Who Are the Pennsylvania Dutch? A Brief History of this Rural Community

The Pennsylvania Dutch are a group of Americans of German ancestry who came to the US in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries to escape religious and political persecution.

Apr 22, 2023By Madison Whipple, BA History w/ Spanish minor

history of the pennsylvania dutch


When considering the Pennsylvania Dutch, you may think of a specific aesthetic: Amish men wearing straw hats, plain clothes, and driving a buggy. It is easy to wonder how cultures like that of the Amish or the Mennonites evolved and how they remain on the outskirts of modern civilization. However, the Amish and Mennonite people are only two small sects of a larger group called the Pennsylvania Dutch. As the name suggests, these descendants of Germanic-speaking peoples mostly live in Pennsylvania’s southwestern corner. Their history combines German and American cultures, creating a diverse population today.


Pennsylvania Dutch Origins: Fancy & Plain Dutch

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War Scene by Sebastian Vrancx, a depiction of Palatines leaving Germany, via Wikimedia Commons


The story of the Pennsylvania Dutch begins in Germany. Their ancestors were mainly from the Palatinate of the southern Rhineland in Germany. The Palatinate was a significant area of contention during the Thirty Years’ War, which pitted the French against the Holy Roman Empire regarding the issue of Protestantism.


Germany’s population was suffering, and many groups, including the Catholics of Palatine origin, fled to find safety abroad. This brought many groups of Germanic peoples to America, hoping to find a settlement where they could practice their religion and create businesses in peace. This group of settlers was called the “Fancy Dutch;” their descendants are still mostly Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed Christians. The Fancy Dutch comprise the group of Pennsylvania Dutch that is less well known today, as they have fully assimilated into American culture.


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The historic Palatine flag, via Wikimedia Commons


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The Palatine Catholics were not the only religious group to be persecuted. “Plain Dutch” were the groups like the Amish, Mennonites, and other anabaptists that became refugees from the Alsace-Lorraine region of France, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. They first sought refuge in Germany and then emigrated to Pennsylvania, hoping to finally escape religious persecution. These groups of anabaptists are more familiar to the average American, as their descendants have not changed much since their settlement in the United States. The Amish and Mennonite communities were called Plain Dutch because of their simple lifestyles.


The Pennsylvania Dutch are referred to as such because, at the time of their arrival in America, all Germanic languages were called Dutch or Deutch in English, regardless of whether they came from what we consider Dutch countries today. The Pennsylvania Dutch took their new status as American settlers seriously, thus promoting the title of Pennsylvania Dutch, as it distinguished them from other European Germans who began filtering into the United States later in the 19th and 20th centuries.


The Immigration of the Pennsylvania Dutch to America

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The market square of Germantown, Philadelphia, in 1820, via Wikimedia Commons


The Pennsylvania Dutch came to America as refugees for many reasons, the most prominent being escaping religious persecution. Within the English colonies in America, one stood as a beacon of religious freedom. William Penn was a Quaker leader who was given the land that would become Pennsylvania in a charter from King Charles II. The grant satisfied a debt that the King owed to Penn’s father and is one of the largest land grants given to an individual in history. Penn initially named the colony New Wales, then Sylvania, from the Latin silva meaning forest. However, King Charles eventually took matters into his own hands and named the land Pennsylvania, or “Penn’s Woods,” in honor of Penn’s father, an admiral for the king.


Penn’s new territory was a sort of utopia for political and religious rights. Penn intended to make his colony safe for people of all persuasions, which initially did much to attract refugees from both Fancy and Plain Dutch communities to settle there. They settled mostly in the southern central area of the colony, now known as Pennsylvania Dutch Country. Many also settled in areas of Maryland, North Carolina, and Virginia.


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A Fancy Dutch wedding, 1820, via Wikimedia Commons


The Palatine immigrants were often disliked by their American neighbors. One of their most famous critics was Benjamin Franklin, who complained about Palatine immigrants in his 1751 tome Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind:


Why should the Palatine boors be suffered to swarm into our settlements, and by herding together establish their language and manners to the exclusion of ours? Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a colony of aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of us Anglifying them, and will never adopt our language or customs, any more than they can acquire our complexion.


While they faced discrimination, the Pennsylvania Dutch, particularly those belonging to the Fancy Dutch, were respected in Philadelphia and were seen as industrious, rich, and business-minded. This led to their settlement of Germantown, a neighborhood within Philadelphia, being a successful center of business and trade.


