Germans, 110,000 in all, formed the largest group of newcomers from the European continent. Most came from the valley of the Rhine River, which stretches through present-day Germany into Switzerland. In the eighteenth century, Germany was divided into numerous small states, each with a ruling prince who determined the official religion. Those who found themselves worshiping the “wrong” religion—Lutherans in Catholic areas, Catholics in Lutheran areas, and everywhere, followers of small Protestant sects such as Mennonites, Moravians, and Drinkers—faced persecution. Many decided to emigrate. Other migrants were motivated by persistent agricultural crises and the difficulty of acquiring land. Indeed, the emigration to America represented only a small part of a massive reshuffling of the German population within Europe. Millions of Germans left their homes during the eighteenth century, most of them migrating eastward to Austria-Hungary and the Russian empire, which made land available to newcomers.

A German-language illustratedfamily record from late seventeenth-century Pennsylvania. Numerous Germans settled in the colony, attracted by William Penn’s generous policies about acquiring land and his promise of religious freedom.

Wherever they moved, Germans tended to travel in entire families. English and Dutch merchants created a well-organized system whereby “redemptioners” (as indentured families were called) received passage in exchange for a promise to work off their debt in America. Most settled in frontier areas— rural New York, western Pennsylvania, and the southern backcountry— where they formed tightly knit farming communities in which German for many years remained the dominant language. Their arrival greatly enhanced the ethnic and religious diversity of Britain’s colonies.

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