The Descendants of Johann Conrad Kilts
Emigrant to America
Genealogy of the Kilts Family

The KILTS site is based on the Kilts publication by Herman W. Witthoft, Sr. Excerpts from the book will be used; contact Mr. Witthoft for purchasing arrangements.


In order to understand who the Palatines were, why they came to America, and what allowed them to persevere, it helps to understand their origins and the factors that shaped their lives. These pages are intended to provide some clarity and understanding of the forces that brought them to the Hudson, Mohawk and Schoharie Valley areas.


The most widely accepted origin of the word Palatine and its relation to the geographic area of the middle Rhine Valley in Germany comes from the Romans. This reference comes from Palatine Hill in Rome, when the title was generically applied to describe local officials. These local officials in Germany who oversaw the land areas assigned to them were referred to as the 'counts palatine'. As the Holy Roman Empire expanded into northern Europe, the word 'palatine' eventually became descriptive of the georgraphic area, referring to it as the 'Palatine' region. This region was an Electorate state of the Holy Roman Empire, encompassing the area now occupied by Alsace, Lorraine, Würtemburg, Baden, Mainz and Treves and ran from Cologne to Mannheim.

Consider the historical context of the late 17th century and early 18th century in Germany. Politically, the area was governed by a succession of royal leaders whose governance in this area depended upon birthright, political affiliation, as well as military strength. As a result, the Palatine people were left to the whims of sometimes-capricious leaders who did not think in terms of the development of the area, rather in terms of reaping the fruits of peasant labor (figuratively and literally). Additionally, the Rhine River as a transportation venue, made the possession of this area highly desirable.

The religious climate was also fractious, and the people in this area were often forced to change their religious affiliations based on the beliefs of the current royal leader. In general, the Palatines were devout in their spiritual ideology and oftentimes ignored the edict to switch to the religions espoused by the current ruler. As a result, they were persecuted. All of Palatine people were Protestants but differed in their specific religious ideology. Many were Lutherans, some Calvinist or Zwingli, some Reformed. All rejected the idolatrous aspects of Roman Catholicism and espoused the freedoms that reflected the Protestent tenets.

Agriculturally, the Rhine Valley was a fertile area and desired for its ability to grow a variety of crops, but especially its vineyards. Numerous factions, both from within Germany and the bordering areas wanted the crops that came from this region. As with any agrarian society, the Rhine Valley was affected by weather changes, pests, and other factors that influence crop growth or failure. Since the area was largely focused on grape production, natural disasters often significantly impacted their ability to keep life and limb together.

One other aspect that cannot be dismissed is the temperament of the people. There are conflicting views of the Germans and their attributes that seem to elicit both respect and annoyance, depending upon the context of the situation and the speaker. They were described as tenacious, educated, industrious, frugal, devout in their religious beliefs, independent and able to withstand tremendous adversity. Those who criticized spoke of them as stubborn, pig-headed, belligerent, inflexible and generally not very compliant with authority. It is easy to see how these people both annoyed their detractors and survived untold hardships in their dream of making a new home in America.

The History Leading to Emigration

To look at the years leading to the emigration, it is important to align the issues surrounding the political environment, the imposition of religious affiliation and the forces of nature and its impact on the local agriculture.

As part of the expansion efforts of the German empire of the Saxon and Salian dynasties (919-1125 AD), this area was a new conquest. It was eventually put under the control of the Salian dynasty and around 1235, was controlled by the Wittlesbach family who controlled Bavaria, led by Frederich II. From that point, various dukes and bishops shared ownership, eventually coming into the hands of the descendants of the Count of lower Lotharingia who headquartered at Aachen. This territory was called the Renish or Lower Palatinate (in German, 'Pfalz') and was located on both sides of the Rhine River between the Main and the Neckar rivers. Its capital was Heidelberg, and it encompassed approximately 3500 square miles. This area of Germany passed into various hands, beginning in the late 1400's with its rule by Friedrich the Victorious (1449-1476). Friedrich united this area, previously divided into four regions, and the Palatinate became a recognized force in the existing empire.

This area prior to 1560 was entirely Roman Catholic, but with the transfer of rulership to Elector Friedrich III, the area became Calvinist. Because of the Protestant beliefs, this area became desirable to the French Hugenots living close to the German border. They had been persecuted by the French Catholic Church for over 100 years and they saw this area as a haven for religious freedom. Since emigration from France was outlawed, many of the escapees risked life and limb in order to pursue their religious beliefs. Those who stayed behind were forced to convert, and those caught trying to escape were chained to oars in ship galleys for the rest of their lives. The Protestant acceptance of religious choice made the Palatinate worth risking their lives for many French Hugenots. What they found however, was that although they gained religious freedom, many of them lost civil rights and were at the mercy (and, at times, the whim) of the Prince of the Electorate. They were heavily taxed, could not become landowners, and could be impressed into military service by the Electorate. Their new-found freedom had a price.

