Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Bringing Culture to America

More than bringing people and skills, the early settlers in North America brought culture - music, food, and other traditions. Whether America is a tapestry or a melting pot, neither would be thinkable without the influx of rich heritages. Thomas Sowell writes:

In 1683, thirteen Mennonite families established Germantown in Pennsylvania, now part of Philadelphia. Many other German religious denominations and sects followed, including Calvinists, the Amish, and others virtually unknown to the larger society. In 1742, Heinrich Muhlenberg arrived, and became the organizer of the Lutheran church in America and also founder of a prominent family whose achievements included creation of Muhlenberg College, an outstanding institution in Pennsylvania.

A diverse spectrum of religious heritages can be traced to German-speaking immigrants from places like Switzerland and Austria: Lutherans, Catholics, Calvinists, Amish, Mennonites, Reformed, and antecedents of today's Baptists: the Anabaptists. Beyond religious trends, they brought with them the arts - the music of Bach was popular in colonial era - and mathematics - it was the German philosopher Leibniz who had co-discovered calculus and other forms of advanced mathematics (along with Englishman Isaac Newton).

Thus began the "Pennsylvania Dutch" - Dutch being in this case an American mispronunciation of the word Deutsch for German. By 1745, there were an estimated 45.000 Germans in Pennsylvania. Most settled out on the frontier as it existed at that time, in order to acquire cheap land within their meager means. This made them vulnerable to Indian attacks, especially because of the reluctance of the colonial government to provide defense. Control of the government was largely in the hands of pacifist Quakers living safely in Philadelphia.

Creativity and ingenuity allowed these early settlers to survive, when the colony's government refused any military protection from the attacks. They were not military people, nor were they well-armed, yet they were annihilated or terrorized into retreat by the attacks on their farmsteads and villages.

In 1709, Germans established Neuberg - now called Newburgh - on the Hudson River, and then spread north into the Mohawk Valley. As in Pennsylvania, this was frontier territory, subject to Indian raids. The Germans of the Mohawk Valley region came as indentured servants - people bound by contract to work for a certain number of years (usually three to seven) to pay off the cost of their transportation to America. At least half of the white population of colonial America came this way. It was a scheme first tried with German and Swiss immigrants and later spread to the Scotch, the Irish, and others. The Germans who settled in the Mohawk Valley came as indentured servants of the British government, which paid half their transportation and settlement costs. More so than other groups, Germans left their home in groups, ranging from whole families to whole communities.

Although the idea of indentured servants has been criticized as thinly disguised slavery, it was in fact they only way in which many people could afford to come to America's freedom, and can be seen as simply a type of loan: once repaid, the former servant was released into full civil liberty.

The fact that German-speaking immigrants tended to arrive in larger groups, rather than individuals or isolated families, enabled them to contribute to American cultural formation. Music, dance, cooking styles, and clothing traditions were more readily preserved and transmitted this way.

The early German immmigrants - both in New York and in Pennsylvania - came from the Palatinate, a small region in the southwestern part of Germany, along the Rhine. Sixteen families of Palatines also settled in New Bern, North Carolina, in 1710. Eighteenth-century South Carolina also carried on a brisk trade in German indentured servants from the Palatinate.

German-speaking villages were common up and down the Atlantic coast, but usually not directly on the coast; rather, further inland. Names of towns and rivers, from Pennsylvania to Georgia, and from New York to Texas, reflect the contributions made by Germans to the founding of American society.