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A Brief History of New Holland 

European Background

The unstable situation in Europe in the late 1600’s spawned and nurtured the pioneer interest in the deep forest lands of Pennsylvania—60 miles inland from Philadelphia. In 1681 William Penn received his 40,000 square-mile land grant to settle King Charles’ debt to his father. Being a Quaker, William Penn had experienced religious persecution firsthand, and decided to establish his American colony on the idealistic basis of complete religious freedom.

This entire century had been one of continued misery for the peasants of the Palatinate (western Germany). The Thirty Years War has raged across the area with barbaric ruthlessness. Some towns were burned out two or three separate times during the period. The peasant inhabitants fled to nearby Holland for refuge. And within a decade of the end of that conflict, King Louis XI V of France started a new religious war in the same general area.

These Palatinate peasants were exhausted by war’s desolation, and were ripe for a new start. Traveling land agents for William Penn’s new colony found willing ears. In addition to complete religious freedom and a peaceful existence, Penn offered cheap land. The stated price was 100 English pounds for 5,000 acres. (At today’s rate exchange, this would be less than $.06 an acre, plus a small annual "quit rent.") By the year 1702, a goodly number of Palatinates had immigrated to Pennsylvania, and Queen Anne, newly reigning in England, was delighted that Penn was colonizing his immense grant without drawing off the population of Britain.

The Voyage

For the majority of German travelers, the first leg of the journey was a long frustrating journey down the Rhine River to Rotterdam at the mouth of the North Sea. This sailing took from 4-6 weeks. After finally clearing Rotterdam, the ship would proceed to a port of embarkment in England. Two more weeks would probably be wasted clearing customs and awaiting favorable trade winds.

A typical vessel of the 1700's was approximately 140 feet long by 34 feet wide and weighed about 500 tons. The passenger's quarters below deck were dimly lit, poorly ventilated, and almost always extremely overcrowded. Many ships had to ration bunks to just one bunk for an entire family. Some of the passengers were reduced to sleeping on bare decks. Travelers packed for the journey according to their financial means, but most everyone brought along dried prunes and brandy for medicinal purpose, and a Bible to lift their spirits. Food was provided to each family head who was responsible for preparing it in the ship's galley. In bad weather no cooking fires were permitted so the travelers had to eat their food cold or do without entirely. A "typical week's ration" consisted of:

Sunday--one pound of beef & rice.
Monday--barley & soup
Tuesday--one pound white wheat flour
Wednesday--one pound bacon with dried peas
Thursday--same as Sunday
Friday--one pound of flour and one of butter
Saturday--one pound of bacon, one pound of cheese, and 6 pound s of bread for the entire week.

Crossing the Atlantic took anywhere from 3-5 months depending on adverse winds, favorable skies and the captain's navigation skill. Mid ocean storms were common, often raging 2 or 3 days. During these storms the ships were tossed about to such extent that passengers could not walk, sit or even lie. Only the healthiest managed to survive. Children and the elderly were the first to die when dysentery, typhoid or small pox took hold. If a passenger died at sea after the ship had completed more than half its journey, the surviving spouse was still obligated to pay the fare.

Once the ship dropped anchor in Philadelphia, they had to wait offshore for a doctor to check for contagious diseases before being released to go ashore. Now that the passengers had made to Philadelphia what about those restless ones who decided to move on further west to Lancaster? Prior to 1770 there were no cleared roads as we know them or direct routes, so the weary traveler made his way as best he could, often becoming hopelessly lost or delayed in dense woodland.

The area now called New Holland was practically covered by virgin forests—sturdy timber of oak, ash, chestnut, and walnut. By 1728, William Penn, had been dead for 10 years and his American colony, called Pennsylvania and was being administered by a proprietary governor while the sale of land was formalized by patent deeds.

Land Acquisition

If you are exasperated by delays in today’s real estate transaction, you would have been appalled by the system in place in 1728. First, you selected a spot which you could afford, and then you notified the proprietary government of your claim. Sometime, probably years later, a surveyor would appear and survey the property to your name and put it on the County map. Then, sometime (years) later you would be notified to pay your purchase money and pick up your formal Deed. However, from the time you selected the plot you had "squatter’s rights" as if you formally owned it.

