The Valley's Palatine Pioneers

by Don Silvius

An understanding of who the Palatines were must begin with where they came from and why they left. The Rhineland Palatinate is located along the middle Rhine River in Germany. In the 13th century, when the German monarchy declined and the governing rights reverted to local dukes or bishops, the local count palatinate kept his title to pass on to his descendants. The Rhineland Palatinate was on both sides of the Rhine River with its capital at Heidelberg.

Previously an entirely catholic region, the Palatinate accepted Calvinism during the 1560's. In the next century, the Thirty Years War resulted in the Palatinate becoming a spoil to be fought over by other states. Under Louis XIV, France ravaged the Palatinate, resulting in the War of the Grand Alliance or the War of the League of Augsburg, which lasted from 1688-1697.

The inhabitants of the Rhineland Palatinate, the "Palatines", were heavily taxed and forced to endure religious persecution from the French. In 1677, William Penn had visited the Palatinate to encourage people to go to Pennsylvania in America. It was a place where a family could escape just the kind of persecution they were enduring. In the early 1700's many of the older Palatinates who remembered Penn's visit retold of his promise of freedom from persecution.

Since any migration noticed by the German Elector would be stopped, a mass exodus was the only way to escape the government's oppression. Going to America meant a long ocean voyage to an unknown land, far away from their families. Many of the Palatines wondered how they could finance such a journey. Small boats, or scows, would be required for the trip down the Rhine River, after which the price had to be paid for the ocean voyage. Despite the impending perils, by April of 1709, the first Palatines were afloat on the Rhine, many with only their most basic possessions and their faith in God. It took an average of 3-6 weeks to travel the length of the Rhine River, often in cold, bitter weather. The Elector, as expected, forbade the migration, but his edict went unheeded.

By June, 1,000 Palatines arrived in the city of Rotterdam each week. By October, more than 10,000 Palatines had made the journey down the Rhine River. Queen Anne of England assigned the Duke of Marlborough to transport the immigrants to England, often on British troop ships. This English sponsored assistance to the Palatines had its motives. These Protestant Germans were wanted in the American colonies to counter the number of Catholics there.

In a statement published in London in 1709, the Palatines told of their plight upon their first arrival there.

"We the poor distressed Palatines, whose utter Ruin was occasioned by the merciless Cruelty of a Blood Enemy, the French, whose prevailing Power some years past, like a Torrent rushed into our Country, and overwhelmed us at once; and being not content with Money and Food necessary for their Occasions, not only dispossest us of all Support but inhumanely burnt our House to the ground, where being deprived of all Shelter, we were turned into open Fields, and there drove with our Families, to seek what Shelter we could find, being obliged to make the cold Earth our Lodgings, and the Clouds our Covering."

This was a pretty harsh statement of the treatment of the Palatines by their French conquerors.

When the refugees arrived in England they were sent to one of three camps outside the city of London. Some Londoners welcomed the Palatines, but the poor felt their English food was being taken from them to feed the Germans. The English newspapers both praised and cursed the Palatines. The English government sent over 3,000 Palatines to Ireland to reinforce the Protestant faith. Some of these Irish Palatines later immigrated to New York in the mid-1700's.

Officials along the Palatines' route to America held them up many times for various charges and fees. Before boarding the ships, they were forced to sign contracts which, of course, were in English. Since many could not read German, let alone read English, they were told that they would be required to a time of servitude after reaching their destination. In fact, however, the contract stated that they were to pay a certain amount of money at their point of disembarkation. If a man or woman died on board the ship, the spouse was responsible to pay their fee. If both parents died on board, the children were obligated to pay for their parents' passage.

Despite the miserable conditions, most of the Palatines braved the ocean voyage to America. The ships were under-supplied, overcrowded and unclean. The provisions were, for the most part, the least expensive available to the ship's captain. In addition to starvation and disease, the Palatines faced robbery, deception and even worse from those who transported them to America. As could be expected, many of the refugees did not survive the ocean voyage. It is estimated that during one year, over 2,000 died en route to America. However, best estimates place 10,000-15,000 Palatines in America by 1727, and 70,000-80,000 by 1750.

When a ship carrying Palatines reached its destination, those who could pay their fees were allowed to leave the ship immediately. Those who were healthy and could not pay the fees were kept on the ship until someone would buy the bond for the full amount of money owed. The bonds were bought only after the prospective buyer came onboard the ship and examined the person for whom the bond was owed, much like buying slaves. Once all the healthy people were sold at full price, the sick were auctioned off for whatever price could be gotten. In addition to these trials, the port of New York charged its own disembarkation fees.

The usual amount of time that a Palatine "redemptioner" spent in bond was four years, but the time varied. Many children were orphaned or separated from their families and had to serve until they were 21. Some bondholders kept the immigrants until their bond was paid off in full, even charging them for such things as room and board.

Once the Palatine emigrants established themselves in the colonies, they started helping out other emigrants. They monitored the schedules of ship arrivals, and often met the ships which were due to have Palatines on board. Many were able to pay for the passage of relatives and literally buy them out of slavery.

Pennsylvania, Virginia and New York were the major destinations of the Palatines. Washington County, Maryland, between central Pennsylvania and the northernmost Shenandoah Valley, was discovered by Palatines who traveled back and forth between Pennsylvania and Virginia. The Palatines were attracted to this area for its rich farmland and many streams to power mills for grinding flour as well as its similarity to their homeland.

So who were the Palatines? They were Protestant Germans, for the most part from the Rhine River region, who left Germany under the persecution of the French in the early to mid-1700's. They came to America by way of England, where they were taken advantage of at every opportunity along the way, and again when they arrived at ports in America such as New York and Philadelphia. Many of these Palatines, such as my Silvius ancestors, migrated south to the rich and fertile Shenandoah Valley from Pennsylvania.

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Originally published at An Appalachian Country Rag November 21 1997
Created March 29 2001
Updated April 14 2006
© 1997 - 2006, Don Silvius