The “Forest Finns” built them better than anyone. The Finns had perfected the art in the Old Country and brought them to New Sweden in America on the Delaware River, south of the Dutch settlement at New Amsterdam.
From there they—the log cabins, that is—spread throughout America and were found from Maine to Oregon to Alaska. Silver-haired daddies “fought the battle of time in them” and they were the “little homes” in Tennessee that some people dreamed about every day but never went back to.
For several generations after Abraham Lincoln famously learned to read and write in one by the light of the fireplace, it became almost a necessity for anyone, especially a candidate for president, to be born in one, have a relative living in one, know someone who did, or pretend that he did. Without one of them somewhere in your pedigree, it was difficult to be credentialed as a “man of the people.”
When this writer was a boy, maple syrup was even sold in tin containers shaped to look like log cabins and pancakes always tasted best if the syrup had come out of one of those cans.
Many people may not know the connection of the Reformed in Germany to log cabins in America, but there is a connection, and it also has something to do with religious persecution and liberty. There was something special about people who built and lived in log cabins.
The first Reformed elders in America were Peter Minuit and Peter’s brother-in-law Jan Huygen. In fact, according to J. I. Good, Peter Minuit held the first Reformed worship in America in the upper story of the fort that the Dutch had erected to defend their settlement on the Hudson River at New Amsterdam [now New York].
Peter Minuit is a shadowy figure in history. We have no painting or representation of him. The painting of William Ranney at Rutgers University that shows Peter purchasing Manhattan Island from the Indians is pure imagination, made up out of whole cloth some two hundred years after the event. But it has appeared in magazines, newspapers, and even school text books as a depiction of the real thing. The picture did depict a real event, but the picture isn’t true.
We don’t even really know how to pronounce his name. This writer learned it as MIN-u-it as did thousands and thousands of school children in America. It was pronounced that way by the Dutch settlers and stuck. It might even have been right. But some, maybe because some have a tendency to think that they know better than the rest of us—have lately come to think it should have a French pronunciation “MIN wee.” Nobody knows for sure about some things, but it seems certain that Peter Minuit was a Walloon, born in the Rhineland city of Wesel about the year 1589. His father Jan Minuit came to Wesel from what is now Belgium to escape Spanish persecution during the Thirty Years’ War. He purchased citizenship in Wesel in 1584 and married Sarah Breil of Kleve [the German for Cleves, the home of one of Henry VIII’s unfortunate wives].
Peter’s marriage to Gerdruudt Raet on August 20, 1613, was recorded in the Dutch Reformed Church [now Lutheran] in Wesel. His name is spelled “Myniewit.” We also know that Peter became an elder in the French Reformed Church of Wesel.
The Dutch had claims on land in the New World because of their sponsorship of the exploration of the Hudson River by Henry Hudson. In order to exploit these claims, a trading company was formed to take advantage of the immigration of Walloons from the Netherlands to the New World. Peter Minuit is most famous to American school children because of his 1626 purchase of Manhattan Island from the Indians for a few trinkets. In modern times they are taught that this began the exploitation of native peoples by evil white men. It was nothing of the sort, of course, for the Indians had no European idea of land ownership, no concept of the transfer of property rights, nor did Peter Minuit think of such things. It was more a treaty of friendship where both could continue to use the land.
If modern educators were smarter, they could use the term “share” and turn the event into a positive learning experience for their post-modern off-spring. But the myth continues to be taught to serve a broader agenda. Betrayal of the Indians would come, but not by Peter Minuit and not at that time. It would be a betrayal based mostly on ignorance of Indian ways, rather than greed or malice.1For those interested in more information contrary to the modern myth, they should consult Shorto, p. 51ff. “The Indians were as skilled, as duplicitous, as capable of theological rumination and technological cunning, as smart and as pig-headed, as curious and as cruel as the Europeans who met them. The members of the Manhattan-based colony who knew them—who spent time among them in their villages, hunted and traded with them, learned their languages—knew this perfectly well…. With no concept of permanent property transfer, Indians of the Northeast saw a real estate deal as a combination of a rental agreement and a treaty or alliance between two groups.” A letter of Isaack de Rasiere to Amsterdam two years after the “sale” reported that the Manhatesen Indians still occupied the land and the records show a continuing presence of Indians. Shorto reports that it was not until 1680 that the Indians are referred to in the past tense. It is inconceivable to this writer that Peter Minuit and contemporary settlers at New Amsterdam could be so ignorant. Further confirmation of this view is the fact that the Manhatesen expected the settlers to join them against their enemies. When the settlers did not, the Indians were miffed about it.
