Positive Information from America, Concerning the Country of Pennsylvania by a German who has Migrated Thither, 1684 Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

“Of that town I can say no more at present than that it lies on black rich soil and is half surrounded with pleasant streams like a natural defence.”

Summary Overview

In this document, Francis Daniel Pastorius—poet, lawyer, and founder of the Germantown settlement in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania—describes elements of his voyage to Pennsylvania and his observations of development in the new colony. The Germantown settlement was important for a number of reasons, as it was the first permanent German settlement in America and a major anchoring point for the expansion of Philadelphia. Pastorius’s essay provides details regarding the process of European migration during the seventeenth century and is an important record of the ways in which companies settling the Americas promoted colonization in Europe. In addition, Pastorius’s report indicates the degree to which colonists felt that settling the New World was a spiritual endeavor guided by divine providence.

Defining Moment

The founding of the Germantown section of Philadelphia was a key moment in the history of German colonization in America, providing an anchor for a growing German community within a few miles of Philadelphia, one of the most active ports in the early history of American settlement. Germantown was officially established on October 6, 1683, now commemorated as German American Day.

Many of the first-generation German immigrants to the American colonies became merchants, selling cloth to buyers in New York and Boston. Most immigrants traveled to the New World for personal reasons, hoping to escape religious and political persecution or to take advantage of new business opportunities. About forty years after Pastorius and the first German immigrants settled in America, the German government began to promote relocation, and thousands of Germans moved to America. Many of the Germans who immigrated to America in the early eighteenth century settled in or near the communities established by Pastorius and other early pioneer immigrants from Germany. Predominantly German settlements, like Germantown, preserved elements of traditional German culture, helping the new waves of immigrants to feel comfortable in making the transition to their new home.

The historical importance of Pastorius’s settlement is mirrored in the lasting influence of German colonization in Pennsylvania, where German architecture, art, and culture constitutes an important component of the underlying cultural substrate. The term “Pennsylvania Dutch” is often used to refer to the first generation of German and Swiss immigrants and their descendants, who settled parts of Philadelphia. These largely Quaker and Mennonite immigrants developed a subcultural identity unique to the region and still recognizable in the crafts, art, and other cultural characteristics of the region.

Pastorius wrote numerous letters, essays, and poems communicating various aspects of his experience living in Germantown, which helped to inspire interest in settlement among Germans and other Europeans hoping to escape religious and cultural oppression or seeking new economic opportunities abroad. Historians are still in the process of translating Pastorius’s writing from this period, but it is clear that he made an important contribution to documenting the experiences of early immigrants to America. Numerous historians have studied his observations of cultural and social developments in order to piece together the impact of both German and religious immigration to the United States.

Author Biography

Francis Daniel Pastorius was born in Sommerhausen, Franconia, a district of Bavaria (now part of Germany), in 1651, to a prominent and wealthy family. His father, Melchior Adam Pastorius, was a city official in Sommerhausen, and the family was intimately involved in the leadership of the local Lutheran community. Pastorius studied at a number of Germany’s leading universities. He received a law degree from Altdorf University in 1676, after seven years of training.

Pastorius practiced law in Windheim and Frankfurt. In Frankfurt, he became acquainted with “Pietism,” a movement within the Lutheran sect that rejected many of the tenants of Protestant orthodoxy and sought a return to basic Christian beliefs and practices. Pastorius was a friend to Philipp Jakob Spener, the founder of Pietism and a prominent pastor in Frankfurt. Pastorius’s family had earlier converted from Catholicism to Lutheranism, placing them in a sometimes persecuted religious minority. Pastorius moved further from Catholicism by embracing the then radical ideas of the Pietists.

As settlement of the New World expanded, Pastorius found himself less interested in practicing law and more drawn to the prospect of settling in America. Through contacts he made in the Pietist community, Pastorius became associated with the Frankfurt Land Company, which was seeking to create a German community in the Americas. It was on behalf of the Frankfurt Land Company and some wealthy German merchants that Pastorius joined with a group of Pietists, Quakers, and Mennonites that traveled to America in 1683 with the aim of establishing a new community in the burgeoning “country” of Pennsylvania.

