Historian: New Hanover in the beginning

Since the Lutheran and Reformed churches in New Hanover hold the oldest German congregations in Pennsylvania it is remarkable that so little is known about the first few decades of the hamlet once called “Swamp” a mistranslation of the German word Schwamm or “Meadows.” We lack exact dates, positive facts, and clear accounts of events before 1742, the year Rev. Henry Melchior Muhlenberg arrived and began record keeping. We believe Rev. Anthony Jacob Henkel arrived here with his family and a party of followers in 1717, but his records, if they were made, have not survived. Before 1717 we must look to the enigmatic figure of Daniel Falckner, after whom the area was named, and the curious history of the Frankfort Land Company.

Our first certain history starts with Anthonius Jacobus Henckel who was born 1668, ordained in 1692, and had a distinguished career as a Lutheran minister in Germany where he served five parish churches. Said to be six feet tall, bold, courageous and with a missionary zeal, in 1717 he angered the local prince by publicly denouncing in a sermon certain iniquities of the prince’s court. The prince, who was present, angrily stormed out of the church after making certain threatening gestures. In June of that year Anthony Jacob Henkel sailed for America with his seven adult children and a company of Lutheran followers. He was forty-nine.

In September of 1717 three ships landed in Philadelphia with about 300 German immigrants. At that early date, immigrant records were not kept, but Henkel’s group was almost surely among them. In 1718 Rev. Anthony Jacob Henkel acquired a tract of 250 acres in New Hanover where Muhlenberg later testifies he “ministered for a number of years to the first settlers of that region.” It appears that Rev. Rev. Henkel was a circuit rider and ministered over a wide region also organizing congregations in Philadelphia and Germantown. One of Henkel’s sons was also named Anthony and he started the Henkel family plantation in New Hanover adjacent to his brother-in-law Valentine Geiger who also owned 250 acres. All of this land was in the neighborhood of the present Lutheran church and was bought from John Henry Sprogell who in 1719 donated 50 acres for a Lutheran church, burying ground, and schoolhouse.

Starting with Henkel’s arrival we have some references to a settlement in “Swamp.” Muhlenberg mentions the congregation had built a log church in 1721. (Actually he says “replacing” a log church which hints of a previous structure of which nothing is known). Unfortunately Rev. Henkel was killed in a fall from a horse in Germantown in 1728. His family left the area with the exception of his son-in-law Valentine Geiger who became a lifelong pillar of the New Hanover Lutheran Church.

Who, if anyone, was already living in Swamp when Henkel’s party arrived is a matter of speculation. It is probable that people were here as, according to Muhlenberg, Rev. Henkel “organized the inhabitants of the area into a congregation.” Investigating the very beginning of Swamp leads us next to the enigmatic figure of Daniel Falckner who provided the name “Falckner’s Swamp” to the whole region. (It is useful to note that the English word “Swamp” with all of its negative connotations is a mistranslation of the Germanic word “Schwamm” or meadows, which, of course, had a positive connotation.

Falckner (modern spelling drops the “c”) was the son and grandson of German Lutheran ministers. Both he and his younger brother Justus studied for the ministry but were not immediately ordained. Daniel Falckner was among a group of 42 German pietists called “Mystics of the Wissahickon” who arrived in 1694. These “Ridge Hermits” living in Germantown were men of education and learning who planned to devote themselves for piety’s sake to a solitary and single life. Pietism was a widespread movement in the Lutheran church at that time which stressed personalizing religion by a careful study of the scriptures and personal, heartfelt piety over passive subscription to creed or confession. A few of the pietist groups ranged into the occult by dwelling as hermits, experiencing spiritual ecstasies, seeing visions, and other---to our view---bizarre practices. It seems the Ridge Hermits were of this mystical bent.

Daniel Falckner returned to Germany in 1698 and came back in 1700 as an ordained Lutheran minister with about 40 more Germans and letters granting him authority as the new agent and part owner of the Frankfort Land Company. It is possible that some of these Germans who accompanied him were the very first to settle in Swamp.

The Frankfort Land Company started when a group of wealthy German pietists were inspired when William Penn’s visited Germany with his vision for Pennsylvania. About 1680 they bought from Penn an immense tract of land which they planned to settle themselves. This tract containing 22,300 acres was about a mile and a half wide and ranged north from the Schuylkill River to the Bucks County line. Today this tract includes most of Pottstown, the Pottsgrove Townships, New Hanover and Upper Hanover. The best farm land of this “German tract,” free of rocks and granite boulders, lies in Swamp along the Minister and Swamp Creeks. The pietist owners never did come here and seem to have lost interest in the project. The land remained in a legal limbo for 25 years until clear title was granted to Falckner by the proprietary government in 1701. (The bitter fight between Francis Daniel Pastorius the well respected founder of Germantown, who was the previous Frankfort agent, and Daniel Falckner is quite interesting but beyond the scope of these short columns).

Falckner himself married and lived in Germantown. According to Pastorius (who was hardly an impartial observer) Falckner was a “drunken sot and scoundrel;” and he was, in fact, once imprisoned on disorderly conduct charges. In any case, by 1708 little progress was made in developing the land, the Frankford Land Company had dissolved, Daniel Falckner was broke and in debt, and Philadelphia merchant John Henry Sprogell returned from a trip to Germany with new claims to the whole 22,300 acres. After years of legal wrangling the court eventually awarded Sprogell sole ownership of the tract. Sprogell paid Daniel Falckner 500 pounds sterling and Falckner left to accept a parish charge in New Jersey. Whatever titles for property that Falckner had given under the authority of the Frankford Land Company, if any, were now null and void. Sprogell owned the tract “in its entirety.” John Henry Sprogell set up a real estate office in what is now Pottstown and began selling 100 acre parcels for about a half-pound sterling an acre (about $1.25). That is why the earliest New Hanover deeds, starting in 1718, have John Henry Sprogell as the seller.

Sprogell did nothing illegal; in fact, he made settlement possible by providing clear title to land. However, a folk legend of villainy follows his name. That early settlers or squatters were dispossessed by Sprogell is averred by Dotterer in the “Perkiomen Region.” Writing of his own childhood about 1860 he records: “…as several children were playing their final games for the day, in close proximity to a great hollow oak, a gruesome sound issued from the dark depths of the contiguous forest. One of the startled party suddenly exclaimed: ‘Schproogel’s Schpook!’---“Sprogell’s ghost”--- whereupon every youngster scampered with all possible speed to his home. Does the perturbed spirit still frequent the scenes of wicked acts done by its mortal owner?”

The only legacy of Sprogell today is a small Pottsgrove Township stream, Sprogell’s Run.

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