The Germanna Colonies
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
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
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
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.