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Part 2



In 1930 Shoemaker wrote that "They were expert horsemen, and created the first interest in horse-breeding and horse-racing in rural Pennsylvania. In other words, they stood for better horses. They were expert potters, making better pots, jugs and flasks than the Indians, or the potters of Huguenot, Spanish or Moravian antecedents. They were expert coppersmiths, and turned out finer work than any other foreign element in Pennsylvania. They were clever ironworkers and artistic tile makers. Everything they executed was distinctive and of artistic merit, and yet they did not try half so hard as the plodding gentiles they out-created and out-sold. They knew how to make glass, and the famous Baron Stiegel whom Pennsylvania is so tardy in honoring, used every inducement to secure their staying with him at Manheim, his chief glass-maker’s name was Stanley, a German speaking, Gipsy, whose descendants are today part prosperous and sedentary and part wanderers and impecunious. They were famous musicians, and as dancers excelled for their grace. The She-kener were the vanguard of the artistic impetus which the so-called "Dutch" gave to Pennsylvania, the colonial houses, furniture, stoves, firebacks, glassware, tiles, illuminated manuscripts, sconces, urns, pottery and bells, as well as ballads and music that have caused antiquarians to remark that the Pennsylvania Germans alone of all the colonial elements left behind them artistic remains."20 Because no people are ever all good or all bad, they also had the reputation of being able "to put a "disturber" on a person, a spell that may last indefinitely. Pennsylvania witchcraft, the black art the "hechs," is theirs.." and "In telling "fortunes" the She-kener girls and women never impart anything that is pleasant, for example, they will tell a married man that his wife is false," etc. 21 The Pennsylvania Dutch people, although pious, were also superstitious which brings us to the famous Pennsylvania Dutch Hex Signs that decorate the barns of Lancaster County. By all accounts the symbols are purely decorative but I find it hard to imagine that the Pennsylvania Dutch, believing it possible to be hexed would just coincidentally call their barn decorations "hex signs".

Their superstition also made the "Long Lost Friend: A Collection of Mysterious Arts and Remedies for Men As Well As Animals" by Johann Georg Hohman, the second most popular book after the Bible and it has remained in continuous print to this day. The book’s introduction claims the information was collected from a Gypsy. I have not been able to find any evidence that there is overlap between traditional Gypsy folk medicine and those remedies in "The Long Lost Friend" however further research is needed. This book influenced not only the culture of the Pennsylvania Dutch but that of African-Americans in the South who purchased the book from Jewish peddlers and used it in the development of Voodoo.

Costume - early

The Chikener brought vivacity to their dress as well as their arts. The men "usually wore a red sash under their coats into which were sewed leathern scabbards or sheaths, where they carried long knives with rapier like handles"33 The sashes and "handsome cashmere shawls formed leading elements of their costumes 34 The girls were of marked beauty, the same dark coloring as the Pennsylvania mountain girls of today, the hair worn long and in two braids, tied with red ribbons, and sometimes bound upon their heads, and into which silver half-moons and stars were woven. The skirts were worn short, and striped patterns predominated. They wore long, bright colored stockings or tights, and low shoes of soft leather. A scarlet scarf was draped about the neck, over which were many stings of bright colored beads of glass or metal. Bobbed hair was only worn by girls who had had a love affair with a white man and failed to win him into the tribe." 35 Gypsy youth never wore hats and often ornamented their dark hair with vulture feathers. 36 Many people erroneously thought that Gypsies darkened their skin deliberately and Shoemaker was misinformed on this point. He wrote, "The darkness of the Chi-kener complexions was heightened, so Dr. Stephen tells us, by the use of various greases or "schmeres," which recalls William Penn’s famous letter of 1683 to the Free Traders, at London, in which he says: The Pennsylvania Indians are of complexion black, but by design, as the Gypsies in England." Some Pennsylvania Germans called the Gypsies "Smutsers," and "Dutch" mothers whose babies had dirty faces called them "regular smutsers." 37 This last custom is now being questioned. It seems the English Gypsies had skin dark enough that the English assumed erroneously that they had deliberately darkened their complexions. Among English Gypsies there is no such tradition or history of such a tradition.