Pastorius primarily based his decision to emigrate on his desire to build a new life in the New World, but he also wanted to flee the religious persecution faced by Lutherans and other religious minorities in Europe. Upon arriving in Pennsylvania, Pastorius negotiated the purchase of fifteen thousand acres of land from Pennsylvania founder William Penn—this became Germantown, one of the first suburbs of Philadelphia.

Pastorius was appointed the first mayor of Germantown and served in the Pennsylvania Provincial Council. Pastorius’s training in law allowed him to assist in many of the administrative functions involved in the development of the community. He also helped establish the first penal system in the region. Pastorius remained in Germantown for the rest of his life, marrying German immigrant Ennecke Klostermanns, with whom he later had two sons, Johann and Heinrich. Though he never joined the Quaker movement, Pastorius worked closely with the Quaker community and taught at the Quaker School of Philadelphia from 1698 to 1700. Pastorius was also involved in the founding of the first school in Germantown, where he served as a teacher for nearly a decade.

In addition to his role as a civic and social leader, Pastorius was a skilled poet and essayist. His numerous writings describing early Pennsylvanian development and culture are considered an important record of this period. Pastorius helped document the lives and activities of many who lived in these early communities. He is also considered an important figure in the development of the literary style that became characteristic of Quaker and Pietist essayists and writers of the period, now sometimes called Pennsylvania German literature. Pastorius died in Germantown around 1720.

Francis Daniel Pastorius.

(Library of Congress)
Document Analysis

Pastorius’s “Positive Information from America” is a brief description of the author’s voyage to America and experience with the culture of Philadelphia and the surrounding community. Pastorius’s report serves first to document important details of the migratory experience, from the hazards of ocean passage to the process of integrating with settled migrants and native persons. In addition, his essay is intended to stimulate interest in settlement, especially among Germans seeking to escape the religious persecution of the Catholic Church and hoping to find a new home where their religion and culture could be freely practiced. To this end, Pastorius frequently mentions elements of his journey and the community in Pennsylvania suggestive of the social, religious, and cultural freedom embodied by this new community. The report was divided into sections, each addressing a different aspect of his experience. While Pastorius describes many different facets of his journey, themes of spiritual destiny are woven throughout, reflecting Pastorius’s belief, and that of many other migrants, that European settlement in the New World was a spiritual endeavor preordained by God.

The Sea Voyage from Europe

Pastorius opens his report with a brief account of the types of oceanic hazards that commonly affected passengers making the ten to eleven week voyage from Europe to America. Passenger risks included a significant threat of physical injury from falls and other accidents whenever the ship encountered rough weather or choppy seas. Pastorius describes that after a fall during a particularly forceful storm, he was confined to bed for two days. He mentions that one of his shipmates, an “English maid,” contracted “erysipelas,” a type of skin infection marked by boils and rash that could often lead to fever and chills. Another passenger had an “eruption of the body,” which may have been either a dermatological condition or gastrointestinal illness.

Illnesses and injuries were common during such voyages, as passengers often dealt with malnutrition and cramped conditions, and illnesses traveled quickly between passengers. Salted meat and fish were staples of the diet aboard ship as there was no refrigeration, but Pastorius notes that the salting process did not prevent much of the ship’s stores from becoming rancid, leaving passengers with little sustenance. In keeping with the advertising or instructional function of his writings, Pastorius advises travelers to prepare for the voyage by bringing supplementary “refreshments” of their own or to arrange a more suitable rationing agreement with the ship’s captain before setting out on the voyage. This type of cautionary information was an important aspect of Pastorius’s correspondence, as many prospective settlers wanted to learn how to prepare for the journey and what to expect during the passage.

Pastorius also mentions the Crefelders, or Krefelders, a group of thirteen families of Mennonites and Quakers from the lower Rhine Valley in the German town of Crefeld (Krefeld). One of the Crefelders, Jacob Telner, a Mennonite, purchased a tract of eighteen thousand acres from William Penn, which became part of the Germantown settlement along with the land secured by Pastorius. During the Crefelders’ journey to the Americas, one passenger died and two women gave birth. Such events were not uncommon because of the type of passengers seeking to settle in the New World. Many families decided to make the passage in an effort to start a new life with their young children. Similarly, many chose to bring their elderly relatives with them, and some of these individuals died before finishing their journey.

