The Germanna Colonies

John Blankenbaker

In 1713, forty odd Germans left their homes in Nassau-Siegn expecting to mine silver in the New World. In 1717, about eighty Germans left their homes in southwest Germany expecting to go to Pennsylvania. Neither of these groups fulfilled its expectations. Instead, they became guardians of the frontier in Virginia and a vanguard in the westward expansion of English civilization on the North American continent. How did this come about, especially when the Germans themselves had no expectations of serving in these capacities?

Reviewing the events prior to the coming of the Germans, the Colony of Virginia had settled Huguenots on the James River as a buffer between the English and the Indians. Franz Ludwig Michel in Switzerland wondered if the Swiss might not do the same thing in Virginia and establish colonies where they could send people, including Anabaptists whom they did not not desire in Switzerland. Michel went to Virginia where he explored the possibilities. He liked what he saw and heard. Back in Bern, he reported to his potential partners who unsuccessfully attempted to obtain a concession for a Swiss colony from Queen Anne of England. Michel, meanwhile, returned to America for several years of further exploration. The Swiss entrepreneurs were approaching this venture as an opportunity to earn money. There were no altruistic motives.

The reports of Michel inflamed Christoph von Graffenried of Bern who was looking for a way to restore his status and financial health. Graffenried was especially intrigued by Michel's report that he had found silver mines and he joined Michel's company (Georg Ritter and Company) and provided the necessary spark to ignite action. Though colonization was the primary objective, silver mining was promoted to equal importance.

By a coincidence, this was the year, 1709, when so many Germans were in London expecting Queen Anne would provide transportation for the emigrants who wanted to go to the English colonies.

The proprietors of North Carolina had obtained persmission to send several hundred of the thousands of Germans in London to their colony. These proprietors agreed to provide transportation for an initial group of Swiss if Graffenried would be responsible for the Germans they were sending over. Believing he could pursue the dual objectives of colonization and silver, Graffenried agreed to lead several hundred Germans and a smaller contingent of Swiss to North Carolina.

The silver mining was pursued by hiring Johann Justus Albrecht to purchase tools and to recruit German miners. To find the miners, Albrecht went to Siegen where there were iron mines. Graffenried thought that the North Carolina colony could be set up rather quickly and then he could devote his attention to the silver mines in Virginia. Graffenried's company had obtained the Queen's approval for land in Virginia for a Swiss colony. There was no intention now to use Swiss citizens since the German miners were to live there.

In America, many misfortunes befell Graffenried. He was even lucky to escape what seemed like a certain death at the hands of the Indians. The German/Swiss colony did not prosper in these early years. Graffenried and Michel had a disagreement before Michel had shown Graffenried the location of the silver mines.  Graffenried went to Virginia to see if he could locate a site where he could relocate the remainder of the North Carolina colony and to see if he could find the silver mines. While he was there, he aroused the attention of Lt. Gov. Alexander Spotswood. Spotswood even invested significantly in what seemed to be a silver mine.

Graffenried had to give up in America as the colonization enterprise was bankrupt. He returned to Europe in 1713 and when he passed through London he found that Albrecht was there with forty odd people from the Siegen area who were expecting to have the balance of their trip to the colonies financed by Graffenried. No report tells us clearly why the Germans had been motivated to go to London at this time. Graffenried, being broke, could only advise the Germans to go home. They did not feel they could do this as they were citizens without a country. Instead, the Germans agreed to pay a part of their transportation costs and to work four years to pay the balance. The agent for Virginia in London obligated Spotswood to pay this balance even though Spotswood himself knew nothing of the agreement.

The agent in London, Nathaniel Blakiston, was very much aware that Spotswood was interested in precious metals. He appeared on Spotswood's behalf before the Board of Trade and before Lord Orkney who was the nominal governor of Virginia. He pleaded for a resolution of the question of the royal percentage if precious metals were found. Because of Blakiston's knowledge of Spotswood's interest in these precious metals, he felt that the Germans were a good opportunity for Spotswood to obtain the labor he might be needing.

After the Germans were in Virginia, Spotswood welcomed them in the hope that they could be put to work in the projected silver mine of which he was a quarter owner.  This mine was about fifteen miles beyond the western extent of English civilization so Spotswood obtained the concurrence of the Virginia Council to build a fort with public moneys for the Germans. The official explanation was that the Germans were to be guardians of the frontier to protect the English from the Indians. They did serve in this capacity. From the land plots, one can see that the mine which seemed to have silver was only about four miles from the German settlement. As many of Spotswood's actions, it is hard to distinguish between the public policy which he was helping to formulate and his personal interests.

