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“… that those of our own, or other nations, that are inclined to transport themselves or families beyond the seas, may find another country …” – William Penn


The story of Pennsylvania can­not be adequately told without great emphasis upon its ethnic di­versity. More than simply an incidental feature, from the first contacts between Europeans and Indians to the present pursuit of racial justice, ethnic complex­ity has provided a series of challenges which represent a dimension of Pennsyl­vania history as important as any other social fact. In such diverse chapters as the settlement of the state’s western frontier, the struggle for political control of the early colony, the participation of Pennsylvanians in the War for Indepen­dence, the formation of a new nation, the exploitation of natural resources, the development of an industrial economy, the emergence of urban life, the redistri­bution of population into the suburbs, or the state’s role in today’s rapidly changing world, no examination of Pennsylvania life would be complete without review of the ethnic factor.

While the study of ethnicity in Penn­sylvania frequently begins with the ef­forts of William Penn to recruit settlers from Europe for the new colony, it should actually begin earlier. Before any Europeans arrived, various native Americans had occupied the region, for perhaps as long as 3,000 years. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, Pennsylvania already had a diverse pop­ulation consisting of several large Indian cultures, further divided by language and affiliation. The first whites in North America, in fact, found greater diversity within the Indian population than among the peoples of Europe at the same time.

The arrival of the Europeans had pro­found consequences. Prior to that time, Indian land use consisted primarily of a modest program of material self-subsis­tence. With the coming of European traders, however, the Indians entered into an enlarged economy as well, par­ticularly in regard to the fur trade. As the success of Indian trappers began to diminish the animal stock of their terri­tories, tribal migrations became neces­sary. New contacts, rivalries and con­flicts among Indian tribes and between Indians and Europeans also became in­evitable as Native Americans were drawn into the politics of colonialism.

The Dutch, in 1609, were the first to explore the Delaware Bay and the south­eastern edge of Pennsylvania and, fif­teen years later, established their first settlement at Fort Nassau on the New Jersey side of the river. By 1624, the Swedes had also arrived and purchased a large tract of land from local Indians for their own settlements from Cape Hen­lopen to where the river narrowed in the vicinity of the present city of Trenton. For protection against the Dutch, the Swedes constructed Fort Christiana on the site later to become Wilmington, Delaware. Despite whatever animosity existed between Dutch and Swedish set­tlements, however, both recognized the legitimacy of Indian claims to the land and established peaceful relations with them.

When Johan Printz arrived in 1642 to serve as governor of New Sweden, he carried the royal Instruction, possibly the first constitutional body of law for the new territory. This remarkable docu­ment contained provisions for religious tolerance for the Dutch within the col­ony and for formal recognition of In­dian land claims. The Instruction specif­ically provided legal protection for those who “came out of this ground,” declar­ing that “The wild nations the govern­ment shall know how to treat with all humanity and respect, that no violence or wrong be done to them by the people of [Her] Royal Majesty.” Although the Swedes had pursued a more violent path in New York, early relationships be­tween Europeans and Native Americans in the Delaware Valley were based upon peace and trust. It was upon this foun­dation that Penn’s “Holy Experiment” would be placed.

More than in any other British settle­ment of the New World, the ethnic diversity of Pennsylvania was promoted and further reinforced from its begin­ning by the special circumstances of Penn’s plan. In contrast to other col­onies, the Quakers sought not merely to establish freedom of worship for them­selves, but a community of tolerance for all settlers. Consequently, from its earliest days, the “Holy Experiment” was not simply a refuge for its principal founding group, as was the case almost everywhere else, but also the destination for a wide variety of other ethnic and religious migrations. The Quaker ethical code, based upon the equality of author­ity among the people, established a more flexible society which created greater op­portunities for other groups to pursue their own ideals in relative autonomy, and to contribute far earlier and more significantly to a common culture devel­oping in the years ahead.