In the case of John Diffenderfer, the specific record shows that he applied for the land he chose to live on in 1728. The land was surveyed and placed on the County map in 1735. The deed was finally issued to him on March 22, 1758 after 30 years.

Naming the Town

In 1729 the Proprietary Legislature started to establish inland counties, and the following year Lancaster County was divided into 17 townships. Because the first settler in this general area was at Groffdale, the township was named after him, with the English equivalent of his German name which is Earl. Consequently the settlement was referred to as "Earltown." Michael Diffendefer named his real estate development New Design in 1750. In 1802 when a post office was established and an official name was necessary, there was no dissension to naming the town New Holland. These grateful people remembered how extremely kind the inhabitants of Holland were to them

The Dutch assistance is thought to have included funds to cover the cost of the refugee German immigrants’ ocean voyage. It was no small matter when the alternative was indentured service for a period of years. For adults, indenture frequently meant four to seven years without pay. Minors served until their 21st birthday. But William Penn’s Quaker Pennsylvania was a liberation compared to the Europe they fled. Except for the Netherlands, there was no other country that offered complete freedom of religion, assembly and speech to all.

The village founders were German, not Dutch. They were surrounded by English and Welsh Quakers, Episcopalians, a few Swiss-German Mennonites and some Scotch-Irish Presbyterians. The Amish arrived later.

Tribulations of the Settlers

Although these pioneer settlers found all they had hoped for in peaceful existence and freedom of worship, it should not be thought that this was necessarily a land of "milk and honey." There were many hardships during these early years. Swarms of locusts ravaged the area in 1732. Severe earthquakes were active throughout eastern Pennsylvania in 1737. Two successive seasons of poor crops (1750-51) followed by three years of drought(1752-54). A hailstorm in 1763 dropped hailstones as large as turkey eggs killing many small animals. During the very hard winter of 1780 twenty inches of ice formed on the ponds, and the ears of sheep and cattle had frozen.

Public Roads—Legends vs. Facts

New Holland was laid out as a "street town" in the typical European style of having the villagers live in a central location along both sides of the street, but each having an outlying plot of land to cultivate as an adjunct to his trade as a craftsman. Even today, the main street of New Holland has major "kinks" or bends in it. Unsympathetic visitors claim it looks as if the town were built along a "cow path." If one looks with a discerning eye, the street also follows the high ground. The land on the ridge was the driest and in winter it would be blown clear of much of the snow. These settlers made the obvious facts of nature work for them rather than against them.

Surveying as practiced in the 1700’s was not a precise craft. The records show that the Horse Shoe Road was 1 of only 3 public roads in early Lancaster County. (Today it’s mostly Route 23.) It was surveyed in 1737 to connect Lancaster with the Coventry Iron works in Chester County. But in 1795, when Earl Township supervisors had it resurveyed, they found the correct location where it passed through New Holland was somewhat to the south of the existing Main Street. Furthermore, through the town the roadway was only 33 feet wide instead of the 50 supposedly specified. The town citizens appealed to the County Court for relief, which was granted, so the Horse Shoe Road through New Holland was accepted as it existed in fact, and the maps were changed accordingly. Most of Main Street remains only 33 feet wide today.

New Holland, settled in 1728 by John Diffenderfer of Heidelberg, Germany, is located in the fertile farmlands of Lancaster County. Philadelphia is 60 miles to the east, while Baltimore is 90 miles to the south, and Harrisburg is 40 miles to the northwest. New Holland is a charming small town similar to many small towns in rural America. The strength of New Holland lies in its people who want to be free to work hard, strive for excellence, and have a pride in their rich heritage. Some of us may not know all the details about our ancestors immigration to America, but to know a little of their experience may help us to understand ourselves and our neighbors a little better.

Amish Country News Cover Article by Donna Smith (1998)

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