Germantown Celebrates the Big 3-0-0!
By Kathryn Matthews
America was built on the backs of diverse immigrant groups. But when recalling those immigrants with hard-luck tales to tell, the Germans aren’t likely top-of-mind.
While Germany ushers in the 20th anniversary of its East-West reunification on October 3rd, Germantown, New York, in Columbia County will be celebrating its own dramatic piece of history during the first two weekends of October.
This fall marks the 300th anniversary of the Palatine German settlement in Germantown, and the town will be commemorating its founders’ unusual endurance and survival in colonial New York. “Their arrival was the single largest migration of any ethnic group in colonial times,” said Alvin Sheffer, a local historian of Palatine descent.
Small wonder, then, that in the US, more people claim to be of German ancestry than any other.
For perspective: compared with 103 Pilgrims who arrived on the Mayflower almost a century earlier, roughly 1,800 arrived in Germantown in 1710. At the time, the entire population of New York City was less than 6,000.
These Germans, mostly farmers and vintners from the Rhine River Valley in southwest Germany, a region known as the Palatinate, were driven out in 1708 by war and famine (courtesy of Louis XIV’s rampage) and lived as refugees in England. The English government sent some 3,200 Palatines to the New World to produce naval stores (resin-based components, made from pine trees, for ship-building). After a harrowing journey, the majority of surviving Palatines—about 1,800—landed on the east side of the Hudson River, what was then called “East Camp.” Unfortunately, once here, they discovered the indigenous white pine trees were the wrong kind needed to make tar and pitch.
The English government quickly abandoned the naval store project, and the Palatines were left to fend for themselves in a strange new land.
Hard times followed.
According to the 1713 writings of community leader Pastor Hager, the Palatines in Germantown endured an extended famine by boiling grass for meals, and their children ate leaves for sustenance. These facts come to us via Philip Otterness, author of Becoming German: The 1709 Palatine Migration to New York (Cornell University Press, 2004) and a professor of history at Warren-Wilson College in Ashville, North Carolina.
“Many had come believing that Queen Anne would give them free land—in return for settling it. That didn’t happen. And the Palatines felt bitterly betrayed by the British,” said Otterness in a telephone interview.
Their Hudson Valley legacy? “They were the laborers responsible for developing the properties held by large landowners, like socially prominent Robert Livingston, who owned 160,000 acres at the time,” according to Sheffer.
On Saturday, October 2nd, a day-long Palatine History Seminar will be held at the Reformed Church on Church Road in Germantown, where Otterness and Phoenix-based historian David Jay Webber will speak about the fascinating history of the Palatine migration.
Could Their History Be Yours?
Interest in Palatine genealogy runs deep—“on par with those whose ancestors settled in Jamestown or came over on the Mayflower,” said Sheffer.
How to delve your Palatine roots is another theme to be explored at the October 2nd Palatine seminar. National experts on the subject include prominent genealogist Hank Z. Jones, who for the past five decades has traveled to various villages in Germany to trace the origins of 600 of the 847 Palatine families who arrived in colonial New York. His books on the subject include the much-lauded “The Palatine Families of New York: 1710”.
Speaker Alice Clark will offer her guidance on Palatine DNA testing. Formerly Chief Operating Officer for JP Morgan Chase in Moscow, Clark, now retired, channeled her longtime passion for genealogy by becoming an administrator for the Palatine DNA Project. Her interest is personal: several years ago, Clark learned through DNA testing that she is a Palatine descendant on her mother’s side.
The most useful test, she says, is the Y-DNA test—the Y chromosome is what fathers pass onto their sons. Surnames, too, are important. In most cases, if a man is a direct descendant, his surname will be the same as an emigrant Palatine’s.
There will be no cheek-swabbing on October 2nd. Having gone through the test herself, Alice Clark will explain what’s involved and, should you decide to go ahead and do it, what you can do with the information—potentially connect with other branches of your Palatine family tree.
From the DNA Palatine Project, some common emigrant surnames with DNA matches have emerged, says Clark. These include: “Laux” (1710), now “Loucks”; “Graber” (1710), now “Graber”; “Faeg” (1710), now “Fake”; Jung (1710), now Young; “Hamm” (1710), now “Ham” or “Hamm”. Which, of course, begs the question: could Jon Hamm—Mad Men’s hunky Don Draper—be of Palatine descent? (Inquiring minds need to know!) “Presseler” (1710), another common surname, later morphed into “Presley”. Yes, according to Jones’ genealogical research, one iconic Palatine descendent was Elvis Presley!
Since last October, Christopher Lindner, professor of anthropology and archeologist-in-residence at Bard College, has been digging for clues around the Parsonage, the oldest standing building in Germantown for evidence of its original architecture and for indications of what daily life might have been like for the Palatines. Through October, the Palatine Artifacts Exhibit, featuring objects recovered from the dig, such as fragments of mid-18th century ceramic vessels, will be on display at the Germantown Library.
Artists in Action
Local artists, such as Dea Archbold and Kurt Holsapple, are contributing to the festivities. Archbold, a stained glass artist, and Holsapple, a sculptor, are cousins and 10th generation Palatines. Their commemorative sculpture for the anniversary celebration—still a work in progress—is the Palatine Analemma, located in Palatine Park. The sculpture, which will ultimately look like a dry stone wall, pays tribute to the role that the sun and practical astronomy played in the daily lives of Palatine farmers.
The Town has commissioned conductor, composer and longtime Germantown resident Harold Farberman, who is also the founder and artistic director of The Conductors Institute at Bard College, to compose a new work for the celebration. His “Palatine Cantata” premieres on Sunday, October 3rd, from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. at the Reformed Church in Germantown. Farberman created a libretto depicting the meeting between Queen Anne of England and Palatine leader Joshua Kocherthal, an encounter that ultimately resulted in the Palatines’ emigration to the New World.
He praises Germantown for its all-inclusive approach to the event: “More communities should do what Germantown has done: engage the artistic community in commemorating important events or anniversaries. I was pleased they sought me out.”
Will Farberman’s cousin, actress Lisa Kudrow, drop in for Germantown’s Tricentennial?
“We’ve worked together before,” he said of Kudrow, who is a Vassar alumnus, “but not this time!”
Then, from October 8 - 10, wear your best lederhosen or dirndl, if you dare, to The Palatine Oktoberfest at Palatine Park, where festivities continue full-throttle—complete with beer, bratwurst, and a German oompah band.
Germantown Tricentennial Heritage Weekend
October 2 & 3
Dutch Reformed Church
seminar tickets (Saturday only) $35/with lunch; $25/without; pre-registration recommended
concert, Sunday, October 3; 3 p.m., free
October 8 -10
Palatine Park, Germantown
Friday, October 8; 5 - 11 p.m.
Saturday, October 9; 11 a.m. - 11 p.m.
Sunday, October 10; 11 a.m. - 7 p.m.