The establishment of English control over the colony had a far-reaching im­pact on previous inhabitants, whether European or Indian. For some time after its appearance, the English community tended to remain in the easternmost sec­tor of Pennsylvania, between the Dela­ware and the Schuylkill rivers, while the earlier Swedish and Finnish colonists began to push their commercial activities further to the west. Contacts of Penn’s colony with local Indians were largely confined to the Lenni Lenape, renamed by the Europeans as the Delawares. The attitudes and policies of Penn and his followers toward the Lenni Lenape, along with their own peaceful coopera­tion, produced a long period of har­mony between Europeans and Indians. Penn was unusual among colonial founders in his willingness to respect the cultural values of Native Americans, par­ticularly in regard to the land. This dif­ference contributed much to the success of his colony.

Penn was unique in other ways among European leaders in the New World. In a letter dated 1681 to the largely Dutch, Swedish and Finnish population of Pennsylvania, Penn promised that British rule would not eliminate self-gov­ernment. Similarly, the original constitu­tion of the colony explicitly guaranteed broader religious toleration for its in­habitants than could be found anywhere else in the New World. A specific amendment to the colonial constitution in 1683 encouraged immigration by allowing aliens to pass land on to their heirs. In addition, Penn launched adver­tising campaigns aimed at prospective immigrants to Pennsylvania through pamphlets distributed in England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Holland and Germany. The immediate result was an enormous and diverse immigration.

Philadelphia originally signified “a place of refuge” for its Quaker founders. Soon it had a similar meaning for other religious refugees as well. The “plain people” of the various German sects, Scotch-Irish Presbyterians and French Huguenots sought freedom of worship there. From the British Isles, as well as from Germany and Switzerland, immi­grants came in search of economic opportunities. In the last eighteen years of the seventeenth century, the popula­tion of Pennsylvania grew from 500 to 20,000. The principal port of Philadel­phia had 10,000 residents and would become the largest and most important city in the colonies, second only to London among the English-speaking cities of the world.

During this early period, the move­ment of population already dis­played certain patterns, both in terms of temporal waves and settlement. Penn’s efforts first enjoyed significant success among Welsh Quakers, anxious to de­part from Anglican England, who set­tled in considerable numbers in the “Welsh tract” of what is today the Main Line of suburban Montgomery County. By 1700, English immigration had sur­passed that of the Welsh as the largest component among the newcomers. Both the Welsh and the English remained mainly in the eastern areas of the colony.

The German migration to Pennsyl­vania presented a more complicated pic­ture. In 1683, Francis Daniel Pastorius, a Frankfurt lawyer, led a band of Rhine­land Mennonites to the outskirts of Phil­adelphia and founded Germantown, the first important German settlement in the New World. In the next few years, this group was followed by other Palatine Germans and German-speaking Swiss in a massive migration which included “church people,” such as Lutherans. Moravians and the Reformed, and the “plain people,” members of smaller sects, such as Mennonites, Amish, Baptists, Brethren and Schwenkfelders. But these later German settlers went beyond Ger­mantown to the rich farmlands lying to the west.

But the largest single group of settlers in the early eighteenth century were probably the Scotch-Irish. They had previously attempted to establish communi­ties in New England, but the opposition of earlier colonists, as well as the pros­pects of greater religious freedom and economic opportunities, turned them toward the Middle Atlantic region. In addition, the transoceanic trade routes for the flaxseed traffic connecting Bel­fast and Londonderry with Philadelphia made Pennsylvania a very convenient destination. When Penn’s successors governing the colony discarded his lib­eral landowning policies, many Scotch­-Irish headed elsewhere. Others, how­ever, stayed and occupied the western frontier of the colony. Their military ex­perience in the continuing conflict be­tween Ulstermen and Englishmen in their homeland made them ideal candi­dates to man the colonial perimeter against the Indian.