By 1875 "they gradually adopted more modern styles of apparel. The Chi-kener girls dipped snuff, smoked sumac leaves in long-stemmed pipes, bobbed their hair, and wore short skirts...They were cleanly in their habits, great bathers, and always on the move looking for fresh water.

They were fond of a wild dance, perhaps the ancestor of the present "Charleston," 38 their favorite musical instrument was much like a banjo, and they often sang a song or dirge about their ancestors having been dumped into Rotterdam harbor. 39

Customs and Superstitions

Apart from having "their long tresses publicly bobbed...Chi-kener were kind to their children, never resorting to corporal punishment, and were always respectful to the older members of the tribe...."When on the march the men and boys rode the horses and ponies, the women walked" or "occasionally rode ponies astride, but never used a saddle" ..."In those days tents were set at night, but later when vans or wagons were adopted, they slept in these vehicles.40

Historically all Roma have believed in the supernatural and are superstitious. The Chikener "believed in dreams and ghosts", "familiar spirits followed the caravans, annoyed the picketed horses at night by pulling their tales, or tapped on the windows of the wagons, if ill-fortune was at hand." When the wind moaned at night, it was the spirit of long dead Chikener longing to return to the Gipsy trail." 41

Tree Language

Chikener also brought with them a "symbolism of good and bad trees. They classed as good trees first the beech, widely known as the "Gypsy tree," after that the ash, and the rowan or mountain ash, the white oak, the birch, the linden and the maple. Pines and aspens were evil, and the Chi-kener’s prejudice became a prime cause for early settlers cutting down all pine trees near their dwellings." 28 As well, the giant stag-horn sumac was called the "devil tree." 29 The Chicanere also used trees medicinally. For example, in newly cleared pastures rattle snakes and copperheads killed many cattle. As a remedy the head of a newly killed reptile was inserted into a hole bored into a young "snake ash" and plugged up. The following year switches were cut from the suckers of the tree and gently used on the bitten area.

"As they were naturally an extremely reticent people, the Pennsylvania German Gypsies developed a tree language which in time was their chief defensive weapon against the constant persecutions of the white people."29a Pictographs were carved into trees. "A circle quartered on a beech, ash or linden indicated...a safe and pleasant place to camp." A half or quarter circle meant danger, ranging from loss of money to death, the severity being indicated by which quadrant the quarter was taken from and the type of tree on which it was carved. Likewise, "a diamond, cut on a beech, bisected, translated to mean that "must leave for reasons (best known to self). Will be within two days journey." The bisecting line when extending on both sides beyond the diamond, "four days journey." 30 On one side only a "three days journey." Also carved on a beech tree a heart and a cross were "symbols of Gypsy lovers."

Shoemaker also describes "the white man’s warning against the Chi-kener:

a white star and black hand" 32" While still In the Rhine when a Gypsy came to a house looking for work and found their was no money to be made he painted a discrete white star was on the doorjamb as notice for the next Gypsy traveling through. 32a It is uncertain who added the black hand and when but the black hand and white star appear in a Gypsy Holocaust Memorial in Salzburg leading me to believe that this image originated in the Rhine and traveled to Pennsylvania, a clear visual indicator that the intolerance they had hoped to escape in the New World had followed them.

Language of the Chicanere

Because the language of older kin is a clue to origins, I’ve included some notes on Chicanere language for those researching their Black Dutch heritage.

