And once we were immigrants too

9q2a3738*Dedicated to my father, Thomas Kessinger, and all our fathers before him and in celebration of his 80th birthday and the publishing of his autobiography, Growing Up, Growing Old.

“The very essence of our nation is founded on the strength, courage, and determination of these immigrants.” -Thomas Jefferson

While reading my father’s book, I was particularly struck by the story of my ancestors, the ones who replanted our family tree in American soil eight generations before me. It helped me to view the current migrant crisis from a different perspective. Over a million migrants and refugees crossed into Europe in 2015 escaping violence, persecution, and war. The vast majority of migrants and refugees are fleeing the conflict in Syria and the ongoing violence in Afghanistan. Nearly 300 years ago, my ancestors were also escaping war, poverty and religious persecution when they decided to make the treacherous overseas journey from Germany to America. Today is the anniversary of their arrival.

On October 31, 1737 my ancestors first stepped foot on American soil. Almost three centuries ago, my sixth great paternal grandfather, Johann Georg Kessinger, arrived in Philadelphia on the Ship William from Germany. At that time, 40 years before America’s independence, Pennsylvania was one of the thirteen British colonies of North America. He arrived at a time when the ideology of the early American settlers from Europe included an emphasis on civic duty and sovereignty of the people, and rejected royalty, aristocracy and corruption.

Philadelphia City Hall

Oath of allegiance, 1727

Germans were immigrating to America in large numbers in the early 1700s. Between 1708 and 1760, 100,000 German immigrants escaped from war, poverty, and religious persecution to make the dangerous journey to America. The Provincial Council of Pennsylvania was nervous when five ships, carrying 300 Germans each, arrived in Philadelphia within only one month. They felt like they were being overrun by the Germans. In response to fear that the immigrants would not adopt the laws and language of the English, the council prepared and approved an oath that all male German immigrants over the age of 16 were required to sign.

One of Georg’s eight children, a son, died on the long journey from Amsterdam to Philadelphia. The voyage across the Atlantic Ocean typically lasted from two to four months and the conditions on board the ships were horrific. Many passengers became sick and did not survive the trip.

The Kessinger family spent their first nights sleeping in a haystack at a farm in the area. Georg’s wife died three days after their arrival. He was forced, like many immigrating parents at that time, to bond out his remaining seven children as indentured servants to local farmers. He planned to use the money he received from bonding out the children to buy farmland in Lancaster County and return for the children once he had established the homestead. However, he never returned, the children never saw him again and many of them never saw each other. 

It is difficult for me to put myself in the shoes of my forefathers in the 1700s. Likewise, I can’t imagine how it feels for the hundreds of thousands of people in 2016 who have made similar decisions to abandon their homes, livelihoods and other family members to escape from whatever horrors are in their home countries. My ancestors escaped Germany at a time when many were fleeing the country.

I have never experienced war, poverty or religious persecution. But I know many who have – too many. I know small families who are separated on three different continents because of the tragic choices they were compelled to make. Several of the young people I know came to the U.S. to study and no longer have a house or family in their home country. It is unfathomable for me. And most of these young people have fled their homes two, three or even four times in their short lifetimes. 

img_5530I am grateful for the sacrifices that my ancestors made to build a new life in America. They are sacrifices that have allowed me a life of peace, comfort and religious freedom. We were fortunate to arrive about 150 years before America’s first immigration legislation was passed. Our arrival preceded the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the national origins quota system in the 1920s. As far as I know, none of my family members were affected by the internment and detention of over 100,000 Japanese, German, and Italian Americans during WWII.

By the year 2000, people of German descent were the largest ethnic group/nationality in the U.S. According to the 2000 U.S. Census,  46.5 million people, or 15.2 percent of the population, claimed German ancestry. We arrived when the words from Emma Lazarus’s sonnet which adorn the base of the Statue of Liberty were still true, 

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me:
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

Those words are certainly not as true in the United States today. Sadly, after three centuries, people are still escaping war, poverty and religious persecution. And the country my family escaped from has become a safe haven for many. In 2015, Germany received the largest number of asylum seekers in Europe – nearly 500,000 of the 1.3 million who applied. Fortunately, my German ancestors arrived at a time when Americans encouraged relatively free and open immigration. They were not faced with deportation after their life-threatening journey across the Atlantic Ocean. I hope Germany reconsiders its plan to deport 40,000 of the Afghan refugees who risked their lives to reach a safe haven or that the United States and other countries can help to relieve the disproportionate burden that European countries are facing in the current migrant crisis. Let’s “lift [our] lamp beside the golden door.”


  • Growing Up, Growing Old: My incredible journey through life, Thomas Kessinger
  • “German immigration to Pennsylvania in the early 1700s: The beginning of a new life
  • The Brobst Chronicles, Chapter Two – The History Of The German Immigration To America”
  • German Immigration” U.S. Immigration and Migration Reference Library. Ed. Lawrence W. Baker, et al. Vol. 1: Vol. 1: Almanac. Detroit: UXL, 2004. 221-246. U.S. History in Context. Web. 30 Oct. 2016.



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