Memorial Against Non-English Immigration, December 1727
By time this letter was written, the British Empire extended to all parts of the world, including Asia, the Caribbean, and the Americas, where it competed with other world powers such as France, Spain, and Holland. By the mid-17th century, British America contained a diverse population, and Britain encouraged the migration of foreign Protestants to American settler colonies. Nowhere was this more visible than in the mid-Atlantic, where Britain had supplanted New Netherland and New Sweden and incorporated Dutch and Swedish populations into its colonies. In the 18th century, immigration of non-British Protestants increased. As this memorial attests, however, immigration was as complex and controversial an issue in the 1700s as it is now.
In 1709, thousands of people fled the Palatinate, a region of modern-day Germany, for England. Among these migrants were French Huguenots, Protestants who had fled from religious oppression in their Catholic home country, and Mennonites, members of a Protestant nonconforming religious movement whose families had left Switzerland for similar reasons in the 1660s. The last two winters had been the harshest the region had known in recent times, and there had been nearly continuous war since 1684. The British government and colonial boosters encouraged these "Poor Palatines" to emigrate to the British colonies in the Americas, distributing propaganda that promised free land, free transportation, and economic opportunity. They hoped that these new settlers would bolster Britain's Protestant holdings in the America and act as a buffer between the British and French colonies.
Before embarking across the Atlantic from British ports, migrants typically had the opportunity to become naturalized. But regardless of Britain's encouragement of immigration or Pennsylvania's policy of religious tolerance, many colonists harbored deep suspicion of people whose cultural and religious practices differed from theirs. Many Pennsylvanians believed that Protestantism and freedom were linked and that Catholics and other non-Protestants were controlled by superstitious religious leaders. The majority of the immigrants they describe were Protestant, but the memorialists nonetheless describe them as "Papists"—a slur that called into question their loyalty to the British crown and could be used used to disparage not just Roman Catholics but anyone whose practices seemed alien and potentially sinister.
The memorialists couch their plea for tighter regulation of immigration to the British colonies in sensational terms, suggesting that these "papist" immigrants might ally with Catholic New France. In reality, the writers were likely thinking about more local concerns. The Palatine immigrants were overwhelmingly poor, and most did not speak English. Unacquainted with the colonial civil services that administered deeds for land and property, many "squatted" on land that was not supposed to be available for their settlement. This angered neighboring Native American groups, who blamed colonial officials for failing to enforce carefully negotiated treaties. Settlement along the banks of the Susquehanna River also complicated the ongoing dispute between Pennsylvania and Maryland over who held the rights to land below the 40th parallel. And, as the writers' complaint about the Swedes who maintained a "national distinction" along the Delaware River suggests, they may also have simply been afraid of becoming "outnumbered" in the long term.
Despite their ignorance of Pennsylvania law and the prejudice of the memorialists, the Palatine immigrants established lasting communities. Migrants of all faiths and nationalities sought to take advantage of the religious and economic freedoms of British America. Ironically, even as these memorialists protested the entry of foreign immigrants, British merchants transported thousands of families and free and indentured migrants.
George Anderson, "The Palatines" (June 1, 2006), United Empire Loyalists' Association of Canada, www.uelac.org/Loyalist-Research/Palatines.pdf, accessed March 29, 2013.
Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (GAMEO), www.gameo.org, accessed March 29, 2013.
Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 136, no. 4, The Pennsylvania Backcountry (2012).