Lower Merion Historical Society

The Lower Merion Historical Society

« David J. Schmidt Collection

Immigration, the great equalizer

By David Schmidt
Special to the Main Line Life

Everyone who lives along our Main Line lives here because an ancestor was an immigrant.

Even if the blood of the Lenape flows through your veins, they too were immigrants, coming to this land late at least in history’s eyes. Whether there were people here before the Lenape is something not yet, and perhaps never, to be known. But the term “native American” is as much a misnomer for them as it is for the proudest Welsh Quaker resident, 9 or 10 generations off the boat. They are all neither native nor American.

What is native is the land, and that was what brought humans here. Anyone who has taken care of a home garden knows that this is a land of great fertility — throw seeds out and they grow. (And if they are weeds, they grow even faster) That it was available and inexpensive, or even free, and it’s no wonder people have been immigrating here for more than 300 years.

The Earliest Immigrants
In 1609, Henry Hudson, sailed his ship, the Half Moon into Delaware Bay, giving the Dutch a claim to the area. After Hudson’s time, the Dutch navigators Cornelis Hendricksen (1616) and Cornelis Jacobsen (1623) explored the Delaware region more thoroughly, and trading posts were established on Pennsylvania soil in 1647. Some of these explorers became immigrants, the difference being only whether they planned on staying until their deaths. While their presence and impact was small, it had an effect on the politics of colonization: if one country possessed something, then another nation must desire it.

The Swedes were the first to make permanent settlement, beginning with the expedition of 1637-1638 which occupied the area that is now Wilmington, Del. In 1643, Governor Johan Printz of New Sweden established his capital at Tinicum Island within the present limits of Pennsylvania.

Trouble broke out between the Swedes and the Dutch, who both had trading posts along the rivers. In what is almost a Keystone Cops routine, in 1655, Dutch Governor Peter Stuyvesant seized New Sweden and made it part of the Dutch colony. In 1664, the English seized the Dutch possessions, which included the Delaware Valley region. While none of these made much historical differences, in one way it did. With each iteration, a few more people, whether they were Swedes, Dutch, English, or Indian settled in the region.

Penn brought the Quakers, most of whom were Britains, whether English Irish or Welsh, and they settled in Philadelphia and the area immediately outside of it. More importantly, Penn brought a refuge for religious tolerance into a European world which had little religious peace in its history.

With political systems exploiting religious differences, the cleverer of the persecuted now had a place to go where they could practice their religion openly and without fear of war or even too much persecution. French Huguenot and Jewish settlers, together with Dutch, Swedes, and other groups, contributed in smaller numbers to the development of colonial Pennsylvania.

This mixture of this different groups in the Quaker Province made Pennsylvania more than just a backwater colony. Founded on the high intellectual principles of the day, and actually practicing them helped Philadelphia became the metropolis of the British colonies and a center of intellectual and commercial life.

That isn’t to say that Pennsylvania’s settlers were icons, they weren’t. The German immigration had begun the same year as the Welsh with the Mennonite Francis Daniel Pastorius, who came to Pennsylvania with some German Quakers in 1683 and founded Germantown, the pioneer German settlement.

Early Quakers attempted to keep German settlers of the same era from being able to participate in government, perhaps a holdover of the old Welsh Barony concept of a Welsh Quaker land governed by Celtic tradition and Quaker principles. Although they were successful for awhile, it wasn’t their religion the Welsh objected to, it was their language and customs.

With an attitude that might continue to this day, the Welsh felt the area across the Schuykill at Germantown was good place for them to stay. On a personal level, there was little animosity, and many Germans were active early in the area’s history, most of these first Germans were from the Rhineland Palatinate, in what is now Germany. At that time there was no German state, what is now Germany was a series of kingdoms and principalities the people of which considered themselves Germans.

They, were for the most part, members of the smaller sects who came and settled as groups–Mennonites, Amish, Dunkers, or German Baptists, Schwenckfelders, and Moravians. Unlike many cultures, where the men emigrated, created a certain amount of success then brought their families, German immigrants traveled in family groups and were attracted by the opportunities of American life: abundant work, land, food, and freedom on the one hand and the absence of compulsory military service on the other.

Thanks to the great variety of wars on the European continent, German immigrations after 1727 included mostly members of the larger Lutheran and Reformed churches. Their farming skills made their region of settlement a rich agricultural area. By the time of the American Revolution, Germans numbered about 100,000, more than a third of Pennsylvania’s population.

Many settled in what is now considered the Main Line, becoming farmers and are often remembered for being tavern owners. In 1769 six Germans banded together and bought a 66-acre farm at a sheriff’s sale to use for a church and burial site. They build a log chapel. That church, called St Paul’s Lutheran Church continued through the centuries, expanding and building both the facility and the congregation. The congregation today worships in a typical German Gothic church built in 1957.

Although the German’s are better known for settling more heavily in the interior counties, in our region they ran taverns, mills, worked the land, smithed and generally and generously contributed to the growing prosperity of the region. That prosperity was a beacon to later groups of German immigrants who traversed the area on their way to settle in Pittsburgh, Ohio and points west where considerable German populations still exist.

The term Pennsylvania Dutch was a bastardization of the German name for themselves, the Deutsch. While they, and the smaller Mennonite and Amish groups are better recognized, most of the German settlers assimilated into their communities without difficulty.

