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Who are the Pennsylvania Dutch?

By C. K. Lanz
Updated: May 17, 2024

The Pennsylvania Dutch or Pennsylvania Germans are the descendants of several different groups of Germanic people who emigrated from Switzerland, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands to America before the 19th century. A majority still resides in Pennsylvania but there are smaller populations in Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Missouri, Kentucky and Minnesota. There is also a significant population in the Canadian province of Ontario. Pennsylvania Dutch people typically speak an eponymous West Central German dialect or a Swiss dialect and practice a variety of different faiths including Lutheranism and Anabaptist. The most prominent Pennsylvania Dutch populations in the United States are the Amish and the Mennonites although there are many individual Pennsylvania Dutch that are not members of either community.

The Pennsylvania Dutch began arriving in the United States after a religious dispute with the Catholic and Protestant churches of the 17th century forced many to flee persecution. As members of the Anabaptist movement, they asserted their right to be voluntary baptized as adults and not as infants. In 1693, the Amish broke away from the movement and formed its own Anabaptist church in Switzerland. As a result, the Amish and Mennonites are distinct but related groups within the Anabaptist movement.

The North American Amish population is generally viewed with curiosity by because of the Amish conservative and plain style of dress, self-imposed cultural isolation and selective use of technology and machinery. The Amish faith is Christian and the church emphasizes the values of nonresistance, lay leadership, community and isolation from modern society. An Amish person will not be baptized until he or she is at least 18 years old and has voluntarily decided to formally join the church and community, which the majority does. A non-Pennsylvania Dutch person who wishes to join the Amish church may do so only after learning the language and rules of the faith and community.

A common association with the Amish Pennsylvania Dutch is the apparent rejection of technology. It is true that most technology, including televisions and computers is often not permitted but other kinds of technology and machinery, may be used selectively. The decision to permit or forbid the use of a certain type of technology depends on whether the technology in question is viewed as potentially harmful to the community in some way.

For example, a car is seen as dangerous because it could lead to people living further apart and thus destroying close community bonds. In contrast some farm equipment, tools and even turn signals on buggies are used by the Amish because these items are not perceived as threatening to values or the Amish way of life.

Mennonites are Anabaptists like the Amish with an equally strong adherence to nonviolence. Unlike Mennonites, the Amish practice shunning and hold communion with greater frequency. In addition, a Mennonite man does not grow a beard and many New Order Mennonites accept technologies such as cars and electricity. The Mennonites are generally more integrated into mainstream American society than the Amish. Ultimately, there is a great diversity of beliefs and ways of life among the different groups that make up the Pennsylvania Dutch population in the United States.

America Explained is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By Ruggercat68 — On Sep 04, 2014

I like to visit Pennsylvania Dutch country every so often and buy hex signs and other Pennsylvania Dutch designs. the Pennsylvania Dutch visitors' bureau is also an interesting place to contact if you want to know more about the community in general.

By RocketLanch8 — On Sep 04, 2014

I grew up in Pennsylvania Dutch country, and I remember visiting an Amish-run restaurant that featured Pennsylvania Dutch foods, like scrapple. They did have electricity and modern refrigeration, mostly because of health department regulations, but they made everything from scratch. It was a wonderful place to visit, and there was a farmers' market nearby where other Amish or Mennonite families sold homemade products.

My mother's maiden name was Stouffer, so I have often wondered if her father's family was Pennsylvania Dutch or not. That part of western Pennsylvania definitely has a different accent than the rest of the area.

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