The end result of the settlement pat­terns of the colonial period was a series of zones from Philadelphia outward, occupied by the three major ethnic pop­ulations. The first zone, with Philadel­phia at its center, extended about twenty-five miles outward and contained a predominantly English population which had arrived between 1680 and 1710. The second zone, from Chester to York counties roughly fifty miles wide, was an area settled mainly by Germans (soon to be erroneously renamed the Pennsylvania Dutch) who arrived be­tween 1680 and 1750. At the western frontier of the colony at the Allegheny Mountains were the Scotch-Irish who bad arrived in great numbers in the period between 1720 and 1780. By the Revolutionary War, Pennsylvania was conspicuously a heterogeneous colony. The major ethnic populations, however, tended to sort themselves into separated communities, somewhat distinctive in language, culture and religion. The war, however, would soon introduce new forces to alter these patterns.

The success of the patriot cause in the War for Independence depended upon far greater economic cooperation and political unity among the colonies than had been previously needed. This inte­gration was not easily nor automatically achieved, a fact which remained one of the fundamental problems throughout the war. Within Pennsylvania, this cohe­sion and solidarity were far more diffi­cult to achieve than in more homogen­eous places, such as the New England colonies. Fortunately, as one scholar has stated, “The American Revolution was essentially a triumph of environment over heredity.” In this conflict, men of common ethnic backgrounds found themselves on different sides, and men of different ethnic origins joined to­gether in the cause for American inde­pendence. Although it would not eradi­cate ethnic conflict and hostility, the war provided the opportunity not only to form a new nation, but a new society and culture as well.

It is difficult to know with certainty the volume of immigration to the United States during the early years of our his­tory as a nation because official records of arrivals were not kept until 1820. Nevertheless, most scholars regard the early national period as a time of rela­tively light immigration. Although Ger­man migration slowed down consider­ably from its earlier level immediately after the Revolutionary War, immigra­tion from Northern Ireland continued in significant volume. Political turmoil in France, then undergoing its revolution, and in Santo Domingo also sent a large number of refugees to Philadelphia. Many arrivals, especially among those foreign-born coming from Great Britain or Germany, were indentured servants or redemptioners and Philadelphia was an important port of debarkation. a center for such commerce in human beings.

The period was one of both ethnic conflict and cultural consolidation as groups sought to establish control over emerging institutions. The increasing ac­ceptance of the English language indi­cated the cultural fusion taking place in Pennsylvania as elsewhere, particularly in the larger cities. But in smaller, more isolated towns, other languages, espe­cially German, remained dominant. Similarly, newer institutions, such as the American Presbyterian Church with native-born clergymen of Scotch-Irish descent replacing foreign-born minis­ters, appeared.

The evolution of the new nation was not merely the flowering of a common culture and shared social institutions. It also represented the triumph, in some specific arena of struggle, of one ethnic group with its particular values, interests and folkways over another group. As the new society emerged, ethnic groups with power and privilege sought to con­tain whatever might threaten their sit­uation. In particular, these conflicts produced a growing concern over the political power of the foreign-born. The Scotch-Irish, who had sought the political and economic opportunities offered by the Pennsylvania frontier, held a strong distrust of any centralized gov­ernment which might restrict their free­dom. In the cities and towns, the Scotch­-Irish formed the lower levels of the economic order and held political inter­ests contrary to wealthier citizens. The solid Scotch-Irish and German support for the Democratic-Republican party throughout Pennsylvania convinced the Federalists that immigration restriction was necessary.

These conflicts had far broader signif­icance for the nation as a whole. The support by the Federalists of the unpop­ular laws of the late eighteenth century regarding naturalization and aliens was not easily forgotten by the Scotch-Irish and Germans. Ultimately, it contributed much to the demise of the Federalist party. This struggle between political parties and among ethnic groups also obscured the underlying sectional rivalry between New England and the Middle Atlantic states.