Because the status of foreigners was uncertain, Spotswood was afraid that his actions might be held against him. Perhaps the naming of the fort as Germanna was a subtle appeal to Queen Anne who was favorably inclined toward Germans.

Spotswood would not allow the Germans to work in the mine until the legal title to precious metals was clarified. Therefore, the Germans did no mining for two years while instead they farmed and guarded the frontier. Eventually an attempt was made to locate silver ores but the mine was abandoned because none could be found.

Spotswood was looking for a means to insure his economic future which, as Lt. Governor, was not secure. Observing how other people in Virginia had prospered, he decided on a course of land acquisition. Most of the land in the Tidewater region had been taken up and the large tracts were all in the Piedmont to the west where there were no settlement and no roads but there were Indians. This was the best available land in the period from 1710 to1720, especially in large tracts. The land had never been patented to private owners by the Crown and it was available relatively cheaply.

Once a private individual took up the land, he had to make improvements and to settle a certain number of people. The western lands could be raided easily by the Indians which would discourage settlers. No one wanted to be first and risk his own safety. Spotswood saw that the answer lay in obtaining a large number of people who could be settled at the same time. Their safety would be provided by their own numbers and they would provide the settlers to make a valid claim to a large tract.

The Fort Germanna Germans had done a good job in keeping the peace without creating any problems for the Virginians. Spotswood envisioned that the people he wanted and needed could be Germans.

In conversations with the captains of ships, he let them know he wanted a whole shipload of Germans. One of them, Andrew Tarbett, when he was back in England, agreed to take about eighty Germans to Pennsylvania which is where they wanted to go. Instead, he took them to Virginia on the ship Scott where he sold them as servants to Spotswood and his partners. They were settled on a tract of 40,000 acres of land starting to the west of Germanna. The official size of the tract was 40,000 acres but in reality it was closer to 65,000 acres.

The Germans in the fort had been the western-most point of English civilization on the Atlantic seaboard. After the second group came and were settled to the west of Germanna they were the western-most point of English civilization even though, in both cases, the language and customs were Germans.

The first group of Germans, the miners from Nassau-Siegen, lived in the fort and worked about four years for Spotswood. During the first two years they cleared land and farmed, then for about two and half years, they worked in mining and quarrying, first at the silver mine and then with the iron ore which they had discovered. Early in 1719, they moved north to land they had purchased in the Northern Neck, just south of today's Warrenton. Before they left the employment of Spotswood, they had found and developed iron mines but they did not build an iron furnace for Spotswood. This group, which became known as the First Germanna Colony, was German Reformed by religion.

The Second Germanna Colony came from many different villages which were mostly south and east of Heidelberg with a few from outside this area. They worked seven years for Spotswood and his partners in naval stores projects and in vineyards. When they did move, they went about twenty-five miles farther west to land in the Robinson River Valley at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains. This again was an extremely exposed position but they chose this general region because the land there was free at the time and there were few or no English settlers which gave them space for expansion. By religion they were predominantly Lutheran. In 1740, they built a church which is still being used today as a Lutheran church (it is now the oldest building in the Americas still in use as a Lutheran church).

Even before the Germans had left the vicinity of Fort Germanna, more Germans were coming. After the Germans had left the neighborhood of Fort Germanna, the newcomers moved directly to the regions where the earlier Germans were then living. These newcomers had a mixed background. Some of them had been in the English colonies for a few years and were relocating. Others came directly from Germany. Many were friends and relatives of those already here. This process continued until and after the Revolution. During the War, some of the British auxiliaries from Germany thought that farming in a German community was better than carrying a musket for the British. All of the people are called the Germanna Colonists even though the majority of them were never at Germanna and were not members of any colony. Essentially, the common characteristic was that they lived on the east side of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The name Germanna Colonist is used because it was appropriate for the first of the Germans.

The process of finding the Germans who lived in this general region is ongoing. New names are being uncovered. Work continues also in extending their history in Europe including locations in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria.

Because many of the activities bearing on the early Germanna citizens were semiofficial, there is a considerable recorded history about them. Major sources of family information pertaining to the Second Colony people are their church records where there are baptismal records from 1750 to the early 1800s and communion lists from 1775 to 1812.

There is a sense of community identity among all of the Germanna people which still exists.

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