People of German descent are one of the largest ethnic groups in the United States.  They came to be known by the misnomer “Dutch” because Germans refer to themselves as Deutsch.  Germans’ persistent and hardworking nature allowed them to thrive in backcountry settlements such as the Southern Appalachians.  People of German heritage have contributed greatly to American society and culture.  They like other European Americans left their homeland to escape poverty, hunger, religious persecution, and establish a better life.

Intolerable Conditions

The majority of German immigrants to the United States were from the Palatinate, a fertile area of the southern Rhine River Valley.  In the 17th and 18th centuries the people of the Palatinate suffered from seemingly constant hardship.  Peasants were dominated by feudal lords who taxed the poor heavily in order to support their lavish lifestyles.  The official faith of a particular region was determined by its ruler.  Therefore, peasants whose religion differed from that of their lords faced persecution.  The exploitation of the people of the Palatinate by their lords was not all that they had to suffer. Map of the Appalachians

The Palatinate was repeatedly invaded during the Thirty Years War, (1618-1648).  Invading armies burned towns and crops across the Palatinate during this conflict.  Before the region could recover from this terrible devastation, Louis XIV, king of France, renewed the persecution of Protestants.  His armies invaded the Palatinate multiple times in the 1680s and 1690s to bolster France’s claims in the region.  Then natural disaster increased their hardship.  The harsh cold of the winter of 1708-1709 killed fruit vines and trees, froze wine in casks, and killed livestock.  Louis XIV continued his invasions of the Palatinate during the war of Spanish Succession (1701-1714) hoping to win the throne of Spain for his grandson Philip.  A European wide famine in 1740 and 1741 again made life in the Palatinate unbearable.  These successive hardships encouraged the people of the Palatinate and neighboring areas to leave in droves.  In the 17th and 18th centuries, the Palatinate would lose hundreds of thousands of inhabitants.

Immigration and Pennsylvania

            One of the most inviting areas for the people of the Palatinate to settle was the colony of Pennsylvania.  William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania, a devout Quaker, hoped to make his colony a haven for all Protestants.  Penn personally traveled to the Palatinate in 1682 to encourage the people there to settle in Pennsylvania.  In October 1683, thirteen German families, the first organized group, arrived in Philadelphia and soon established Germantown.

The port of Philadelphia was the primary landing place for immigrants arriving directly from Germany.  In the spring of 1709, approximately one thousand Germans arrived in the British-American colonies per week following the harsh winter of 1708-09.  By 1776, approximately 110,000 Germans had immigrated to the British-American colonies.  The majority arrived in Pennsylvania, but as competition for good land increased, the  Germans, like their neighbors the Scots-Irish, began to look for new territory on which to settle.

Germans in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia

The first European to see the Valley of Virginia, on August 20th, 1670, was a German named John Lederer.  Lederer had been hired by Virginia governor, Sir William Berkeley, to gather information on the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Map of the Appalachian Mountains

The fertile Shenandoah Valley between the Blue Ridge and Allegheny Mountains attracted settlers looking for good land to farm.  The earliest German settler in the valley was Adam Miller (also spelled Muller and Mueller) who arrived between 1726 and 1727. In 1727 German settlers established New Mecklenburg which was incorporated in 1762 as Shepherdstown.  The now famous historic town of Harper’s Ferry was established at the Great Falls, the junction of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers, by a German Robert Harper in 1734.
In the early 18thcentury, increased French activity in the Ohio country prompted Virginia’s government to take actions to defend the Old Dominion’s western claims.  Therefore, in 1730 Virginia’s laws were changed to grant land speculators a thousand acres for each family they could settle west of the Blue Ridge, a law intended to create buffer settlements, of primarily Scots-Irish and Germans, in the mountains to protect  older settlements in the Piedmont and Tidewater regions.  German Jost Hite established one of these buffers communities, the Opequon settlement, in 1731.

Recently arrived immigrants from Germany finding less land available than they had hoped for in Pennsylvania, along with second and third generation settlers, gladly took up the offer of cheap and fertile land in the Shenandoah Valley. Large numbers of Germans from Pennsylvania swept into the valley before and during the American Revolution.  After the Revolution, Germans pushed into the Southern slope of the valley below Lexington.  This protected and profitable valley became a predominantly German area before the 19th century.

Germans in the Mountains of North Carolina

A picture of the Appalachian Mountains.

For frugal German people the inexpensive land in the Great Smoky Mountains of western North Carolina was a wonderful temptation.  This was especially true after North Carolina established a free “headright system” in the late 18th century.  This “headright system” gave one hundred acres to male heads of household who were willing to settle in western parts of the state.  The Germans of western North Carolina generally migrated from Pennsylvania to the Yadkin River Valley.  When the Yadkin valley began to become crowded, children of settlers there moved to the Catawba River Valley.  As the next generation grew to adulthood, and desired their own decently sized farms, they moved west again.  A few migrated directly from Pennsylvania.  Others came from the Moravian settlement of Wachovia, now Forsyth County.  Most of

Wachovia’s population had migrated directly from Pennsylvania.  A few other German families came west from New Bern on the East Coast which was settled by German-Swiss in 1710.

The Dutch Cove area of Haywood County, located to the southeast of Canton, NC. Image from 1935 U.S.G.S. map.

The Dutch Cove area of Haywood County, located to the southeast of Canton, NC. Image from 1935 U.S.G.S. map.

German settlers generally settled in the same areas as their neighbors who were mostly Scotch-Irish.  However, several areas in the Smoky Mountains of Western North Carolina were settled by and named for Germans.  These include Dutch (Deutsch) Cove, a community in Haywood County established in 1796 by a Revolutionary War Veteran of German descent named Christian Sargent Messer. The Plott Balsam Mountains in Haywood and Jackson Counties were named for the Plott family, German immigrants who settled on Plott Creek in 1801. Johannes Plott, who first immigrated to North Carolina in the 1750s, crossed the Atlantic with his family’s hunting dogs.  His son Henry, who settled in western North Carolina in 1801, continued to develop the breed.  Others recognized the dogs’ value and soon Plotts were one of the preferred hunting breeds in the mountains.  Today, Plott Hounds are one of four recognized breeds that were developed in the United States.



For more information
  • Drake, Richard B. A History of Appalachia. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2001.
  • Faust, Albert Bernhardt. The German Element in the United States. New York: Arno Press and the New York Times, 1969.
  • Von Hagen, Victor Wolfgang. The Germanic People in America. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1970.
  • Nicolas Sanson, 1692 – Partie Occidentale du Palatinat, 1692, Wikimedia Commons, Map by Nicolas Sanson.
  • Shenandoah Valley 1801-1805, Wikimedia Commons, Shenandoah Valley.
  • DTabCam, Plotthound, November 30, 2009, Wikimedia Commons, Boss plotthound.
  • Ad Meskens, Contestoga Wagon, (1883) by Newbold Hough Trotter, State Museum of Pennsylvania, 2009, Conestoga Wagon.