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Why We Immigrated

Anabaptism was one of the currents of the sixteenth century radical Reformation. It originated in Switzerland. It differed from the Lutheran or Calvinist Reformation in that it refused child baptism. It advocated adult believers' baptism and re-baptised those who had received child baptism. Hence the term "Anabaptist" meaning "re-baptiser". They likewise refused to be armed, to take public office, or to take oath which caused problems for them because they no longer were a source of tax income for the state, nor could they be conscripted to fight the state's wars. For these reasons their pacifist tendencies were considered dangerous by the government and so they were chased away and persecuted without mercy.


Welcomed in Strasburg by the Reformers, the Anabaptists soon spread all over Alsace. They held secret meetings and travelled throughout Alsace preaching evangelical pacifism. They were imprisoned, especially in Riquewihr where their presence was of considerable size. 


In the course of the upheavals wreaked of the Thirty-Year war (1618-1648), except for a few towns, Alsace became French in 1648. The entire province was devastated and its population annihilated as a result of disease, famine and military action. After the war, the king and the princes did their utmost to encourage immigration by offering fallow lands and tax breaks. These measures attracted numerous Swiss Anabaptists including our relatives.


In 1635-36, there was an upsurge of persecution in the canton of Zurich, the cradle of Anabaptism. Because of their pacifism, Anabaptists were considered as rebels. Adults were jailed, children placed in foster care and possessions confiscated. The situation was similar in the canton of Berne of in 1670-71 with, in addition to other measures, deportation on Venetian galleys. This is the period when the "Martyr's Mirror", a compilation of stories and testimonies of Anabaptist martyrs who baptized only upon confession of faith, and who suffered and died for their beliefs. The martyrs were drowned, burned at the stake, tortured, boiled, or otherwise tormented to death and the stories tell of the songs of faith that they sang as they died, defenseless in the Anabaptist belief in non-resistance. The book is quite detailed and is considered historically accurate. Most Amish and many Mennonnites still have this volume on their bookshelf as it is still published and available today.


With the support of the Dutch Reformed community and the Alsace Anabaptists, the Swiss Anabaptists managed to overcome numerous difficulties and emigrate or smuggle themselves to Alsace, many times via an "underground Anabaptist railroad" which the elder Jacob Hochstetler is alleged to help run. From 1650 onwards, they settled where no one else wanted to do so and restored farms and windmills on a number of run down domains in the area. Anabaptists gathered in this area because it became known for its religious tolerance. Although Anabaptism first developed in cities, it then became rural. In 1660, at the Ohnenheim windmill, they adopted a common confession of faith that had been composed years earlier. This confession of faith is still in use in the Amish communities in the United States.


Anabaptists obtained the right to gather in remote areas. The offices of preacher, elder and deacon were elective. Besides the Bible, Anabaptists used a hymnal called "Ausbund". Most of its hymns had been composed in prison by fellow believers. It is still in use amongst the Amish.


At the end of the seventeenth century, about sixty families from the Berne area settled in the valley of Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines under the leadership of Jacob Amann. The immigrant Jacob Hochstetler's father, also named Jacob, is believed to have been a neighbor and a follower of this humble man. Amann felt offended by the lifestyle and discipline of the Alsatian Anabaptist community and requested more rigorous rules, in particular a dressing code advocating a more simple attire and a practice called "shunning" which ostracized those who broked the community's rules. The new community was called "Jacob Amann's party" and later became "the Amish" in the United States. It originated in 1693 after their cultural separation from the Anabaptists (their faith remained the same). They mostly gathered around Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines where they grew in numbers until the migrations began to America.


Many continued to seek escape from the intolerant Catholic rulers of the time which seemed to follow them where ever they went. Some, including our ancestors, became so distraught of their environment that they took the long, arduous and treacherous journey from their homeland to this new land called America that offered religious freedom to anyone who lived there. The missionary zeal of William Penn, who made many converts among the Swiss German immigrants to the Quaker persuasion (also Anabaptist) was one of the primary incentives for the start of the eventual mass migration to America. Penn had secured a royal charter in 1681 for land in Pennsylvania and the terms for purchases were made reasonable to all purchasers. 


Anabaptists poured into Pennsylvania by the thousands during the 1700s. Some had the wanderlust, others were attracted to the prospect of farming large tracts of land where the climate and alkaline soil were similar to that of Alsace. Many just wanted to leave an area that was plagued with wars, religious strife, and high taxes to support an army and a lavish monarchy.


