A lot of people aren’t aware that German is the largest ancestral group in the country,” says Don Heinrich Tolzmann, author of The German-American Experience. In the late 17th century, German-speaking immigrants trickled into the South Carolina colony; by mid-18th century, they arrived in a steady stream. They came from the Rheinish Palatinate (Palatines), Baden, Württemberg, Bavaria, Prussia, Saxony and other independent states in the old German empire, not yet unified with a national identity.
German-Swiss (the Switzers) immigrated to the Carolinas from the Swiss Cantons of Zurich, Bern and Basel. The 18th century Swiss Government considered emigration a crime that would deprive the fatherland of productive citizens and soldiers. Edicts were issued forbidding emigrants to sell their properties and depriving them forever of citizenship and land rights. Emigration continued at a steady pace.
Most emigrants sailed from Europe directly to Charleston; others migrated from Pennsylvania along the Great Wagon Road. They left Europe for many reasons: religious and political persecution, economic oppression and enticements from Newlanders — transatlantic businessmen who recruited Europeans for resettlement. According to late Professor Robert L. Meriwether, USC History department head in Columbia, there are estimates that 7,500 to 8,000 Germans and German-Swiss were in South Carolina in 1765.
Most Palatines and German-Swiss immigrants paid their transatlantic passage up-front. The penniless became redemptioners, paying upon arrival, or earning passage-money by working as a servant for a number of years. Unlike indentured servants, the redemptioners usually negotiated the length of their contract with the purchaser, who might be a family member, friend or benevolent organization. Redemptioners — mostly German — had certain advantages over indentured servants, whose expenses were often paid and contracts negotiated by the ship captain. They also endured longer periods of servitude.
South Carolina’s German-speaking colonists were hardworking, industrious citizens. They faced extreme dangers and hardships in the early years, yet they established successful farming communities and became respected merchants. Their cultural, social and political contributions impacted the Midlands in positive ways that are still evident. It is easy to recognize the last names of a few of their descendants: Claussen, Shealy, Strom, Lowman, Sease, Boozer, Wessinger, Dreher, Hutto, Fulmer, Sikes, Zeigler, Bouknight, Inabinet and Rawl.
Many German traditions began to disappear after the Civil War, but others survived and recently have gained in popularity. It’s helpful to know about South Carolina’s colonial past to understand the history of these German ancestors and how their behavior helped shape the state.
Early Colonization of Carolina
In 1629, King Charles I established Carolana — Latin for Charles. Initial settlement attempts failed until his successor, Charles II, ascended the throne after the “Great Restoration.” Eight Lords Proprietors — most with rank in the Peerage — began governing the colony (known now as Carolina) through a charter from Charles in 1663. Granted the full prerogatives of establishing the colony, they encouraged European-American settlement with alluring incentives such as land grants, money, tools, provisions, religious freedom and political representation.
The population of Charles Towne, the first permanent European settlement in Carolina (1670), initially consisted of English settlers from Europe and the Caribbean. Charles Towne was relocated in 1680 to the tip of a peninsula called Oyster Point; the strategic location offered better defense. A primary concern was to safeguard against French, Spanish and Native American attacks.
By 1719, the colonists were disillusioned with the Lords Proprietors’ hostile governance and lack of protection from external foes. United, they executed a well-planned coup to overthrow the proprietors and depose Governor Robert Johnson. Reform wasn’t complete until 1729, when the British Crown purchased the proprietors’ interests in the colony. By now, North Carolina and South Carolina were separate royal provinces.
Charles Towne grew into a multi-ethnic entrepôt with Africans, French Huguenots, Scottish, Protestant Irish, Welsh and Sephardic Jews. German-speaking immigrants — present since the early days of settlement –– integrated seamlessly into Charleston society and carved out successful niches in the mercantile, banking and artisan trades. The German Friendly Society (1766) lent assistance to newly arriving German immigrants, widows and orphans. At the forefront of political activities, the new immigrants formed the first German military company in British North America in 1755 — the distinguished German Fusiliers.
Most German residents in Charles Towne were staunch Lutherans. St. John’s (1742), on Clifford Street, is among the oldest Lutheran congregations in America. St. Matthew German Lutheran Church, on King Street, was established in 1840 by a group of Germans led by General Johann (John) Andreas Wagener, the most influential German ever to settle in Charleston. He organized numerous societies including the German Colonization Society in 1848, which purchased 17,859 acres for the establishment of the town Walhalla “garden of the gods.” It is located in the present county seat of Oconee County at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Many society members and new German immigrants settled the new town. St. John’s German Evangelical Lutheran Church, built by master German builder John Kaufmann, played a significant role in the town’s history. For a decade, Newberry College relocated to Walhalla while damage was repaired after the Civil War. Picturesque Walhalla hosts an annual Oktoberfest celebration on Main Street in October.