Elector Friedrich V changed the political climate of the Palatinate with his acceptance of the Bohemian crown in 1618. This act precipitated the Thirty Years War resulting in a stronger Prussia and significantly weakened the Palatine region's role as the leader in the German political environment. Around 1648, the section of upper Palatine was eventually claimed by Bavaria and left the Palatinate at the mercy of other aggessive forces. France under Louis XIV frequently made conquests in the region, taking advantage of this weakened state. As a result of France's aggression, Britain joined with Holland, Germany and other powers in 1688 and led efforts to stop this wholesale aggression. This in turn resulted in what is referred to as the War of the Palatinate, ending in 1697. Emigration from the Palatinate caused by this warfare led to the establishment of German settlements in Pennsylvania (now known as the Pennsylvania Dutch).

In addition to the political climate in 1690, the Elector Palatinate was John William, whose devotion to Catholicism was considered almost fanatic. During his rule, he is reputed to have persecuted all German Palatines who refused to convert to Catholicism. Calvinists, Lutherans and French Hugenots who refused to convert, suffered greatly at his hand.

And finally, in the winter of 1708, record low temperatures froze the Rhine River and closed this waterway for five weeks. Grapevines died, cattle froze, and any wine from previous harvests was ruined. Along with two previous years of crop failure, there was no immediate recovery in sight. For 30 years leading up to this point, they had endured wars, religious persecution and now potential starvation. For many Palatines, this was the final blow.


In 1709, Britain passed a naturalization act that allowed any foreigner who took oaths professing to be a Protestant and pledging allegiance to the British government would be immediately naturalized and have all privileges held by English-born citizens for the cost of a shilling. The British crown that was previously under Catholic James II had shifted with the coronation of Queen Anne of England. Under Queen Anne, herself a relative of the ruler of the Palatinate and a noted Protestant sympathizer, these offers brought opportunities for a new life. Under Queen Anne's direction, land speculators who had obtained land patents in the colonies, sent agents to the Palatines with offers of forty acres of land, plus paid transportation to the colonies and maintenance. In addition to the goal of supporting these Protestants, resettling these emigrants in New York, north of New York City, they would provide a buffer against the French in Canada. Economically, there was a need to harvest tar and pitch from the pine forests of New York to maintain England's massive fleet. A "Naval Stores project," to be located along the Hudson River, was established with the goal of using the Palatines as the predominant labor force.

Although the task seemed formidable they had very little hope left in their homeland and over the ensuing years, they left Germany. The Elector Palatinate made vigorous protests at these departures and published an edict of death to all emigrants. It is unclear whether these threats were fulfilled, but, because of this edict, many departed under cover of darkness. One phase of Palatine emigration began in the spring of 1709 and an estimated 14,000 were camped in Britain in Blackheath, Greenwich Heath and other sites near London. Conditions were appalling and the British found that they were unprepared for the numbers that had crossed the channel. Some of these emigrants resettled in Ireland but without the free land they had been guaranteed. Approximately 3000 Roman Catholics that had emigrated were sent back to Germany, upwards of 1000 went to Jamaica, the West Indies and South Carolina. Out of the initial group, about 3000 went to New York. A businessman by the name of Robert Hunter had previously petitioned the London Board of Trade to supply a labor force to supply tar and pitch for Britain's naval fleets. This petition led to the establishment of the "Naval Stores" project, and Hunter was appointed to lead this project while the Palatines supplied the labor.

Some departed from Britain while others sailed from Rotterdam. Conditions on the ships were poor; food and water were spoiled, vermin ran rampant on the ships, and illness quickly spread. Many of the emigrants, especially the elderly and children, died either on board ship or shortly after landing. After spending three months on shipboard in port and three months crossing the Atlantic, the Palatines' suffering was intense. Upon arriving in New York in 1710, they were housed in Nutten Island (now Governor's Island) and their numbers added approximately a third more to the existing population of New York City.

In June 1710, Hunter was appointed Governor of the Province of New York and its dependencies. Purchasing 12,300 acres of land from Robert Livingston, Hunter resettled the Palatines to Livingston Manor and the sections of New York along the Hudson River. This was the land which was to be given to the Palatines under their earlier emigration contracts. The Palatines settled in "camps" or "dorfs". "East Camp" and "West Camp" were large and established residences for the new colonists.

