EARLY HISTORY – The Founding of Germantown


The Founding: 1683-1689

“Thirteen Quaker families from Krefeld, Germany founded Germantown in 1683.   Suffering from religious persecution and economic hardships in the Old World, the settlers brought with them essential skills in craft industries and a common desire to participate in William Penn’s ‘holy experiment.’  When the Krefelders arrived in Philadelphia they were joined by Francis Daniel Pastorius, the agent for a group of German land investors known as the German Society (later reorganized as the Frankfort Company).   Pastorius (born in Sommerhausen, Franconia on September 26, 1651) was a member of a wealthy, aristocratic German family; he was trained in the classics and in law.  He was welcomed by the Krefelders and became their leader.

Pastorius negotiated directly with William Penn on behalf of both the German Society and the Krefeld purchasers.  He agreed to a 5,700 acre tract of land, ‘the German Township,’ located six miles northwest of Philadelphia.  The township was divided equally between the German Society and the Krefelders and individual parcels were laid out on both sides of an old Native American Indian trail which bisected the entire tract.

The Germans were linen weavers and merchants and within a year of their arrival they were manufacturing linen and selling it in Philadelphia at a store operated by Pastorius.   In like fashion the Germans rapidly brought their religious beliefs to the forefront.  In 1686 Pastorius reported the construction of a kirchlein or ‘little church’.  Two years later he joined the Krefelders in the first public protest against slavery in America.  [See section below.]  By 1689 Germantown was a thriving little community of forty-four families who occupied most of the land along Germantown Avenue from present day Wister Street [See later section] to Washington Lane.”  (Mark Frazier Lloyd and Sandra Macenzie Lloyd, “Three hundred Years of Germantown History: an Exhibition Celebrating the Tercentenary of this Community,”  Germantown Crier: Germantown 1983 Tercentenary, Germantown Historical Society, Volume 35, Number 1, Winter 1982-83: 7)

“Although Francis Daniel Pastorius is associated chiefly with Germantown, he helped to shape the cultural life of Philadelphia, such as it was in the early days.   Pastorius was one of the few intellectuals in the province and owned the biggest library, an impressive collection of 250 books, mostly theological, in English, Latin, German, Dutch, and French.  He was also a prolific author and a compiler, who filled fifty manuscript volumes with chronicles, collections of moral sayings, poetry, and pedagogical exercises composed in several languages.  Though he was not a Quaker, Pastorius taught in the Philadelphia Quaker school as well as in Germantown.”   (Mary Maples Dunn and Richard S. Dunn, Philadelphia, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1982,  31)

The “German Township”, 1689-1779

“Germantown flourished in its first century, gradually evolving into a sophisticated ‘urban village’.  The population grew steadily and more diverse, so that by 1735 there were congregations of Mennonites [see text below], Brethren (also known as Dunkards and German Baptists)[see text below], Lutherans[see text below], and German Reformed in addition to the Quakers.  Complementing the religious diversity was the large number of crafts and trades practiced in Germantown: weaving, tanning, shoemaking, coopering and wagonmaking.  Two specialized crafts ­- papermaking and printing — helped Germantown retain its distinctively German community through most of the eighteenth century.  The Rittenhouse paper mill [see text below]supplied the Saur printing press [see text below] from the time of its first operation.   The Saurs’ German language press published newspapers, the first Bible printed in America in a European language and many religious tracts.  The Saur publications circulated among German communities throughout Pennsylvania as well as the Old World.   Germantown remained the center of German culture in America until the Saur press was closed and confiscated by the American revolutionaries in 1779.”  (Mark Frazier Lloyd and Sandra Mackenzie Lloyd, “Three Hundred Years of Germantown History: an Exhibition Celebrating the Tercentenary of this Community,” Germantown Crier: Germantown 1983 Tercentenary, Germantown Historical Society, Volume 35, Number 1, Winter 1982-83: 9)

