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The True Story of the "Pennsylvania Dutch", Part 1: The People

Updated: Mar 27, 2023

Dutch Haven in Lancaster County, PA - An example of clever marketing or exploitation?

When the vast majority of people hear the term "Pennsylvania Dutch", they typically conjure images of Amish persons riding in horse-drawn buggies. However, that is primarily the result of the Lancaster County board of tourism, who began promoting that notion, and still does. Their website proclaims: "Welcome to Lancaster County, PA, home of the PA Dutch" and touts it as being "Dutch Country". But that is not the whole story, which is a more sweeping tale with a wider focus than merely one Pennsylvania County and one religious community.

The Pennsylvania Dutch are the descendants of approximately 80,000 people who emigrated from areas of present-day Germany and Switzerland, primarily between 1683 and 1775. Scholars use the terms Pennsylvania Dutch and Pennsylvania German interchangeably to describe these people, their language and culture.

From a Berks History Center publication

Originally, less than 10% of the Pennsylvania Dutch were sectarians (Amish, Mennonite, Moravian, etc.) who left Europe in search of religious freedom. The vast majority were affiliated with Lutheran and German Reformed congregations and came to Pennsylvania in search of economic opportunity.

These two groups, the "Fancy Dutch" people were mostly of Lutheran and Reformed church congregations (non-sectarians), as well as Roman Catholics. They were therefore often called "Church Dutch" or "Church people," as distinguished from so-called sectarians (Anabaptist Plain people), along the lines of a high church/low church distinction.

They lived primarily in the Delaware Valley and in what is considered "Pennsylvania Dutch Country", a large area that includes South Central Pennsylvania, in the area stretching in an arc from Bethlehem and Allentown in the Lehigh Valley westward through Reading, Lebanon, and Lancaster to York and Chambersburg.

From the same Berks History Center publication as above.

The Pennsylvania Dutch had been the first outspoken community against slavery, beginning with the community of Germantown and its founder Francis Daniel Pastorius, who organized antislavery protests in 1688. Pastorius and citizens of Germantown criticized the racial lines of slavery and expounded that slavery was wrong no matter what descent or color people were.

More than half of all Palatine refugees who came to Pennsylvania were purchased on lengthy indentured servitude contracts by colonial New Englanders. These indentured servants, known as redemptioners, were made to work on plantations. Palatine redemptioners had a high death rate, and many didn't live long enough to see the end of their contract. It is no surprise that the Pennsylvania Dutch had a strong dislike for New England, and to them the term "Yankee" became synonymous with "a cheat."

The Pennsylvania Dutch composed nearly half of the population of the Province of Pennsylvania. The Fancy Dutch population generally supported the Patriot cause in the American Revolution; the nonviolent Plain Dutch minority did not fight in the war.

Pennsylvania Dutch were recruited for the American Provost Corps under Captain Bartholomew von Heer, a Prussian who had served in a similar unit in Europe before immigrating to Reading, Pennsylvania prior to the war. During the American Revolution, the Marechausee Corps were utilized in a variety of ways, including intelligence gathering, route security, enemy prisoner of war operations, and even combat during the Battle of Springfield. The Marechausee also provided security for Washington's headquarters during the Battle of Yorktown, acted as his security detail, and was one of the last units deactivated after the Revolutionary War. The Marechaussee Corps was often not well received by the Continental Army, due in part to their defined duties but also due to the fact that some members of the corps spoke little or no English. Six of the provosts had even been Hessian prisoners of war prior to their recruitment. Because the provost corps completed many of the same functions as the modern U.S. Military Police Corps, it is considered a predecessor of the current United States Military Police Regiment.

During the Civil War, nearly all of the regiments from Pennsylvania had German-speaking or Pennsylvania Dutch-speaking members on their rosters. Only a few of the Plain Dutch, Amish & Mennonites, enlisted, but the vast majority refused to fight in the war. Almost all Pennsylvania Dutch soldiers who enlisted were Fancy Dutch.

Pennsylvania Dutch companies sometimes mixed with English companies (The Pennsylvania Dutch had the habit of labeling anyone who did not speak Pennsylvania Dutch as "English"). Many of the Pennsylvania Dutch soldiers who fought in the Civil War were recruited and trained at Camp Curtin located at Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania Dutch regiments composed a large portion of the Federal Forces who fought in the Battle of Gettysburg, the bloodiest battle of the Civil War.

As for why they are called "Pennsylvania Dutch", it is believed that the term goes back to the original English use of the word "Dutch." Although there is no definitive evidence that links it to the term Pennsylvania Dutch, it is true that in the English of the 18th and 19th centuries, the word "Dutch" was a broader term that referred to anyone from a wide range of Germanic regions, places that we now distinguish as the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Austria, and Switzerland.

During World War II, a platoon of Pennsylvania Dutch soldiers on patrol in Germany was once spared from being machine-gunned by Nazi soldiers who listened to them approaching. The Germans heard them speaking Pennsylvania Dutch amongst each other and assumed that they were natives of the Palatinate.

It is also easy to forget that Germany (Deutschland) did not exist as a single nation state until 1871. Prior to that time, Germany was more like a quilt-work of duchies, kingdoms, and states where various German dialects were spoken. The settlers of the Pennsylvania German region came from the Rhineland, Switzerland, Tyrol, and various other regions beginning in 1689. The Amish, Hutterites, and Mennonites now located in the eastern counties of Pennsylvania and elsewhere in North America did not really come from "Germany" in the modern sense of the word, so it is not entirely accurate to refer to them as "German" either.

Since "Dutch" no longer means what it did in the 1700s and is very misleading and has caused confusion in recent times, as the word "Dutch" has evolved to associate mainly with people from the Netherlands. It is actually more appropriate and accurate to replace it with "German." So next time you hear "Pennsylvania Dutch", remember that the term refers more to just Amish in horse-drawn buggies; they might just be your ancestors.


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