Life in New York

Initially, life seemed to hold promise, and the Palatines worked hard to fulfill their part of the contracts that guaranteed each family forty acres of land. Under this agreement their passage should have been paid by Britain and Queen Anne. It stated that "seven years after they had forty acres a head given to them, they were to repay the Queen with hemp, mast trees, tar and pitch, or anything else, so that it may be no damage to any man or his family." What they found was that they were now working under different expectations with no time frame with which to complete their service, almost making them indentured servants. They claimed that they were deceived and bitterly complained to Hunter. A number of them secretly decided that they would resettle to Schoharie to claim the rights that were previously promised to them by Indian leaders. After futile efforts by Governor Hunter to dissuade them, they were eventually disarmed and suppressed. A New York official of the London Board of Trade reported that Robert Livingston had taken advantage of Governor Hunter by selling him land that did not contain the proper pine trees needed to extract the tar and pitch. He also reported the Palatines' complaints and their decision to relocate to Schoharie. The Palatines interest in Schoharie began while they were still in Britain, when a few of their representatives who had come to the colonies had been introduced to several Indian leaders. These Indian leaders supposedly sympathized with the Palatines and granted Queen Anne a tract of land to be used exclusively by them.

With the failure of the Naval Stores project, Governor Hunter was expected to pay the full amount of the costs and subsequently went bankrupt. No longer employed by Hunter, they were told to fend for themselves. Close to starvation, 130 families decided to move to Schoharie and sent officials ahead to ensure that Indian sympathies still existed. Finding that the Indians would be willing to sell them the land that had previously been promised to them, in October 1712, fifty families arrived in the area. They managed to survive the winter with the aid of friendly Indians. The second group of families arrived in March 1713 by way of Schenectady, living off the land in loosely constructed huts and walking 40 miles in deep snow to get to their destination. The first few winters were hard but with assistance from friendly Indians and a fierce determination to survive, the Palatine families began to establish a thriving community.

Unbeknownst to the Palatines, others had land claims on this area that presented challenges to their land rights. The first of these challenges came in 1714 from Nicholas Bayard who claimed that the Indians sold him the land prior to the Indians' arrangements with the Palatines. Having survived many hardships and still smarting from the deceit suffered under Hunter, they ran Bayard out of the area. Bayard sold his Schoharie Title to the "Seven Partners," a group of British investors who purchased land in the new colonies to reap the benefits of its vast natural resources. In 1715, the Seven Partners issued an edict to the Palatines to purchase, lease or leave the land that was occupied by them. Agents of the Seven Partners attempting to enforce this edict were subjected to severe mistreatment. One agent is reported to have been dunked in pig mire, dragged through the settlement and eventually left on the old Albany road suffering two broken ribs and a badly bruised ego. Governor Hunter summoned the Palatine leaders in 1717, demanding that they pay for the land and indicating that representatives from England would be coming to enforce the law. Until they complied, they were told not to plow the land. True to form, the Palatines ignored Hunter and sent a petition to the London Board of Trade with their complaints and a reminder of the original contractual agreement. Three Palatine representatives were sent to London, but along the way they fell into the hands of pirates and arrived in London penniless, broken and were subsequently thrown into prison for their debts. Two of the leaders left London and died shortly afterward; one remained to argue their cause but, without money or power, failed in his attempt to gain the Crown's support for the Palatines' cause.

Hunter was replaced by William Burnet in 1720, who relocated the majority of the Palatines to new lands. Those who stayed were forced to lease the same land they had farmed under the Seven Partners. A small group of fifteen families relocated to Pennsylvania, ninety families moved to the German Flatts (Burnetsfield Patent) along the Mohawk River, and others purchased land in the Harrison Patent and the Van Slyke Patent. Another group of 27 families moved in October 1723 to what is known as the Stone Arabia Patent, a land grant made by royal decree to the Palatines. This patent was seen by Britain as another buffer against French aggressions to British lands and put the Palatines directly in the line of fire of warring factions.


Life in this land was full of challenges, and the task of taming this wilderness was a formidable one. Forest land had to be cleared; ground had to be broken and tilled, and crops suitable to this environment had to be cultivated. Although some Indians assisted the Palatines by providing guidance and assistance, there were many different tribes in the area, not all of them friendly to the settlers. The French, along with Indian factions, were a constant safety threat and fortifications had to be built and maintained against these dangers. Britain, although previously sympathetic to the Palatine cause, eventually used them as if they were 'human shields' to safeguard borders against the French and Indians. In addition to the human aggressors, there was a constant vigilance for wild animals that took their toll on livestock and sometimes humans. Weather conditions were harsh and Mother Nature's onslaughts often proved daunting. They could no longer depend on the crops they had once grown or the trades in which they had previously been employed. In addition to their physical hardships, the Palatines also had to learn a new language in order to maintain their independence and support their rights in the face of opposition. They needed to reinvent their lives and become part of a new culture in a foreign land.

The Palatines, however, proved equal to these challenges. They built their churches, established schools for their children, developed the land, encouraged further emigration of their friends and families back in Germany and their communities grew. Because of their previous oppression and suffering and their love of freedom they would later prove to be the very strongest safeguard of American liberty during the American Revolution in New York State.

their Protestant religious beliefs, unflinching persistence and will to survive exemplifies the true spirit of the early Palatine settlers in America.

Melissa Witthoft

6 April 1999 Putnam Valley, NY

Table of Contents, Kilts

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