The First Germanna Settlement and its Importance
Updated: Jan 6
It is widely-known that the settling of the Virginia frontier was accomplished by pioneers seeking religious, political, and economic freedom. While it is known that many immigrants came over as part of ecclesiastical migrations, but there is a second reason. Now largely forgotten, groups of settlers were occasionally bought into the colony for specific reasons. Whither it was to help settle the frontier, or to assist the colony financially, their reason for immigrating was prearranged. From the Scots-Irish who established the Cub Creek settlement to the French Huguenots of Manakin Town, their contributions to society were noteworthy. There is another settlement, though, that impacted society economically and politically: the town of Germanna.
Founded by members of the Reformed German Church from Nassau-Siegen, Germany in 1714,1 their purpose for emigrating was dissimilar to the Scots-Irish and Huguenots. Under the patronage of Lieutenant-Governor Alexander Spotswood, they were brought over to establish a mining town and foundry in Essex County, Virginia.2 Granted unusual privileges not usually given to the majority of non-Anglicans, they were exempt from paying “all public and levies for seven years.”3 Like the French Huguenots and Scots-Irish, however, their new home was situated on the frontier. For “the security of the frontiers in those parts from the intrusions from the Indians” the Germans were used as political pawns.4
On November 21, 1715, the conditions in which they lived was described by John Fontaine, a traveling chronicler. Surrounded by a pentagon “which is[was] palisaded with stakes stuck in the ground,”5 nine houses were built in one line. In the center of the fort was a “block-house, made with five sides” which served as a refuge and as a place of worship. This environment, although considered primitive, was typical of life on the frontier.
During this time, they worked with Spotswood in building a mining industry, but ultimately, the first Germanna settlement never made a significant economic impact. Instead, the original German settlers eventually moved to Fauquier County, Virginia, where they founded Germantown. 7 Leaving Germanna available for new German settlers, their contributions, however brief, had an important role. By participating, they helped establish the foundation for future mining operations within the colony. As a result, the economy of the colony only benefited from their labors.
From the beginning, immigration played a crucial role in the development of Virginia. Contributing to the growing frontier, German pioneers risked everything to start a new life. Bringing along their knowledge of mining, they were fundamental in helping establish this industry within the colony. As time progressed, this precedent attracted land speculators interested in building new foundries and ironworks. Without the assistance of the settlers of the first Germanna settlement, the history of colonial Virginia would have turned out differently.
Documentation and Suggested Readings:
1. John W. Wayland, Germanna: Outpost of Adventure (1714-1957), 63.
2. John W. Wayland, Germanna: Outpost of Adventure (1714-1957), 9.
3. Wayland, Germanna: Outpost of Adventure (1714-1957), 9.
4. Wayland, Germanna: Outpost of Adventure (1714-1957), 9; Alexander Spotswood, The Official Letters of Alexander Spotswood, Lieutenant-Governor of the Colony of Virginia, 1710-1722: Volume 1 (Richmond, Virginia : The Society, 1882), 146.
5. John W. Wayland, Germanna: Outpost of Adventure (1714-1957), 25.