A Catskill Catalog: June 27, 2012

The Thirty-Years War was brutal. The Schoharie Valley is beautiful. The two are linked.
From 1618 to 1648, the largely German-speaking people of central Europe were ravaged by near-constant warfare. Religion and politics were intertwined, as Protestant princes fought for sovereignty and independence from the Holy Roman Emperor and the Roman Church.

The Rhine River Valley was particularly decimated. That region’s ruler held the title of Count Palatine, an ancient title that made him the equivalent of a king in his own county. Efforts by the German Emperor to enforce imperial rule over this Palatinate led to fierce resistance, and the mid-Rhine Valley became a war zone.

Germans lost nearly a third of their population by the end of those 30 years of fighting, and the Rhine Valley Palatinate was left in shambles. The Palatinate was left Protestant and poor, feeling the after-effects of war for the rest of the century.

So when war broke out again in the beginning years of the 1700s, the Palatine Germans were already at the end of their collective rope. The Catholic forces of the King of France wreaked havoc on the mid-Rhine Valley, and when the winter of 1708-09 turned out to be a killing deep- freeze, desperate Palatines knew they had to escape. Rumors reached them that England’s Queen Anne was offering asylum to her fellow Protestants, that she would sponsor their passage to the New World if they could only reach England.

I always find it fascinating when we can trace something to its start. Today, 50 million Americans claim German ancestry, over 17 percent of our population. Thirteen German Christian Mennonite families settled in William Penn’s colony in 1683, establishing Germantown, Pennsylvania. But the first mass immigration of Germans to America happened right around our region in 1710.

Queen Anne was indeed looking for people to go to the American Colonies to produce naval stores for the growing British Navy and merchant fleet. Wooden sailing ships depended on tar, pitch, and resin to keep watertight; hemp fiber for the many ropes that connected the machinery of sail; and tall, straight timber for masts. The pine forests and available soil of the Queen’s new overseas empire seemed the perfect place to produce large quantities of all that a great sea power demanded.

So, literally, thousands of desperate men, women, and children fled their homes in the decimated German Palatinate on the Rhine and floated down the river to Rotterdam, in Protestant Holland, where, by force of sheer numbers, they demanded and got passage across the English Channel to answer Queen Anne’s call.

Louis XIV was at the height of his power in France. The Sun King’s armies dominated Europe, enforcing Catholic power and allegiance to the Roman Church as well as to the French King. England held power over the seas, and her Protestant Queen and the Queen’s Protestant government believed they had an obligation to the Lutheran and Calvinist Germans who sought relief. Besides, the colonies needed settlers and the navy needed those naval stores.

Over 3,000 Palatine Germans arrived in London. At first, the government dithered, then established a camp for them, then slowly made arrangements for their passage to the New World. Colonel Robert Hunter had recently been appointed Governor of New York Province. Robert Livingston owned thousands of acres on the Hudson River. The two developed a plan to settle the Germans on Livingston’s Manor. Hunter proposed the plan to the Queen. She liked it.

Twenty-six hundred German refugees packed 10 ships that set sail for America in April 1710. Many on board had been told they would be given the opportunity to settle a valley called Schoharie, that arrangements had been made with the Mohawk Indians there. In the minds of a number of people on board, this Schoharie was the ultimate destination of their oceanic immigration.

But reality was that the Palatine Germans were indentured, that they would be required to clear land and produce naval stores to pay-off their passage across the sea. Upon arrival in New York, the Germans were moved into camps: East Camp, on Livingston’s Manor, today’s Columbia County, and West Camp, near Saugerties today.

Both camps failed. Robert Livingston, ever the shrewd operator, failed to mention, when he made his business deal with the governor, that the pine trees needed to produce naval stores were in short supply on his property. The naval stores project failed.

Some families stayed on the Hudson, and East Camp became Germantown, in Columbia County. But many remembered the lands they had been promised in Schoharie. So, with few possessions dragged in sleds, 50 families of Palatine Germans trudged overland to the Schoharie Valley where, with the help of friendly Mohawks, they survived the winter of 1712-’13, and established farms.

Land title problems led some of the families to leave the Schoharie Valley a few years later for new settlements on the Mohawk River and in Pennsylvania. But for the next 125 years or so, German was the language of choice among many Schoharie families, and today, the Palatine German heritage of that valley is celebrated.