Pastorius Monument
Vernon Park: Germantown and Chelten Avenues, Philadelphia

Pastorius Monument “This monument to the founding of Germantown in 1683 by Francis Daniel Pastorius was funded by a special act of Congress and by the German-American Association, and it has been hidden from view twice because of popular opposition. The artist, Albert Jaegers, was himself German-born. His commissions included the von Steuben memorial in Washington, D.C., and the statuary at the Customs House in New York City.Unveiling festivities for the Pastorius Monument were postponed because of the U.S. entry into World War I. Anti-German sentiment caused the government to dissolve the German-American Alliance, and the monument was encased in a large box by the War Department until its dedication in 1920. When the United States entered the Second World War, the monument was ‘boxed’ again and remained concealed until the war ended.” (Penny Balkin Bach, Public Art in Philadelphia, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992, 215)

The First Public Protest Against Slavery in North America, Germantown, Pennsylvania 1688
Historic Marker in Germantown

“Nearly 300 years ago, four men joined to write a strong statement against human injustice. They lived in Germantown, now a part of Philadelphia, having come to Pennsylvania only a few years before from their homeland, Germany. All were members of the religious group called the Society of Friends, or Quakers. And on April 28, 1688 they gathered to address the issue of slavery.

Francis Daniel Pastorius, the founder of Germantown in 1683, wrote for the group: ‘There is a saying that we shall do to all men like as we will be done ourselves; making no difference of what generation, descent or colour they are’.

According to Pastorius, Garret Hendricks, Derick up den Graeff, and Abraham up den Graeff, slavery contradicted the Golden Rule. White men did not want to be slaves. Therefore white men had no right to enslave black African men and women.

historic placard

In Pennsylvania, Pastorius continued, people had ‘liberty of conscience’ or the right to practice any religion they wished. The privilege did not exist in much of Europe and, in fact, was the reason why so many people left the Old World for William Penn’s new colony. Why then, Pastorius asked, would these same people who had suffered oppression oppress those ‘who are of a black colour?’

“By all standard measures, the Germantown protest failed.   Quakers continued to practice slavery in Pennsylvania as did increasing numbers of non-Quakers.  The Germantown protest itself disappeared for over 150 years.  It was rediscovered in 1844, a time when the debate over slavery was particularly heated.” (From a facsimile printed by Girard Bank in cooperation with the Wyck Association, Philadelphia, 1983.)

Historic RittenhouseTown
206 Lincoln Drive, Philadelphia

RittenhouseTown is the site of the first paper mill in the thirteen American Colonies. Wilhelm Rittenhausen, from the German city of Mulheim-Ruhr-Broich, “arrived in America from Holland in 1688 and, with his son, Nicholas, built a mill to manufacture fine white paper in 1690. This mill was William Penn’s pride, since such facilities were new in England. For over one hundred years, this area remained a center of papermaking in America.”

William Rittenhouse “was one of the earliest German settlers in this country, arriving just five years after the first Germans set foot on Pennsylvania soil. He became America’s first Mennonite minister and was, until his death in 1708, a central figure in this growing faith.

His descendants followed the tradition he began of hard work and dedication. Among these remarkable descendants of William Rittenhouse was his great-grandson, David Rittenhouse, born in the village in 1732. Mostly self-educated, he achieved international fame and respect in the fields of astronomy, mathematics, surveying, microscopy, physics and the science of measuring time. He was admired for his genius by many early American leaders including Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.” (From theRittenhouseTown in Philadelphia – The Birthplace of Paper in America brochure) 206 lincoln drCourtesy Robert L. Stocks

In 1779, David Rittenhouse was appointed the first Professor of Astronomy at the University of Pennsylvania, where he also “invented the first practical planetarium showing the movements of planets and satellites.” (Francis Burke Brandt and Henry Volkmar Gummere, Byways and Boulevards in and about Historic Philadelphia, Philadelphia: Corn Exchange National Bank, 1925, 141) David Rittenhouse succeeded Benjamin Franklin as president of the American Philosophical Society in 1791 and was followed by Thomas Jefferson. From 1792 to 1795, David Rittenhouse served the first U.S. Mint as its first director. His inventive genius was also displayed in the clocks he made. (Francis Burke Brandt and Henry Volkmar Gummere, Byways and Boulevards in and about Historic Philadelphia, Philadelphia: Corn Exchange National Bank, 1925: 138 & 140)