The Great Palatine Migration

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Table of Contents

I. Introduction

In the early days of the settlement of the English colonies, Some of the major destinations of the English and European Protestants were Pennsylvania, New York and Virginia. The Germans especially were developing colonies in these areas, and those colonies have their counterparts even today. Washington County, Maryland was essentially discovered by German colonists traveling between Pennsylvania and Virginia. Washington County has rich farm land, and streams to power mills for grinding flour. It is no surprise that the German farmers were attracted to this area. To understand the people who settled here and became the "Maryland Dutch", we have to go back to their origins in the old country, and become familiar with the forces which drove them out of their original homes. In 1776 Washington County was formed from Frederick County, Maryland. For a brief over-view of Early Frederick County history, see: Frederick County.

II. The Source of the Migration

A. The Palatinate

The Palatinate was situated west of the Rhine and north of the French (Alsatian) border. Before 1800, it used to include large areas east of the Rhine, including Mannheim and Heidelberg. Those of us today trying to find the Palatinate of the 1700s on maps, and drying to understand what was meant by the terms German, Deutch, and Palatine or Palatinate on colonial records, usually end up confused and frustrated. There is a reason for that. The historic Pfalz always did have rather vague boundaries and once consisted of 44 different countries. contains links to maps where you may find both Baden and Wuerttemberg in the late 18th century. (Note: The original link included here is no longer available.) The Baden map at the orginal link included the Palatine territories east of the Rhine. In the northern and western parts of the Palatinate the terrain is mostly gently rolling hills, and it is valuable farming land. To the east there is the Rhine valley (very fertile land), and to the south you have the large Palatine Forest, with only small agricultural spots around the villages. The Palatinate is now called Pfalz. The present state of Rheinland-Pfalz consists of the Palatinate, parts of the former Prussian Rhine province (Rhineland), plus some smaller territories including Hohenzollern. The slope of the Palatine Forest (Pfaelzer Wald) is one of the biggest wine-producing areas in Germany. There is a new bilingual book which has recently been reviewed in the Palatine Immigrant which goes into great detail on the Palatine migration and conditions that led up to it. I haven't seen this book yet, but it is recommended by the editor of the Palatine Immigrant, Dr. John Terence Golden, 2609 Summit St., Columbus OH 43202-2432, who was kind enough to review this page for me.

B. Elsass

Elsass, was another area from which came a large number of people who were involved in the migration with the Palatines. Elsass was in essence, the upper Rhine River Valley and a good part of the Vosges Mountains in what is now France. The Vosges mountains were the western border and on the South was the Swiss Alps. The Rhine was the eastern border. This land has been claimed and fought over by both France and Germany for centuries.

III. The Times

A. Liberal Thought

1. Scientific Humanism

Europe and Great Britain in the 1500's were going through a number of changes. Worldly knowledge was growing, and a philosophy of Scientific Humanism was developing and spreading. Scientific Humanism taught that the workings of the universe were controlled by natural processes and laws which could be understood and even controlled by man. This philosophy also taught that the human body worked very much like a machine, and that the processes of the body could also be understood and controlled by man. The Catholic Church felt that it was being challenged in some of its basic beliefs by the Humanists. At the same time, the Catholic Church itself was becoming more worldly and more corrupt, and the Protestant movement was growing in strength. I know there were many devout Catholics, and many good church leaders during this time, but politicians and others in power abused their connections with the churches to further their own goals, and many church leaders allowed this abuse of power, not to mention the issues addressed by the Articles which Martin Luther posted on the door of the famous cathedral.

2. Fashion

As at any other time when liberal thoughts and beliefs are in vogue, the spirit of the times even affected the mode of dress. Hemlines were edging up, and tunics were getting shorter. No, not on the women……..on the men! By the time of King Henry VIII, men required cod pieces to keep from showing off some very private pieces of anatomy. Pants had not yet been invented. The legs were covered with hose that reached up to the groin area and then were tied around the waist, to keep them up. The space between the hose and the ties was called the breaches. (pronounced, "breeks") If a man wearing the fashion in the late 1600's & the early 1700's bent over, he would often "show the breaches and all that was in them", in spite of the fact that he was wearing a cod piece in the front.

3. Catholic Retaliation

Since the Catholic Church felt its authority being chipped away, it started fighting back. In many areas open warfare was waged against the Protestants. Scientific leaders and the leaders of the Protestant groups were declared heretics, and many were executed. Armies laid siege to Protestant communities, and many were killed. Others were imprisoned, tortured and executed.

