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Early Life of the Pennsylvania Germans

by A. Monroe Aurand



Farmers Were Kept Poor: The Pennsylvania German farmers were good farmers by practically all standards. They were descended through thirty generations of tillers of the soil. All things being equal in their Old World haunts they would have been on the average well-to-do. But the wars kept them poor, or, if they were on the wrong side of the political or religious "fence" they again were likely to be mulct of what they had. Travel, being what it was in those days, was expensive, and the more so because unscrupulous ship owners found they could get the price, either from the pioneer or some one who would pay for this passage. Those who undertook to pay off their passage under a bond which sometimes took twenty years to redeem, would be termed "redemptioners." This took on a form of "white servitude" in the early days, and much of interest may be read about the subject. Fine Soil Ready in Pennsylvania.--It has been pointed out that the situation greeting the newcomers was pretty nearly made to order. There was little barrenness; fertilization was not necessary in the same degree that it was in Germany, where tilling for many years required more attention. The farmers were smart enough to rotate their crops; they grazed cattle for fattening and got back fertilizer quite precious. They fed their horses well, so that they could do twice as much work in a day as horses underfed; they were kept warm in winter, and were excused from doing extra work, such as dragging logs, or pleasure driving. "Swiss Barns" Erected.--The early pioneers first cleared sufficient land to get a start on farming; then came an immense barn, well built, of the "Swiss" type. The first barns were built of logs. Later there were some of stone, then frame or brick. Interesting features of some of the barns included the stars on the sides and ends; also the ventilator designs obtained by omissions of bricks which formed the designs, or cut-outs in the odd shapes of hearts, diamonds, quarter-moons, clubs, etc. Most barns were double-deckers, and allowed for threshing-floors, mows and lofts for storing hay. The complete barns had a granary on the upper floor, a cellar under the drive-way, in addition to the usual stalls for horses and cattle. They ranged from 50 to 60 feet wide, and 60 to 120 feet long, with an overhang of 8 to 10 feet beyond the stable doors. Originally barns and houses had thatched roofs; in later years they were shingled, slated, or tinned. If painted, it generally was of deep red, for lasting qualities. Lumber could be obtained on the spot; likewise good building stone might be found nearby, needing but the blows of the stone mason to dress them for use. But it might be a decade or two until they got around to the building of a substantial house . Houses built by the pioneers were generally of logs, if the builder was pioneering some miles away from centers of population. These could be built in a few days after a clearing was made. Two-story houses were the general rule at the outset, with the familiar two-and-a-half-story to follow. The first with pitched roof, and with cornices run across the gables and around the first story.

Types of Construction: The English and Scotch fashion was to build the chimney at the gable-end, but the German style was to bring it right up through the center of the house. Most of them seemed to be spacious, with open fire-places in most rooms, and with deep-set window and door frames. Window weights were used quite early. Travelers usually note on these older houses the odd inscriptions, verses, dates or initials found well up on the gable wall. This is a hangover from customs in Germany and Switzerland. There are many variations held by people today as to the meanings of the decorations on barns, certain markings found here and there on houses and necessary outbuildings; even on cooking utensils, etc. Gaudy Colors and Designs.--It will hardly suffice to say that the farmer liked to have his barn look attractive, and to be in good state of repair, as a sign of his progress and success; nor that his wife was odd, in that she had a lot of dishes with gaudy decorations of birds, flowers, alphabets, scenes and verses painted thereon; nor that the good housewife had these same decorations on her bed linens, and her furniture as well. Most of the decorative schemes came from the Old World, a throw-off, or hand-me-down from ancient Persian and Chinese ideas. We are informed that German houses today have on their walls counterparts of many of the ideas expressed by our own native artists with a slight touch or blend of native instinct which do not in the least detract from the value or interest of the items in question. The farmers were not alone the great builders. We had the well-known preachers and teachers; scientists and astronomers; inventors and many others. A catalog of German firsts in Pennsylvania is an imposing array of talent and accomplishment.



