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Oling, Tulpewihaci, Gokhosing, Machsithanne! Some foreign language? Not at all. These are native American Indian words which Berks County has adopted as place names. Oley, Tulpehocken, Cacoosing, and Maxatawny! To the Indian the first word meant: a place surrounded by hills; the second, the turtle country; the third, the resting place of owls and the fourth meant “the creek with large bends.” The word, Manatawny, recalled to the Indians “the place where we got drunk.”

The Swedes were the first to settle the area. They settled along the Schuylkill several miles above the mouth of the Manatawny Creek in 1701. After a fixed government had been formed by William Penn, the English settlers multiplied very rapidly, and toward the close of the seventeenth century.

The Germans entered the county in 1710, settling along the Manatawny, in what is now Oley Township. Within the first decade a large number came. The first settlement by these people, to the east of the Schuylkill River, proceeded north from Philadelphia; to the west, however, the first colony of Germans, before 1730, entered from the west, proceeding from New York southwardly and from the Susquehanna River eastwardly into the Tulpehocken Valley. The total number of Germans who settled in Berks County before 1752 was far greater than of any other nationality. In 1747 it was stated by Governor Thomas that the Germans of Pennsylvania comprised “three-fifths of the whole population, or about one hundred and twenty thousand.” Many of them were redemptioners, or persons who had bound themselves or one or more of their children to the masters of vessels, upon their arrival, for a term of years, to pay their passage over the ocean. German children of Reading, PA learned to speak English in the German-Catholic parochial school of St. Paul’s R.C. Church.

Below: St. Paul’s R.C. Church, Reading, PA School Class Photo, 1898

While the Swedes settled the east side of the Schuylkill River, the Welsh took the western side of the stream. They migrated through Chester County until they crossed South Mountain, and though some of them reached a point beyond the mountain before the purchase of the territory from the Indians in 1732, the most of them entered this district immediately afterward.

Heidelberg, Berne, Kutztown, Hamburg (Kerchertown), Baumstown, Womelsdorf! These names form from the German and Swiss language. Cumru, Caernavon and Brecknock are names derived from the Welsh tongue. Reading, Windsor, Hereford and others are reminders of the triumph of English speech in Berks, as elsewhere in the United States. Except for a few place names, the Indian and Welsh tongues are forgotten in Berks today.

Settlement by Other Nationalities

It was fully forty years after Penn had obtained his patent to Pennsylvania before the Irish people came in for settlement. Penn had ever favored the coming of the Germans and seemed to rather slight or snub the Scotch or Irish clans. So it was not until after his death that the Irish came in for any considerable settlement or even to become laborers. No real settlements were ever effected in Berks County by these people.

As to the African-Americans, let it be said in this connection, that Slavery existed here to a very limited extent. The slaves of which any notice was taken were owned largely by ironmasters, but they were few in number. The farmers held no slaves and the people generally were opposed to the slave system. Pennsylvania was early in its advocacy of abolition. An Act looking to the freedom of the slaves was passed March 1, 1780. African-American people were living in Reading soon after it was founded. Not until 1820 were they strong enough in numbers to form a religious society. A few, however, owned real estate before 1800, and long before their enfranchisement in 1863, they were orderly, industrious, and very progressive

Polish immigrants began arriving in Reading around 1850, seeking work and livelihood in the iron foundries here. The majority were from the area of Poland known as Poznan. Because Poznan was frequently under German control, most residents of the area spoke German as well as Polish.

Around 1880, the first Slovaks came to Reading from Saris, Spis and Zemplin, areas in Czechoslovakia, and later from Trencin, Orava and Nitra, also in Czechoslovakia. There were only a few families, but the number soon increased until in 1894, there were about forty families.

Around the beginning of the twentieth century, the first Ukrainian immigrants came to Reading from Western Ukraine and from the Southwestern part of the Carpathian mountain region, mainly from Lemko region.

By 1970 the total population of Reading was 87,643 with African Americans accounting for 5,744 of the total.

Large-scale immigration from Vietnam to the United States began at the end of the Vietnam War, when the fall of Saigon in 1975 led to the U.S.-sponsored evacuation of an estimated 125,000 Vietnamese refugees.

Today, Hispanic or Latino people of different Spanish-speaking nationalities from Puerto Rico, Mexico, Dominican Republic, Cuban, Columbia, etc. are the largest ethnic group in Reading, PA and in 2019 made up 23% of the Berks County population. The people under the Hispanic/Latino umbrella are different shades of color with hair that is straight or curly, dark or blonde; they live in different parts of the city, where they eat different foods, listen to different music and discuss issues from different viewpoints and ideological perspectives just like the immigrants of Reading and Berks County who came before them.


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