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Who are the Pennsylvania Dutch?

The Pennsylvania Dutch are a unique cultural group whose roots trace back to early German-speaking immigrants. They're renowned for their rich traditions, skilled craftsmanship, and strong agricultural heritage. With a language and lifestyle that echo centuries past, they offer a fascinating glimpse into a living tapestry of history. Discover how their enduring legacy shapes the region today. Ready to explore their world?
C. K. Lanz
C. K. Lanz

The Pennsylvania Dutch or Pennsylvania Germans are the descendants of several different groups of Germanic people who emigrated from Switzerland, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands to America before the 19th century. A majority still resides in Pennsylvania but there are smaller populations in Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Missouri, Kentucky and Minnesota. There is also a significant population in the Canadian province of Ontario. Pennsylvania Dutch people typically speak an eponymous West Central German dialect or a Swiss dialect and practice a variety of different faiths including Lutheranism and Anabaptist. The most prominent Pennsylvania Dutch populations in the United States are the Amish and the Mennonites although there are many individual Pennsylvania Dutch that are not members of either community.

The Pennsylvania Dutch began arriving in the United States after a religious dispute with the Catholic and Protestant churches of the 17th century forced many to flee persecution. As members of the Anabaptist movement, they asserted their right to be voluntary baptized as adults and not as infants. In 1693, the Amish broke away from the movement and formed its own Anabaptist church in Switzerland. As a result, the Amish and Mennonites are distinct but related groups within the Anabaptist movement.

Mennonites are among the most prominent Pennsylvania Dutch.
Mennonites are among the most prominent Pennsylvania Dutch.

The North American Amish population is generally viewed with curiosity by because of the Amish conservative and plain style of dress, self-imposed cultural isolation and selective use of technology and machinery. The Amish faith is Christian and the church emphasizes the values of nonresistance, lay leadership, community and isolation from modern society. An Amish person will not be baptized until he or she is at least 18 years old and has voluntarily decided to formally join the church and community, which the majority does. A non-Pennsylvania Dutch person who wishes to join the Amish church may do so only after learning the language and rules of the faith and community.

The Amish, a Pennsylvania Dutch population, eschew modern conveniences like electricity and cars.
The Amish, a Pennsylvania Dutch population, eschew modern conveniences like electricity and cars.

A common association with the Amish Pennsylvania Dutch is the apparent rejection of technology. It is true that most technology, including televisions and computers is often not permitted but other kinds of technology and machinery, may be used selectively. The decision to permit or forbid the use of a certain type of technology depends on whether the technology in question is viewed as potentially harmful to the community in some way.

Ancestors of the Pennsylvania Dutch immigrated to the United States from Switzerland and other European countries before the 19th century.
Ancestors of the Pennsylvania Dutch immigrated to the United States from Switzerland and other European countries before the 19th century.

For example, a car is seen as dangerous because it could lead to people living further apart and thus destroying close community bonds. In contrast some farm equipment, tools and even turn signals on buggies are used by the Amish because these items are not perceived as threatening to values or the Amish way of life.

Mennonites are Anabaptists like the Amish with an equally strong adherence to nonviolence. Unlike Mennonites, the Amish practice shunning and hold communion with greater frequency. In addition, a Mennonite man does not grow a beard and many New Order Mennonites accept technologies such as cars and electricity. The Mennonites are generally more integrated into mainstream American society than the Amish. Ultimately, there is a great diversity of beliefs and ways of life among the different groups that make up the Pennsylvania Dutch population in the United States.

Frequently Asked Questions

Who are the Pennsylvania Dutch and where did they originate from?

The Pennsylvania Dutch are a cultural group formed by early German-speaking immigrants to Pennsylvania and their descendants. The majority of these settlers were from the southwestern regions of Germany, including the Palatinate, Baden-Württemberg, and the Rhineland, as well as from Switzerland. They arrived in significant numbers during the 17th and 18th centuries, seeking religious freedom and economic opportunities. Despite the name, the Pennsylvania Dutch are not Dutch but rather Deutsch, the German word for 'German'.

What language do the Pennsylvania Dutch speak, and how has it evolved?

The Pennsylvania Dutch speak a dialect of German known as Pennsylvania German or Pennsylvania Dutch. This language has evolved over the centuries, incorporating elements of English and adapting to the American context. It is still spoken today, particularly among traditional Amish and Mennonite communities. According to the Pennsylvania German Society, there are approximately 250,000 to 300,000 speakers of Pennsylvania German in the United States and Canada.

What are some distinctive cultural practices of the Pennsylvania Dutch?

The Pennsylvania Dutch are known for their rich cultural heritage, which includes distinctive practices such as quilting, folk art, and barn painting with hex signs. They are also renowned for their agricultural expertise and traditional foods like shoofly pie, scrapple, and apple butter. Their religious observances, community-focused lifestyle, and use of horse-drawn buggies among the Amish are also notable aspects of their culture.

How have the Pennsylvania Dutch contributed to American society?

The Pennsylvania Dutch have made significant contributions to American society, particularly in agriculture, craftsmanship, and foodways. They are credited with introducing various farming techniques and crop varieties, as well as contributing to the craft of furniture making and construction with their high-quality workmanship. Their cultural events, such as fairs and markets, have also become part of the broader American cultural landscape.

Are the Pennsylvania Dutch communities growing, and how do they maintain their traditions?

The Pennsylvania Dutch communities, especially the Amish, are experiencing growth due to their high birth rates. According to research by Elizabethtown College's Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies, the Amish population doubles approximately every 20 years. These communities maintain their traditions through strong family structures, religious practices, and community-based education, which emphasizes the transmission of cultural values and the Pennsylvania German language to the next generation.

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Discussion Comments

Ruggercat68

I like to visit Pennsylvania Dutch country every so often and buy hex signs and other Pennsylvania Dutch designs. the Pennsylvania Dutch visitors' bureau is also an interesting place to contact if you want to know more about the community in general.

RocketLanch8

I grew up in Pennsylvania Dutch country, and I remember visiting an Amish-run restaurant that featured Pennsylvania Dutch foods, like scrapple. They did have electricity and modern refrigeration, mostly because of health department regulations, but they made everything from scratch. It was a wonderful place to visit, and there was a farmers' market nearby where other Amish or Mennonite families sold homemade products.

My mother's maiden name was Stouffer, so I have often wondered if her father's family was Pennsylvania Dutch or not. That part of western Pennsylvania definitely has a different accent than the rest of the area.

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    • Mennonites are among the most prominent Pennsylvania Dutch.
      By: Stephanie Frey
      Mennonites are among the most prominent Pennsylvania Dutch.
    • The Amish, a Pennsylvania Dutch population, eschew modern conveniences like electricity and cars.
      By: razvanmatei
      The Amish, a Pennsylvania Dutch population, eschew modern conveniences like electricity and cars.
    • Ancestors of the Pennsylvania Dutch immigrated to the United States from Switzerland and other European countries before the 19th century.
      By: pavalena
      Ancestors of the Pennsylvania Dutch immigrated to the United States from Switzerland and other European countries before the 19th century.