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Leaving the Rhineland: Immigrants to America in the 18th and 18th centuries

Updated on February 12, 2014
Illustration mid-1800s of peasants from the southwestern Germany
Illustration mid-1800s of peasants from the southwestern Germany | Source
The scenic Rhineland as is appears today
The scenic Rhineland as is appears today | Source
1799 map of the Rhine region of Germany
1799 map of the Rhine region of Germany | Source
King Frederick V
King Frederick V | Source
Print of the Battle of Beachy Head fought during the War of the Grand Alliance in 1690 and won by the French navy
Print of the Battle of Beachy Head fought during the War of the Grand Alliance in 1690 and won by the French navy | Source
Painting of French King Louis XIV in 1667
Painting of French King Louis XIV in 1667 | Source

Exodus from Rhineland: The Rhenish and Bavarian Palatinates

The Palatinate is a historic geo-political region located in what is now southwestern Germany and in part, in Northern Bavaria; these areas are called the Rhenish (also Lower) Palatinate and the Bavarian (Upper) Palatinate respectively. The Rhenish Palatinate is a Franco-Germanic region in Europe situated both along the Rhine River in more or less its middle section from near Heidelberg (its northern border at the Moselle River) and down to around Karlsruhe and its tributary the Necker River. The Northern or Bavarian Palatinate was located along both sides of the Naab River, a tributary of the Danube River, at a junction located in Regensberg, Germany, in north central Bavaria.

Comes Palatinus

The word Palantine (sometimes spelled Palatine) comes from the Roman word palatinus which means palace. It was the Franks, a germanic tribe that dwelled in central Europe, that paired this word with Roman word comus that referred to a high ranking noble person of a non-hereditary title, therefore creating the term comes palatinus which meant "Count of the Palatinate." Initially, minor nobles oversaw the governing of duchies and lesser regions, sometimes called pfalz in German, that were part of the greater Holy Roman Empire were referred to as comes palatinus. Eventually, rulers of the pfalz assumed their roles through hereditary rights and thus the term comes palatinus replaced by the word duke or prince which would infer a heretitary position. However, the minor nobles ruling the area of the Rhine that would become known as the Palatine was the one pfalz that continued using this term and furthermore, the region can still be referred to as the Pfalz.The area known as the Palatinate was for many centuries starting in the Middle Ages, divided into several territories at one time known as Lotharingia, all held by the Count of the Palatines.

War and hardship

Thirty Years War

The great troubles of the Palantine began in earnest at the start of the Thirty Years War, a multinational struggle fought over emerging Protestantism that began in 1618, at which time the Calvinist prince-elector of the Bavarian Palantine named Frederick V, the Winter King, was elected King of Bohemia immediately proceeded the expulsion of the Catholic King Ferdinand. The result was that Spain, representing the Holy Roman Empire, invaded and conquered the Palantine and crushed the Protestant rebellion sending Frederick V into exile. Violence continued to spread across Central Europe in the decades to come and areas of the Rhenish Palantine saw the most civilian casualties from war and disease. The Peace of Westphalia signed in 1648 enacted a guarantee for Protestants to worship as they pleased from that point forward. Unfortunately, it did not mean permanent peace for the Palantine.

War of the Grand Alliance

The War of the Grand Alliance lasting from 1689 to 1687, also called the Nine Years War, proved devastating to the Palantine and its inhabitants, especially during the Rhineland campaign of 1688. The war was one fought between France, led by King Louis XIV, and the Holy Roman Empire and its European allies that included England, Spain and Holland. The war saw a period of intense French aggression that was fueled by the French King's ambitious and selfish desire to dominate and control the Palantinate and surrounding areas. Sadly, several cities and many villages in the Palantine like Heidelberg and Mannheim were torched and destroyed by Louis' troops during the 1688 siege of the Rhineland. The war ended with the Treaty of Ryswick,signed in 1687, that gave France some of its Alsacian territory but ceeded most of the Rhineland back to the Germans. However, the damage was done and by this time, many Palantines had either fled to other parts of Europe or to the American Colonies or had been killed.

Further conflict and catastrophe in the Palatinate

Sadly, circumstance proved to be as difficult during the 1700s as they had in the century previous. First, the Palatinate inadvertently became a playground for skirmishes fought between several European powers over the fate of the Spanish monarchy during the War of the Spanish Succession that occurred between 1701 and 1714. If that wasn't enough, the continent saw a severe cold snap in the winter of 1708/1709 and crops and livestock perished; this hit the Palatinate especially hard. Having survived this, by the end of the century, revolution in France and Napolean's conquering army meant the territory was subject to more upheaval and violence: all factors that catalyzed many Palatinates to leave for America, England and Ireland.

The Palatinates in America

The Palatinate history is notable to many modern Americans because of its connection to their German ancestry - many German immigrants from whom Americans are descended were originally inhabitants of the Palatinate and were forced to flee the area for a host of obvious reasons. Many Pennsylvania Dutch Americans were descendants of refugees from the Palatinate of the German Rhine. For example, the Swiss Anabaptists came to the Palatinate to escape religious persecution from Catholic Switzerland. However because of the instability of the region, their tenure in was short lived lasting one or two generations before renewing immigration to other parts of the world.

While many Palantine immigrants to the U.S. were interested in religious freedom, ultimately they wanted to be able to work and feed their families. The first wave of emigration of the Palatine Germans to America were to Pennsylvania in the late 1600s and lasted until the early 1700s. In the spring of 1709, the British monarch Queen Anne granted refuge to about 7,000 Palatines to England. She had granted temporary residence to these immigrants who then were for the most part either sent to Ireland to Penn's Colony in the America. Palatinate refugees continued to emigrate from Germany to American throughout the 18th century.


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