Herr House History
The “Hans Herr House” is the oldest existing dwelling on ten thousand acres granted in October of 1710 to nine Mennonite men.
In the Spring of 1711, seven of those men came with their families to establish homes in what was then the westernmost edge of Pennsylvania. Their route to the area followed an ancient Native path called the “Great Conestoga Road,” which passed within yards of the site on which, eight years later, the 1719 House would be built.
The 1719 House, or “Hans Herr House” as it is known locally, is reputed to have been the home of Hans Herr and his wife Elizabeth. It was certainly the home of Christian Herr and his wife Anna, and several of Christian and Anna’s children. Both Hans Herr and Christian Herr were bishops of the Mennonite faith.
The Hans Herr House was home to several generations of Hans Herr’s family until the early 1900s, after which it was used as a barn and storage shed. It was restored to colonial-era appearance in the early 1970s. It is now part of a Museum complex which includes three Pennsylvania German farmhouses, several barns and other outbuildings, and an extensive collection of farm equipment spanning three centuries. The 1719 House is perhaps the most frequently pictured building in Lancaster County. The artist Andrew Wyeth, himself a relative of Hans Herr, created a well-known image of the house before its restoration.
The Founding of Pennsylvania
Pennsylvania was founded in the 1680s as a “proprietary” colony of Great Britain. This means that all of Pennsylvania was owned by one man, the “proprietary:” William Penn (1644-1718). William Penn was given the colony as a repayment of a debt King Charles II owed to Penn’s father. Penn saw the colony as an opportunity to provide a place of safety for people with unusual religious beliefs, as well as a means of making profit for himself. The colony worked very well as a place of safety; however, Penn made very little profit from the venture.
One of Penn’s great concerns was to ensure that land in the colony was purchased fairly from the indigenous people, the “natives” or “Indians.” The King of Great Britain gave Penn a charter, but this did not mean that the King had paid the people who were already living on the land for the land in the charter! Piece by piece, treaty by treaty, William Penn and his sons after him purchased lands, first along the Delaware River, then along the Susquehanna, until by the time of the American War of Independence about two-thirds of the present state was recognized by indigenous people as purchased lands.
Quakers and Mennonites
Another great concern of Penn’s was to protect people who had been persecuted for their religious beliefs. Penn was a convert to Quakerism, a Christian sect which rejected outward sacraments. This means that Quakers did not (nor do they today) practice such rituals as baptism or communion. Because of his beliefs, Penn, along with many other Quakers, was jailed several times. Some Quakers in England and in New England were executed because of their beliefs.
The Mennonites are a Christian sect whose beliefs are very similar in some respects to those of the Quakers; the Mennonites do practice some outward rituals. Because the Mennonites do not believe that infant baptism is proper, they are classified as Anabaptists, meaning “re-baptizers.” The term derives from the fact that the early Anabaptists had received baptism as infants, which was the usual practice in the state churches of Europe, but then, as adults, they came to the view that the only true baptism was of adult believers. They therefore sought baptism as adults. From the perspective of the Mennonites, this adult baptism was “real:” it was their first (and only) baptism. From the perspective of the state church, however, the adult baptism was a “second” baptism, which violated both canon (church) and civil (state) law.
Throughout Europe, Anabaptism was considered both a heresy (wrong belief) and a crime punishable by imprisonment or death. Although the Mennonites had occasionally found refuge from religious persecution, William Penn’s offer of a home in which all monotheists (believers in a single God) would be free to practice as they pleased was very welcome.
The Mennonite Settlement in Pennsylvania
The earliest Mennonite settlement in Pennsylvania was just outside Philadelphia in Germantown. The first Mennonites to settle in what became Lancaster County passed through Germantown on their way west and continued to associate with the Mennonites there throughout the colonial period. The “Conestogoe” Settlement of Mennonites (so called because of its location near the Conestoga River), however, was remote from most other settlement in Pennsylvania. The nearest neighbors of the Conestogoe Mennonites were the Conestoga people, an indigenous group who held legal title to a “Manor” between the Little Conestoga Creek and the Susquehanna River, about five miles to the west of the Mennonite settlement. The closest European settlement was about twenty-five miles to the south-south east. This was called the “Nottingham Lots:” lands granted by Pennsylvania, but including a number of tracts in what is now Maryland.
In 1711, what is now Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, was part of Chester County, the westernmost of the three original counties of Pennsylvania. Lancaster County was founded in 1729, almost nineteen years after the grant of lands near the Conestoga to the Mennonites. The county seat of Lancaster County was established at the newly-created town of Lancaster. By 1733 a “King’s Highway” from Philadelphia and Chester to Lancaster was completed, replacing the Great Conestoga Road as the main route to the west. The original Mennonite settlement, once centered on the “main drag,” was now a backwater. But for ten years or more, virtually anyone passing to the west of the Province would have walked under the shadow of the 1719 House.
An excellent source for information about the early Mennonite settlement in Lancaster County in general and about the 1719 House in specific is the book A Modest Mennonite Home by Steve Friesen, with photographs by John Herr and introduction by Andrew Wyeth. This book and many other fine titles are available through the Museum Store.