German Language Remained with Newcomer: Of the language and literature of the Pennsylvania Germans we had at best be brief--the students and scholars are still trying to define and settle the matter. The remarkable thing about the "dialect" as it is called, is that there should remain so much of it in use today in sections where there is likewise an abundant use of English. Two hundred years ago there was every reason for them to continue using the only language they knew. With all the intermarriages of these people with English, Scotch and Irish families, the "Dutch" will "out." From the days of their residence in Europe, until comparatively modern times they have been without the benefit of any grammar or book of guidance for the use of the "dialect" conversation on the street or in the home. Early Printers.--The Pennsylvania Germans had printing shops in operation in larger centers of population almost as soon as they could get the material to set up shop. Thus the press of Christopher Sauer had printed three editions of the Bible, complete, in little Germantown, before there was one edition of the same book printed in Philadelphia in English. A few years before his first Bible Sauer had printed a large hymn-book entitled "Zionitischer Wayrauchshugel," containing 654 hymns in 33 divisions. Conrad Beissel and his Ephrata "Breuderschaft" were responsible for the publishing of a number of remarkable books for those times, including a complete translation of Van Bragt's "Blutige Schauplatz oder Martyrer Spiegel" in German from the Holland Dutch, at the Cloisters, at Ephrata. Fifteen men worked for three years to complete translations, make the paper and print and bind this massive work, up to that time about the largest single book published in the New World. Education was at first frowned on by the farmers who thought their children needed little more than to be able to read and write and figure a little bit. In later years they found that education was the best bet, and with the exception of the Amish, most other denominations and sects have gone over to college education. The German language, or dialect as it is more familiarly known, gave way in part to English as the official language of the Commonwealth in 1836. But it did not "give way" in many homes, and towns!



Variety of Faiths: The religious background and life of the Germans is varied, to say the least. We have little space to detail them at length, but separate accounts may be found in libraries for particular readers. The German Baptists, or Brethren, are a denomination of Christians who emigrated to this country from Germany between the years 1718 and 1730; they are commonly called Dunkers; but they have assumed for themselves the name of "Brethren". The United Brethren in Christ came into activity in the United Stites about 1755, differing in name from the Moravians, or Unitas Fratrum, (or United Brethren's Church) by adding "in Christ." The former mentioned denomination enjoys a healthy membership scattered throughout the country. The Moravians (Unitas Fratrum), or United Brethren's Church, dates from 1722, descendants of the Bohemian and Moravian Brethren who were persecuted in their native country, and who founded a colony under the patronage of Count Zinzendorf, on an estate of his in Upper Lusatia. American history is replete with accounts of activities of the Count, and David Zeisberger, who labored among and learned so much from his association with Indian tribes. Their establishments in the early days were primarily, at Bethlehem, Nazareth and Lititz. The Schwenkfelders take their name from Casper Schwenkfeld von Ossing, who was born seven years after Martin Luther, with whom he had many disagreements. This denomination arrived in Philadelphia on September 22, 1734, settling principally in Montgomery, Berks, Bucks and Lehigh counties. Ephrata Cloister.--One of the most notable of the early pietist movements was this Ephrata community, under Conrad Beissel, who was born in Eberbach, in 1690. He was a baker, as was his father. He came to America in 1720, becoming a hermit on the Cocalico. Others built cabins around him and imitated his ascetic life. But any religion that prohibits race propagation soon eliminates itself.



A Knowledge of Family Names is not only of passing interest but may be of great value to students and researchers. Names, as we know, undertake to make many changes, even in the same family, even today. "Pennsylvania German family names may be divided into three classes: first, those derived from personal names; second, those derived from occupation; and third, those derived from the place where the individual lived (including house signs) or whence he came," says Kuhns,  and "in this last class may likewise be properly included nicknames, or those due to personal peculiarities, physical or mental. " The smaller type following is an excerpt from Kuhns' book:

These personal names exist today in Pennsylvania, some of them but little changed; such are Albrecht: of distinguished race (P.G. [Pennsylvania Germans] Albright); Arnwald: one who rules as the eagle; Bernhard: strong as a bear; Conrad: bold in council; Dietrich: ruler of people; Eberhart: strong as a boar; Eckert: strong sword; Garman: spearman; Gebhard: generous giver (P.G. Kephart); Gerhard: stong spear; Gottschalk: servant of God; Hartman: strong man; Heidrich: of noble rank; Hildebrandt: battle-sword; Hubert: bright of intellect; Irmintraut: friend of the Walkyrie Thrudr (P.G. Ermentrout); Lühr: war-people; Reinhard: strong in counsel; Reinhold: ruler of council; Trautman: follower of the Walkyrie Thrudr.

