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First Germans Finally Recognized

First Germans in Jamestown Finally Recognized
by Ortrun Wenzel-Gates
Newport News and Jamestown, Virginia. 

On May 31st, 1997, three hundred and eighty-nine years after landing in Jamestown, Virginia, the first German immigrants were honored with a plaque located on VA Route 31, adjacent to the present Jamestown Settlement museum.

The invited guests comprised a veritable Who's Who of German Americans in the Baltimore Washington and Virginia areas. Among them were: Bundesverdienstkreuzträger Dr. Volker Schmeissner, former President of the German Heritage Society of Greater Washington, D.C., Bradford Miller, Jr., Immediate Past President of the German Heritage Society of Greater Washington, D.C. as well as his lovely wife Ingeborg Carsten-Miller, who wrote a poem expressly for this occasion, and Gary Grassl, President of the German Heritage Society of Greater Washington, D.C, as well as Eva Nanni, President of AGAS of Greater Washington D.C., Inge Fischer-White of the Gemütlichkeit Radio Program, and members of the Tidewater German-American Society, as well as members of the Gloucester Heimat Club, The Deutsche Sports Club and Gesangverein from Richmond, Virginia, and the Norfolk European German-American Society.

The afternoon's festivities commenced with an informal gathering and wonderful buffet luncheon, which gave all those present an opportunity to mingle and greet old friends as well as making new ones before the formal ceremonies began. Later, an anticipatory mood permeated the Gaines Theater which was increased by the festive music of the Blaskapelle "Alte Kameraden". Their selections appropriately included Friede und Freiheit, Herzog von Braunschweig Marsch und Domini Summus. The orchestra also performed the Largo (second movement) from Dvorak's New World Symphony with Terry Bradley as soloist. The music seemed a fitting tribute to those adventurous Germans of long ago.

After the musical prelude, the ceremony got under way with the presentation of the German, British, and American flags by the ROTC honor guard from Christopher Newport University after which Mrs. Elfriede Morrison delighted the audience with her beautiful rendition of all three national anthems. Dr. J. Richard Guthrie, Chairman of the Department of Modern and Classical Languages and Literatures at CNU introduced CNU's President, former Virginia Senator Paul Trible and the representative of the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany. Immediately thereafter, Mr. Bradford Miller acknowledged the donors who helped make the celebration possible and introduced the other special guests: Dr. Don Heinrich Tolzmann from Cincinnati, Ohio who, aside from being President of the Society for German American Studies in Cincinnati and faculty member of the University of Cincinnati, is also internationally known as a historian of German-Americans in the United States. Dr. Tolzmann gave a discourse about the History of the Germans at Jamestown and spoke of the contributions made by German-Americans to this country.

Dr. Daniel Hawks, Curator of the Commonwealth of Virginia's Jamestown Settlement museum was next on the agenda. He examined the importance of the Jamestown Colony in American History and was ably followed by Beverly A.(Bly) Straube, Curator of the APVA Jamestown Rediscovery. She presented a most fascinating slide show detailing the various finds being made at the archeological excavation at the site of the original fort along the banks of the James River.

Among the German artifacts found so far are examples of Bartmann jugs as well as one stoneware wine jug which depicts the seven electors of the Palatinate around its rim, a Sechsling coin from Lübeck, and other odds and ends. As certain proof that glassmakers were indeed among those who settled at the new fort, Ms. Straube showed examples of crucibles found at the site, which were used to test the sand along the banks of the James for its glass making usefulness. Some of the crucible shards still showed signs of molten glass on the inside.

After the ceremony, we left the auditorium to the sounds of Hands Across the Sea and every participant received the booklet entitled: First Germans at Jamestown, A Commemoration., researched and written by the current President of the German Heritage Society of Greater Washington, D.C. Gary Grassl. The publication depicts in detail how those first Germans arrived on Virginia's shores. Mr. Grassl relates that the first English settlers to reach the coast in 1607 traveled on a ship under the able command of Captain Christopher Newport, while the first Germans reached Jamestown Colony aboard the vessel Mary and Margaret during Newport's next trip in 1608. As Grassl tells it, "They (the settlers) consisted of up to five unnamed glassmakers and three carpenters or house builders (Zimmermänner) - Adam, Franz and Samuel. They came in a group of about 70 new settlers, including several Polish makers of pitch and tar, soap ashes and potashes. Jamestown at that time consisted of nothing but a small wooden fort on a peninsula of the James, a river, which flows into Chesapeake Bay near modern Norfolk, Va." (Interested in finding out more about the history of Germans in Jamestown? Contact Gary Grassl, German Heritage Society President at 4207 Oxford Drive, Silver Hill, MD 20746. Copies of the booklet are still available on a first come, first served basis.)

While this excerpt from a letter written by the indentured servant Gottlieb Mittleberger was written somewhat later than the time period we are dealing with, it nonetheless illustrates the hardships endured by all who made this horrific trip:

"Both in Rotterdam and in Amsterdam the people are packed densely, like herrings so to say in the large sea vessels … During the voyage there is on board these ships terrible misery, stench, fumes, horror … scurvy, mouthrot and the like, all of which come from old and sharply salted food and meat, also from very bad and foul water … Many sigh and cry, "Oh, that I were at home again, and if I had to lie in my pigsty!" … Many hundred people necessarily die and perish in such misery, and must be cast into the sea …"

Reading this letter made me realize that not everyone is cut out to become a settler in a New Land, which makes those few early settlers which we are able to document indeed worthy of our praise.

On went the caravan from CNU, traveling the twenty or so miles to the actual marker site on VA Route 31. The unveiling by Mrs. Marianne Fischer-Rodrigues and a member of the Deutsche Bundeswehr, was a fitting end to this solemn occasion which was (almost) 400 hundred years in the making. What could be more proper than this marker to commemorate the First Germans in Jamestown where they first set foot on the New World?

With summer just around the corner why don't you make plans to visit Jamestown and its environs? The marker can be found on Virginia Route 31 (Jamestown Road) just before turning into the road which leads to Jamestown Settlement. Would it not be a perfect way to learn some early history and at the same time reaffirm your own German Heritage?


Bibliography: Brinkley, Alan. The Unfinished Nation. A Concise History of the American People. Vol. One to 1877. McGraw-Hill, Inc. New York, N.Y.1993 ISBN 0-07-007871-8

Grassl, Gary C. First Germans At Jamestown. A Commemoration.The German Heritage Society of Greater Washington, D.C. 1997.

How to get Information: Colonial National Historic Park, P.O. Box 210, Yorktown, VA 23690, Phone: 1-804-898-3400 or 1-800-446-9244

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