German Palatines in Colonial Charleston

This week we’re travel back in Lowcountry history to explore the topic of Germans immigrants in the early days of our community.

German Palatines in Colonial Charleston


Now hold on a minute—I know there are some listeners out there saying “well, I’m not really interested in German history,” but I promise you this topic is more interesting than you might think. To be honest, German history is not high on my list of personal interests, but I’ve recently spent some time researching this topic and it’s growing on me. Why? Because it’s a great story that helps us understand our community, and that’s what history’s all about. I’m not an expert on German history or German genealogy, but I know a good story when I see one. If you want to understand the expansion of South Carolina in the first half of the eighteenth century, or if you simply want to learn about the roots of our state’s German population, you need to hear this story, so stick around.

A ca. 1800 painting of the first St. John's Church, Charleston

A ca. 1800 painting of the first St. John’s Church, Charleston

I started down this path recently because some friends invited me to participate in a lecture series at St. John’s Lutheran Church in downtown Charleston. This year St. John’s is celebrating a number of anniversaries: 2017 marks the 275th anniversary of the first Lutheran services in the city of Charleston, and it’s also the 200th anniversary of the opening of their present church building at the corner of Archdale and Clifford Streets. And don’t forget, 2017 is also the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s historic dispute with the Catholic Church, which lit the fuse for the epoch-changing movement we call the Protestant Reformation. Those all sound like good reasons to have a lecture series, so I agreed to participate. When I asked the kind folks at St. John’s what sort of topic they’d like me to bring, they said “can you tell us about the origins of the German community that formed the congregation of St. John’s Church.”

From the beginning, I knew that I wasn’t going to have time to delve into the genealogy of specific individuals, or to comb through historic documents looking for details about the actual founding of the church. Rather, I set a different challenge for myself. I re-framed the question and reduced it to a more basic level. And here’s my premise for the rest of this program: If Carolina began as a staunchly English colony, how in the world did we end up with German immigrants here in the first place? Well, it’s a long, complicated story of international politics, warfare, and the timeless human pursuit of peace and prosperity. I’ll do my best to give you a brief but accurate summary of this multi-generation saga.

First, a bit of background, starting in seventeenth-century England. The roots of South Carolina date back to the year 1663, when King Charles II granted a large swath of land in North America to a group of men, styled Lords Proprietors, who had helped him regain the English Crown in 1660. We could talk for hours about the origins of the Carolina colony, but that’s a topic for another day. For the moment, the point is simply this: Carolina was a colony owned by Englishmen, to be governed under the laws of the English crown. This was before England was officially united with Scotland and Ireland. Starting in 1669, the Lords Proprietors of Carolina drew up a series of rules for the colony’s governance, which they called the “Fundamental Constitutions.” Among these rules was a clause welcoming settlers practicing a wide variety of religious beliefs. Many historians have pointed to this clause and concluded that the early Carolina offered a degree of religious freedom not found in most American colonies, or even in Europe at that time. But the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina were never formally ratified or put into effect here. They served as philosophical guidelines, but they were not strictly enforced. In theory, free land was granted to all free settlers, but in practice Anglicans got the best and the most land, while other Protestant denominations got some, and Catholics got none at all.

King Charles II died in 1685, and his brother, James II, ascended to the crown. Unlike Charles, who was at least nominally Anglican, James was a firm adherent to the Catholic religion, and this religious affiliation made many people in English government uneasy. For more than a century the country had experienced nearly constant strife between the adherents to the ancient Catholic traditions and the breakaway Protestant Church of England. Many people feared that King James’s religious affiliation would lead him to ally the country with England’s traditional enemies, France and Spain, which were both ruled by Catholic kings. Over the next several years, religious tension in England rose to a fever pitch. At the end of the year 1688 a Protestant Dutch prince, William of Orange, arrived in England with a small army, and King James Fled to France. From that moment on, England became a staunchly Protestant state. The arrival of William of Orange, who became King William III in 1689, brought England into an international conflict historians call the Nine Years’ War. Between 1688 and 1697, Europe witnessed a series of bloody battles that pitted Catholic nations like France and Spain against Protestant nations such as England, Holland, and parts of Germany. During the 1690s, the Church of England gained a strong grasp on the reigns of power, while non-Anglican Protestants, called “dissenters,” were increasingly pushed out of power.