This story, though, is about log cabins, not the Dutch at New Amsterdam. When the East Indian Trading Company insisted on developing the patron system, reserving the land for a few wealthy landowners and bringing oppression to the common farmer, Peter returned to Germany looking for new opportunities. The Thirty Years’ War was raging in Europe at that time and Gustavus Adolphus, the great Protestant King of Sweden, was victorious everywhere and all of Germany was coming under his authority.
The king was ambitious to plant a Swedish colony in America, but he met an untimely death in battle, much to the dismay of Protestants everywhere. His successes in Europe were soon reversed. The Spanish and Bavarians invaded the Rhineland, followed by the slaughter of the Reformed people and the suppression of their churches, especially in the Palatinate.
The death of Gustavus ended the Swedish occupation of Germany, but did not cure the Swedish government’s desire to found a colony in the New World. It was a delicate operation, for both the Dutch and the English had claims to most of North America and maintained peace on the most delicate of terms. Later on, one of the first graduates of the new college at Harvard would betray his college and his faith and deliver New Amsterdam to the British crown, but that is yet another story. The English would write the history of New York, Washington Irving would lampoon the “Knickerbockers,” invent the myth of the “flat earth,” and tarnish the reputation of the Dutch in the new world.
Peter Minuit was not only looking for new opportunities, but he was also greatly moved by the accounts coming out of the Rhineland of the plight of the German Reformed farmers. Spanish and Austrian Catholics had taken turns wasting their farms, confiscating their wealth, destroying their churches, killing and looting. Peter wondered if he could find a way to plant a colony that would satisfy both the Swedish desire for expansion and his compassionate desire to deliver his German countrymen from oppression and persecution. Could he plant them in the New World and get the Swedes to pay? Indeed, he could and he did.
In 1637, after delicate negotiations designed to allay Dutch suspicions and English jealousies, the New Sweden Company was formed of Swedish, German, and Dutch stockholders. Peter set sail the same year with two ships, the Kalmar Nyckel and Fogel Grip, bound for the Delaware River. The result was the founding of the first European Settlement in the Delaware Valley, named Christina [now Wilmington] after Sweden’s twelve-year old queen. During the next seventeen years more ships came from Europe, bringing Finns and Swedes. These Germans, Swedes, and Finns spread along the Delaware River into what is now Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Maryland.
The fresh breath of liberty in the New World was exhilarating to the settlers of New Sweden. Sweden did not long maintain its foothold there. Along with New Amsterdam, the government of New Sweden would pass to the English Crown. But before either of those happened, the spirit of liberty in New Sweden was being nourished in those log cabins that spread through Appalachia, meeting up with other German Reformed in Pennsylvania and New York, mixing into the stew of religious and economic liberty that was blossoming in New Amsterdam, and especially making common cause with the Scot-Irish immigrants who had made their way from the Border to America by way of Ireland, spreading into Appalachia, into the South, and throughout the Midwest. They adopted the log cabin and built them in the mountains and were proud that they had never been defeated by the Romans, kissed the Pope’s toe, or had their spirit quenched by Edward Longshanks of England, the Hammer of the Scots. After the English destroyed their homes in the Border, they fled to Ireland and formed the bulk of William III’s army that defeated James II at the Battle of Boyne, which secured the British crown for William and Mary. Not all the Irish were Roman Catholic, and not all the Scot Presbyterians were tidy Presbyterians, especially if those Presbyterians were English Presbyterians who could persecute like the Church of England.