Throughout his description of the sea voyage, Pastorius makes several references to his religious beliefs and even relates his injurious fall to the Fall of Man in “Paradise.” Pastorius refers to the “fatherly hand of divine mercy” that prevented them from sinking “entirely into the abyss of the evil one.” Statements of this kind reveal the sense of preordination and divine providence that was common among settlers and immigrants traveling to the New World.

As he describes his shipmates, Pastorius highlights their diversity in terms of national origin and occupation. Among the more than eighty passengers, ranging in age from newborn infants to elderly persons, were a cobbler, cabinetmaker, doctor, gardener, tailor, glassblower, and various other professionals and tradespeople. The initial German community of Pennsylvania was heavily focused on weaving, as many tailors and weavers were among the first settlers to arrive.

Pastorius mentions that the passengers were of diverse religious backgrounds, stating specifically that he was joined by members of the Anglican, Calvinist, Lutheran, Quaker, and Catholic sects. He compared the ship to Noah’s Ark in terms of passenger diversity; this type of comparison highlights the religious and spiritual motivations of the settlers, many of whom were relocating to avoid religious persecution. Simultaneously, this passage indicates to the reader that people of many different occupational and religious backgrounds would be welcome in the New World.

Settling in Pennsylvania

In section IV, Pastorius turns his attention to describing the Philadelphia settlement, which would be the primary political, economic, and social hub for those hoping to settle in Pennsylvania. Pastorius describes Philadelphia as a rapidly growing city, mentioning recent efforts to create a correctional system for those who are “not willing to live in a Philadelphian manner.” Although Pastorius does not dwell on this point, it serves to reassure potential settlers that, as the population grows, provisions are being made to ensure the safety of the newly established Pennsylvania communities. Pastorius also mentions Frankford, Pennsylvania, another of the earliest German settlements created by the Frankfurt Land Company in the 1680s and one of the earliest suburbs of Philadelphia. The neighborhood was later incorporated into the city, where it lies less than ten miles from the center of Philadelphia’s municipal area.

Pastorius briefly describes the location and character of Germantown, where forty-two people were living on the fifteen thousand acres of land procured from William Penn. Pastorius says that most of those currently living in the settlement are weavers and that the village lacks skilled agricultural labor. This was an important message to send back to Germany, in the hopes of recruiting farmers to join their settlement. Pastorius’s brief description of the Germantown area mentions only that the soil is “rich,” meaning that it will be appropriate for agriculture, and that it is surrounded by streams that form a “natural defence.” Here, Pastorius again addresses the fears common to potential settlers, highlighting the safety of their settlement and helping to assuage concerns about security.

The Pennsylvania region was home the Lenape tribe before the arrival of European colonists. William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, negotiated a treaty with Lenape leaders in 1682, granting him the rights to a large tract of land. Penn then sold this land to a number of groups hoping to settle in the region. The Lenapes eagerly traded with European colonists, and many lived in close association with the new settlements as they emerged. Penn, who was a Quaker, attempted to create legitimate and equitable treaties to facilitate commerce and cooperation with the native tribes. While many settlers would later be accused of taking advantage of American Indians, the Quakers and Pietists attempted to live in relative harmony with them. This attitude was facilitated by the philosophical stance of the Quakers and Pietists, who believed generally that all people should be free to explore their individual social and spiritual beliefs in a free atmosphere. However, conflict between colonists and American Indians did occur. Many potential settlers feared the tribes and felt they represented a threat to the safety and security of their families.

In his writings on the subject, Pastorius seems to have developed a fond view of the local natives and describes largely pleasant relations with tribal members. Like Penn and the Quakers, Pastorius was attempting to find a land of religious and cultural freedom and therefore was predisposed to believe that this new world should be maintained as a haven for persons of all kinds. The personal writings of both Penn and Pastorius indicate an overarching admiration and affection for the Lenapes and their culture, though both considered the culture of the natives to be relatively primitive in comparison to European culture. In keeping with the advertising function of his writing, Pastorius states that the Lenapes “ injure nobody and we have nothing whatever to fear from them.” On several occasions, Pastorius describes trading with them and says that they often call him “brother.” Again, these passages highlight the convivial nature of the Lenapes and indicate the degree to which Pastorius was promoting the settlement of America as a new brotherhood among those of different creeds and kinds.

