Within a few short months in 1709, 13,000 “Poor Palatines” landed on English soil. They had arrived from the Electoral Palatinate in Southwest Germany, with the intention of eventually settling in the New World. Little did they know, their arrival in England would cause an unprecedented political debate over the merits and drawbacks of immigration.

Illustration of the four lay electors of the H...

Illustration of the four lay electors of the Holy Roman Empire (from left: King of Bohemia, Count Palatine of the Rhine [or Elector Palatine], Duke of Saxony [or Elector of Saxony], Margrave of Brandenburg [or Elector of Brandenburg]) with their insignia (Photo credit: Penn Provenance Project)

Many reasons were to blame for the mass emigration. The most prominent, however, was the devastation left by years of war. The Thirty Years’ War had decimated the Palatinate; however, due to hard work and fertile land, the region was making a remarkable recovery. Unfortunately, the time of prosperity was cut short by the armies of Louis XIV.

The province was devastated in 1674, as Marshal Turenne and his troops laid the country to waste. Conditions were worsened by ongoing spats and struggles between neighboring princes in the region. From 1688 to 1689, the Grand Monarch vented his wrath on Protestants by ordering the Palatinate laid waste yet again.

The Nine Years’ War and the War of Spanish Succession brought years of terror for Southwest Germany. French troops thundered and plundered across the region, requisitioning freely and bringing widespread devastation and famine to the people of the Palatinate.

To the man-made devastation, nature brought a final blow. The winter of 1708 was the worst of the century, bringing intense cold as early as October, with temperatures reaching bone-chilling depths by early November. Of that winter it is said that firewood would not burn in the open air and birds fell dead in flight. Orchards and vineyards were destroyed, and men froze to death before the snow stopped falling on February 6th in 1709.

A final burden on the Palatines came from their own petty rulers. These princes lusted after the extravagant lifestyle of Louis XIV, and turned to heavy taxation in order to finance their lavish living. So heavy were the taxes that peasants were often left without sustenance.

To this impoverished crowd came a number of English agents with the enticing offer of free land in the American Colonies. Pamphlets were distributed, advertising the wonderful life that could be had in the New World and offering free passage through England to the plantations of Carolina and Pennsylvania. The books and papers distributed often bore the Queen’s picture and bore gold lettering on the title page.

The prospects offered in the pamphlets must have seemed a dream come true to the suffering Palatines. These “golden promises” led many of the poor people to believe that they would receive assistance after their arrival in England. Encouraged by the success of families who had gone before them, many thousands of Germans set off for England and the New World.

In May 1709, the first boatloads of “Poor Palatines” began arriving in England. Throughout the summer, thousands more arrived. While the first 900 immigrants were provided for by a group of benevolent wealthy Englishmen, the thousands of refugees that followed quickly overwhelmed the capacity to provide for them.

Army tents were set up in Blackheath and Camberwell fields as a temporary solution while a committee was frantically seeking ideas for employment and settlement of the thousands of refugees. Unfortunately, the Palatines were largely unskilled and poorly educated, greatly narrowing the opportunities for employment.

Of course, the situation provided excellent fodder for political debate – particularly because immigration had been a hot-button topic for some time. The Whigs felt that immigrants would prove to be a benefit to England’s workforce, and made great effort to raise sympathy and support for the Palatines. The Tories, on the other hand, felt that the Palatines were already placing an unbearable financial burden on the country and strongly opposed naturalization of the immigrants.

The Board of Trade was commissioned with finding a solution to the problem, and unfortunately for the Palatines (who still had dreams of reaching America), many were initially dispersed to neighboring towns and cities. Eventually, however, the Board gave in and began sending many families on to New York.

Over the summer of 1710, ten ships carried around 2800 Germans to New York. While not all the Palatines made it to America, groups of Germans did eventually succeed in establishing successful communities and making significant contributions in the New World.


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