Thousands of them immigrated to America after what they thought was a betrayal by William and Mary. The Episcopalian aristocrats of Eastern Virginia welcomed them, for they were useful as a buffer against the Indians. The Virginians even relaxed their laws against non-conforming churches to allow the Scot-Irish to build their log cabins in the western mountains. Their rugged souls were the stuff warriors are made of. They were always a bit too unruly to suit the taste of the German and Dutch Reformed, but their love of liberty and hatred of persecution gave them a common bond.
Virginian aristocrats like the Byrds thought them a bit disorderly and smelly, but they showed their worth against Cornwallis. The English insulted them, called them “mongrels” and promised to burn their cabins. By the thousands they poured out of their cabins in Tennessee, Virginia, North Carolina and parts west to break the back of the English at the battles of King’s Mountain and Cowpens to drive Cornwallis back to Yorktown, encirclement, and surrender. James Webb, perhaps, did not exaggerate when he said that Colonial America, with its European forms of propriety, died with the British soldiers on King’s Mountain, replaced by something that the Atlantic coast aristocrats could not understand or even define.
One of the main reasons that the German settlements in Pennsylvania resisted Anglicization was their hatred of bishops. There was too much Reformed and Dissenter blood on the hands of English bishops and these sturdy Germans from the Palatinate figured a bishop was a bishop, whether appointed by the kings in Spain or France or by a king in England. Good reports that in spite of the extreme poverty of the Germans in Pennsylvania, English charity schools failed, not only because of the patronizing attitude of the English, but because of the suspicion that the schools were a plot to impose an English bishop and turn them into Episcopalians.
When it was rumored that the English were about to “land a bishop” in America, the revolution erupted, uniting in common cause the sons and daughters of those who had borne the persecution of the old country and had found the sweetness of liberty in the new.
Germans from the Palatinate, the settlers from New Sweden, the Dutch in New Amsterdam and Englishmen who had fled from James I all knew what religious oppression was, for they had all suffered immensely from it. In America they all found precious liberty, economic, political, and religious. In the precious breath of freedom they learned what it was to be real men, slaves to no one.
The Germans were never as unruly as the Scot-Irish, but they were not second place in their love of liberty. Good reports that Pennsylvania Germans from Frederick, Maryland, were the first non-local troops to answer the call to arms and come to join Washington in New England to resist the British around Boston:
“The first soldiers to arrive in New England were two companies of Pennsylvania Germans from Frederick. They marched 550 miles in twenty-two days. A company of soldiers from Reading, under Captain Nagle, arrived at Boston a month before its evacuation by the British. The German soldiers, when marching into battle, would sing, “England’s Georgelet (little George), emperor, king, For God and us is too small a thing.”2Good, James I; Reading, PA.; Daniel Miller. 1899. History of the Reformed Church in the United States, 1725–1792, p. 468. Electronic Version published by the Permanent Publication Committee of the Reformed Church in the U. S. Olive Tree Publications, 2004
Fred May also reports that a Pennsylvania-German, named Captain George Nagel led a regiment from Reading composed mostly of Germans and Scot-Irish that were called the “First Defenders of the Revolution.” They were the first troops from a distance to arrive at Boston. He quotes the Military Journal of the Revolution to describe the German and Scot-Irish volunteers of the Pennsylvania battalion:
“They are remarkably stout and hardy men; many of them exceeding six feet in height. They are dressed in white frocks or rifle shirts and round hats. These men are remarkable for the accuracy of their aim; striking a mark with great certainty at two hundred yards distance. At a review, a company of them, while on a quick advance, fired their balls into objects of seven inches diameter, at the distance of two hundred and fifty yards. They are now stationed in our line, and their shot have frequently proved fatal to British officers and soldiers who expose themselves to view, even at a more than double the distance of common musket shot.”3See May, Fred T. German Patriots in the Revolutionary War. An essay prepared for Andrew Carruthers Chapter, National Society Daughters of the American Revolution. Austin, Texas. November 2003. 24 February 2006 http://www.mayhouse.org/family/essays/German-Patriots/Revolution.html
May seems to differ from Good about the Frederick contingent:
“[Hugh] Stevenson’s company—a large percentage with German roots—self-styled themselves as ‘The Border Riflemen of Virginia’ when they volunteered for one year’s service. On July 17, 1775, after a sermon and a barbecue, they crossed the Potomac at Mecklenburg, and ‘struck a bee line’ for Boston. Their banner was emblazoned with a coiled rattlesnake over the motto: ‘Don’t Tread on Me.’ During their march—averaging over thirty miles a day—they covered about 600 miles, and arrived in Cambridge, Massachusetts on the 11th of August.”4Ibid.
