Biffle Researchers

History of the Palatine Region including Contwig, Germany--1600-1800s

By Janet M. Roseen e-mail adress

Reprinted from Biffle Researchers, Volume 1, Number 1, March 1993

The history of the Biffle family does not begin when Paul Biffle and his family landed in Philadelphia. The Büffel family can be traced to the town of Contwig, in what is now Germany, as early as the 1640s. What was life like in the Palatinate region of Europe in the seventeenth century? What would make a family embark on a hazardous journey to a new world? And it was a hazarous voyage. In 1738, around 2,000 passengers died aboard the fifteen ships that left Rotterdam for Philadelphia due to an epidemic aboard the ships. The Robert and Alice wasn't spared, but some did die on the trip to Philadelphia. (Wust)

The story of the Palatinate region and the many conflicts it endured begins with Luther's Reformation in 1521. Until that time, the Palatinate, a prosperous area of flat valleys and gently rolling limestone hills, was ruled by Roman Catholics. Luther's Reformation added the new dimension of religious conflict to the area. In 1556, Elector Otto Henry made Lutheranism the state religion. According to the Treaty of Augsburg (1555), the Catholic and Lutheran Churches were recognized as legal religions. However, Calvinism (a.k.a. Reformed Church), the Protestant faith propagated at Geneva by the French reformer John Calvin, was not. The treaty also made the religion of the Elector (the ruler) the religion of the people. In 1559, Frederick III of the House of Semmern (Zimmern) came to power. He was a Calvinist, which began the conflict among the Protestants. The "religious seesaw" (Cobb, p. 30), in which all the power of royal favor and influence went between the Calvinists and Lutherans with each new Elector, continued for the remainder of the sixteenth century.

There was much infighting among the various Protestant sects. This allowed the Roman Catholic princes in the area to unite and mount a counter reformation. The Protestants united against their common enemy, and warfare broke out in 1618 between the newly formed Protestant Union of German Princes, headed by Elector Frederick IV, and the Catholic League. This was the beginning of the Thirty-Years War, which ended in 1648 with the Treaty of Westphalia. The treaty restored the old religious order, and recognized Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Calvinists. (Baptists and Mennonites were still outlawed and persecuted.) However, the war left the area so devastated that France was able to step in and take territory it wanted and dominate politically the rest of the area for years to come.

Charles, the last Elector of the House of Zimmern, died in 1685, leaving no male heir. He was succeeded by Philip William, a Roman Catholic of the House of Nueberg. King Louis the XIV of France claimed the land in the name of his sister-in-law, Elizabeth Charlotte, duchesse d'Orléans. He invaded the Palatinate in 1688, initiating another general European war, the War of the League of Augsburg. Louis XIV sent an army of 50,000 into the Palatinate. His claim was eventually disregarded, but not before much bloodshed. "Peasants were driven into their fields to freeze or starve; rich burghers were compelled with their own hands to tear down their city walls; in one day, the Elector, from the walls of Manheim, saw twenty-three towns and villages given to flames." (Green, p. 12)

Philip William died in 1690 and was succeeded by John William, another Catholic. John William again attempted to coerce the populace back to the Catholic Church, after over 130 years of Protestantism. "He simulated Louis XIV in tyranny towards the Protestants." (Cobb, p. 45)

To the devastation of war, the oppression and heavy taxation of the "petty princes imitating the Sun Monarch [Louis XIV], and the religious bickerings" (Knittle, p. 11) was added the winter of 1708-09. Europe suffered through one of its most severe winters. The rivers froze, livestock perished, fruit trees and vines died, and spring came too late for planting. Starvation and hard times followed. Between April and October 1709, 15,000 Palatines made the trip down the Rhine to Rotterdam and then on to England.

By the time Paul Biffle [Paulus Büffel] emigrated in 1738, the Palatine emigration to England and America had been in full force for almost thirty years. Rather than ask why he and his family left, we might ask why the rest of the family stayed. However, one can speculate as to why Paul and his family left at this time (according to the records he left for America April 1738 aboard the Robert and Alice). His mother died in June of 1738, so was probably ill at the time of his departure, and his father was in his mid-70s (Paul was 39 years old). As the second son, Paul probably wasn't going to get an inheritance, if there was one. Or, his family may have given him money to buy passage for him and his family, in lieu of an inheritance.

Addendum (March 15, 2002)

It has been learned that Paul and his family emigrated to America; leaving from Rotterdam April 12, 1738, just prior to his mother's death.

In order to leave Contwig, he would have had to have applied for manumission to the ruler of Contwig. "Manumission is the release of a subject from serfdom, an herited right of the overlords of these territories. Any of their subjects who wished to leave had to apply for release from this vassalage. Because of the heavy taxes often imposed, many of the emigrants did not comply, but rather left secretly. The penalty for leaving Zweibrücken without manumission varied, depending on the time of emigration and the prevailing law. " (Burgert) It is assumed that Paul applied for manumission since he is on the list of 1738. "For those who left before 1739, the emigration and manumissin taxes were later collected from any inherited property. An edict of 9 May 1939 mandated the confiscation of all property left behind by the emigrant." (Burgert, p. 362)

While the ship may not have left on that April date (more likely some time in June), it is known that the Robert and Alice, stopped in Dover and left England on July 4, 1738, arriving in Philadelphia September 11, 1738. This was a very heavy year for emigration to America. The ships had to leave in the spring to be sure they arrived in America before winter. According to both Wust articles, 1738 was a particularly bad year for the ships that left Rotterdam that spring. On the approximately 24 ships that sailed that summer, of the 6,500 passengers, 2,260 may have lost their lives to disease just prior to or during the voyage to America. The Robert & Alice seems to have suffered less than most ships, with only 18 deaths reported. The exact number may never be known due to poor recordkeeping of ships' captains. They were taxed on the number of passengers, and may have underreported how many sailed and how many were lost.

The trip down the Rhine to Rotterdam and the stay in Rotterdam itself were heroic. "In [Rotterdam] tents were set up to shelter them for a while. There already, partly due to much immoderation, partly as a result of incessant cold rains followed by a heat wave in Holland, the outbreak of dysentery and acute fevers became apparent so that nearly 80 small shilcren died within a short time. Then the people were assigned to the ships, over 200 in some, in others over 300, and in some 400 or more. They were packed so tightly that overall at least one third more were loaded than what is considered normal." (The Emigration Season, p. 28) "Everywhere there were double bedsteads built, or even three on top of one another. Many passengers had their chests broken up and stored their belongings wherever they could (because captains and newlanders themselves had so many chests and goods and there were simply too many people) or they had to leave them behind to be sent later by other ships so that many a garment and linen coth became rotten or moth-eaten." (The Emigration Season, p. 29)

The captain of the Robert & Alice, Walter Goodman, sent a letter on October 19, 1738 stating: "On the 4th of July last I sailed out of Dover in England and arrived here [Philadelphia] on this river on the 9th of September with crew and passengers in good health but on the way I had many sick people, yet, since not more than 18 died, we lost far the least of all the ships arrived to date. We were the thrid ship to arrive. I sailed in company with four of the skippers who together had 425 deaths, one had 140, one 115, one 90, and one 80." (The Emigration Season, p. 30)

 

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