Free Country, free land
Following independence, the commonwealth adopted generous land policies, distributed free “Donation Lands” to Revolutionary veterans and offered other lands at reasonable prices to actual settlers. There was no shortage of growth, although European immigration faced a practical problem which, in the long run, brought even more people to American shores.

In Europe the Napoleonic War had displaced peoples from both Central and Western Europe, and the war raged virtually throughout the continent, with nations conquered or forced to choose sides. These unsettled times brought pressure to emigrate, but with war at every turn, it was difficult.

But by the end of the third decade of the 18th century things exploded. While about 250,000 Europeans had come in the first three decades of the 19th century, 10 times as many arrived between 1830 and 1850.

One group that was able to continue coming were the Irish. Unlike their Quaker and German counterparts, the Irish immigrants in the 1820s were mostly young men, often hotheaded and on the run from the stifling British occupation of Ireland.

They, however, were some of the most important members of early American society, in spite of their unsavory reputation and habits. The were the builders that started American on its path towards the Industrial Age. The dug the canals and built the railroads almost singlehandedly.

However, they were too poor to buy land, lacking in skills, disorganized, and members of a faith considered alien and even dangerous by many native Americans, Catholicism. In 1776 there were only 59 Catholic churches in the colonies, and most of them were in the Catholic colony of Maryland.

The extraordinary conflicts of the Reformation in Europe had polarized attitudes towards Catholics which lasted well into the 20th century. In spite of the strong religious tolerance in the Welsh Tract, the Irish workers building the Columbia Railroad or working the mills suffered various forms of ostracism and discrimination.

Adding to the woes of the first generation of Irish immigrants was the tendency of many disgruntled natives to treat the newcomers as scapegoats who allegedly threatened the future of American life and religion. In the North, only free blacks were treated worse.

These first Irish were strong and healthy and quick to violence, so integrating into society wasn’t going to happen. The second wave of Irish immigrants only made matters worse. These were people escaping the potato famine, and they arrived malnourished and weak, needing help to become healthy and able to care for themselves.

While the Quakers were at ease with religious tolerance, they were also conservative, even staid, politically and socially. Not for them the roughhousing violent and swaggering lifestyle of the Irish roustabouts. It wasn’t until later in the 19th century when with the help of the Catholic Church to help with a domestic labor shortage and then have a reason to build churches in the suburbs that Irish really became parts of their communities.

The Scotch-Irish immigration, which began on a large scale after 1713 and continued past the American Revolution, was more evenly distributed. Even the name is insulting, because to a Scotsman, Scotch is something you drink. Their name came from the fact that they were descendants of Protestant Scots forcibly moved to northern Ireland. The remained segregated if for no other reason than they were Protestants in a Catholic province. Eventually they would be known as Orange Irish.

They were better thought of than their southern brethren, with whom they had little in common. Not many stayed, although they and Scottish Protestants did bring Presbyterianism to the Main Line. They were primarily frontiersmen, pushing first into the Cumberland Valley region and then farther into central and western Pennsylvania. They, with immigrants from old Scotland, numbered about one-fourth of the population by 1776.

African American
Despite Quaker opposition to slavery, about 4,000 slaves were brought to Pennsylvania by 1730, most of them owned by English, Welsh, and Scotch-Irish colonists. The census of 1790 showed that the number of African-Americans had increased to about 10,000, of whom about 6,300 had received their freedom.

As a result of the Gradual Emancipation Act of 1780, the 3,737 African American slave population of 1790 dropped to 64 by 1840, and by 1850 all Pennsylvania African Americans were free, unless they were fugitives from the South. The Pennsylvania African American community had 6,500 free people in 1790, rising to 57,000 in 1860.

Most Northern blacks possessed theoretical freedom and little else. Confined to menial occupations for the most part, they fought a losing battle against the inroads of Irish competition in northeastern cities. The struggle between the two groups erupted spasmodically into ugly street riots.

The hostility shown free blacks by the general community was less violent but equally unremitting. Discrimination in politics, employment, education, housing, religion, and even in cemeteries resulted in a cruelly oppressive system. But unlike a slave, the free Northern Negro could criticize and petition against his subjugation, but this proved fruitless in preventing the continued deterioration of his situation.

The Quakers were in the forefront, however, of creating jobs for African Americans, and many came to the Main Line because of those attitudes. The lower sections of Ardmore were historically black communities, and with the coming of the railroads more jobs opens up for them. Later Paoli became a staging area for sleeping and dining cars, and since virtually all the domestic servers on railroads were black, a black community sprung up there, where dining and sleeping cars were added to trains heading west, and dropped off before the passenger trains pulled into Philadelphia.

Later Immigrants
From the earliest days of the republic until 1895, the majority of immigrants had always come from northern or western Europe.

Beginning in 1896, however, the great majority of the immigrants were from southern or eastern Europe. At that time there was more than a little disagreement of whether free immigration should be continued, and the numbers were limited, as they remain today.

However one group that was welcome were the Italians. Narberth, for instance, was known as an Italian community, although many of the workers were here for the work and wages, and returned to their homeland with enough money to purchase land for their families there. But many stayed.

They included skilled stoneworkers who arrived in the late 19th century to build the communities and more importantly, the mansions of the rich. With the availability of rapid transportation, the wealthy were moving out of the crowded, dangerous and dirty city into the bucolic suburbs along the Main Line.

The final, and largest group of immigrants to the area came during the 20th Century. These were the urban middle class, Finally freed by the automobile from living near their work, they too joined, and are still joining, the mixture of people, ideas and charming communities which are now what the world means when it speaks of the Main Line.