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May 2003 Feature Story

Who are the "Pennsylvania Dutch"
By Don Yoder, Ph D., Dept of Religious Thoughts, University of Pennsylvania


First of all, they are not Holland-Dutch and they have no connection with Holland-Dutch culture. They are the descendants of the 18th Century German and Swiss wave of migration across the Atlantic, with a few German dialect-speaking Alsatians and Lorrainers in the bargain. In most cases the ancestors of the present Dutch were pre-revolutionary Americans, colonial German dialect-speaking emigrants.

Actually the elements of the culture which we today call "Pennsylvania Dutch" are very much of a mixture. Pennsylvania was never a "Little Germany" where pipe smoking and beer-drinking peasants transplanted their entire homeland way of life. There was always, from the very beginning, the interplay of culture with Scotch-Irish and Quaker neighbors, an-interplay, which spread both ways. The typical "Pennsylvania barn" - the Swiss or bank barn - that two-story affair with stables on the ground floor and the threshing floors and mows approached from a drive-in entrance from a higher level - is a Continental adaptation. The Quakers and Scotch-Irish borrowed this barn pattern and Pennsylvanians spread it as far west as Iowa. On the other hand, the typical Pennsylvania farmhouse was English Georgian in pattern - and the Dutchman borrowed it from his English-speaking neighbors. It was an even trade.

So general was this cultural adaptation between Continental and British Isles groups here in Pennsylvania that we can say that the American pattern of cultural interchange, of mutual adaptation, began in the Middle Colonies and principally in Pennsylvania. Not in homogeneous New England or homogeneous Virginia, but in the Dutch Country, where the colonial emigrant peoples - brought hither by William Penn's patent of freedom - mingled as nowhere else. And while this mingling of cultures has not been without its problems, as we point out as we outline, the concept of two opposing worlds in the Dutch Country, we can be proud to say, "American began here."

Through migration from Pennsylvania, these mixed patterns, American rather than European, were transplanted elsewhere.

Hence the term "Dutch Country," as we use it, means basically the dialect-speaking areas of Pennsylvania. Within Pennsylvania the Dutch Country is roughly South-Eastern Pennsylvania - the triangle you can draw yourself by connecting Stroudsburg with Somerset. It overlaps however into parts of Central Pennsylvania (Centre and Clinton, Union and Snyder Counties), and spilled over originally into the counties of Western Maryland and the upper Shenandoah Valley of Virginia which were until 1850 culturally part of the Dutch Country, the Mason and Dixon line notwithstanding. It was this area where the "Pennsylvania Dutch" dialect was spoken and where the Dutch culture developed - all by 1800.

Nestled smugly amid the lush green valleys and along the lazy streams of Southeastern Pennsylvania are the world's most elaborately decorated barns. The Pennsylvania Dutch farmers who live in this area exhibit to this day the flair for color and design their ancestors brought from the German Palatinate when they migrated to the New World in the 17th and 18th Centuries.

Using the expansive blank wall-space of his large barn almost as a canvas, the Pennsylvania Dutchman expresses himself with a variety of decorations … He puts scallops on the edges of the forebay and on the door and window sashes; he paints in false doors, windows and cornices; he depicts his farm animals in typical bard-yard scenes. The remaining spaces he fills in with circular designs called "hex signs", which employ much Christian and pre Christian symbolism.

Possibly the best evidence to support the contention that these symbols are "chust for nice" is the fact that only the sides of the barn visible from the road are decorated. The sides facing inward are as plain as the mid-western barn.

 
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