In most cases, however, these double-stem names were shortened by dropping the second stem, whence such names as Kuhn (from Kunrat), Hein (from Heinrich), Ott (from Ottman), Traut (from Trautmann), Bär, Barr (from Berhard). To these stems diminutive suffixes were added; thus from "i" we have the forms Bürki (from Burkhard), Ebi (from Ebarhard), Egli (from Agilbrecht), Hägi (from Haginbert), Lichti (from Ludger: P.G. Light), Stäheli (from Stahal), Welti (from Walther), Geissle (from Gisalhart: P.G. Yeissley); from "izo" we get Boss and Butz (from Bodomar), Dietz (from Dietrich), Fritz and Fritschi (from Friedrich: cf. Barbara Frietchie), Heintz (from Heinrich), Kuntz (from Kunrat: P.G. Koons and Kuhns), Landis, Lentz, and Lantz (from Landfrid), Lutz (from Ludwig), Seitz (from Siegfrid: P.G. Sides), Tietz (from Dietrich), Waltz (from Walther), from "iko" we get Frick (from Friedrich), Illig and the genitive Hilleges (from Hildebrand), Kündig (from Gundobert), Leidig (from Luithart); from "ilo" we get Ebli and Eberli (from Ebarhard), Bechtel (from Berchtold), Bickel (from Botger), Diehl (from Dietrich), Hirzel (from Hieruzleip: P.G. Hartzell), Hubeli (from Hugubert), Markel and Märgli (from Markwald), Meili (from Maganhard), Nägeli (from Nagalrich), Rubli (from Hrodebert: Robert), Schnäbeli (from root Sneo--snow: P.G. Snavely); from "z" plus "l" we get Künzel (from Kunrat), Reitzel (from Ricohard: Richard), and Tietzel (from Dietrich).

From all the above forms patronymics in "mann," "inger," and "ler" are formed: Bausman, Beidleman, Denlinger, Dietzinger, Gehringer, Grissinger, Heintzelman, Hirtzler, Hollinger. In addition to the purely German personal names we have also many names taken from Biblical characters and from the lives of saints: Bartel (from Bartholomaeus), Klause (Nicholas), Martin, Theiss, and Theissen (Matthias), Peters, Hensel (Johannes), Jäggi and Jäckli (Jacobus: P.G. Yeagy and Yackley), Jörg, Jorges (George: P.G. Yerrick and Yerkes), Brosius (Ambrosius), Bastian (Sebastisn), Flory (Florus), Johst (Justus: P.G. Yost).

The second class of Pennsylvania-German family names are derived from the occupation of the individual; among the best known are Becker (baker), Baumgartner (orchard-grower), Brenneisen (blacksmith), Brunner (well-digger), Dreher, Trachsel, Trechsler (turner), Fischer, Gerber (tanner, currier: P.G. Garver), Glöckner (bell-ringer: P.G. Klackner, Kleckner), Heilman (doctor), Huber (one who owns a "hube"--a small farm), Jäger (hunter), Kärcher (carter), Kohler, Koehler (coal-burner): P.G, Kaler, Cayler), Kaufman (merchant), Küfer and Küfner (cooper), Küster (sexton), Maurer (mason), Metzger (butcher), Lehmann (one under feudal tenure), Leineweber (linen-weaver), Müller, Probst (provost), Reifschneider, Riemenschneider (harness-maker), Sauter, Suter (shoemaker), Schaffner (steward), Schenck (cup-bearer), Scherer (barber), Schlegel (one who hammers), Schmidt (smith), Schneider (tailor), Schreiber (writer), Schreiner (joiner), Schütz (shooter, or archer: P.G. Sheets), Schultz (mayor), Siegrist (sexton), Spengler (tin-smith), Steinmetz (stone-cutter), Tschudi (judge: Swiss), Vogt (bailiff), Wagner (wagoner), Wannemaker (basket-maker), Weber (weaver), Wirtz (landlord), Widmeyer, Widmer (one who has land from church or monastery), Ziegler (brick-maker), Zimmerman (carpenter).