Of their own Chicanere words, those collected by Shoemaker 26 and confirmed by John Sampson of the Gypsy Lore Society 27 are: "Schater" -tent; "schaw"-herb; "ruh" or "ru" - wolf; "schokel" - dog; "daddie" - father; "mami" grandmother; and "schetra" - fiddle. Also used by the Chicanere were Pennsylvania Dutch words which have a German base: "fluent"-gun; "haws"-rabbit; "kots"-cat; "baum"- tree;

"blech" - pewter; "schmere" - grease; "schifwoga" - conestoga wagon;
"goul" - horse; "gow" - gelding; "Goo" cow; "sal" - soul or spirit;
"shar"- scissors; "lewa" - love; "schlong"- snake; "shmardsa"- pain;
"dame" or "dama"- mother; "jagger" or "yagger" - hunter, woodsman;
"rawba"- raven; "schwatza" -blackbird; "boocha"- beech tree; "bilda" - candle mold; "barrich" - mountain or hill; "werdhaus"- inn or tavern;
"wektora"- pigeon; and "wekawdler" - vulture lit. eagle.

Words of uncertain origin used by Chicanere are: "aschpin"-whetstone;

"meilbahr" - milestone (bahr however, does mean stone in Romani26a); wek’nia" - hawk; "dada" - grandfather; "hausleira" - peddler; "shosich" - young girl, flapper; "schlor" - dagger; and "boga-man" - boogie-man, lit. "dark man with bow", Indian, enemy.

It is also worth noting that "native "Dutch" farmers, with whom the Chi-kener came into daily business intercourse, ...compelled them to adopt certain Indian words commonly used." 25 An example of this might be "pow wow" which in Pennsylvania Dutch Country refers to a "white magic" ceremonies often for healing.25a

Later History

"Some authorities have claimed that from 1845 to 1870 there were approximately three thousand of the She-kener following the roads in Pennsylvania." By the 1930’s, " three hundred would be a liberal estimate of their numbers. The World War drew many of them to Hog Island and other industrial plants, with the result that they settled down in cities, and will probably never take the roads again." The three thousand would not have included the second wave of German Gypsy migration in 1850-70. Those "Gypsies in large in handsome automobiles...on the Pennsylvania highways in the summer months. But beyond acknowledging a racial and lingual kinship the She-kener maintain no intercourse with them.".42

Black Dutch - Indian relations

Many people researching their Melungeon and Black Dutch heritage also claim Indian ancestry. In the same way that Melungeons marry within their community Gypsies traditionally marry only other Gypsies and usually within their clan or vitsa but far more men than women arrived in the colonies. Under those circumstances It is not unreasonable to think that German Gypsies would have married Indians. There was a community of Gypsy men married to Indian women in Paskagola, Louisiana documented in 1780. 21a Anyone familiar with the history of the treatment of the American Indian would find it hard to imagine that a dark skinned person would claim Indian ancestry in order to receive better treatment but while Indian may be synonymous with second class citizen, it is not synonymous with thief. An Indian is still allowed to conduct business. He is not considered a criminal by birth. Even today there is enough discrimination and stereotyping to compel Gypsies to "present themselves as American Indians, Hispanics, or southern Europeans, and they usually do this rather than identify themselves as Gypsies."21b* Unfortunately the only encounter between Indians and Gypsies described by Henry Shoemaker in his 1924 address was nightmarish. "About this time came the first contact between Gipsy and Indian, a romantic and historic fore gathering of oppressed peoples. In the market-cross at Lancaster these two groups of dark-skinned peoples met, the Indians to buy, the Chikener to sell their trinkets and wares. As one old man from the Little Sand Hills of Dauphin County said in describing it, "They hated one another" This did not augur well for journeys into Indian countries, but they went. It was in the fall of 1763 that they left Lancaster, following the Conestoga to its source, as they had the Rhine from Schaffhausen to Rotterdam and Middelburg. Evidently their journey was uneventful, as there are no records, but at length they came to an abandoned Indian camp with huts, stockades, good water, forage, which they calmly pre-empted. A wandering redman came upon them there, and in the name of the tribe ordered them off. they meekly went, and the Indian hurried back to his kindred to tell of the vile intruders, with the result that all of this particular group of Conestogas returned to their camp in Paxton Hollow, which became in a few days their Valhalla. Shrewd Ulster Scots noticing the Gipsy fires, the movement of Indians, and the untoward atmosphere of excitement opined some sort of an unfriendly gesture on the part of the hated Conestogas, and their fancied allies, and promptly spread the report along the Blue Mountains. The story of a Bolshevik plot against the Capitol at Washington could not have a more explosive effect on a legion Post today than this story of probable Indian reprisals to the self-constituted Regulators of the frontier, chafing for an outlet for pent-up patriotism. Mounting their horses they swooped down on the unsuspecting Indians, the Gypsies had vanished, where their chroniclers do not tell "they put on their invisible garments" to use their own phraseology, and the Indians were barbarously exterminated, down to the few remnants housed in Lancaster Gaol for safe-keeping, who were brained, scalped and mutilated by the same bloodthirsty Paxton boys.