The Pennsylvania Dutch After Settlement

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Flag of the 79th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment from the Civil War, via Wikimedia Commons


The Pennsylvania Dutch’s contribution to the United States began before independence and carried on throughout the coming centuries. In the Revolutionary War, the Marechaussee Corps, called the Pennsylvania Dutch Provost Corps, served as a policing regiment, which provided security, gathered intelligence, dealt with prisoners of war, and participated in active combat.


During the Battle of Yorktown, the Pennsylvania Dutch Provost were employed as George Washington’s personal security detail while also protecting his headquarters. The Provost Corps was a predecessor to the United States Military Police Corps of today, but they were not liked by the rest of the Continental Army, as they spoke little to no English and were joined in their ranks by British prisoners of war.


During the Civil War, many Pennsylvania Infantry Regiments were composed largely of Pennsylvania Dutch and German immigrants. They played a large part in the Battle of Gettysburg, the bloodiest Civil War battle. It was after this that growing recognition of the Pennsylvania Dutch as an ethnic group began. They would fight for their rights as old-heritage Americans throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This especially increased during the anti-German sentiments during the World Wars. Pennsylvania Dutch fought in the American Armed Forces during both conflicts but found their cultural identity fading after 1945 when many people gave up their traditional language for English.


Pennsylvania Dutch Language & Religion

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A baptismal message written in Pennsylvania Dutch and created in Bethel Township, Pennsylvania, 1771, via InCollect


Pennsilfaanisch Deitsch, or Deitsch, as speakers of the language refer to it, is a time capsule of the Germanic culture brought to America as early as the 17th century. The language itself resembles modern German but is a distinct dialect on its own. As with many immigrant populations, their language was an essential facet of their culture with which they could not part in their new surroundings.


The language has endured in the 21st century, thanks in part due to many of its speakers having strict rules surrounding their culture and traditions. Although those who identified as “Fancy Dutch” essentially assimilated to American culture and gave up their ancestral language for English, groups of “Plain Dutch,” like the Amish, still speak it as a first language in their communities. Those who speak Pennsylvania Dutch today are also mostly still able to communicate with modern Germans, meaning the language has not been altered by immigration to the point of losing its original characteristics.


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A photo of Amish workers on their farm, via I Am Expat


Religion varies within the groups of the Pennsylvania Dutch. The Old Order, of which the Amish are the most famous group, strictly adheres to anabaptist religious teachings. Anabaptism dictates that its followers live a traditional and simple lifestyle akin to that of early Christian teachings. They do not believe in modern technology per the simplicity of faith. With the simplicity of religion comes the simplicity of life.


The Amish believe vanity is to be avoided, and part of that is having a close-knit family structure and community. They wear traditional and handmade clothing, do not wear jewelry, and even attempt to avoid using mirrors. Amish men are distinguished as married or unmarried by a beard (those with beards are married), and they usually labor as farmers or carpenters. It depends on the community, but some Amish do not believe in electricity, indoor plumbing, or education beyond the age of 14.


Of course, other religious veins in the Pennsylvania Dutch believe in all the modern comforts of American culture. The Fancy Dutch, those most likely to have assimilated into American society, are members of the Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed German churches. In essence, the religion of many members of the Pennsylvania Dutch doesn’t look very different than the religions of Americans with varying ancestries. The Pennsylvania Dutch differ greatly in the way many descendants of immigrant communities do. Some adhere to their ancestors’ religious and linguistic practices, and some are more apt to blend into their new culture.


Modern Pennsylvania Dutch in American Society

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A group of Amish women in a buggy in Pennsylvania, via getawaymavens.com


After the Second World War, the Pennsylvania Dutch language and religion fell out of favor with many community members, leading them to assimilate further into American culture. With the exception of the Plain Dutch communities, the language and culture of Pennsylvania began to die out. Today, the majority of those who speak Pennsylvania Dutch are Amish, comprising about 300,000 of 400,000 speakers. Those who were once considered only a part of the Pennsylvania Dutch culture are exactly those who keep the culture alive. The traditional ways of the anabaptists preserve Pennsylvania Dutch culture through their use of the language and their perseverance in saving facets of their inherited culture. This includes food, art, carpentry, and religion.


The future of the Pennsylvania Dutch is seemingly secure through these minority communities, as their language is the fastest-growing minority tongue in the United States, and their way of life is an ever-present curiosity for the rest of America. Their culture is insular and traditional but seemingly able to continue for posterity.

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By Madison WhippleBA History w/ Spanish minorMadison is a contributing writer with specialties in American and women’s history. She is especially interested in women’s history in the context of the American Civil War. In her free time, she enjoys going to museums, reading, and jogging.