Townships with the largest percentage of German-speaking residents were Purrysburg, Orangeburgh, Saxe Gotha, Amelia, New Windsor and Londonborough. Other townships —Boonesborough (1762) and Hillsborough (1764) — attracted French-Huguenots, Welsh, Scots-Irish and Quakers.
Old Dutch Fork (associated with Orangeburgh Township) is encompassed by parts of Lexington County. Its location is inside the fork between the Broad and Saluda Rivers. Saxe Gotha stood just south of Dutch Fork. The area is named for the original Germans; Dutch is an Anglicized word for Deutsch, meaning “German.”
This was one of the most densely populated areas of German settlement. The immigrants first arrived in 1730 and flowed into the area over 30 years. Most emigrated from the historic German states of Baden on the east bank of the Rhine River and Württemberg, a rich agricultural area further east. Both areas are wine-growing regions. Several migrated from Pennsylvania.
Few of the backcountry Germans resettled in other areas. Dutch Fork industries were based around farming, livestock and lumber. The settlers retained much of their culture throughout generations. Life was hard, but there was support from church, family and community, which they valued above all things.
St. John’s Lutheran Church in Pomaria is a historic Lutheran congregation dating back to 1754. It was the first Reformed German church in the Dutch Fork. The “Old White Church” presently standing was used for 141 years and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Saxe Gotha Township
Saxe Gotha Township, established in 1730 as Congaree Township, was renamed in 1735. The old German name honors the marriage of Britain’s Prince of Wales to Princess Augusta of the German Duchy of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg. Their eldest son was King George III.
The settlement was situated in present-day Lexington County, about 30 miles from Amelia Township. It traversed the Cherokee Indian Path, and the Occaneechi Path (Highway US 1). The name Saxe Gotha was changed in 1785 when Lexington District was established to honor the Massachusetts Revolutionary War battle.
Colonial German Foods
There was never a starving time in colonial South Carolina as there had been in the Jamestown colony. Being a seaport town and trading center, Charles Towne offered the Germans a wide variety of exotic, imported foodstuffs and spices. Theirs was a rice-based society; prepared dishes were accented with flavors from the West Indies, Africa and Asia. Oysters, crabs, shrimp and terrapins were abundant.
In the backcountry, German frontiersmen grew basic food crops and planted orchards for fruit. They had wild fowl, venison and fish from nearby rivers. They foraged for wild vegetables, herbs and greens. Cows provided milk and butter. Household industries included salting, pickling, smoking, drying and brewing. Alcohol was freely served and often safer than water. A bucket of beer, a bottle of rum, a draft of hard cider, or a bowl of punch lubricated any occasion. Fermented drinks with fresh fruit, especially peaches, were made in season. Many Charles Towne Germans enjoyed the refinement of fine imported wine like Madeira.
Germans were renowned for butchering and sausage-making skills; most meals were simple and based on meat. Pork is an anchor of German and South Carolina cooking. Barbecue (Germans preferred pork shoulder) and whole hog cookery hearken back to the traditions of local rural farming folk — no doubt with Spanish and Native American influences. Being fond of pork with mustard, South Carolina Germans created a yellow, mustard-based sauce. It’s one of four types of barbecue sauce in the state and is unique to South Carolina.
Barbecue hash is a colonial carolina tradition with origins in the Lowcountry rice culture. Pork butt, shoulder, or a whole hog’s head is cooked down in broth in a large black iron kettle over an open fire. Additional ingredients are up to the cook: pork liver, onion, vinegar, hot sauce and black pepper are a few favorites. The Germans added mustard, very popular around the Midlands area. Some say wood smoke is the most important ingredient. The hash resembles thick meat gravy and is spooned over cooked rice. It is a communal food, and great for the backwoods crowd! Many local German descendants are associated with barbecue businesses and specialize in hash: Sweatman, Wise, Shealy, Hite, Sikes, Kiser and Bessinger. Be sure not to miss the photo essay on South Carolina barbecue on page 76.
The Carolina Germans make boiled dumplings with potatoes, fruit, beef and even liver. A delicious beef and liver dumpling dish in the Orangeburg, Lexington and Dutch Fork areas is called “liver nips.” People clamor for them as they taste so good!
Germans are partial to rabbit, white asparagus (spargel) potato pancakes (Kartoffelpuffer), applesauce and red cabbage (rotkohl). Breaded, fried chicken cutlets, nuggets and fingers, so popular in restaurants today, descend directly from the popular German schnitzel.
Foods of German origin are common in South Carolina, but this is largely unrealized because they have assimilated into American cuisine and become mainstream. Consider frankfurters, hamburger steak (not the sandwich), potato salad, egg noodles, sausages, cheesecake, jelly doughnuts, sauerkraut, pretzels, meat loaf, muenster cheese, beer, marzipan, streusel, milk gravy, casseroles, apple strudel, rye bread, pickles and gingerbread. Nuremberg, Germany is known as the “gingerbread capital of the world.”
