American history buffs are well aware that our country’s first European settlers were the Dutch, Spanish, and English. Those of Scottish, Irish, and Swedish descent also made up a big portion of early colonial immigrants. But another country’s citizens soon followed—and that would be Germany.
More than 300 years ago, Columbia County saw the arrival of the largest group of Hudson Valley settlers in colonial times: farmers from the Palatinate region of southwest Germany. Through much of the 17th and early-18th centuries, the German Palatinate region (named after the Palatine Hill of the Roman Empire) was fraught with war—the Nine Years’ War, the Thirty Years’ War, and many more conflicts throughout much of Europe. The constant battles resulted in famine and destruction. Those refugees were called “the poor Palatines.”
About 13,000 of these Palatines were forced to flee, first to the Netherlands and then to England, during much of 1709. The new Kingdom of Great Britain, which was formed in 1707, was locked in a contentious debate about immigration and shuffled the Palatines to Ireland and their American colonies. Approximately 3,000 of the refugees were loaded onto 10 ships and sent to New York in October 1710.
Many of them were first assigned to work the camps along the Hudson River to pay off their passage. Those camps were established on land previously owned by Robert Livingston, who had purchased it from the native Mohicans in the 1680s. He eventually acquired more than 160,000 acres, on which the historic Livingston Manor still sits. But in 1710, he sold about 6,000 acres to Queen Anne to help settle the Palatines. The area was then known as East Camp, comprising four hamlets populated by families such as Rifenburgh (originally Reiffenberg), Clum (Klumm), Fingar, Coons (Kuhn), Hover (Haber) and many other names that still adorn local street signs.
Along with the Livingston Estate, known as Clermont, Germantown boasts a number of historic properties: the Rockefeller House, built by Simeon Rockefeller in 1755; the Barringer–Overbaugh–Lasher House, started in 1800 and expanded in 1865; the Central House, an 1876 structure once owned by the Rockefeller family before it reinvented itself as an alleged brothel, then speakeasy, stagecoach house, restaurant, and inn; and the German Reformed Sanctity Church Parsonage (also known as the First Reformed Church Parsonage), dating to the mid-18th century and the oldest building in the town.
East Camp was later renamed Germantown and formed as a district in 1775. Today, the town includes communities like Cheviot, Palatine Park, and Viewmont. When Columbia County was established in 1788, Germantown became one of the county’s seven original towns, along with Kinderhook, Canaan, Claverack, Hillsdale, Clermont, and Livingston. Today, many descendants of the original families still live in the area and they celebrate Thanksgiving together—Palatine style—with pork and root vegetables cooked according to old-world recipes.
To help preserve this fascinating past, groups like the Germantown History Department and Friends of Historic Germantown are working to collect and share artifacts and personal and physical histories of the land of the “poor” Palatines.
David Levine is the author of The Hudson Valley: The First 250 Million Years, now in paperback.