By the early nineteenth century, the potential for the ethnic communities of Pennsylvania to form solid blocs in opposition to one another was already being diluted by other developments. As early immigrant groups experienced some measure of assimilation into an emerg­ing core culture, occupational and sec­tional factors began to temper ethnic differences, contributing to the forma­tion of newer patterns of intermarriage, friendship and political affiliation. The older ethnic conflicts, which had previ­ously separated the English, Scotch-Irish and Germans, were being replaced by new social and cultural forces. New sources of immigration, however, were about to disrupt the nation.

After the Napoleonic Wars in Europe, an impressive surge in immigration to America began. Rapid population growth; social and technological changes, especially bearing upon economic insti­tutions; political upheavals; and religious conflicts radically altered the traditional societies of Europe in the nineteenth century. These same factors also dis­lodged a massive number of people but their destinations would be determined, however, by events and conditions in America.

If Pennsylvania was to extract and to deliver its enormous natural resources, particularly its iron, coal and oil, to the rest of the nation and to the world, a vast, new transportation network had to be established. Because the major rivers of the state flowed from north to south and were separated by great mountain ranges, Philadelphia, the one major port within the state which led to the ocean, initially had to be reached from the west by land. The solution was a remarkable system of canals which frequently fol­lowed old Indian trails. By connecting all parts of the state, canals provided an early, crucial step for the entrance of Pennsylvania into the modern era of commerce and industry.

The industrialization of Pennsylvania was based upon a series of interrelated technological and economic changes. The canal system was soon connected to the development of railroads throughout the state. The great coal deposits, par­ticularly the near monopoly of anthra­cite, facilitated the shift to steam power in industry. As the factory system emerged, Pennsylvania also became the leading state in the production of steel. These changes, in turn, meant the relo­cation of manufacturing to the cities and the rise of the modern corporation. The industrial revolution within Penn­sylvania itself, based upon railroads, coal mining and heavy industry, repre­sented a tremendous contribution to the modernization of the larger American economy.

The growth of newer industries had an extensive impact upon the volume, char­acter and location of the population in Pennsylvania. First, these industrial de­velopments could only be accomplished by the recruitment of a huge army of new workers. The needs of Pennsylvania industry provided the incentive for countless Europeans to come in search of economic opportunities. Second, the origins of these workers shifted almost exclusively from Northern and Western Europe to the countries of Southern and Eastern Europe. Until the 1870s, the population of Pennsylvania was drawn nearly entirely from English, Welsh, Irish, Scottish, Dutch and German ori­gins. By the middle of the 1880s, Poles, Lithuanians and Slovaks were pouring into the state. More than half of the Slovaks, Rusins and Ukrainians coming to the United States would settle in Pennsylvania. By the end of the nine­teenth century, Italians and Hungarians had become the largest immigrant groups entering the state. Third, the patterns of settlement had changed also. Earlier im­migrant groups had dispersed themselves in a mainly rural economy. Despite their peasant backgrounds, late nineteenth­-century immigrants tended to eschew farming and settlement in rural areas. Some Poles, Italians and Hungarians did enter dairy farming, but most new immi­grants found their way to the mining and industrial centers. Consequently, well into the twentieth century native-born Americans, the descendants of earlier immigrant groups such as the English, Germans and Dutch, continued to domi­nate fanning. As modern capitalism evolved, the upwardly mobile members of the same groups moved into the im­portant positions of management and control in the emerging corporations. The newer immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe were part of a mas­sive displacement of the earlier ethnic groups from the lower levels of mining and industrial employment.

This ethnic succession did not occur without difficulty, for the older eth­nic groups saw the newer immigrants as a challenge to their economic security. The basic cause of displacement, how­ever, was due to technological changes, not the arrival of foreign-born workers. The older ethnic groups tended to be skilled workers; but with the introduc­tion of modern technology, lower levels of skill as well as lower wages became possible. New immigrants were willing to accept wage levels which native-born workers had already rejected as inade­quate. The result was the displacement of the older groups by Southern and Eastern Europeans which created new sources of hostility and conflict. In the steel mills of Pittsburgh, in the anthra­cite mines of northeastern Pennsylvania, in the textile and clothing factories of Philadelphia, American workers were losing their jobs to immigrants. The ap­pearance of Polish, Hungarian, Croa­tian, Lithuanian and Italian workers in the mills, mines and factories was more evident to American-born workers than any more complicated analysis of tech­nological change and its effects.

