German-Americans In The War For Independence, Part 1

David L. Valuska, PH.D.

This will be the first in a series dealing with the role that German Americans played in the War for Independence. Our first series will deal with identifying the Pennsylvania Germans and their influence on Pennsylvania and other colonies; such as Virginia, Maryland and North Carolina, in the period leading up to the break with Great Britain. Scholars estimate that between the years 1717 and 1775 German speaking people constituted more than 27 percent of all white arrivals to the thirteen colonies, and more than 80 percent of those Germans came by way of Philadelphia. Aaron Fogelman contends that between 1700 and 1775 there were nearly 308,000 white immigrants and 84,550 were German speaking people. This is a sizeable number when one considers the total population, excluding Indians but including Africans, was 2,780.000 people. What makes that number more meaningful is that the German speaking immigrants tended to concentrate in regional communities giving greater weight to their concentrated numbers, and in the process preserving their culture, language, and religious beliefs.

The German emigrants came primarily through the ports of Philadelphia, PA, New York City, Baltimore, MD, and Charleston, SC, with the majority settling in Pennsylvania. Many of the Germans coming through Philadelphia spread throughout the colony of Pennsylvania, primarily into the colonial counties of Philadelphia, Berks, Bucks, Northampton, Chester, Lancaster, York, Cumberland, Bedford and Northumberland as well into bordering colonies of Maryland, and the backcountry of Virginia and North Carolina. This whole area of migration is referred to by colonial historians as "Greater Pennsylvania". This Pennsylvania German diaspora soon caused the non German colonists to collectively refer to the German immigrants as the Pennsylvania Dutch regardless of their actual region of residence. The term Pennsylvania Dutch comes from the English bastardizing the German "Pennsilfannisch deitsch" meaning Pennsylvania German to the simpler English term Pennsylvania Dutch. These Pennsylvania Dutch immigrated from the German regions of the Rhine, Palatinate (Pfalz), Baden, Hessen, Darmstadt, Nassau, Hanau-Lichtenberg, Wuerttemberg, Alsace-Lorraine (France), Tyrol (Austria), Netherlands and several cantons of Switzerland.

The majority of Germans immigrating to the American colonies did so for economic and not religious reasons. Roughly 90% of the emigrants were "church folk" being either Lutheran or German Reformed(now United Church of Christ) and had not suffered any significant religious persecution in their native land. In contrast to the church folk were the sect groups such as the: Amish, Mennonites, Schwenkfelders, and Brethren. These sect groups did suffer from religious persecution which was the cause of many immigrating to America. The Moravians must be included in this discussion, but their sense of mission, community and governance set them apart from the other German groups. Many Moravians did not feel a part of the German movement, and saw themselves separate from the larger group.

Religious affiliation was a critical part of any group's cultural identity, and acted as a magnet for other German immigrants seeking communities that shared their religious beliefs. One historian noted that religion... accentuated their group consciousness to such a degree that their religion became an ethnic as well as a spiritual refuge... Identifying one's religious persuasion is extremely helpful in determining whether they played an active or passive role in supporting the American cause. It is helpful to remember that the pacifistic sect groups (Amish and Mennonites) constituted less than 10% of the total numbers of the Pennsylvania Dutch. One peculiar fact is today many people think of the Pennsylvania Dutch as only being Mennonite or Amish, ignoring the majority Lutherans and Reformed.

Significantly, the Pennsylvania Germans living in distinct communities with their own unique language, culture and religions beliefs did not openly embrace the ideas of personal liberty and individual worth as did their English counterparts. To many Pennsylvania Dutch church leaders the Revolution had to be supported as it represented "a new order of the ages" and a repudiation of the "Old World", but it was in a conservative context! The Germans would accept ideas of personal liberty within the framework of their church, culture and community. These restrictions would modify some of their exuberance, but in the long run it would not dampen their ardor for independence. The majority of Pennsylvania Dutch supported the American cause, and supported that cause within the conservative parameters of their religious communities.

In future articles we will deal with other Pennsylvania Dutch topics, including military actions of the Revolution and the units that were strongly identified with the Pennsylvania Germans (i.e.) early Rifle Companies from PA, VA and MD, German Regiment, von Heers Provost Corps, and Armand's and Pulaski's Legions. We will discuss German leaders such as Muhlenberg, von Steuben, Haussegger or von Ottendorf to name a few. We will investigate the German Auxiliaries (Hessians) and their role in the war. In addition the role of women, camp followers and women at war will be explored.

Copyright © 2006 David L. Valuska. All rights reserved.