4. The Anabaptist Reaction

In the light of all this change, turmoil and strife, it is not surprising that a group sprang up which wanted to chuck the whole mess. The Anabaptists got their name from their opposition to infant baptism. They stated that a person should be baptized only after he had learned the gospel and made a personal decision to follow the teachings of Christ. However, they went on from there. They wore their tunics long, to cover themselves modestly as in a former time. Their dress was only decorated with the craft of their own hands. They refused to take oaths, opposed capital punishment, rejected military service and gave no allegiance to any king or pope. The authorities saw them as subversives, and decided that the Anabaptists should be exterminated. Diaries of some of our ancestors who were involved in the Palatine migration give accounts of people being burned at the stake, fried on flat rocks, chained together and thrown into lakes to drown, and many other forms of torture and execution. One account gives record of a woman whose tongue was screwed to the bottom of her mouth to stop her from preaching.

Dr. John Terence Golden points out that the Anabaptists were one the more radical groups which came into being during this time period. And actually, most of the Palatines were Lutheran or Reformed, and there were even some Catholics living in the Palatinate. Also one of the things which did produce a lot of extra strife for this people is the fact that not all of the Anabaptists were peaceful. There was a militant branch of the group which caused a lot of havoc in the cities and towns around the Palatine Provinces. Unfortunately, the strife which came upon this territory and this group of people did not discriminate as to which were the trouble makers and which were the innocent. All the Protestants were lumped in together by those who would persecute them, and the troubles of the land itself did not make any distinctions, but were applied to all equally.

B. Mercantilism

1. General Principles

At this same time, a philosophy of trade was developing among the sea-faring nations. This philosophy was called mercantilism, and it was based upon colonialism. In essence, this philosophy was based upon the idea that a country could increase its wealth by having colonies. The colonies under this plan could be absolutely controlled by the parent country, but they would be occupied by people who were not citizens of the parent country. Therefore the colony would be self-sustaining at no cost to the parent country, but the colony would produce goods for sale at a premium price only to the parent country. The colony could also be taxed without representation and without being provided reciprocating services. Luxury items which the colony could not produce for itself could only be bought from the parent country, which absolutely controlled the prices of such goods.

2. English Colonies

England set up several such colonies, at least one of which (Australia) was actually a penal colony. Several of these colonies were set up in America, and in 1681, the English Quaker, William Penn, was granted the charter for the Province of Pennsylvania. Within the next year, William Penn founded the city of Philadelphia, and in 1683, he made a peace treaty with the Delaware Indians. William Penn then advertised that there was a place of refuge for the persecuted Protestants of the world.

C. The Final Settings to the Stage

1. The 30 Years War

In 1685 the Edict of Nantes, a document granting equality under the law to Protestants as well as Catholics, was revoked. With the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, the authorities, and particularly the French, really put the pressure on the Anabaptists and the Huguenots, who were the French version of the troublesome Protestants. The objective of the 30 Years War was the balance of power between the Catholics and the Protestants in all of Germany. However, the war was fought very hard in the Palatinate because the Palatine Elector was one of the most powerful of the Protestant rulers. After the 30 Years war, most of the population were killed. There were almost no survivors in the Palatinate. Many people immigrated into the Palatinate at this time, especially Protestants, as the Elector promised them religious freedom.

2. Catholic Rule in the Palatinate

The Palatine Emigration started when a Catholic Elector took over the rule, and persecution of the Protestants was started once again. Thus the stage was completely set for the Great Palatine Migration. The ones who didn't leave on their own were forced out by war and religious persecution. Apparently, even many of the Protestants in the jails were released and forced to emigrate. Almost all of those that left were stripped of their valuables, and many had nothing but the clothing on their backs as they started down the Rhine River to the Netherlands.

3. The Weather

Even those who were not forced to emigrate, were affected. In 1709 the winter was so severe, that the Rhine froze over and people were starving in the Palatinate. This was when Queen Anne advertised in the Palatinate that England would accept all German Protestants for immigration. Catholics who tried to enter England were given 5 guilders and sent back to Hannover. This was also when the tent city refugee camp outside of London was set up.

IV. The Emigration Route

A. The Palatinate to The Netherlands

The first part of the emigration route was down the Rhein river to the Netherlands. Few would have been able to make the trip without help. An underground railroad was established, and Protestant families along the Rhein gave sanctuary to the refugees as they made their way to the new world.