From his writing, it seems that Pastorius was far more critical of his fellow settlers than of the native inhabitants. He even goes as far as to suggest that American Indians who engage in deception and attempt to cheat in trade may have learned these behaviors from the more unsavory European transplants. Pastorius also criticizes a Lutheran preacher for being a drunkard and complains about other crimes committed by members of the settlement party. Though the behaviors of his fellow settlers clearly troubles him, Pastorius seems resolute in his belief that their settlement is under the watchful eye of a higher power and that, in time, the community will come to resemble the idealized vision of the paradise he and the other settlers hoped to create. “It may be hoped,” he says of the malefactors, “the wind of God’s vengeance will in his own time drive away like chaff.”

Toward the end of his essay, Pastorius again turns to the difficulties inherent in settlement, reporting that six of those who made the journey had died by the time of his writing, including an elderly woman who, as he put it, “wearied of the vanities of the world, departed to enjoy the delights of heaven.” Many settlers met similar fates, as they endured difficult labor, malnutrition, and exposure to new diseases and illnesses. From the tone of his writing, Pastorius conveys his belief that the sacrifices and struggles of those attempting this experiment in the New World would be warranted, if their dream of a new utopia came to fruition.

As a memoir, Pastorius’s “Positive Information from America,” gives only basic information about his experiences, while other letters and writings from Pastorius’s extensive correspondence provide greater detail regarding the various difficulties faced by the Germantown founders. The function of the essay as an advertisement is clear from its tone and the general positive and hopeful frame that Pastorius uses to present his experiences. As many Germans and other Europeans of the era were seeking a way to escape the rampant religious persecution that dominated Europe, Pastorius, Penn, and other settlers of the Americas believed they had found the answer to this dilemma.

Pastorius does not gloss over the difficulties of the extended ocean voyage or the various other hardships and challenges facing any who attempted to join one of the new American settlements. For each negative he presents, however, Pastorius optimistically presents an equal number of positive points and pleasant anecdotes highlighting the adventure and possibility of the endeavor. He is clear and resolute in his belief that God has preordained the settlement of the New World, perhaps precisely to provide solace to those who have chosen to follow alternate methods of worship. Pastorius routinely mentions that God’s intervention has or will enable their party to overcome any obstacles. In effect, Pastorius wants potential settlers to know that the process will be difficult and trying, and that there will be problems to overcome. But, if they feel they can endure these difficulties, they should consider the potential benefits to be well worth their efforts. Pastorius wants his readers to share in his belief that the new colony of Pennsylvania can become the Eden they have been hoping for. His comparisons of the settlers’ ships and Noah’s Ark are chosen purposefully to highlight the spiritual nature of the journey.

The Quakers, Mennonites, and Pietists who traveled to America in the late seventeenth century genuinely believed that their migration and settlement was a path ordained and blessed by God, and, for many, America did provide relief from religious persecution in Europe. The massive influx of immigrants that followed in the early eighteenth century was a direct result of writers like Pastorius, who helped to inspire hundreds of readers with their essays and letters. As interest in American settlement spread, people were frightened by the prospect of the difficult voyage and knew little about the dangers and troubles that might await them in the New World. To assuage these fears, Pastorius, Penn, and other essayists from the era provided valuable information about the voyage, the native tribes, the new territories, and the progress of settlement and development.

Both as a representative of the Frankfurt Land Company and as a resident of the Germantown settlement, Pastorius knew that, for the new venture to succeed, they would need many more colonists who could fill a variety of roles in their community. As mentioned earlier, for instance, he suggests that those with knowledge of agriculture would fill a needed niche. Pastorius made a point of highlighting that the settlements of the New World would welcome people of many different occupations and religious and social backgrounds.