Back in Carolina, we experienced a similar struggle. In the late 1690s and early 1700s, men loyal to the Church of England formed a strong party in our government, and they sought to prevent Dissenters, such as French Calvinists, Baptists, and Congregationalists, and Presbyterians from holding office or even voting. Because of our proximity to Spanish Florida and French Louisiana, and our fear of foreign spies, Catholics were most certainly not welcome in Carolina at this time. At any rate, the point is this: At the turn of the eighteenth century, Carolina was a staunchly Anglican colony whose leaders grudgingly tolerated the presence of dissenting immigrants from Scotland, Ireland, and France. In their eyes, these people were foreigners who should not enjoy the full rights and privileges of English citizens.

Back in England in the early 1700s, however, the political landscape began to change. A new international war had ignited in 1702 over the question of who would succeed to the Spanish crown—a Catholic or a Protestant king. As part of a Protestant alliance of powers, Queen Anne of England was under pressure to grant greater toleration of non-Anglican denominations. In 1707 England and Scotland were united by a treaty and acts of Parliament to become the new kingdom of Great Britain. The English and Scots were now on equal political footing in the English-speaking world, which included the colonies in America as well. But the Huguenots, French Protestant refugees who had been arriving in England since the 1680s, were still denied citizenship in their adopted home. In 1708 the British Parliament and Queen Anne gave consent to a new law for the naturalization of foreign-born Protestants. This act was a monumental change in political policies. By simply taking an oath of allegiance and receiving a sacrament in a Protestant church, any adult male could come to Britain (or one of its colonies) and become a bona-fide citizen.

For thousands of destitute Protestants in war-torn Europe, the British naturalization law was a welcome clarion call for emigration. In the span of one year, between 1708 and 1709, more than thirteen thousand German-speaking refugees headed for Britain. The vast majority of these people came from the southwest region of modern German, which at that time was a patchwork of small, independent principalities. Specifically, they came from a place then called the Electorate of the Palatinate, which is now part of the German Federal State of Rhineland-Palatinate. Their region had witnessed nearly a century of warfare, from the Thirty Years’ War that began in 1618, to the Nine Years’ War in the 1690s, to the current conflict known as the War of Spanish Succession. Most of them were poor farmers whose lands had been ravaged by invading French forces, severe winters, and crop failures. Pamphlets touting the advantages of free land in a distant place called Carolina were then circulating in Germany. Combined with assurances of British naturalization awaiting them, thousands of Palatine families made their way toward the port of Rotterdam, where they booked passage to England.

Almost overnight, it turned into a refuge crisis for Britain. Most of the resident population didn’t want or need the Palatines, as they were called, and plans to fund their passage to the colonies fizzled. Some were sent back to Germany, while others were relocated to Scotland and Ireland. A small percentage, less than a thousand, made it to North Carolina, where they helped settled a township called New Bern.

In the end, the Palatine exodus of 1708–1709 was an international calamity. In the ensuing years, denizens of the German Palatinate were forced to wait and see if Britain could get its act together and provide real assistance to needy immigrants. The War of Spanish Succession finally ended with a treaty in 1713, and in 1714 the English Queen Anne died without an heir. Into the void stepped the German Elector of Hanover, who became King George I of Great Britain. With this change in royal dynasty, the alliance between German and Britain was greatly strengthened, and the path for future Palatine emigrants to Carolina seemed clear. Unfortunately, a few obstacles fell into that path, and the Palatines would have to wait nearly twenty years for the opportunity to join us here in Charleston.

