The Washerwoman’s Genes

September 2, 2006

Review: The Promised Land by John J. Vrooman (6-27-06)

Filed under: Reviews — by WWG @ 3:51 pm

I found this historical novel, written in 1958, in a used-book sale somewhere, perhaps even a local garage sale. I am so happy I bothered with it. It’s not exactly best-seller material, even for 1958; one might even say it plods. Its subtitle says it all: “The Story of the Palatine Emigration from their Rhineland homes to the Hudson and Schoharie Valleys” (the Schoharie flows into the Mohawk west of Schenectady, NY). The book transforms some minor chapters in the history of Europe and the settlement of the colonies into a melodrama, one that nevertheless humanizes otherwise remote goings-on. The book’s chapter-by-chapter bibliography at the end assures that the events are historically accurate. (“Minor liberties have been taken with characters lifted from the pages of history. But names and genealogies, as well as dates, are substantiallly correct,” Vrooman writes at the start of the bibliography.) The author is himself a descendent of early New York settlers (albeit Dutch not Palatine), and he includes Adam Vrooman, presumably an actual historic person, as a minor character in the novel.

Early chapters convey the European background by introducing characters suffering the brutality of Louis XIV’s campaign to re-Catholicize France and Germany. French refugees come together with German Lutherans to make the trek to America, after an offer from the Queen of England to pay their way to settle in British colonies. The sheer arduousness of long-distance travel in those days is shocking to a modern reader: truly, only the toughest could have endured the trip up the Rhine on a log raft, months of confinement in ad hoc camps at each stop along the way, constant exposure to the elements and near-starvation, and relentless uncertainty about the future. The trip, much of spent stalled in various refugee camps, takes ten months to the coast of America, and then nearly another ten before the band arrives at their destination, the Schoharie Valley. All the while, the emigrants live in the most primitive conditions, building log huts and homes with their axes, roofing with thatch and sod, sleeping in bunks or on the ground in close quarters, eating weeds from the forest, corn grown from scavenged seed, and hand-out grain from the Patroon. Clothes fall to rags, disease overcomes hundreds, and Indians both provide kindly tips on survival and attack when piqued.

The novel shows a texture of life not so different from today’s. Decisions of all kinds involve government approval or registration; funding large-scale events and projects is difficult, and the have-nots suffer at every turn. Official promises are not always kept; trade and land and commerce of all kinds is monitored and regulated by the government. Naively, one might assume people came over to America on boats and struck out for the wilderness, then put up a fence in a place they liked and called the land theirs. But in reality, land had to be negotiated away from Indian owners, and then a patent acquired from the governor. Surveyors surveyed, boundaries were set, patents dispensed, deeds signed, over a period of months. All was made more complicated when language barriers had to be overcome: Germans needed translators; Americans of all sorts had to learn Indian languages or rely on bilingual natives.

And the expenditure of national funds for the settlement of the new continent was not without controversy. Those remaining in England begrudged the expense. The lower classes literally waged war on the refugees stalled in London; the middle classes and the pious practiced charity on them. Someone had to pay the doctors who accompanied the voyages and recompense their expenses for supplies. Extorting funding from the emigrants was difficult: few had the right skills in the right place to produce material of value for the crown.

Oddly, for a novel about an emigration inspired by the need for religious freedom, there is sparse religiosity in the book. There is an occasional and seeming brief impromptu prayer session; the travelers notice the existence of churches wherever they go; major life events have a minister to baptize, pronounce vows, or sanctify the dead. But the quest is really for life: a life without the threat of attack and destruction by imperialist neighboring states, a life lived in peace. As religious difference was seemingly a premise on which imperialism could be practiced in Europe, freedom of conscience is more a background than a motivator as the characters struggle to find a place to live in peace.

Genealogical note: When I took a look at Henry Z. Jones’s books on the Palatine immigration in NY, I was startled to see the name of Conrad Weiser and other characters from this book. I shouldn’t have been: Vrooman did his research; Weiser actually was significant enough to have quite a bit of research done on him which Vrooman had access to. Seeing my Burchhardt-Burger relatives on the lists in Jones’s books where Vrooman’s characters also appear confirmed my enthusiam for Vrooman’s work. It appears, though, that my ancestors did not take part in the same drama of settling the Schoarie valley as did the characters in this book; instead, they seem to have stayed in the Albany area and then moved south to Ulster and Dutchess counties.



  1. It’s part of the American mythology that many early immigrants were inspired by the yearning for religious freedom, perpetuated by many history books. Jones and others make clear that this was not a factor in the Palatine migration. The Rhineland was a more religiously tolerant place than Britain at that time; many Catholic Palatines were sent back or became instant Protestants. The freedom that they sought was Freedom from Poverty and Starvation, and maybe to own a small plot of land they could call their own. This is exactly the same motivation, with similar obstacles to attainment, that brings immigrants to America today.

    Another interesting book: Palatine Roots, by Nancy Wagoner Dixon

    Comment by Jim — September 13, 2006 @ 2:28 pm |Reply

  2. Jim–Thanks for the tip on the Dixon book.

    Comment by washergenes — September 29, 2006 @ 10:12 am |Reply

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