Pennsylvania Dutch – Not Dutch at all!

One group of emigrants in the 18th century is known as the Pennsylvania Dutch. But did you know they weren’t Dutch at all? Most Pennsylvania dutch are actually German or Swiss. But even though their ancestors were not from the Netherlands, many Pennsylvania Dutch used Dutch ports to travel to the United States so there is a Dutch connection.

William Penn

William Penn was a Quaker who settled in the United States in 1682 to celebrate his religion freely. The region where he settled was named after him, Pennsylvania. Before leaving, he visited the largest Dutch port of Rotterdam several times to make arrangements for the crossing of his followers.

Portrait of a rather large man with a wig


At the beginning of the eighteenth century, the freedom of religion was established in the Pennsylvania law. This attracted thousands of protestant families in Germany and Switzerland. Rotterdam was the port of choice, even though Dutch ships were not allowed to travel to the English colonies. At first the Dutch ships brought the emigrants to English ports from where they crossed the ocean. Later, English shipping companies settled in Rotterdam to transport the people directly to the United States.

Many emigrants arrived in Rotterdam almost penniless. They were helped by people from their own religion who sometimes even paid there fares for them. This news spread fast and people started counting on that even though the Dutch government warned that people had to pay for their own trips.

In 1726, anabaptists were facing new difficulties in Germany. The new catholic monarch had proclaimed new measures against this group of people. This was a new impulse for the emigration to Pennsylvania.

As a result, Rotterdam was swamped by emigrants. They were housed under poor conditions. Inevitably, some of the emigrants died before ever getting on board. Rotterdam and the Dutch government tried hard to find the money to ship the people off to the United States because they did not have accomodations for so many poor people.

The trip

Once people finally got on board, the trouble was far from over. The trip was long (10 weeks or more) and conditions on board were poor. Almost every ship that left from Rotterdam encountered problems before reaching Philadelphia: disease, bad weather and even shipwrecks were common.

Declining emigration

It is not surprising that Pennsylvania, with its religious freedom, was where the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776. The independence from England marked a new chapter in the emigration history. The other states adopted religious freedom as well so soon people were travelling to other states. In Rotterdam, the English ships got replaced by American ships. The French revolution and occupation turned out to be the end of the emigration wave. As religous freedom became a right in Europe as well, less and less people felt the need to go to Pennsylvania.

Snowy landscape with horse-and-carriage warning sign

Why Pennsylvania Dutch?

So why are these people called the Pennsylvania Dutch? This is not certain, although there are different explanations:

  • Most of them travelled from Dutch ports
  • The German word for “German” is “Deutsch” which sounds like the English word “Dutch”
  • Dutch and German sound similar, perhaps the English rulers did not realize it was a different group from the Dutch they knew from the New Netherlands.
  • In the 15th and 16 century, “Dutch” has been used to refer to the region of the Netherlands, German, Swiss, etc. “Low Dutch” referred to the Netherlands, “High Dutch” to the German speaking regions.

Sources and further information

About Yvette Hoitink

Yvette Hoitink, CG®, QG™ is a professional genealogist in the Netherlands. She holds the Certified Genealogist credential from the Board for Certification of Genealogists and has a post-graduate diploma in Family and Local History from the University of Dundee. She has been doing genealogy for over 30 years and helps people from across the world find their ancestors in the Netherlands. Read about Yvette's professional genealogy services.


  1. Linda Proaps Flores says

    I have been trying to trace back my father’s paternal line of ancestry. I know his Proaps roots go back to the Pennsylvania “Dutch” of Germany ancestry. But I can only trace back John C. Proaps born in June of 1827 in Pennsylvania.

    According to my father, the original spelling of the family name was “Probst”. So maybe you have something about our paternal line under “Probst”.
    Please help. And please get back to me at your earliest.
    Thank you.
    Linda Proaps

    • Like I explained in the article, Pennsylvania Dutch are usually German or Swiss. The name Probst sounds German too. They were not Dutch (from the Netherlands), which is my specialty. So I cannot help you with this and recommend you contact someone who specializes in Pennsylvania research.

  2. Jeff Evilsizer says

    My sister and I have been trying to trace our family line back. We have been working on it for over 20 years and are at a brick wall. My grandma always told us we were Pennsylvania Dutch.
    Having came over here as hessian soldiers to fight in the war. With the name of (Evilsizer) our ancestor surname we believe is (Uebelshauser). But can’t get any further back then 1752-1194. Just would love to know if we are on the right track or are totally lost.

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