In the spring of 1715 the Yamasee Indians and their allies rose up against the European settlers of South Carolina and ignited a bloody war that lasted for nearly three years. During this desperate time, hundred of settlers were killed, and many more packed up and moved to other colonies. The Lords Proprietors back in England offered little assistance to the colonists during the Indian war, and frustration with our absentee landlords reached a breaking point. In December 1719 a number of colonists staged a bloodless coup or “revolution” against the government of the Lords Proprietors. The new rebel government petitioned King George to take over the administration of Carolina, and to purchase the colony outright from the Lords Proprietors. The king agreed, and in the spring of 1721 a provisional royal governor, Francis Nicholson, arrived in Charleston. The political climate stabilized a bit with Nicholson’s presence, but throughout the 1720s the economy of South Carolina remained unsettled. Negotiations between the British Crown and the Lords Proprietors dragged on until 1729, during which time the colony looked like it might collapse. South Carolina’s land office was closed during this decade, so there was no way to grant free land to new settlers. In short, South Carolina was a very unattractive colony between the years 1715 and 1730. If you were a poor Protestant looking to escape from war-torn Europe, colonies like Pennsylvania and New York were a lot more welcoming.

In late 1729 the royal purchase of South Carolina was completed, and the new owner, King George II, commissioned Robert Johnson to be our new governor. In the lengthy list of his royal instructions, Gov. Johnson was told to use his best efforts to get our legislature to pass an act to establish inland townships in South Carolina, as had already been done in a number of the American colonies. By settling new townships on the frontier, and offering free land and other assistance, this plan would render the colony safer from the threats of foreign invasion and domestic insurrection (that is, slave uprisings). Robert Johnson arrived in Charleston in mid-December 1730 and immediately called for new elections. The legislature convened in the spring of 1731, and on August 20th of that year they ratified “An Act for appropriating the sum of one hundred and four thousand seven hundred and seventy-five pounds one shilling and three pence farthing, towards the payment of the publick debts.” The title of this law might not sound very exciting, but it was the first in what would become a series of laws appropriating money to encourage the emigration of poor foreign Protestants to South Carolina. More specifically, this 1731 law initiated a series of incentives. First, it appropriated money for surveying and laying out a series of townships over the next few years. These townships were Amelia, Congaree (renamed Saxe-Gotha in 1735), Edisto (renamed Orangeburgh in 1735), Fredericksburg, Kings Town (later Kingston), New Windsor, Purrysburg, Queensborough, Williamsburg, and the Welsh Tract. Second, the Township Act, as we might call it, offered tools, provisions, and other assistance to poor Protestants, in addition to the fifty acres of free land granted to every free white man, woman, and child who came to South Carolina.

Before we go any further, I want to make one point very clear. In this period of South Carolina history, we weren’t grudgingly taking in poor refugees out of the kindness of our collective hearts. Quite the opposite. The colonists felt that South Carolina was too sparsely populated, and they were terrified by the fact that the enslaved African population outnumbered the free white population. Furthermore, the influx of poor German Protestants into Pennsylvania and New York had done wonders for the economy of those colonies, and South Carolina didn’t want to be left out of this trend. We desperately needed more farmers to move inland and grow crops such as wheat, flax, and hemp, and we needed more skilled tradesmen like blacksmiths, wheelwrights, and carpenters. By initiating and funding the Township scheme in the 1731, South Carolina was hoping to lure Germans away from those attractive northern colonies.

In 1731, the Reverend Jean-Pierre Purry led a group of Swiss Protestants into South Carolina, and they were granted land in a new township named Purrysburg, on the banks of the Savannah River. These immigrants were the first to take advantage of the township incentives offered by our government, but they were not of German extraction, so let’s keep the timeline moving ahead.

