The Pennsylvania Germans
"Pennsylvania Dutch"

Since I know that this topic can be controversial I want to say first that I speak only of what I know about my own families.   Anyone who knows something different about theirs will not get any argument from me.

These are the people who are often referred to as "Pennsylvania Dutch" but I have come to resist this term because I think it is often confusing and misleading.  The people I am talking about were ethnic Germans who came to Pennsylvania, in the case of my own families, mostly between about 1730 and 1760.  They were not Dutch in the modern sense of Holland Dutch; they were Germans, that is, they spoke one variant or another of High German, even those (a lot of them in my case) who came from Switzerland, or from Alsace which is now in France.

It is often said that the term "Pennsylvania Dutch" is a result of English-speakers' mispronunciation of the German word "Deutsch", and I imagine that is part of it.  Another part may be that a large majority of them, originating from all of the above places, came on ships which left from the port of Rotterdam, at the mouth of the Rhine, which is indeed in Holland.

At the time, the term "Germans" seems not to have been used, perhaps for the excellent reason that the country Germany did not then exist, and I suspect the concept did not really exist either.   On the lists of passengers submitted by the ship's captains to the authorities in Philadelphia, when they were not just referred to as "Foreigners", the most common term used was "Pfaltzers", meaning from the Pfalz, the Palatinate, in what is now the modern German state of Rhineland-Pfalz.   And the earliest ones, and many others over the years, were indeed from there.

This term became somewhat general as a description among ship captains, even though many of the passengers, especially as time went on, were not in fact from the Pfalz.  But "Pfalzers" is not a term that rolls trippingly off the English-speaking tongue.  It could have been translated, they could have been called Palatines, and in fact sometimes they were, but somehow, one way and another they came to be called "Dutch" by the majority of the English-speakers among whom they found themselves.

And as time went on, they came to call themselves that, and many of their descendants still do.  There is nothing wrong with the term "Pennsylvania Dutch" but I feel it is important to understand what it actually means.

Family Stories
Anyone who has worked on genealogy for a while knows that some of the stories passed down in a family are true and many of them are not.   One needs to keep one's saltshaker handy.  I have also been finding that some are garbled but sort of true, in unexpected ways.

The Frank family story I got from my father was all about William Penn inviting the Germans, and their being from the Rhine area including Alsace, and being mainly German but partly French, this last idea being also related to the idea that "Frank" means "French" in German.  My father did not know German.   I do, some, and I see where he or someone got that idea but in fact it is not the same root as that in "Französisch".   Never mind; I have recently read that it is a statistical fact that I, and everyone else of European ancestry, am descended from Charlemagne, the King of the Franks.   Though I have been admonished by a German not to call him by that Frenchified name; the Germans call him Karl der Grosse.  Maybe I am descended a bit more closely than most, but I refuse to worry about or get involved in such things.  I personally think genealogy before about 1500 tends to be based more on hope than anything else; there just aren't enough reliable records earlier than that.  But I digress.

It is of course true that William Penn invited the Germans, the Palatines to be exact.  However it did not take me long to find out that my Franks were not from the Palatinate or Alsace or even very near the Rhine but from Baden; they and several of my closely connected families were from the valley of the Neckar (examples are Bischoff, Eberman, Eichholtz) an eastern tributary of the Rhine.  There is nothing French, or even Alsatian, about them.   So I figured, another family story that is just not true, cross it off.

But then I started working on the female lines of the Frank family, and lo and behold, a number of them were indeed from the Pfalz (Kuntz, for example) and even more from Alsace (Ensminger, Wolfersberger).   I am developing a theory about this - that many family stories are mostly passed from mothers to children, but they get garbled because the child assumes it is his name family that is referred to when in fact it is his mother's ancestors.

I hasten to add that there are a number of my Pennsylvania German families whose exact geographical origins I do not yet know; it will be interesting to see if this theory is further confirmed or contradicted when (if) I find out.

In addition there are several that I already know do not fit either theory; they are from German-speaking areas of Switzerland (Lupfer, Heffelfinger).


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