The Customs Here are not the Best. Philadelphia, 1777/8.

In early July 1777, more than 15,000 British and German troops along with officers, staff and servants, began to board transports at Staten Island that would take them to south. An estimated 4,450, or roughly one third of the corps, were German. (Although the records are silent about their presence, it is probable that they were accompanied by a significant number of women and children.) In late August, the army landed in Maryland from where it made its way north toward Philadelphia. On September 25, the corps reached Germantown, a village located just north of the city. The following day, a force comprised of British and Hessian soldiers marched into Philadelphia.

At that time, Philadelphia consisted of about 4,000 dwellings, made of brick or stone, and mostly two or three stories high. It was the largest city in British North America. However, its population had shrunk from a pre-war estimate of around 40,000 to 10,000. Despite the obvious negative effects of the war on Philadelphia, German officers described it as impressive, at least by American standards. Their view of Pennsylvania’s inhabitants was less favorable. In particular, they tended to be offended by the great variety of religious denominations, which, they believed, contributed to a general lack of morals. Indeed, it was a common observation among the Hessians: too much freedom and too much leisure had corrupted the American people.

Trenchard, James, Engraver, and Charles Willson Peale. A N.W. view of the state house in Philadelphia taken [1787]. Accessed at

Among the German officers who participated in the occupation of Philadelphia was the Hessian Captain August Eberhard von Dincklage. Dincklage was intensely curious about his surroundings, including the natural and built environment as well as the customs and manners of the people he encountered. The source included with this post consists of an entry from his diary. While his impression of the city’s design and architecture was very positive, he thought that freedom of religion had contributed to a corruption of morals among the residents, morals that had been questionable to begin with.


Here, I would like to add something about the city of Philadelphia: Around 90 years ago, the first house was built and the entire region was nothing but a wilderness. Now, there are already 5000 stone houses, the streets are all straight and wide, and the sides next to the houses are paved with bricks. For the convenience of pedestrians, at night all of the streets are [172] illuminated with lanterns. The houses are not very large and mostly three stories high but finely constructed. The city has various nice but not large or splendid churches, a very fine city hall, various very well designed hospitals, and an impressive prison. The layout of the city is divided into many squares, but only half of it has been built on, namely along the side of the Delaware. The location of the city is the best one could have found. It is located between two navigable rivers, and the ground is a large, level area. I have been assured that not a year went by when not a couple of hundred houses were constructed. Had this war not only prevented new construction but also destroyed a good part of the houses, the city would soon have been entirely built up. The region around the city is occupied by many delightful und beautiful country estates. The ground is very good and fertile; it consists of rich soil mixed with sand, [173] like most of the earth that I have found here in America. This has the pleasant effect that it is almost always dry and makes for good roads. Even if it has rained very hard and there is only one day of good weather, one cannot find any mud. The local inhabitants are more diligent than people in the other provinces, which I believe is due to the fact that a large portion of them are Germans and Swiss, who are used to working. However, as soon as they are prosperous, some of them begin to imitate their neighbors and let others work for them. An old Swiss man, who lived on a country estate not far from the city, assured me that there would not have been any thought of rebellion if the people here had to work as hard as the people in Switzerland did. All religions and sects belonging to Christianity are freely holding services here. The Quakers are the wealthiest among them. That the customs are not the best here is easy to imagine; first, because of the great liberty to act and live as one [174] desires, and then added to this, that the people who have moved here from all parts of the world did not bring the best but, rather, they brought the worst customs with them. The inclination to frivolities and vanity especially among the women is very extravagant.

[Detail], Plan der Stadt Philadelphia mit Armeelager und Befestigungen, 1778, [Map of the city of Philadelphia with encampments and fortifications], Hessian State Archives Marburg, HStAM WHK 29/60.


