, Great Britain, the Dutch Republic, Portugal and Savoy determined to secure the Spanish throne for a candidate who would keep France and Spain divided.


Though not a contender in the struggle, the Palatinate was the ground on which portions of the War of the Spanish Succession were fought. The French forces marched through the Palatinate to join their Bavarian allies. The opposing British and Dutch confronted and defeated them in the Palatinate in 1704. The field of war shifted away from the Palatine lands, and in 1713 the Treaty of Utrecht recognized Philip V of Spain, with his concurrence to renounce his place in the French succession.



Meanwhile, in 1690, John William was named the successor to Palatine Elector Phillip. He governed until 1716. His significant gift was to declare religious toleration throughout his lands in 1705. The lands maintained this policy of toleration, even though the next elector, Charles III Philip (ruled 1716-1742), was a Catholic.



The years 1559-1742 in the Palatinate saw the official religion change five times, bringing insecurity and often confiscation of property, imprisonment, and death.  In the same six generations, the Palatine lands experienced three wars and seven campaigns with devastating effect on towns and villages. An American parallel would be to have our Civil War, which lasted four years and killed 750,000 people, repeated 40 times. That the “poor Palatines” had the spirit and determination to plan a life in a new land was an act of courage. “Poor Palatines”—Brave Palatines! In a later article, we will look at how one family of Palatine immigrants fared in Germantown.


Cramer, S. and F. Piper, Bibliotheca Reformatoria Neerlandica. Vol. 8. The Hague: Nijhoff, 1903-1914.

Diffenderfer, Frank Ried. The German Immigration into Pennsylvania through the Port of Philadelphia, 1700-1755. Genealogical Publishing, 1988.

Immigration Trends are Divided Into Three General Periods. n.d. <www.sacred-texts.com/ame/elpg/elpg02.htm>.

Nine Years’ War. n.d. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nine_Years%27_War#Rhineland_and_the_Empire>.

Parker, Geoffrey. “Lessons From the Little Ice Age.” The New York Times (2014).

Schmalkaldic League. n.d. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schmalkaldic_League>.

The Quaker Province: 1681-1776. n.d. <www.portal.state.pa.us/portal/server.pt/community/overview_of_pennsylvania_history/4281/1681-1776__the_quaker_province/478727>.


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