The German immigrants brought traditions and customs that are enjoyed today, including St. Nicholas, advent wreaths, lebkuchen, stollen, Glühwein (mulled wine) and O Tannenbaum — the beloved “Christmas tree!” They also introduced the Easter bunny and Easter eggs. In Germany, decorated, blown egg shells are placed outdoors on the branches of trees and bushes by the hundreds.
Shirley Rawl Seese and her husband both descend from South Carolina’s German settlers. Shirley shares this unique recipe for liver dumplings. The dish has a German heritage and was a specialty in the old Dutch Fork and Sax Gotha areas. Unique to the Lexington County area, it still has many ardent fans, including those who usually won’t eat liver. Shirley says the dumplings are a “comfort food” favorite at her Lexington restaurant, The Farmer’s Shed, and at covered dish suppers. To shape the savory dumplings, scrape up or “nip” portions of dumpling mixture from the bowl with a spoon, then drop into boiling beef stock. The word nip is of Low German or Dutch origin. In the Rheinland, liver dumplings (Leberknödel) are served with sauerkraut and mashed potatoes. Shirley serves them with mashed potatoes and pickled beets.
3 to 4 pound chuck roast (reserve cooking broth)
1 pound fresh cow or calf liver
1 medium onion, finely grated
1 tablespoon basil or thyme
2 teaspoons salt
Black pepper, to taste
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 large eggs
In a large pot, cook chuck roast and liver in 2 quarts water until beef is done. Remove liver from broth; grind in a meat grinder or food processor. Mix with onion, basil, salt, pepper, flour and baking powder. Mix in eggs and add enough broth to make a stiff batter. Reserve the chuck roast; keep warm. Add enough water to the leftover broth to make 2 quarts liquid. Bring to a boil. Scrape the batter out of the bowl by the spoonful; make them small or large. As they are formed, push dumplings into the hot broth, with the help of another spoon. To prevent sticking, dip the spoon into the hot broth before shaping each dumpling. Cook 10 to 15 minutes until done. Slice the chuck roast and serve with liver nips and some of the gravy. Serves 6 to 8.
Note: Calf liver is milder than cow’s liver.
Sweet-Sour Red Cabbage (Rotkohl)
Germans love cabbage, especially sauerkraut and rotkohl — sweet-sour red cabbage. The fruity taste of apples or pears will compliment the cabbage. Vinegar preserves the cabbage’s red color and red currant jelly adds a touch of sweetness. You can substitute light brown sugar, or even honey. Add 2 cloves or 1/2 teaspoon toasted caraway seeds, if you enjoy the flavor. A few seasonal cranberries will add flavor and tartness too. For a main dish, sauté your favorite German sausages just to brown, then add them to the covered pot of cabbage for the final 10 minutes of cooking. (Or cook and serve separately). Serve cabbage as a side dish with pork, roast duck or beef.
2 slices bacon
2 tablespoons butter or olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
1 head red cabbage, cored, cut in 1/4-inch strips (about 2 1/2 pounds)
2 tart apples, cored, diced in small pieces
2 to 4 tablespoons red wine vinegar, or to taste
1 cup water, port, beef broth or chicken stock, or as needed
3 to 4 tablespoons red currant jelly or brown sugar, to taste
Sea salt and black pepper, to taste
Cook bacon in a large, deep saucepan; remove and reserve. Add butter to bacon drippings. Add onion to the pan; cook and stir 2 to 3 minutes until softened. Stir in cabbage; then apples, vinegar and half the water. Cover and cook on low heat about 35 minutes. Stir in jelly and remaining liquid, if needed. Cook 5 to 10 additional minutes until the cabbage is tender, yet still has texture. Taste to check seasonings; add salt and pepper, if desired.
German Potato Pancakes (Kartoffelpuffer)
For the best results, use starchy potatoes. Drain shredded potatoes in a sieve, squeezing out any moisture. The oil should be very hot before the potato mixture is added. Serve pancakes with sides of homemade applesauce and sour cream.
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
2 large eggs
1 small finely chopped onion or scallions
6 medium to large Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and shredded, or russet potatoes
Canola oil or olive oil, as needed
In a large bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, salt and pepper. Mix in egg, onion and potatoes. Heat about 1/4 cup oil in a large, heavy skillet over medium heat. Drop tablespoons of potato mixture into the hot oil. Use the back of the spoon to slightly flatten each pancake. Cook 3 to 4 minutes on each side, until golden brown and crisp. Drain and serve at once or keep in a warm oven up to 15 minutes before serving.
For more recipes, visit ColumbiaMetro.com.
Food Styling by Susan Fuller Slack, CCP