In January 1732, five months after the ratification of the Township act, South Carolina’s first newspaper commenced publication. Issues from the early days of the South Carolina Gazette survive in several libraries and on microfilm, so I’ve been combing through them in search of poor Germans coming here. The earliest reference I can find is in mid-December 1732, when a group of 49 Palatines arrived in the port of Charleston. Were these people part of the group of Palatines that had rushed to England in 1709? No, they were not leftovers from the great Palatine Exodus of 1709. They were simply the next generation of poor Protestants fleeing the Palatinate region of southwest Germany in search of a brighter future.

Over the next several years, a number of small groups of Palatines arrived in Charleston. Some were able to pay for their passage from Europe, and so they were considered free upon arrival. After taking an oath before the governor, most of them received warrants for their free land and supplies and headed west for one of the townships. A few, perhaps just a handful, remained in urban Charleston. Most of the incoming Palatines were not free, however. Unable to pay for their passage across the Atlantic, they were obliged to become indentured servants here. Upon arrival in Charleston, they were sold on board the vessel in which they arrived, much like African slaves; except, of course, they were entering into a contract to labor for a finite period of time, not the rest of their lives. After serving their time, these Palatines servants became free, and were entitled to the benefits of the Township scheme. Against, most them packed up and settled in one of the townships, but a small number remained in urban Charleston.

In March of 1734, a shipload of 300 German-speaking Protestants arrived in Charleston. These immigrants were not refugees from the war-torn region of the Palatinate, however. Rather, they were religious refugees from the Austrian province of Salzburg who had been evicted by their Catholic ruler. Lured by promises of free land from the trustees of the new Georgia colony, these Salzburgers, as they were known, proceeded on to Savannah and then to their new township called Ebenezer. In short, the German-speaking Salzburgers are part of Georgia history, but they’re important in this South Carolina story, too, so we’ll come back to them in a few minutes.

In the early 1730s, small groups of Palatines continued to arrive in the port of Charleston. In 1735 our legislature updated and improved the funding of the Township scheme, and in July of that year arrived a group of about 200 men, women, and children–the largest group yet. Most were poor farmers, obliged to sell their time as indentured servants. Some were skilled tradesmen, however, and had a bit more economic flexibility. How many settled in townships and how many remained in urban Charleston is a bit of mystery, however.

In the late 1730s, the resurgence of international warfare in Europe curbed the flow of poor Protestants across the Atlantic. In 1739 Britain formally entered a war that went by several names, depending on your perspective: The War of Jenkins’ Ear, the War of Austrian Succession, and King George’s War. Once again, Protestants and Catholic powers in Europe were involved in a war that spilled over into the Atlantic and the colonies. Coming to America was risky, but some tried it anyway. From reports in the newspapers of Charleston, Philadelphia, and New York, we know that shiploads of German Palatines were sometimes captured at sea and taken to foreign lands. How many set out for Carolina but never made it, we’ll never know.

Similarly, it’s difficult to determine the size population of German Palatines living in urban Charleston at the beginning of the 1740s. Even after a decade of immigration, the number must have been quite small, but there are no surviving records that tell us who they were or exactly how many families they comprised. Nevertheless, the small German community of Charleston received a visit in 1742 from Rev. Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, a Lutheran minister who was traveling through the colonies. Between his visits to the Ebenezer community in Georgia and the larger congregations in Philadelphia, Rev. Muhlenberg paused briefly in Charleston to conduct Lutheran services. For the present members of St. John’s Lutheran Church, these services conducted 275 years ago constitute the beginning of their congregation. Beyond Rev. Muhlenberg’s sparse notes about his visit, we know very little about the small community of German Palatines living in Charleston in 1742.

The War of Austrian Succession officially ended in 1748, and by 1749 the legislature of South Carolina was preparing to welcome a new wave of European immigrants. In a session-opening speech to the General Assembly in November 1749, Governor James Glen recommending an expansion of the bounty offered to poor Protestants. “Germany has been long the seat of war and has severely felt the calamities of it,” said Gov. Glen, “and it may be presumed there are many of her people who wish for a place of rest, in which they may enjoy the fruits of their own labour, as many of their countrymen do here, who sit undisturbed under their own Vine and their own fig tree.”