1. Origin of the Hans Michael Rohrer Family

The family of my immigrant ancestor, Hans Michael Rohrer originated from the Rhein valley in Switzerland. Hans Michael Rohrer was married and his children were born in Markirch, Elsass, Germany, which is now called Ste. Marie-aux-Mines, Haut-Rhin, France. Johannes Rohrer, his last born son while he was in Markirch, was born 1 Nov 1701. It was customary in that area and at that time to give children the names of saints, thus every male child would be named after the patron saint of the family. Sometimes every girl child will also be found with the same common first name, but not so often as the boys. Then every child would have a distinct middle name by which he would be known. Thus it was common for a German family to have all of its sons named some form of John with all but one of them having middle names. Some family traditions say that this way when the devil came for a child, he would become confused as to which John was which. Two sons of Hans Michael were named Hans Jakob and Hans Michael. The next two sons were given the name of Johannes Jakob and Johannes. Actually we now have five Johns, but I am going to focus on the two named, Johannes.

2. Flight From Markirch

The family of Hans Michael Rohrer, Sr. was forced about the year 1711 to move from Markirch to escape religious persecution. Johannes Jacob, the third son was captured by the French while he was trying to save some of the family possessions. He somehow escaped from prison, and he followed the usual route of the Palatine Emigrants. He escaped into Southern Germany. His final destination was Holland and the Dutch followers of Menno Simmons, the Mennonites. The Mennonites helped the Palatinates to emigrate to the American Colonies, usually via London. Actually the ship owners usually sold the emigrants to England for their passage fees.

Most of the Palatines were then put in one of two refugee camps: there was one outside of London, and when that one got too full, one was set up in Ireland. There is still a colony of Germanic people in Ireland to this day. From the refugee/concentration camps, the English would ship people to any one of a number of its colonies throughout the world. Family tradition states that Johannes Jacob studied veterinary surgery in London, and then migrated to the colonies and settled in Lancaster County, Pa. Another story states that he was sold into bond slavery, he ran off and then he married the daughter of a rich land owner, Maria Souder. Actually a family Bible states that John Jacob married Maria Souder in Mannheim in 1732 which is the same year that he arrived in Lancaster, Pa. with his bride and her father. Mannheim was a Protestant and French Huguenot refuge in Germany. We can assume in this case that the bride's father paid for their passage.

3. Flight From Strasburg

In the meantime, Johannes Rohrer, the fourth son, went with his family as they escaped the French and they settled in Strasburg. About the year 1725, religious persecution forced the family of Hans Michael, Sr. to once again flee its home. As they left Strassburg, Johannes was attempting to save some of the family possessions from their home, when he was separated from his family. He was captured by the French, and he was the second son that the family lost in this manner. He later escaped or was forced to emigrate. At this time he was about 24 years old. He too, probably followed the route of the Palatine Migration, and he was most likely the Johanne Roer who landed at Philadelphia in the ship "The Mortonhouse" on 24 August 1728.

It is speculated that he worked for four years on an English plantation near Philadelphia to pay off his passage fee. The next heard of him was in the year 1732 when Johannes went to Lancaster Co., Pa. and found his brother Johannes Jacob Rohrer. Johannes married Elizabeth Snavely about 1735 and settled near his brother in Lampeter twp. He bought a farm on the Conestoga Creek, 8 Oct 1763.

B. England

England saw the German refugees as being worth their weight in gold. However, England had to ensure that the European refugees would not cost too much for upkeep. They were also not to be allowed to become citizens. That was the reason for the refugee camps.

1. Refugee Camps

The camps were as refugee camps always are. They were tent cities that were too crowded, too dirty, and too unsanitary for comfort. Most of the history books (of the ones that even mention them) assure us that the English Queen graciously provided the essentials required for living in the camps, but I am sure that it was not a comfortable time for the Palatines.

2. The Trip

As soon as a boat became available, it was packed with refugees to capacity and beyond. The voyage to the colonies was miserable. The boats were over-crowded, there was no privacy, the drinking water was polluted, and the food was vermin-ridden. Only enough food and water was supplied to provide for the longest average trip. If a boat was delayed by the weather, the refugees, who were considered as cargo, were in trouble. Consider the description of a rather severe ocean voyage by the Ulster Scots, who shared many of the privations of the Palatines: Voyage. In spite of all the difficulties, many of the people made the trip in relative good health.

At least they did arrive at their destination in the new world. Well…..not always! Most of them arrived in Pennsylvania, which was their primary destination. Some were let off in New York, and some were let off in Virginia, but there were others who were dropped off in places like Australia, and even in Brazil. In the case of the German colony in Brazil, which is still in evidence in modern times, the ship was driven off course by storms, and the captain just dropped off his passengers, without even trying to recoup his losses by continuing on to the English colonies. Once the ship arrived at any port, the captain of the ship sold the refugees into bond slavery.