Yet there are some who advocate a monument to the Paxton boys! The various tribes of Indians inherited a hatred of Gypsies, with the result that the Chi-kener never ventured into the Indian county until after it had been thoroughly pacified". 22

It’s hard to imagine that competition for limited resources wouldn’t have also been a cause for conflict as both the Indians and Chicanere needed good camp sites with fresh water at a time when European encroachment strained those resources.

But "old hates and feuds are buried with the flesh" as Chi-kener buried their dead "frequently in abandoned Indian graveyards." 23

I don’t envy the genealogist trying to untangle a story of a grandparent who claimed to be Indian but appears on no known Indian roles; talked about migrating to winter camp and made baskets; had dark skin and eyes and wore her hair in braids; who had a husband who’d worn feathers in his hair and was now buried in an Indian burial ground, especially if that person descended from a runaway indentured servant who chose to claim to be an Indian and therefore a Free Person of Color.

Reticence to share oral history

Henry W. Shoemaker wrote that "Gipsy history like Indian history is oral, it must be gotten from the Gypsies themselves."43 But because of discrimination most Gypsies are wary of strangers, reticent to even admit to their ethnicity, much less provide a history of their people. Their trepidation was justified. The only other significant research on German Gypsies was conducted by the Nazis who collected thousands of genealogies in preparation for a genocidal action against them." Between a half and one and a half million" 44 Gypsies were murdered.

Closing statement

I’m not saying that the all Melungeons and Black Dutch are simply Gypsies hiding under another name. There is no evidence that present day Gypsies have any of the genetic traits common to those of Melungeon descent such as the Anatolian bump, shovel teeth, sarcoidoses, Familial Mediterranean Fever, etc. But neither am I saying that I believe the Chicanere are the only Gypsy component of the Melungeon. There are too many intriguing clues. A strong sense of fatalism, of accepting your lot in life, is shared by both peoples. They are both historically superstitious. There seems to be a strong and ordered division of the sexes. Both are metalsmiths. Regarding the Melungeon nomadic lifestyle, Brent Kennedy says "Why did our ancestors migrate so readily and without apparent reason, often to and from the same general areas of North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia?" English Ethnomusicologist, Peter Kennedy, finds a great deal of Gypsy influence in the music of Appalachia and Alan Lomax describes the singing style and gestures of the Appalachian Mining Union man and singer, Nimrod Workman, as appearing "Nowhere else but among the Gypsies of Scotland.48

Copyright ©2000 Linda D. Griggs.  All rights reserved.

My thanks to:

Dr. Ian Hancock and the Romani Archives, Regina Marsh, H. T. Bryer, Henry Burke, Bob Foster, Brian Raywid, Lalla Weiss, Karla Shahan, Jane Pierce and the Librarians at the Hamilton Fish Branch Library of the New York Public Library, Dr. Brent Kennedy, all those at Romnet, the Melungeon List, Patrin and the Black Dutch list.

Requests for bibliographic information as well as questions, comments and criticism may be send to: I would also welcome any family histories relevant to Gypsy history in the American South.

Anyone with information on Gypsies in America, especially the South, please contact ye webmeister and Linda Griggs.

Copyright ©2000, Linda Griggs.  Do not download or copy this document without explicit permission of the author. This document is copyrighted and may not be copied, duplicated, sold, nor given to others in any form or function.

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