There were two ways that religious refugees could pay for their voyage from Alsace, Germany, or Switzerland to Philadelphia. One could pay cash or one could agree to be an indentured servant in America for a range of two to eight years. A conservative estimate of the ship's passenger fare was the equivalent of $176.00 dollars in cash, a considerable sum in the 1700s. The payment was due upon arrival at Philadelphia. If passengers lost their money along the way, they were forced to be indentured.


The usual route from SW Germany was a trip down the Rhine River to Rotterdam, Holland; passage by ship to a port in England; and from there across the Atlantic to Philadelphia. The route seems rather straightforward and gives the impression of continuous travel time. In reality this was not the case.


The trip down the Rhine River by Gottlieb Mittelberger, a native of Wuerttemberg, was held up so often by thirty or forty custom houses, not always conveniently open, that five to six weeks passed before he reached Rotterdam. In Holland he experienced another delay of five or six weeks before the ship was ready to sail.


Sailing time from Rotterdam to England ranged from eight to fourteen days or longer, depending on the weather. After arriving at a port in England, passengers had to wait a week to ten days, until the ship was ready to make Atlantic crossing.


Today, a flight by passenger jet from London to Philadelphia is about a seven-hour duration. In 1750 the same trip by ship lasted about two to three months, depending on how favorable the wind was.


Because of the many delays experienced since they left the regions of Alsace and the Rhineland, most passengers had used up their last bit of travel money and meager supply of food reserved for the long voyage by the time their ship set sail from England. The situation became even more desperate in overcrowded ships with inadequate supplies of food and water. In the 1700s the causes of diseases were unknown and people seldom bathed, even under more favorable circumstances. Soap was seldom used to cleanse the body, the toothbrush was unheard of and the flushing toilet was not yet invented. When 200 to 300 people are crowded together in a ship for a duration of two or three months, a hellishenvironment emerges. Suffocating stench, dysentery, swarms of lice, scurvy, cold, dampness, hunger and thirst prevail.


Children, ages one to seven years, seldom survived the long voyage. Gottlieb Mittelberger reported seeing at least 32 bodies of children cast into the sea during his voyage.


Henry Melchior Muhlenberg wrote in his diary on August 30, 1742, that due to the severe shortage of water on board, passengers collected rain water using any kind of cloth or rags they could find, then wrung out the dirty water into tubes and barrels. The collected water, although "bitter to taste", was preferred over the foul remnant of drinking water on ship. Two weeks later all the water was gone. Someone thought of displaying a Spanish flag to attract an English war ship. The plan worked, the ship was stopped, and water was delivered.


One German newspaper reported how rats on board a ship survived the water shortages. Some of them gnawed out the stoppers of bottles of vinegar, dipped their tails down into the liquid, then drew their wet tails through their mouths. Others at night would lick the perspiration off the brows of people who were asleep.


By the time the passengers arrived at Philadelphia and walked down the gangplank (if they could walk at all), they must have looked like emaciated survivors of a concentration camp - no resemblance at all to the healthy robust immigrants we see in the Hollywood movies, stepping ashore lightly with a heavy trunk on their shoulder!


One such escapee, Jacob Hochstetler, age 26, arrived in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on Nov. 9, 1738 with his wife and two small children on the ship Charming Nancy. They spoke the language of the land they left which was very similar to an early form of "Pennsylvania Dutch". The young family settled in the Northkill area of what is now Berks County, Pennsylvania with others of their faith, called Amish Mennonites in the New World. Here, near Shartlesville, additional children were born. The economy of the Amish community was based on farming, and they tried to live peaceably with all people.


Another such traveler from the Schwarzenburg area of Canton Bern, Harold Hostettler, wrote a poem about this journey and his experience in the new land. The song was put to different music and a variety of melodies, but in the absence of radio and newspapers the song became a form of mass media that encouraged those of strong heart to follow the example of these courageous zealots who were driven to find a way to worship their God the way they wanted to. In order to hear this significant song as interpreted and performed by a family friend and Swiss citizen, Urs Hostettler, just click on this "Amerikalied" link and you will be entertained by a song from a relative that was written several centuries ago that speaks of the dreams and difficulties of adapting to life in America.

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