William Penn’s Quakers influence on our Pennsylvania Dutch history

Edited by walterp on . Posted in Germericana

By Richard L.T. Orth

Our Pennsylvania Dutch people who had immigrated to the American frontier were on the cutting edge of discovering New World goods and opportunities to create new Americana ways of life; not just simply copying their Old World ways, but creating exciting hybrid ones like our barns, hex signs, and rural folk art.

Successful farmers with iron forges and iron furnace manufacturing, they hauled their farm and iron products to the nation’s capital daily in participating with the Republic’s economy.

Thereby, these upstate Dutchmen were very familiar with English Georgian architecture as they passed the Quaker mansions of William Penn’s “Society of Friends” and the Grand Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776. And later, these same Pennsylvania Dutch people who frequented the port city of Philadelphia supported and signed the United States Constitution.

Rhineland immigrants followed in building Georgian and Federal mansions in southeastern PA not because they were outsiders (“Auslanders”), far from it, as they were devoted friends of William Penn and supporters of said Constitution as loyal American citizens. Photo by Amandus Moyer A family portrait

Among the many grand architectural English mansions built in the Oley and East Penn Valleys and surrounding area, the best example may be the Henry Fisher farm mansion in Oley Township. Built in 1801 by prestigious master carpenter, Gottlieb Drexel, he was the designer of several, beautiful early American Georgian English buildings.

However, there are several English mansions built by Oley Valley citizens with just as a magnificent edifice, like the 1808 Fredrick Spang mansion in the Colonial village of Spangsville comes to mind.

Forcing their children to become affluent with American English was to the farm family’s advantage when they took turns going to market in Philadelphia, where Philadelphians only spoke English when buying PA Dutch farm goods.

Since PA Deitsch immigrants in the area and surrounding seven Dutch counties only spoke their native Dialect, few were bilingual (able to speak English). Their folk world generally was limited to Berks County, Lehigh County, and so forth.

But in becoming intelligent citizens of our young Republic, “modernized,” older Dutchmen built these fashionable English Georgian mansions in keeping with the American way of life following main line Philadelphia, borrowing the architecture of William Penn’s Society of Friends. And conversely, Penn’s followers had a deep admiration for our hard-working farmers and our Amish and Old Order Mennonite cousins who were as religiously devout.

With such a culture and region of storied past, academic folklife studies emerged worldwide in the wake of a post WWII modern lifestyle created when simply natural fibers were replaced by new synthetic materials and mass-produced commercial foods changed a family’s traditional way of living.

However, folk cultures like Pennsylvania’s Amish and Old Order Mennonites had already surmised that some manmade innovations were to be avoided and were cautious of allowing social and material change in their religious orders.

The Americanism, PENNSYLVANIA DUTCH, has always indicated a broader group of immigrants who came to America in the pre-American Revolutionary period from Europe’s Rhine Valley, and should be preferred by all serious scholars over the term Pennsylvania German or German-American, the latter of which not Americanisms.

This early American cultural melting pot, mainly in southeastern Pennsylvania, was made up of naturalized Rhineland citizens who swore allegiance to the United States but assimilated with English laws and standards.

However, with everyday work habits and living customs, they followed in their native Rhineland fashion and continued this unique German dialect in America rather than formal High German, and thus become referred to and known as “Pennsylvania Dutch.”

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