Schoharie County

Schoharie presentation to examine difficult experiences of Palatine German settlers

Death at sea from starvation and disease along with broken promises of land grants and other experie

Fleeing war, disease and famine, the first Europeans that tried to settle in the Schoharie Valley spent as many as three months languishing on boats off the coast of England in 1709.

They went through most of their supplies before roughly 3,000 of them embarked on a journey to the American colonies — nearly 500 died on the way, crowded in the holds of a half-dozen boats without any sanitary facilities.

Death at sea from starvation and disease along with broken promises of land grants and other experiences faced by the Palatine German settlers will be the focus of presentations taking place Saturday at the Old Stone Fort in Schoharie.

The homeland they fled was called the Rhine Palatinate — a lush farming valley set between the Alps and the Black Forest, according to Old Stone Fort Museum Director Carle Kopecky.

Being the easiest path between France and Germany, it became a warfare highway throughout the 1600s, which featured the 30 Years’ War, in which numerous countries and kingdoms constantly switched alliances.

As Kopecky describes it, “one army after another kept rolling through Palatinate, eating everything in sight.”

The warfare continued into the early 1700s and the war of Spanish succession — even U.S. General George Patton took this as a route during World War II.

The results of being a goat path for war: “The economy was in a shambles and their monetary system was breaking down,” Kopecky said.

Historian Jeff O’Connor, who has spent the past 15 years studying Schoharie County’s earliest settlers, will be revealing details of the hell on Earth these expert farmers found when they arrived in the Americas as indentured servants initially charged with working in naval yards in the Hudson Valley.

When they finally arrived off the coast of today’s New York City, disease prompted the Dutch to tell them they weren’t welcome.

Then they arrived in the Schoharie Valley believing that land had been purchased for them. They got there to learn that the governor had already decided “it’s not for them,” O’Connor said. “They had it tough.”

One Palatine German settler, Johann Conrad Weiser, began the first settlement, called “Weiser’s Dorf,” later to be named Middleburgh.

Hoping to clear up confusion over land the Palatines were promised, Weiser and two others got back on a boat and headed to England to make their case.

“On the way, the ship was taken over by pirates,” O’Connor said. When he arrived in England penniless, he was sent to prison as a debtor.

O’Connor said roughly 700 families eventually decided to leave the Schoharie Valley. Their path took them into the Mohawk Valley to places like the present-day town of Palatine in Montgomery County, then near Utica to the area known as the German Flatts.

Some went to Pennsylvania and settled in the Susquehanna Valley.

“Wherever they went, they were basically told to go elsewhere,” O’Connor said.

The Palatine Germans weren’t completely passive — O’Connor will explain how one sheriff sent to evict them lost an eye after being dragged through Middleburgh by a horde of angry Palatine women.

Saturday’s presentation, titled “Palatine Promised Land,” is part of an interactive series featuring important events in the early history of Schoharie County.

O’Connor said he expects to complete a book on his research into the Palatine Germans this fall.

The program is included in the regular $7 cost of admission to the Old Stone Fort museum and historic site. Senior admission is $6, and students ages 5–7 get in free.

Special presentations of the program “Palatine Promised Land” are scheduled for noon and 3 p.m. Saturday.

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