Thousands of immigrants arrived in the region in the years following Pastorius’s report, eventually building to such a level that the intimate, free communities envisioned by the Quaker and Pietist founders began to dissolve as the local community came more to resemble Europe. The settlers’ relationships with the Lenapes and other tribes too became strained by the enormous arrival of settlers, and there were difficulties in maintaining regulations on hunting and fishing as the community grew.

The success of early colonial enterprises is recorded in the culture of Pennsylvania today, where German and Swiss influence can still be seen in many aspects of the local culture. Philadelphia itself was largely shaped by the German immigrants who arrived thanks the efforts of settlers like Penn and Pastorius, who spread the word to Europe about new opportunities in America. Modern Germantown bears little resemblance to the original colony built by its early pioneers, but elements of that society remain. Architecture and artistic traditions in some parts of Pennsylvania can be traced directly to the original German settlers.

Essential Themes

The German immigrants who settled in the America in the late 1600s left Europe for a variety of reasons. While some left to seek spiritual freedom, others came to America looking for economic opportunities, hoping to escape the economic stagnation of Europe. For Germans, specifically, the seventeenth century saw the continuation of the religious reformation in Europe, begun in the early sixteenth century, which led to such destructive conflicts as the Thirty Years’ War (1618–48). Many who were members of minority religious orders and sects were persecuted by the powerful Catholic and Protestant churches, and the prospect of a new life in America was felt most keenly within this segment of the European population.

Pastorius was representative of this group, first as a Lutheran and later Pietist, and the religious conviction he expresses in his writing derives from his feeling that the settlement of America was a spiritual journey. Both in “Positive Information from America” and in other writings, Pastorius draws upon biblical and spiritual themes, comparing aspects of his experiences to events described in the Bible. Accounts of his life, such as The Life of Francis Daniel Pastorius, the Founder of Germantown (1908), describe the degree to which Pastorius’s spiritual beliefs influenced his decision to take part in the settlement of Pennsylvania. Such beliefs would also influence subsequent generations of colonists from France, England, and other European nations. In addition, Pastorius, like other writers of the period, describes the hazards and hardships faced by the settlers in the same spiritual vernacular, comparing their difficulties to those of the earliest Christians who were likewise persecuted for their beliefs. The idea of preordination and the search for spiritual freedom therefore became a theme both to motivate the efforts of early settlers in founding new communities and to lessen the impact of the difficulties they faced in trying to achieve their goals.

America also represented new economic opportunities, and emigrants left Europe hoping to escape the stagnant economic conditions that existed in European nations such as Germany. With the colonization of America came the opportunity for families to own their own land, a virtual impossibility throughout much of Europe. Pastorius’s writings about Germantown and his early settlement experiences often mention the diverse opportunities that existed in America and the various occupations that were just beginning to take shape within the colonies. In part, Pastorius focused on the diverse opportunities of the New World in an effort to increase colonization. Still, this sense of expanding opportunity was essential to and representative of the colonial impulse as a general movement and is therefore a pervasive theme in writing from the period.

Bibliography
  • Meyers, Albert Cook, ed. Narratives of Early Pennsylvania, West New Jersey and Delaware, 1630–1707. New York: Scribner’s, 1912. Print.
  • Learned, Marion Dexter, and Samuel W. Pennypacker. The Life of Francis Daniel Pastorius, the Founder of Germantown. Philadelphia: Campbell, 1908. Print.
  • Soderlund, Jean R., ed. William Penn and the Founding of Pennsylvania: A Documentary History. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1983. Print.
Additional Reading
  • Fischer, Kirsten, and Eric Hinderaker, eds. Colonial American History. New York: Blackwell, 2002. Print.
  • Taylor, Alan. American Colonies: The Settling of North America. New York: Penguin, 2002. Print.
  • Weighley, Russel Frank, Nicholas B. Wainwright, and Edwin Wolf, eds. Philadelphia: A 300-Year History. New York: Norton, 1982. Print.
  • Wende, Peter. A History of Germany. New York: Macmillan, 2006. Print.
  • Wolf, Stephanie Grauman. Urban Village: Population, Community, and Family Structure in Germantown, Pennsylvania, 1683–1800. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1976. Print.

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