You don’t have to be smarter than a fifth-grader to know that this country’s first European settlers were the Dutch, Spanish, and English. But another country soon followed these pioneers and, in the end, sent more people here than any of the others.
That country is Germany. It’s true. Ask your fifth grader — or just about anyone in the Columbia County town of Germantown. This month, Germantown celebrates the 300th anniversary of the arrival of the largest group of Hudson Valley settlers in Colonial times: farmers from the Palatine region of southwest Germany, who settled here in October 1710.
A little history: The German Palatines were natives of the Rhine Valley-Palatinate region of southwest Germany. Through much of the 17th and early 18th centuries, the region was fraught with war, famine, and devastation. Refugees were known as “the poor Palatines.”
About 13,000 poor Palatines fled to Holland and then to England between May and November 1709, but the British government failed to integrate them successfully. So they transported nearly 3,000 refugees in about a dozen ships to New York in 1710. About 850 families settled in the Valley, primarily in what are now Germantown and Saugerties. Many of them first were assigned to work camps along the Hudson to pay off the price of their passage.
An early map shows “Palatine Town”
“The area around Germantown was known as East Camp then,” says Nadine Rumke, a ninth-generation descendant of the Palatines and cochair of Germantown’s 300th Anniversary Committee. Rumke’s ancestors were the Hovers (then called Haber), and her family tree takes up 10 square feet of wall space. (It will be on display this month at the Parsonage, home of the Germantown History Department and the oldest structure in town, built in 1746.)
Germantown grew from four hamlets, which were established by Rumke’s ancestors and those of other residents still living in southern Columbia County. Those family names, including Rifenburgh (originally Reiffenberger), Clum (formerly Klumm), Fingar, Coons (from Kuhn), and many others still fill the local phone book and adorn nearby street signs.
Indeed, Helen Coons Henderson, 98, grew up on land that has been in her family for generations. She remembers her father, James Snyder Coons, telling stories of the early Palatine settlers’ struggles to survive. “There are stories of them eating grass in 1712,” says Henderson, who assists the Columbia County historian with research and helps the anniversary committee. Henderson’s grandmother was a Snyder, another Palatine family, originally called Schneider. These two families still celebrate Thanksgiving together, Palatine style, with fresh pork and root vegetables cooked according to 100-year-old recipes.
The Stone Jug house in Clermont, which was built by Palatine tenant farmer Konradt Lasher in the mid-18th century and is a National Historic Landmark
Events celebrating this tercentennial include history seminars; discussion groups; performances by the Germantown Choir; an original play put on by the students of Germantown Central School; and a concert debut by Germantown resident Harold Farberman, a renowned composer and conductor. A ecumenical church service will take place at the Christ Lutheran Church; the same location houses a Nuremberg bible from 1755 that was used by the Palatines.
A unique sculpture, the Germantown Analemma, has been created by local artists Dea Archbold and Kurt Holsapple. An astrological sundial, the analemma replicates the sun’s pathway over the Palatine settlers during their first year in their new settlement. Archbold and Holsapple, third cousins, are 10th-generation descendants of the original Palatine settlers. Practical astronomy was crucial to the Palatine farmers, they say. “They had to be very aware of where the sun was in the sky, when to plan for the harvest,” says Archbold. Holsapple adds, “We want to mark, in stone, the actual time of the Palatines’ arrival and other significant events in Germantown history.”
The initial weekend places a focus on history and heritage, with discussions and visits from nationwide experts on genealogy, DNA, and Palatine history. The Germantown Oktoberfest, this year renamed the Palatine Oktoberfest, takes place the second weekend. Highlights include festivities at Palatine Park, including farming and crafts displays, a German oompah band, a petting zoo, food, and fireworks.
“During the first weekend, folks who think they may have Palatine roots will be able to find out more and maybe take a DNA test,” says Rumke. “We will hear great music, learn more about the history of our town, and — during the second weekend — have a wonderful time at a traditional Oktoberfest.”
Splendid spires: Organized in 1728, the Reformed Church of Germantown has used three different buildings during its history; the current structure (shown) was built in 1880
Presentation to students: The Palatines from Southwest Germany
Henry Z. Jones, genealogist and historian; the Rev. David Jay Webber, historian and Palatine descendant
11 a.m.: Aspects of Palatine History: The Palatines in Germantown
Prof. Philip Otterness, historian and author of Becoming German: The 1709 Palatine Migration to New York; Henry Z. Jones, genealogist; David Jay Webber, historian; Alice Clark, Palatine DNA Project
3-4:30 p.m. Seminar participants available to discuss genealogy
8-9:15 a.m.: Anniversary breakfast hosted by Christ Lutheran Church, Viewmonte
10 a.m.: Ecumenical anniversary worship service, Christ Lutheran Church
3 p.m.: Gala Palatine Concert, Reformed Church of Germantown. Premiere of commissioned work for voice and instruments by Harold Farberman, composer/conductor and longtime Germantown resident. Also features a performance of 18th-century hymns by the Southern Columbia Community Choir.
The Palatine Parade, Main St. to Palatine Park: Wagons salute local farmers, town businesses, and GCS students, with music along the way.
Activities at Palatine Park: German, Austrian, Polish, and other varieties of music, food, crafts, demonstrations, and exhibits. Free horse- and tractor-drawn wagon rides, community bonfire
11 a.m.: Opening Ceremony at Palatine Park. German, Austrian, Polish, and other varieties of music; dancing; food booths (including German dinners); crafts; demonstrations; and exhibits. Evening dance for teens, free horse- and tractor-drawn wagon rides, fireworks
11 a.m.: German oompah band and other music, dancing, food booths, craft booths, demonstrations, exhibits, free horse- and tractor-drawn wagon rides
7 p.m.: Closing Ceremony
The Palatine Analemma: An original wall sculpture designed by Palatine descendants Dea Archbold and Kurt Holsapple
Oral histories and historic documents: Germantown Library
The Palatine Archeology Project: At the Parsonage, oldest structure in Germantown and home of the Germantown History Department. Excavation of artifacts led by Prof. Christopher Lindner, Bard College archeologist-in-residence.
Field and lab school for Germantown School students and teachers; found artifacts to be displayed in June at the Germantown Library
The Palatine Mural: Wall of the “Salt Shed,” Palatine Park: Anniversary Palatine mural on one side of the building, created by Germantown volunteers led by James Warhola, well-known children’s book author and artist.
The Palatine Plaque: A listing of Palatine families (location TBA)
For more information, visit www.germantownnyhistory.org or call 518-537-6687, ext. 308