The first subdivision of names in the third class comprises those which denote the place where one lives or whence one comes; such are Algäuer (from the Allgau in Switzerland), Altendörfer (from village in St. Gall, Switz.), Amweg (beside the road), Amend (at end of village), Bach, Bacher, Bachman (who live near a brook), Berner (from Berne, Switz.), Basler (from Basel), Berger (lives on mountain), Beyer (a Bavarian), Biemensdörfer, Blickensdorfer (from village in Canton Zürich), Boehm (a Bohemian), Brechbühl (unploughed hill: P.G. Brightbill and Brackbill), Breitenbach (village in Solothurn, Switz.), Brubacher (village in Zürich), Büttigkoffer (from village Büttikofen, Berne), Detweiler (village in Canton Zurich), Diefenbach (Tiefenbach, in Canton Uri, Switz.), Dieffendörfer (from Tiefendorf), Flückiger (village in Canton Berne), Fahrni (village in Berne), Frick (in Aargau, Switz.), Haldi, Haldeman (from Halden, common name for village in Switzerland), Hofstetter (name of several villages in Zürich, St. Gall, and Berne), Eschelman (from Aeschi, village in Canton Berne), Imgrund (in hollow land), Imboden (in bottom-lands), Imhof (in farm-yard), Köllicker (village in Aargau), Longenecker (village in Berne), Mellinger (village in Aargau), Neuenschwander (village in Berne), Oberholtzer (several villages in Berne), Ruegsegger (Berne: P.G. Ricksecker), Schollenberger (castle and village, Zürich), Schwab (a Swabian: P.G. Swope), Urner (from Canton Uri), Zug (Canton Zug), Zürcher (from Zürich).

During the Middle Ages the houses were not numbered as now, but had signs painted on them, something after the manner of hotels at the present time. From these many names were derived: Bär (bear), Baum (tree), Bieber (beaver), Bischof (bishop), Engel (angel), Fasnacht (Shrove Tuesday), Faust (fist), Fuchs (fox), Fünfrock (five-coats), Haas (hare), Hahn (rooster), Helm (helmet), Hertzog (duke: P.G. Hartsook), Holtzapfel (wild-apple), Kalb (calf: P.G. Kulp, Culp), Kaiser (emperor), König (king), Krebs (crab), Münch (monk), Oechsli (little ox: P.G. Exley), Pfaff (priest), Ritter (knight), Vogel (bird), Voegli (little bird: P.G. Feagley), Würfel (die, cube), Wolf.

Finally we have names given from personal peculiarities. Such are: Braun, Dürr (dry, thin), Fröhlich (cheerful: P.G. Frailey), Frei (free), Freytag (Friday), Gut (good), Hübschmann (handsome), Hoch (tall), Jüng (young), Kahl (bald), Klein (small), Kleindienst (small sevice), Krause (curly), Krumbein (crooked legs), Kurtz (short), Lang (long), Lebengut (good-liver: P.G. Livingood), Rau, Rauch (rough), Reich (rich), Roth (red), Rothrock (red-coat), Rothaermel (red-sleeve), Schwartz (black), Seltenreich (seldom rich), Weiss (white).

These German names almost all came from the Palatinate and Switzerland. Even today we can trace the Swiss origin of many--for instance, Urner (from Uri), Johns (Tschantz), Neagley (Naegeli), Bossler (Baseler). Some are of French Huguenot origin, which by combined German and English influence have often received a not very elegant or euphonious form: examples are Lemon (Le Mon), Bushong (Beauchamp), and Shunk (Jean); the original Fierre was changed to German Faehre, and later became anglicised into Ferree.  The number of different of spelling even the simplest names is often surprisingly large: thus, for the original Graf we find today Graaf, Graff, Groff, Groft, Graft, and Grove. So Baer gives us Bear, Bare, Bair. Of course the vagaries of English orthography are largely responsible for this. There were three ways in which the change of names took place: first, by translation; second, by spelling German sounds according to English methods; and third, by analogy.