Swiss Migration Into Pennsylvania

You may have no idea about where you really came from. Not really. You could descend from a noble Viking warrior, a royal Duchess, or a family of Vaudeville actors. If you don’t get curious, then you may never know. What is curiosity after all? It’s an itch. Once you realize it’s there, you can’t help but scratch it. My one friend realized recently that he has this itch and asked if I wouldn’t mind scratching his back.

Swiss Migration Into Pennsylvania

A friend of mine recently asked me to research the migration of the Swiss into Pennsylvania in the late 17th and early 18th century. He said that his family was one of the families that immigrated to live in William Penn’s colony. Well, the migration from Switzerland into PA was quite extensive, with the bulk of it starting in about 1682 and continuing into the 1730s. The Swiss, along with the Germans, engulfed the burgeoning colony thanks in large part to the tolerance of opinion and faith by the Pennsylvania founder. There, in the future Keystone state, these immigrant families grew and bloomed into much of the living history that occupies this area to this day.


William Penn was born into the Angelican family of Admiral Sir William Penn on October 14, 1644; descended from a family with roots in Buckinghamshire of South-East England. Following his education in law and theology, Penn converted to the Quaker religion. One tenet of this religion is to swear to none except God, and this included the swearing of loyalty to the Royal Crown and the Church of England.  When Penn was arrested on September 3rd, 1667 for attending a Quaker sermon, he was hauled before the mayor of Cork on a charge of riot. When he refused to keep the peace and vow loyalty, he was arrested for his beliefs. Eventually released, Penn was arrested several more times until the death of his father in 1671.

This is where things got interesting. Prior to his death, Penn’s father had loaned a large sum of cash to King Charles II of England. To settle up on this debt after the Admiral’s passing, in 1681 the King granted William Penn an area west of New Jersey. This area would be known as Pennsylvania. Here, Penn formed a Quaker colony and performed a “holy experiment” by creating a government that provided for the rights of the people.  In this land, he guaranteed freedom of religion, trial by jury, elections, separation of powers, and many other ideals that would later help form the basis for the Constitution of the United States of America. Penn even fought for the fair treatment and compensation of the Native Americans. For it’s time, Pennsylvania was one of most tolerant places in the world.

Meanwhile In Switzerland

Back in a Europe during the early-1650s, modern day Switzerland went by different names. Of these many names, it was frequently called the Old Swiss Confederacy, which is what I will call it here. Within the borders of the Old Swiss Confederacy lived a religious sect known as the Mennonites. These Mennonites were an off-shoot of Christianity that followed the teachings of Anabaptist Menno Simons. Mennonites believed in the practice of adult baptism, the mark of a voluntary believer in the religion as opposed to the traditional involuntary baptism of infants. This caused the pacifist Mennonites to be persecuted and murdered for the crime of rebaptism of those that were already baptized at birth. The Mennonites fled this persecution, with many of the temporarily settling in the Palatinate area of what is now known as Germany.

Freedom of Religion

Homegrown German Mennonites felt for their refugee cousins and provided generous support to the Swiss. However, even in Germany the Swiss Mennonites faced opposition. In response to the immigration, in 1661 Karl I Ludwig of the Palatinate refused to allow Mennonite families to assemble and to have fellowship in groups of more than 20. A few years later, following mediation by the King of England, the Mennonites were allowed to form larger congregations if they paid Ludwig a sizable tax. Following this, future leaders of the Palatinate began to charge the Swiss Mennonites protection money. Since the Mennonites were pacifist and would refuse to take up arms in an army, they would be forced to pay. Those that failed to pay for protection got the Tony Soprano treatment.

For many in the Palatinate, they had decided that enough was enough. There was a new land across the ocean where they could practice their religion without tax and fear of reprisal. They sought relief and began to immigrate to North America in the area that would form Pennsylvania. The first widely-publicized arrival came in 1683. Thirteen Mennonite families left the city of Krefeld in Palatinate for London, England. From there, families boarded the ship Concord, departed from London on July 24, 1683, and arrived in Philadelphia on October 6, 1683. These original thirteen families founded Germantown, PA (Now part of Philadelphia); an auspicious start for Swiss descended Mennonites in the new world, where they could baptize whoever they wanted, at whatever age they wanted to.

In Hiding

Some Swiss Mennonites felt that their religion was too open to the ways of the world, and in 1693 a splinter group known as the Amish emerged. This group of Amish were led by founder Jacob Ammann, who believed that the Bible was not being interpreted strictly enough. Like their Mennonite cousins, the Amish were hunted down and persecuted for their stand against the military and refusal to take up arms. For the Amish, the hearty and rocky villages in Swiss Alps were their refuge from persecution. However, soon they too heard the call of tolerance in the new world, and the Amish began to immigrate to the Pennsylvania and Ohio areas.

Mass Migration

As word of religious freedom in the new world reached the old, a steady stream of Palatinate Mennonites followed these initial migrants. They flowed into Germantown and spread westward into areas like Lancaster, PA. Then in 1707, the Kolb brothers emigrated. Along with Johannes, Heinrich, and Jakob was brother Martin. Fleeing the persecution in the Palatinate, preacher Martin Kolb influenced a flood of additional Swiss descended Mennonites to follow him. In 1717, 300 families displaced from the Palatinate found themselves in Rotterdam seeking refuge. According to author John Ruth and the website, “Arriving in Rotterdam, a group of Mennonites was said to have been so poor that they had brought hardly enough necessary clothing, much less money for the fare to London or the journey over the Atlantic”. The local Dutch Mennonites chipped in and provided the financial support to allow the Palatinate Mennonite families to book passage to Philadelphia.

This flood of migrants continued. A count of over 3,000 Swiss descended Mennonites has emigrated to Pennsylvania by 1732. These families grew and at last count in 1935, over 150,000 people practicing the Mennonite religion were living in the United States; 35,000 in the Lancaster area alone. That last count was in 1935, over 75 years ago. Since that time, I have to imagine the number of descendants from this group has only grown.

I hope this helped inspire some curiosity in you. Thank you for visiting here and for reading. I know that this was a rather lengthy post. If you like it, I hope that you would consider sharing on Facebook. Please feel free leave some comments here or on social media.

Lastly, here are some links -

For my friend who requested information about the Swiss Immigration, I think that you may want to follow this link I found about a particular Swiss family next for more information:

Link to The Original 13 Settlers of Germantown, PA:

An Exhaustive List of Hard Copy References on Swiss Immigration can be found here:

Other Interesting Links:,_Germany),_Martin_(1680-1761)

Photo Reference: Germantown Mennonite Meeting Building, Author Smallbones, set as Public Domain in the Wikimedia page:

Also Check Out:
Kuhns, Oscar.  The German and Swiss Settlements of Colonial Pennsylvania: A Study of the So-Called Pennsylvania Dutch.  New York, New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1901. Print via Google Books Scan.

Guenther, Robert Glen. Passionate Possessions of Faith: The Jacob Guenther Family, 1725-1994.  Freeman, South Dakota: Pine Hill Press, 1996.  Print via Google Books Scan.

Learn More - Consider Purchasing:

Lists of Swiss emigrants in the eighteenth century to the American colonies
By Albert Bernhardt Faust, Gaius Marcus Brumbaugh