Genealogy Notebook presents stories, research and information on Pennsylvania family histories. Ran regularly, Spring 2004 to Spring 2006.

The ancestry of the Pennsylvania Germans has been an extraordinarily rich genealogical mine from which researchers have extracted informa­tion since at least the time of Israel Daniel Rupp (1803-1878), a self-taught historian who collated primary source records along with family histories in the 1840s. Since the mid-nineteenth century, a princi­pal genealogical challenge of these families has been preserving, reviving, and decoding knowledge about their hemat (hometown) in Europe of the fam­ily’s immigrant ancestor.

This type of work is continued today by hobbyists documenting the “find” of a single ancestor’s village of origin; by genealogical professionals who put together lists of an entire village’s immigrants; and historians who many times use the family data of the Pennsyl­vania German immigrants to generate statistics that show the larger context of those bygone times.

The terms Pennsylvania Germans and Pennsylvania Dutch correctly refer to the German-speaking people who came to America from the late seventeenth cen­tury through the early nineteenth century. This immigration totaled about eighty thousand people, according to current estimates, and peaked in the late 1740s and early 1750s, between the Euro­pean conflicts known as the War of Austrian Succession and the Seven Years’ War (known as the French and Indian War in America).

A majority of these immigrants came from the Palatinate (Pfalz in German) along the Rhine River and their dialect of German, Pfaelzisch, became the basis for the Pennsylvania German dialect still spoken, mostly in parts of southeastern Pennsylvania. These Pennsylvania Ger­mans were quite distinct – in everything from motivations to typical economic status to geographic origin – from the German Americans who immigrated in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Don Yoder, the retired University of Pennsylvania professor who can be cred­ited for inventing the study of Pennsylvania German folklife, has played an undeniably crucial role in helping establish the methodologies that today’s researchers seeking ancestors of this ethnic group often take for granted (see “Meet Don Yoder, Dean of Folklife Scholars,” by Kyle R. Weaver in this issue). Yoder can, indeed, be called a “pi­oneer of crossovers” for several reasons.

Yoder saw the ways in which folk history, art, and culture reinforced ge­nealogy. In the mid-twentieth century, while many historical societies began to aggressively distance themselves from genealogy and genealogists, Yoder enthusiastically embraced them. He was a force for many years in the Genealogical Society of Pennsylvania, serving on its Publications Committee and editing the society’s well-regarded scholarly journal, The Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine. He was also elected a fellow of the Ge­nealogical Society of Pennsylvania in 1971 and holds
the third longest tenure of the cur­rent fellows.

Yoder’s status as a professor, at the University of Pennsylvania, en­abled him to encourage crossovers be­tween genealogists and academic histori­ans. He used periodicals, specifically Pennsylvania Folklife and the Yearbooks of the Pennsylvania German Folklore Society as bully pulpits to broaden the scope of Pennsylvania German geneal­ogy. Perhaps the most important crossover in which Yoder played a role was reinforcing and enhancing ties with German his­torians and researchers that resulted in the publica­tion, in English, of many works that had previously been inaccessible to the American genealogical audience. Yoder’s knowledge of the other aspects of Penn­sylvania German culture certainly fit hand-to-glove with genealogy – the ultimate discovery of identity. He also was one of the first to marry -the emerging European archival sources with Ameri­can documents and data to better identify the Pennsylvania German immi­grants. If there was a “Yoder Revolution” in Pennsylvania German genealogy, it was this melding of European and American sources. Many of the record groups comprising the documents in the latter case are peculiar to the Pennsylva­nia Germans, for a variety of reasons:

  • Passenger list substitutes – the Oaths of Allegiance and other lists dating from 1727 onward and published in Pennsyl­vania German Pioneers – are the only reliable arrival records in the Colonial period.
  • As a consequence of the Pennsylvania Germans being the only major eigh­teenth-century ethnic group in America who were not already subjects of the British crown, they are virtually the only people for whom naturalization records exist in this period.
  • Most German-speaking immigrants were “church people” – especially mainstream Protestant Lutherans and Reformed – who had a highly developed record-keeping tradition in Europe that they transferred to Pennsylvania. As a result, there are many more vital records of births (baptisms), marriages, and deaths (burials) than for other nationalities whose churches did not possess such traditions.
  • Fraktur writings and decorations that were part of Pennsylvania German folk art frequently offer genealogical infor­mation, especially taufscheine (baptismal certificates), which serve to fill in the gaps that exist in other records.

In many cases, Yoder was not the first to discover or develop particular Penn­sylvania German genealogical methodologies, nor was he to become the most prolific practitioner of any of them. But as the pioneer of crossovers – ­between folk studies and genealogy, between family historians and academic historians, and between German and American researchers – Yoder remains a figure of substance in genealogy, a rela­tively small corner of the Pennsylvania German experience, even as he has as­sumed iconic proportions in its wider field of study.


For Further Reading

Pennsylvania German Church Records: Births, Baptisms, Marriages, Burials, Etc., from the Pennsylvania German So­ciety Proceedings and Addresses. Baltimore: Clearfield Publishing Company, 2001.

Rupp, I. Daniel. Collection of Upwards of Thirty Thousand Names of German, Swiss, Dutch, French, and Other Immi­grants in Pennsylvania from 1727 to 1776. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Campany, 2000.

Yoder, Don. Discovering American Folk­life: Essays on Folk Culture and The Pennsylvania Dutch. Mechanicsburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books, 2001.

Yoder, Don, ed. Pennsylvania German Im­migrants, 1709-1786: Lists Consolidated from Yearbooks of The Pennsylvania German Folklore Society. Baltimore: Ge­nealogical Publishing Company, 1980.

____. Rhineland Emigrants: Lists of German Settlers in Colonial America. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1985


The author acknowledges the assistance of An­nette K. Burgert, James Dibert, John T. Humphrey Henn; Z. “Hank” Jones, and Alice Spayd in the preparation of this feature.


James M. Beidler writes and Lectures on ge­nealogy. He authored “Genealogy,” a chapter in Pennsylvania: A History of the Com­monwealth, co-published in 2002 by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Com­mission and the Penn State Press. His “Roots & Branches” weekly newspaper column ap­pears in the Lebanon Daily News and the Altoona Mirror. From 1999 to 2003, he served as executive director of the Genealogical Society of Pennsylvania.