A Brief History of New Holland
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.
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"
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
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
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
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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