Hier will ich Etwas von der Stadt Philadelphia hersetzen: Vor ungefähr 90 Jahren ist das erste Haus darinnen gebaut worden und die ganze Gegend nichts als ein wilder Wald gewesen; jetzt sind schon an die 5000 steinerne Häuser darinnen, die Straßen sind alle nach der Schnur und breit angelegt, und auf den Seiten nächst den Häusern mit Backsteinen gepflastert, zur Bequemlichkeit für die Fußgänger, die Nacht sind sämmtliche Straßen mit [172] Laternen erleuchtet. Die Häuser sind nicht sehr groß und meistens nur drei Stockwerk, aber zierlich gebaut, es hat verschiedene artige ob zwar nicht große und prächtige Kirchen, ein recht schönes Stadthaus, und verschiedene recht wohl angelegte Hospitäler und ein schönes Zuchthaus; der Grundriß der Stadt ist in lauter Vierecke abgetheilt, aber erst halb bebaut, nämlich die Seite am Dellaware. Die Lage der Stadt ist die vortrefflichste, so man hätte finden können, sie liegt zwischen zwei schiffbaren Flüssen, und der Grund eine große ebene Fläche. Man hat mir versichert daß kein Jahr hingegangen, worin nicht ein Paar Hundert neue Häuser angebaut worden, wenn nicht dieser Krieg gekommen, welcher nicht allein das Anbauen verhindert sondern auch ein gutes Theil Häuser zerstört hat, so würde dieselbe bald völlig ausgebaut worden sein. Die Gegend um die Stadt ist mit vielen lustigen und schönen Landhäusern bebaut, der Boden ist sehr gut und fruchtbar, eine fette mit Sand vermischte Erde, [173] so wie der meiste Boden, welchen ich hier in Amerika angetroffen; dieses hat das angenehme, daß es fast beständig trocken und gute Wege sind. Wenn es auch noch so stark geregnet und nur einen Tag wieder gutes Wetter, so ist kein Dreck mehr zu finden. Die hiesigen Einwohner sind arbeitsamer wie in den übrigen Provinzen, welches glaube ich daher kommt, weil ein großer Theil Deutsche und Schweitzer, welche das arbeiten gewohnt sind, doch fangen sie auch an sobald sie vermögend werden, dem Beispiel ihrer Nachbarn zu folgen und lassen Andere für sich arbeiten. Ein alter Schweizer, welcher auf einem Landgute, nicht weit von der Stadt wohnte, versicherte mir, daß wenn die Leute hier so wie in der Schweiz arbeiten müßten, an keine Rebellion würde gedacht worden sein. Alle Religionen und Secten der Christenheit haben hier ihren freien Gottesdienst, worunter die Quäcker die allerwohl habendsten sind. Daß die Sitten hier nicht die besten, kann man leicht denken, erstens die große Freiheit zu handeln und zu leben wie man [174] will, und dann dazu genommen, daß die aus allen Gegenden der Welt hierher gezogene, nicht die Besten, sondern viel eher die Schlimmsten mitgebracht. Die Neigung zu Lustbarkeiten und zum Stat, besonders bei den Frauenzimmern ist ganz ausschweifend.

Featured Image: Benjamin Easburn, et als., A plan of the city of Philadelphia, the capital of Pennsylvania, from an actual survey (London, 1776), Library of Congress. Accessed at

Citation: [August Eberhard von Dincklage], Tagebuch 1776 – 1784 (Abschrift), ff. 172 – 175, Universitätsbibliothek Kassel, Landesbibliothek und Murhardsche Bibliothek der Stadt Kassel, 4° Ms. Hass. 186. This diary has been digitized:

One thought on “The Customs Here are not the Best. Philadelphia, 1777/8.

  1. I don’t know Hessian society at this time. The landgraves were more tolerant religiously. Huguenots, Lutherans, Anabaptists, Roman Catholics, and Judaism all existed in Kurhessen as best I know. The area of Kurhessen my family comes from, today’s Kreis Hersfeld-Rotenberg, had all of these. It was also a very agriculturally focused economy. Flax was a major crop. Hessian uniforms were made from material produced there. I suspect the society was very conservative due to this economy. People worked hard to make a living. Philadelphia was urban, a port city, more diverse, and with more British focused society. This makes Hessian comments what I think I would expect. Robert Moeller

    Sent from my iPhone



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