Whatever the exact sequence, it is clear that the Germans who found liberty in America were in at the beginning at Boston and the Scot-Irish finished it at King’s Mountain.
AYorktownSurrenderround their fireplaces in their cabins, these children of the persecuted in Holland, Germany, Ireland, Scotland, England had told their stories to their children, read their Bibles and tamed the wilderness. They sang their songs and preserved their legends and the recounted history of persecution and religious conformity. The stories are very different. One is about a Dutch boy who put his finger in the dike; others are about the Beggars of the Sea; another is about the siege of Leyden; some are about Robin Hood and his merry men; some are about idolatry and rich bishops; others are about Robert Bruce and Braveheart; still others are about plowing the steppes of Russia and the bitter winters of North Dakota and ecclesiastical betrayal. There are stories of blood and church burnings and wasting of fields in the Palatinate. But the songs and stories, though different from each other, are alike in the story of oppression, liberty, faith, and heroism, as well as of sorrow and pain almost unbearable.
It is a proud and glorious history. Modern bishops still hate and ridicule them, but the songs and stories show a character forged in fire and blood, the stuff of which heroes are made. Their descendants still will not blindly obey blind authority, but when they understand the proposition they are formidable foes and powerful friends. Europe still doesn’t understand them. Very often they do not understand each other, these log cabin children of the oppressed of Europe.
The rest, as they say, is history. Peter Minuit died in a hurricane in the Caribbean a year after helping to found the Delaware colony, and fades from history. He is still remembered in the lore of New York. In 2000, school children from the Peter Minuit School learn to “share” and play in the Harlem Park named after him. In time, Minuet’s Protestant devotion to liberty would come to characterize the new nation.
Fueled by successive waves of religious refugees, non-conformity, for better or for worse, would win the day. That day at Yorktown when the British filed out to lay down their arms, the bands played “The World Turned Upside Down.” Little did they know. It was not a good day for bishops and kings. But it was a good day for log cabins. Sic Semper Tyrannis.
|↑1||For those interested in more information contrary to the modern myth, they should consult Shorto, p. 51ff. “The Indians were as skilled, as duplicitous, as capable of theological rumination and technological cunning, as smart and as pig-headed, as curious and as cruel as the Europeans who met them. The members of the Manhattan-based colony who knew them—who spent time among them in their villages, hunted and traded with them, learned their languages—knew this perfectly well…. With no concept of permanent property transfer, Indians of the Northeast saw a real estate deal as a combination of a rental agreement and a treaty or alliance between two groups.” A letter of Isaack de Rasiere to Amsterdam two years after the “sale” reported that the Manhatesen Indians still occupied the land and the records show a continuing presence of Indians. Shorto reports that it was not until 1680 that the Indians are referred to in the past tense. It is inconceivable to this writer that Peter Minuit and contemporary settlers at New Amsterdam could be so ignorant. Further confirmation of this view is the fact that the Manhatesen expected the settlers to join them against their enemies. When the settlers did not, the Indians were miffed about it.|
|↑2||Good, James I; Reading, PA.; Daniel Miller. 1899. History of the Reformed Church in the United States, 1725–1792, p. 468. Electronic Version published by the Permanent Publication Committee of the Reformed Church in the U. S. Olive Tree Publications, 2004|
|↑3||See May, Fred T. German Patriots in the Revolutionary War. An essay prepared for Andrew Carruthers Chapter, National Society Daughters of the American Revolution. Austin, Texas. November 2003. 24 February 2006 http://www.mayhouse.org/family/essays/German-Patriots/Revolution.html|