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The Palatine Germans

The Germans that would eventually settle the Mohawk Valley came from the Rhine Valley River region known as the "Palatinate." The name arose from the Roman word "Palatine," the title given to the ruling family of the area when it was part of the Holy Roman Empire. With the outbreak of the Thirty Years War in 1618, came 96 years of sporadic fighting and wars that would leave the Palatinate destroyed. This forced thousands of Germans to flee their homeland, and helped lead to the creation of the United States.

In 1623, Spanish and Bavarian troops overran the area and put as much as 50 percent of the population to death. In 1688, the French invasion of the Palatinate brought about the War of Grand Alliance. Finally forced to withdraw, the French laid waste to the area as they retreated. 1701 brought the War of Spanish Succession, and the French once again invaded the area and repeated their acts of destruction.

By 1708, the combination of continuous warfare, and a severe winter that led to the collapse of the agricultural base led many Germans to accept the fact that they would have to leave the Palatinate in order to survive. As early as 1677, William Penn toured the area, looking for people to colonize his new American colony. A Lutheran Minister named Joshua Kocherthal made a trip to England in 1706 to learn more about the American Colonies. He returned with enticing tales of the opportunities settling in America could offer.

In 1708, Rev. Kocherthal and several Palatine families visited England to enlist English aid in moving to America. A personal petition to Queen Anne resulted in her ordering that the Palatines be made: "denizens (members) of the Kingdom without charge." This was not simply an act of charity. The English had decided to use the Protestant Palatines to bolster anti-Catholic feelings growing in England and Ireland. It was also decided that the Palatine could be useful in settling the frontiers of the Colony of New York and in producing naval stores (lumber, hemp, tar, etc.). In October of 1708, Rev. Kocherthal and 55 Palatines sailed for New York City.

By the beginning of 1709, the first Palatine settlement in New York had been established near present day Newburgh. As promising as this start was, things quickly turned sour for the German immigrants that were to follow. Because of the initial British sympathies towards the Palatines, by mid-summer of 1709 over 13,000 Palatines had moved to England, where they were quartered in tents, or crammed into barns and warehouses around London, while the London Board of trade pondered how to deal with the problem. It was finally decided to ship many of the Palatines to the Colony of New York and use them as a labor force once again.

In April of 1710, 3,000 Palatines sailed for New York; 400 died at sea and 200 died shortly after reaching land. Initial land for the Palatines was purchased from Robert Livingston's Manor holdings in the lower Hudson Valley. The Palatines were treated poorly by Livingston and the English authorities; and by 1712, the pitch making project that the English had engaged them in ended in failure. The Palatines were left destitute of the basic necessities of life.

While visiting London in 1710, a Six Nations chief was so moved by the plight of the Palatines that he made a gift to Queen Anne of land along the Scholar River for use by them. In autumn of 1712, 50 Palatine families from Livingston's estate decided to move to this land. In March 1713, 100 more families arrived. After two years of intensive labor, the Palatine settlements in the area began to prosper. They soon learned however, that the royal governor of New York had sold the land that they occupied to speculators. The governor was hoping to drive Palatines further west, or force them to return to work producing naval stores in the camps along the Hudson River. The Palatines took their plea to the English courts, but by 1723 their case had been defeated. The Germans would now have only two choices: pay rent to the land owners, or leave. About 300 decided to stay and pay rent. Many others were sick of their ill treatment in New York and headed for Pennsylvania. Others looked to the frontiers of the Mohawk River Valley.

In 1721, a new royal governor arrived in New York, and was immediately contacted by Palatine leaders seeking to settle lands in the Mohawk Valley area. The governor allowed several families to purchase land from the Mohawk Indians noting that: "These will be a barrier against sudden incursions (attacks) of the French..." and in 1722, around 60 Palatine families from the Schoharie Valley began their final exodus to the Mohawk. Over the next few years, more Palatine families would follow, leading to the purchase of more lands along the Mohawk River in 1723 and 1725.

These early families and their descendents changed the Mohawk Valley from a frontier area into one of the most productive and admired areas in New York. This did not come without a price however. During the French and Indian War, the role the English had forced on the Palatines (as a buffer from the French and their Indian allies in case of invasion). In the fall of 1757, the English abandoned the Oneida Carry, which allowed the French to sweep down upon and destroy German Flatts (modern Herkimer). A second invasion by the French in 1758 was narrowly avoided.

In between the French and Indian and the American Revolutionary Wars, many Palatine families engaged in land purchases and trade with the Six Nations Indians, in many cases cheating the Indians in much the same way the Palatines had been cheated by the English. These dealings, along with memories of injustice at the hands of the English, would create animosities between the Indians, the English, and the Palatines, and fuel the civil war aspects of the Revolution in the Mohawk Valley. By the end of the war, most of the Palatines' prosperous homes and villages were destroyed, and hardly a family remained that had not lost at least one man, woman, or child.

In the end however, the Palatines would persevere as they had in the past, rebuild their homes and settlements, and help create the new United States. One has only to travel the Mohawk Valley today to view their legacy. It survives in the town names, the historic sites, and the descendants of those first Palatine settlers.
Line drawing of NY rivers with names of Palatine families written across it.
Map of Palatine settlements across New York Colony.
Sources:
Foote, Alan D. Liberty March: The Battle of Oriskany. North Country Books Inc.: Utica, NY. 1998