By the end of 1749, ships carrying Palatines were again arriving in Charleston. In the spring of 1751, the South Carolina legislature finally updated the Township act, this time offering cash bounties to incoming poor Protestants over the next five years, in addition to the customary free land, supplies, and provisions. By that time, Charleston’s German community was large enough to raise a subscription to hire a minister, although they were obliged to rent the French Huguenot Church for services. In August of 1753, the Lutheran congregation petitioned the government of South Carolina for free land in town on which they could build a church. Their request was turned down, but the Germans persevered for several more years, during another dark period of warfare.

Between 1756 and 1763 the Atlantic world witnessed fighting on five continents and at sea. During these seven bloody years of conflict, known as the Seven Years’ War, or the French and Indian War, the flow of immigrants to the American colonies once again slowed to a trickle. Nevertheless, the German community in Charleston was fruitful and multiplying. By the end of 1758 they had sufficient funds to build their own church, so they petitioned the South Carolina government for permission to do so. Shortly after their request was granted, in January of 1759, a group of trustees for the congregation purchased a piece of land in Charleston known as Lot No. 255 in the Grand Model or plan of the town. Construction of the church commenced soon thereafter, St. John’s opened for services in 1763.

That was good timing for the congregation, because it coincided with the conclusion of the Seven Years’ War. With the return of peace to the Atlantic world, the flow of poor Protestant immigrants quickly resumed. Between 1764 and the beginning of the American Revolution in 1775, Charleston welcomed several more cargoes of Palatines, and the town’s German population continued to prosper.

The migration of German Palatines into colonial South Carolina occurred principally in three distinct phases. Actually, they’re more like three windows of opportunity. The first window lasted about seven or eight years, from the commencement of South Carolina’s Township scheme in 1731 to the formal beginning of the War of Jenkins’ Ear in 1739. The second window of opportunity opened in 1749, after the conclusion of that war, and lasted for about seven years, until 1756, when the next international conflict, called the Seven years’ War, commenced. The third and final window for German migration to colonial South Carolina opened with the European Treaty of Versailles in 1763, and closed a dozen years later with the commencement of the American Revolution in 1775. The vast majority of German Palatines who came to colonial South Carolina arrived during these three windows of opportunity, but there were certainly others who managed to sneak past enemy warships on the Atlantic during times of conflict.

How many German Palatines came to colonial South Carolina? I don’t know of anyone who’s assembled an estimate of this entire population, but we can use the research of Robert Meriwether as a starting point. In his 1940 book, The Expansion of South Carolina, 1729–1765, Meriwether say he counted 1,300 petitions for bounty land made by newly-arrived or newly-free Palatines between the years 1748 and 1756 (that is, between the end of the War of Austrian Succession and the beginning of the Seven Years’ War). Based on these 1,300 petitions, Meriwether estimated the number of headrights at 3,700. That is to say, he estimated that at least 3,700 free Palatine men, women, and children received free land during this eight-year period. Since many of the newly arrived Palatines were obliged to serve as indentured servants for a number of years, they were ineligible for the land bounty until they were free. In short, the number of people arriving was probably higher. Based on Meriwether’s research and my own limited study of this topic, I would estimate that the total number of Palatines coming to colonial South Carolina ranges from as low as 6,000 to perhaps as high as 10,000. According to various notices published in the South Carolina Gazette advertising the sale of indentured Palatines men, women, and children, these Germans arrived in groups ranging in size from about 40 to as many as 500 at a time. To my knowledge, no one has combed through all of South Carolina’s colonial-era newspapers in an effort to compile an estimate of the total number of people being advertised. Someone should do that.

These people left their homes to face great risks in a foreign land they hardly knew. Once in South Carolina, the German Palatines formed a valuable part of our population that contributed greatly to the success and prosperity of this great state.