By Herb Lapp
(Editor's note: Herb Lapp is a frequent contributor to the EAIA Chronicle.)
Each year on October 6 we celebrate the arrival of the first Mennonite to North America with the landing of the Concord, 331 years ago on October 6, 1683. Johann Lenssen’s name appeared on the ship’s manifest. He and several other Germans arrived together in a group that became the first settlers of what became known as Germantown, one of America’s first town settlements (now part of Philadelphia then six miles away.) Many of the German passengers were Quakers who were encouraged to come to Pennsylvania by William Penn where they could freely practice their religion. Penn was a friend of George Fox the founder of the Society of Friends or Quakers as they were known. These first Mennonite and Quaker immigrants were farmers and weavers important trades that brought important talents to Penn’s new province. Commanding the ship was Captain William Jeffries at the helm of the 500 ton, 130-foot-long Concord for its nearly three month voyage. It departed Rotterdam on July 6, 1683, stopping in London on July 24th, and finally arriving in Philadelphia on October 6.
Mennonites became a special group in pre-Revolutionary America because they practiced several important trades. Members of this Protestant sect were founded in sixteenth century Zurich along with their later Anabaptist brethren the Amish. By the Revolution they made up about a third of Pennsylvania’s population. In 1688, Wilhelm Rittenhous (e) (1644-1708) was invited by Penn to become America’s first papermaker and he established the first paper mill in America in 1690. Besides papermakers and weavers most Mennonites were farmers who differed from others who came here to farm, as Mennonites were considered to be “professional” farmers. That label, perhaps more my own is due to the fact that they were Europe’s most modern farmers who learned to practice what were then radical farming practices, techniques like crop rotation and soil renewal by applying animal waste on their fields for fertilizer and limestone to improve and restore its chemistry. Penn understood the closeness of the two faiths both born out of the aftermath of the Reformation in Europe’s seventeenth century since Penn’s mother was born in Holland. After arrival here the two faiths cooperated in Germantown’s early years when they shared the same church building for the first two decades. This church building still stands and is the Germantown Mennonite Church. Over the years they continued to live harmoniously when in 1760 Quakers and Mennonites established the first public school, the Germantown Union School that later became Germantown Academy, America’s oldest, still operating non-sectarian school. Thomas Livezey, the subject of my Chronicle series was among its founding members. English speaking children were educated on the first floor of this two floor stone school building. See illustration of the school circa 1860.
Within twenty five years Mennonites had dispersed into Pennsylvania’s hinterland north into the Lehigh Valley and west to Lancaster County. Shortly after their settlement near Lancaster they developed a supersized cargo wagon for transporting farm produce to Philadelphia. Penn’s provincial secretary and one of the colony’s wealthiest men, James Logan, referred to these forerunners to our modern tractor trailers as “Conestoga” wagons for the area where they were most likely originally made-Conestoga Township, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. That wagon helped later Americans to open the west carrying all their worldly possessions across the continent and freight throughout the east.
I wish to thank Ron Devlin’s recent article published in the Oct. 8, 2014 in the Reading Eagle newspaper for bringing this event to my attention complimenting my research work on Thomas Livezey, the eighteenth-century Quaker Germantown flour miller.