In the 1880s, a family of German Gypsies lived on Duncan's Island, across from the boatyard between the canal towpath and the river, and very near James Rickenbach's house.


The nomadic Roma (Gypsy) people, originally from India, have been living across Europe for the past thousand years. Since their ways of living and customs were out of the European mainstream, they have always been relegated to the fringes of society and generally faced persecution. By the 1700s, many German-speaking Roma populated the Rhine Valley region living in nomadic communities. According to the article "The Wayfaring Stranger" by Linda Griggs (see also the Historical Review of Berks County, Vol. 68, No. 3, 2003), as early as the mid 1700s some Roma families, like their Anabaptist neighbors, sought a better life in the American colonies, often by agreeing to indentured servitude in exchange for passage by ship. If they survived the crossing, many German Gypsies gradually reunited along the Conestoga Creek in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania (later southern Berks County near Caernarvon Township), which retained one of the larger German Gypsy populations into modern times. They were generally skilled artisans (metallurgy and willow basket weaving) and horse breeders, of a caliber unequaled in southeastern Pennsylvania. The term "Black Dutch", though applied inconsistently to many ethnic groups, has been used by German Gypsies in the United States to refer to their people. In Berks County, German Gypsies often were referred to as "Chi-kener", a corruption of the German "Zigeuner" meaning "Gypsy".


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Detail of an oil painting by Mary Leisz entitled "Pennsylvania Gypsy Camp in Oley Township" (1927) in Berks County. Leisz was a protŽgŽ of local artist Christopher Shearer, and lived with Shearer in Tuckerton near Rickenbach Station. The Reinhart encampment near James Rickenbach's drydock must have appeared something like this. (Photograph from the Historical Review of Berks County, Vol. 68, No. 3, 2003).


James Rickenbach's son Adam, who farmed along the canal into the 1930s, told his grandchildren about a band of "Black Dutchmen" that lived in the woods along the canal adjacent to his farm. The 1880 federal census contains a very unusual hand-written annotation concerning the Reinhart family of Bern Township, who lived very near the boating families of Knarr, Rickenbach and Gehret along the canal: "These are descendents of Egypt, and have no particular dwelling house, but live most of the time on wagons".  Gypsies were often incorrectly referred to as "Egyptian" in contemporary descriptions or documents.


According to the 1880 census, Joseph Reinhart (age 42) was a horse dealer along with his 19-year-old son Joseph. His wife Eve (35 years of age) was the family cook, and cared for their young son Seth, and Joseph's elder parents "John" and "Jane" (very likely not their real names) who were in their late 70s. Joseph's uncle Nicholas (age 65) was a spoon-maker, and his 17-year-old daughter Susan helped her aunt with the camp chores. All were born in WŸrtemberg, in the Rhine Valley region in southwestern Germany, which implies that the Reinhart family probably arrived in Bern Township from WŸrtemberg in the 1870s. None of the school-age children attended school.


It is puzzling that, in her memoir, Becky Rickenbach did not mention the Reinhart family at all, for she certainly must have known of them. There is evidence that at least some members of this Gypsy family were close to the Rickenbach family. Below is a photograph, dated 1914, found among Adam Rickenbach's family photographs.


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Photograph courtesy of Colleen Rickenbach Schulze


This young woman appears to be in her teens or early twenties, and has features and complexion suggesting that she could be Roma. Based on her age, it is possible that she is the daughter of Joseph Reinhart's son Joseph, or perhaps the daughter of his niece Susan. The fact that her photograph was included in the collection hints that she was associated in some way (perhaps by friendship or marriage) with the Rickenbach family.