Industrialization added a further di­mension to the relationship of ethnic groups to each other. In the early stages of industrialization, before the develop­ment of rapid transportation systems and the widespread ownership of auto­mobiles, workers had to live near their jobs. As masses of new immigrants set­tled in Pennsylvania, they tended to cluster in colonies of their own kind in the older sections of cities and towns near the mines and factories. It was only in the late nineteenth century in the in­dustrial areas of the northern and east­ern United States that white ethnic ghet­tos began to emerge. This new pattern of residence provided another source of discomfort to nativist Americans already concerned by the massive influx of Southern and Eastern Europeans. Some critics had already expressed the view that the new immigrants were funda­mentally different from earlier arrivals. The new immigrants, supposedly, were less capable of becoming Americans and of contributing to our institutions and culture. The concentration of new ar­rivals into the “Little Italy” or “Little Warsaw” of Pennsylvania cities and towns further convinced opponents of the new immigration that acculturation and assimilation would be far more dif­ficult than it had been in previous cases. To critics, the rapid growth and vitality of ethnic neighborhoods strongly sug­gested that their inhabitants were not en­thusiastic about becoming Americans.

The problems of these neighborhoods were often seen as a part of the cultural heritage which their inhabitants had brought from their countries of origin. American cities in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries reflected the painful emergence of a new social order. The development of an urban and industrial society was marked in its for­mative years by widespread and appar­ent poverty, unemployment, housing congestion, crime, mental illness and family disorganization. To many Ameri­cans, these problems in the ethnic ghettos had to be the result of some special char­acteristics of the people who lived there. Such perceptions gained influence among the general population, especially when supported by the arguments of promi­nent intellectuals and politicians.

Individual opponents of immigration can be found as early as the colonial period in Pennsylvania. Organized op­position, such as in the nativist move­ment is almost as old. Until the late nineteenth century, the need for settlers and workers was great enough to coun­terbalance such sentiments. Most Amer­icans, perhaps, were too preoccupied with the exigencies of their own survival to worry about the issue. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, signifi­cant opposition to further immigration, particularly of Southern and Eastern Europeans, had become strongly organ­ized. Many critics demanded the reduc­tion, perhaps total cessation, but at least more careful selection, of immigrants to the nation. Some Americans, no longer convinced that assimilation could be left to natural processes of cultural change, sought to mount an intensive and delib­erate program of Americanization. Patriotic organizations, chambers of commerce, corporations, school dis­tricts, settlement houses and religious bodies developed activities designed to transform the foreign-born and their children into model Americans. By World War I, the need to deal with such problems had unprecedented urgency for many individuals and groups. The passage of the infamous National Origins Quota Acts in the 1920s was the ultimate result of these concerns and the device which was supposed to solve the problem.

Other economic and political develop­ments contributed more to the solution of the immigration problem. The Great Depression, for example, resulted in a vast reduction in immigration in the 1930s. This population decline also weakened the institutional bases of ethnic communities. Foreign language newspapers, fraternal associations, theatres and political organizations feU sharply in number. The remaining insti­tutions increasingly served an aging population of first generation immi­grants. Freed from the constraints of the ethnic community, their children turned to American values and customs. Rates or intermarriage soared. While indus­trialization had first linked economic conflict to national politics, the Great Depression reinforced it. The New Deal response to the economic crisis asked Americans to recognize their shared material interests. The two world wars had similar effects. Our involvement in international politics encouraged expres­sions of loyalty to America. These events also stimulated massive migration across the nation. Separated from the traditional centers. of ethnic heritage, Americans searched for newer life styles. The rise of the mass media, mass educa­tion and mass culture, and the subur­banization of the population offered some answers. For many individuals, the basis of personal identity and social rela­tions had shifted from ethnicity to oc­cupation, political affiliation and com­munity.