C. The Bond

1. The Contract

In many cases, the officials at each point along the way held up the emigrants for various fees and charges. Some of the most onerous of the officials they encountered were the ship captains. Before boarding the ship, the Germans were made to sign a contract. Since the whole migration program was essentially an English project, and the destination was an English colony, the contract was in English. Many of our ancestors couldn't have read it even if it were in German. They were just told by mouth that they would be required to a time of service in the colonies at their destination. As it turned out, the contract was for a certain amount of money to be paid at their disembarkation. Even if a man or woman died on board the ship, the spouse was obligated to pay for the passage fees of the deceased. If both parents died, the children were held to the obligation to pay for their parents. The trip usually lasted from 3 to 6 weeks. Many got sick on the way, and in the book, "Erster Teil der Geschichte der Deutschen Gesellschaft von Pennsylvanian" by Oswald Seidensticker, estimates that, in one year, over 2000 died on the way.

2. Disembarkation

When the ship reached a harbor, the ones who could pay the disembarkation fees, were allowed to leave the ship immediately. Those who could not pay and who were healthy were kept on the ship until a person who would buy the bond for the full amount of money owed came onto the ship, examined the "redemptioners" chose one or more, and paid the fees. At this point many families were separated when family members were bought by different "masters". This process may take days or weeks, while the sick ones were still on the ship, with the poor conditions and little or no medical care. Once all of the healthy ones were sold at full price, then the sick ones were auctioned off for whatever price they could bring. The trials were also not over for those who could pay their own fees. Many ports, especially in New York, charged their own disembarkation fees.

3. Bond Slavery

As for the "redemptioneers" the usual amount of time that a Palatine spent in bond was four years, but even that at times was variable. Many of the children, especially those who were orphaned, or who were separated from their parents and lost contact with the rest of the family, had to serve until they were 21. Some of the bond holders kept the Palatines, and the Irish, who were treated in much the same way, for as long as it took for the immigrants to pay off their debts. Also some of the bond holders were very creative in the way they computed the debts of their bonded, and charged for such things as room and board.

V. The Palatine Colonists

Once the Palatine emigrants got established in the colonies, they in turn, started helping out other emigrants. The Palatines of America monitored the schedules of ship arrivals, and many of them met the ships which were due to have Palatines on board. In this way many of the colonists were able to pay for the passage of family members and literally to buy them out of slavery.

Johannes Jakob Rohrer was one of the Palatine emigrants who met ships of docking Palatines at the harbor. One day, he lucked out, and one of the first passengers whom he met coming off one of the ships, turned out to be his father. Johnnes, who now called himself John, immediately recognized his parent, but the latter did not know his son. Johannes Jakob's mother had died and his father was married again, and had two or three sons by his second wife. They were destitute of means and expected to be sold for their passage money. John paid the demands, brought his father and his father's family with him, and aided his half brothers to property near what is now Hagerstown, Maryland. I am descended from Martin Rohrer, one of the sons, who was set up on land in what is now Washington County, Maryland. Thus the event in history known as the Great Palatine Migration came to an end for my family.

VI. Links

  • Lorine Schulze has an excellent page on Palatine history, some Palatine surnames, and ship passenger lists on her Web Pages at the Olive Tree Enterprises Genealogy Site. The really good thing about her site is that it is strong in places where my history is weak and vice versa. These pages really do complement each other.
  • Kraig Ruckel is another researcher who is interested in the Palatines. He has some great web pages and many excellent resources.
  • Early History of Frederick County, MD
  • For some information on German colonies in Virginia, check out: The Germanna Foundation, a Memorial Foundation of the Germanna Colonies in Virginia, Inc.; P.O. Box 693; Culpeper, Virginia 22701 which is finally up at: URL
  • The Moravian Church
    Here you will find a vast amount of genealogical info on the German Moravians who emigrated to PA then migrated to NC in the early 1700's. Be sure and check out our master table of contents and publications...They're loaded with German names!
  • I'll let this one introduce herself:
    • Hi, I'm Angie Rayfield, Many of my family "roots" on my paternal grandmother's side are German-Swiss, and came to SC with the early Palatine emigrations in the 1730's. Here are the URLs to two of my genealogy sites that are based heavily on Palatines.
    • This is the Orangeburg County, SC, USGenWeb Project page. The area there was settled in large part by Palatine immigrants.
      This one is my personal page--"Roots & Branches--Genealogy from the Carolinas" It's still fairly new, but like I say, much of my family is made up of Palatine descendents.
  • For an excellent web site on the Palatines with a lot of information on background and source materials, Check out this German site. Most of it has English translations.
  • Palatines to America Home Page
  • MDGenWeb:Washington County, Maryland
  • Bradley Rymph is another descendant of the Johannes Jacob Rohrer cited above, and clicking on the red button will take you to his Web Page.

Donald L. Spidell  /