Vernon Park: Francis Daniel Pastorius, the Founder of Germantown
The fact that a German immigrant founded Germantown may seem like common knowledge, but the various layers of Francis Daniel Pastorius’ legacy are often overlooked.
While a monument in honor of Pastorius is positioned along Germantown Avenue in Vernon Park for many to see, less well-known symbols of his importance can be found at the German Society of Pennsylvania, located at 611 Spring Garden St.
Professor Frank Trommler, who has worked in the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Germanic Languages and Literature since 1970, plays an important role at the German Society of Pennsylvania. Trommler has spent the past few years helping to revitalize the GSP library, which is home to some of Pastorius’s original manuscripts.
But along with his books, the library also possesses a model of the initial design for the monument erected in Vernon Park. The small model features Pastorius standing in front of a house, with a crowd of people bowing to him.
“This is the image of Pastorius with his people around him, more or less venerating him as the big founder of Germantown and the German community,” Trommler said.
Though the present monument was completed in 1917, Trommler said it could not be displayed until after World War I due to negative German connotations within the United States.
“In 1920, after the war, they opened it and could present it to the public,” he said. “But there were not too many people anymore that were claiming German heritage.”
It was because of World War I and these tense relations with Germany that the initial design was abandoned in lieu of a more ambiguous concept.
The existing monument, designed by American sculptor Albert Jaegers, significantly differs from the original. It does not contain an image of Pastorius, but instead features an allegory holding a light. An immigrant family, meant to represent the German immigrants in Germantown, is carved beneath.
“They didn’t want to have Pastorius and too much German display on the monument,” Trommler said.
While the physical portrayal of the monument does not directly depict Pastorius, the engraved text does acknowledge one of his notable endeavors.
“The protest of the Germans of Germantown against slavery on February 18, 1688,” reads the one side of the monument.
In 1688, a small group of Germans had come together in Germantown to sign the first known American petition against slavery. The document contained Pastorius’ signature, along with five other signatures. Though the petition did not go far, Trommler said that it signified the Germantown community’s desire for free life in the new country.
“They were Quakers and the general feeling was that the imposition of any slavery or any exploitation was against God’s will,” he said.
Though he did share in the Quaker beliefs and views towards life, Pastorius was actually a Lutheran. But as a Lutheran in the 17th and early 18th century, Pastorius was open-minded. Trommler said his biggest fights in the Germantown community were often fought against the Lutheran pastors, with whom he did not always agree.
“So one can call him a sort of Quaker,” he said. “But I think it’s not really fully accepted.”
A native of Germany himself, Trommler has found significance in not only Pastorius’s more renowned accomplishments, but also in the historical meaning found within his books and journals.
“The more I read it, the more I am impressed by this man,” he said.
The Beehive is Pastorius’s largest manuscript and is currently located in the rare books section of the University of Pennsylvania’s library. It is a collection of everyday thoughts and observations from Pastorius’s own life, and is written in a combination of Latin, German, French and English.
“It’s about how to behave well,” Trommler said. “And is in some ways a great scrapbook of thoughts of an educated man around 1700.”
Pastorius also wrote books and journals about the Germantown landscape and his own personal gardens. Very interested in the natural sciences, he was constantly observing gardens, flowers and new plants.
“For people then, something like this was a sort of adventure,” Trommler said. “And in those years, they wrote down everything they saw.”
The Garden Recreations is a very special manuscript that the German Society of Pennsylvania owns. It is written in Pastorius’s own handwriting and is a book of his own garden details.
“He writes in a beautiful script his observations and descriptions of plants in this little garden in Germantown,” Trommler said. “And there’s always a reference to God and how he created these particular plants.”
But the piece of writing Pastorius has left behind that Trommler said he finds most fascinating is a poem that he wrote towards the end of his life. Translated, Trommler said it reads, “To Posterity, To My Successes: Dear German-Americans, we have started this enterprise and we made mistakes. Please look at us with grace and forgiveness and make it better.”
“It is a very humble way of addressing the German community in America to take his legacy, but to become better,” Trommler said.
This article was written and reported by Natasha Shapiro and Niambi McDonald for Philadelphia Neighborhoods, a publication of Temple University's Multimedia Urban Reporting Lab, and originally published on June 9, 2011.
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