While the pace of these changes varied, by the 1950s no one any longer seriously questioned the capacity for acculturation on the part of Slovak, Hungarian or Italian families in Penn­sylvania or elsewhere, despite another federal immigration bill in 1952 which reaffirmed the nativist biases of earlier laws. The passage of time had provided centripetal social forces which had served to integrate the population of Pennsyl­vania, at least as far as ethnicity was in­volved. Quite curiously, this order rested upon the absorption of the descendants of precisely those families who had been viewed as unassimilable and disruptive elements only fifty years before. Race, social class, economic differences and occupation seemed to be more impor­tant social facts in shaping the group life of Pennsylvanians. It appeared that eth­nicity was all but dead.

The unprecedented events of the 1960s and 1970s, however, proved otherwise. As the struggle for racial justice shifted from the Civil Rights Movement to Black Power, Afro-Americans reac­quainted the rest of us to the proud and open assertion of group identity. While the white response was, at first, some­what hesitant, the descendants of Euro­pean immigrants gradually renewed their own sense of group consciousness. Al­though we can seriously question the validity of efforts by third generation (or even older) Americans to recapture the authentic heritage and identity of their ancestors, it is apparent that the assimi­lation process had not entirely succeeded. Proudly self-conscious members of Pennsylvania’s ethnic groups joined their compatriots across the nation in ef­forts to revive their cultural legacy. At the same time, a new generation of scholars, themselves now often drawn from families of the new immigration, reinforced these tendencies through revised interpretations of local, state and national history which emphatically rec­ognize the role of ethnicity in our past and present.

Finally, the shifting patterns of immi­gration in recent years have, unques­tionably, influenced our perceptions of the historical and sociological sig­nificance of ethnicity in American life. The passage of the Immigration and Na­tionality Act of 1965, the political crises of Southeast Asia and the Middle East, and the recent Cuban exodus have radi­cally altered the sources of immigration to America. New settlers, barely evident within our population prior to the mid-1960s, have appeared in rapidly growing numbers – Koreans, East In­dians, Filipinos, Vietnamese, Iranians and Cubans. These newcomers are found today in Pennsylvania as com­monly as in any other state.

Our present-day immigration is only the most recent chapter in a continually unfolding process which has been a part of Pennsylvania history since before even the first European settlers. If America ever purported to be a land of opportunity and tolerance for the eco­nomic and political refugees of other lands, then Pennsylvania, especially by the design of William Penn, did even more so. The presence of various ethnic groups and their interactions with each other, along with the inevitability of their contact with mainstream America, have always presented a philosophical and practical challenge for our society. These facts have tested the meaning, validity and sincerity of our cultural ideals as well as the soundness and flexi­bility of our social institutions. But this presence has always, at the same time, been a source of renewed strength to Pennsylvania and to the nation.


For Further Reading

Baltzell, E. Digby. Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia. New York: The Free Press, 1979.

Bodnar, John E., ed. The Ethnic Experience in Pennsylvania. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1973.

Davis, Allen F. and Haller, Mark H., eds. The Peoples of Philadelphia. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1973.

Golab, Caroline. Immigrant Destinations. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1977.

Jones, Maldwyn Allen. American Immigration. Chicago: Uni­versity of Chicago Press, 1960.

Mi!Jer, Randall M. and Marzik, Thomas D., eds. Immigrants and Religion in Urban America. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1977.

Olson, James Stuart. The Ethnic Dimension in American His­tory. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1979.

Wallace, Paul A. W. Pennsylvania: Seed of a Nation. New York: Harper and Row, 1962.


Richard N. Juliani, an associate profes­sor of sociology at Villanova University, holds a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. His doctoral dissertation, recently published by Arno Press/The New York Times, was a study of Italian immigration to Philadelphia. He has published many articles on immigration, ethnicity and intergroup relations.