On my ancestors’ involvement in one of America’s first immigration problems

Ramsour’s Mill, Lincolnton, NC. Site of Revolutionary War battle on June 20, 1780.

My paternal ancestors were German Palatines who emigrated from the Middle Rhyne in the mid-Eighteenth Century. In the aftermath of the Nine Year’s War and the fragmentation of the Holy Roman Empire in Europe, these unskilled and uneducated German emigrants had created an immigration problem for Great Britain thanks to Louis XIV of France. George II offered the “Poor Palatines” transportation to, and free land in, the New World to solve his immigration problem and to help settle the New World for the British Crown. Many Palatines didn’t survive the journey, but my first ancestors arrived in Pennsylvania onboard the Thistle in 1738. It was called the “The Year of the Destroying Angels.” They were joined three years later by a son, Abraham, and his wife.

“They came when plundering wars and religious persecutions had reduced the Lower Palatinate to a wasteland, when people ate grass and leaves, when passenger ships were loaded beyond capacity, when hundreds were buried at sea, when churning sea gales rose like mountains and tumbled over frightened migrants, when the unhealthy were unwelcome at the port in Philadelphia.”
— Rev. James R. Hawk, They Came from Germany, Aboard the Thistle (2016).

After “settling” in Pennsylvania for a few years, my ancestors moved to the Carolina Backcountry — the “skirmish line of civilization” where Europeans still fought with Cherokee over land. Apparently Germans needn’t be that unhealthy to be unwelcome in the Pennsylvania Colony at the time.

“[W]hy should the Palatine Boors be suffered to swarm into our settlements, and by herding together establish their languages and manners to the exclusion of ours? Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our language or customs, any more than they can acquire our complexion?”
— Benjamin Franklin, “Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, Peopling of Countries, etc.” (1751).

These pioneer settlers of the Catawba River Valley were British Loyalists until the Battle of Ramsour’s Mill. On that foggy morning of July 20, 1780 family, friends, and neighbors unleashed terror on each other. They used their muskets as clubs when they ran out of ammunition. Two documented cases of fratricide occurred during the battle. Abraham Kühner (Keener) was a Tory Captain at the battle. He intervened to save the life of a wounded friend and Whig Captain who was fleeing the battleground — an action that likely saved his own life and allowed him and his family to retain their Plantation. Abraham was later sentenced to help build a local road as punishment, and his son, John, was “delivered…to serve in the Continental Army, a Satisfaction to his country for being with the British Army.” Forty years later John would leave enslaved African Americans to his wife and son when he died. Some of John’s decedents fought for the Confederate States of America, and some of them almost certainly joined the Ku Klux Klan.

Other decedents granted land to build a “Union” church after the Civil War. It was called the “Do As You Please” church because it was open to Baptists, Presbyterians, and Methodists in addition to Lutherans. I’m told several local Baptist churches got started there. I’m not sure if Muslims, Wiccans, or secular humanists would have been welcome in their church or not, but given my Lutheran ancestors’ experience with religious persecution by a Catholic “Sun King” in Europe it would have been a sham if not. And given their experience with war and slavery, I hope they were at least involved in helping evolve the oldest militia rally in our state into an European street festival.

Other decedents of my uneducated, unskilled German immigrant ancestors became prominent local craftsman, business owners, soldiers in two World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, and at least one elected representative and notable newspaper editor in our state. Walter Ney Keener (1880–1931) was a lawyer and state legislator who served in the N.C. House of Representatives from 1907 to 1908. He also served on the executive committee of the North Carolina School for the Blind and Deaf. He left law and politics to become the city editor of the Raleigh Times, managing and city editor of the Durham Sun, city editor of the Charlotte Chronicle, editor of the High Point Enterprise, the Wilmington Dispatch, and the Durham Morning Herald in the early 1900s. Walter was described as “a man of inquiring mind, ready decisions, [and] strong opinions” who “expressed himself forcefully and effectively…was frank, independent, and courageous, with a deep aversion to sham and pretense wherever it appeared.” I wonder what Walter would have to say about Trumpism?

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
 — George Santayana

Would he remind us of the impact of European immigration on the Catawba people? Or the ravages of war and slavery in our own family history? Would he talk about religious freedom? Or “huddled masses yearning to breathe free”? Or would he ignore all this history and instead wax poetically, like one of his contemporaries did in 1908 at the birthday celebration of Peter Keener (another slave owner in my family history), about Abraham Kühner’s father — Casper Kühner — the “adventurous pioneer and honored hero” in our family who first came to these parts when Benjamin Franklin was as “politically incorrect” as Donald Trump?

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