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Pennsylvania Laws-German Translation

Updated: Mar 9

Greene County: Journal of the Senate - 4 copies German and English

 1801 Greene County, Pennsylvania record showing allocation of German & English copies of laws
Records of Greene County (Pa.), 1785-1877, MSS 97, Detre Library and Archives, Heinz History Center

A chance encounter I had with an 1801 legislative document from Greene County, Pennsylvania got me digging into early German records in western Pennsylvania. At that time the frontier defined western Pennsylvania. In1790, the western half of the state fell into just five counties, Allegheny (the smallest in population), Bedford, Fayette, Washington and Westmoreland and made up less than twenty percent of Pennsylvania's population. Ten years later, many counties had begun calving off the others, including Greene County in 1796 which by 1800 counted 8,605 people in its boundaries.

Pennsylvania map from 1800
Pennsylvania map from 1800; credit:

So I was surprised when looked at a paper addressed to Greene County's prothonotary (chief clerk for civil proceedings in Pennsylvania's Court of Common Pleas), and it indicated that Greene County should have four copies each in German and English of both the Journal of the Senate and the Journal of the House of Representatives. The act didn't mention printing them in German. So I got curious. It turns out that Pennsylvania passed a law in 1805 that the governor needed to get one thousand copies of all the laws of the Commonwealth printed in German, although it does not say what he had to do with all those copies, and it did not explain the four copies the Greene County received in 1801. The hand-written copy of law cited in the archive document made no mention of German translations. That was only in the grid at the bottom of the paper.

1808 Law: German copies to Pennsylvania counties
1808 Law: German copies to Pennsylvania counties

In any case, in 1808, three years later after the governor was mandated to get copies of the legislation translated into German, Pennsylvania passed a law ensuring that the counties would get an adequate number copies of the laws printed in German. The number of copies to each county gives its own interesting window into the German population across Pennsylvania at the time. That year, the legislature allocated Greene County eight, Somerset twenty-two, and the county of Northampton a sizable thirty-five copies.

Ethnic Germans arrived in numbers in Pennsylvania years before the Commonwealth existed. We can find old wills, deeds and church registers hand-written in Kurrent, old German cursive, and many newspapers and books printed in the gothic Fraktur. Now I know that the early Pennsylvania laws were mandated to be translated to German and distributed across the Commonwealth as well. And all from having my curiosity piqued when I came across an unfolded, hand-written copy of an act of legislation in the files at the archives as I was deep in other research.

1801 Greene County hand-written copy of law w/ red sealing wax
Records of Greene County (Pa.), 1785-1877, MSS 97, Detre Library and Archives, Heinz History Center


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