Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Matthias Bartgis (1756-1825)
MSA SC 3520-14987


Matthias Bartgis was born in Lancaster, Pennsylvania on June 3, 1759 "according to an entry in the baptismal book of Trinity Lutheran Church".1  His father Michel Bartgis emigrated to Philadelphia on the ship Two Brothers in 1748 from Germany and established himself as a tanner in Philadelphia, marrying Catherine Echternach and moving to Lancaster after 1757.2  As a teenager Matthias Bartgis was apprenticed to printer William Bradford in Philadelphia and briefly served in the Revolutionary War.3  His son, Matthias Echternacht Bartgis, wrote in his journal of meeting in 1819 a Mr. Dotrow who "knew my father, both served in the same regiment during the Revolutionary War; he was under my father's command at Germantown and in the Jerseys".4  It was Michel that helped establish his son as a printer, as is evidenced in his will of 1791 where he leaves Matthias only a symbolic shilling, "his having already received a printing press and types, a dwelling house in Fredericktown, and other property".5

The first evidence of Bartgis' work as a printer is a German almanac published in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in 1777, but by 1778 had moved to Frederick to publish his Maryland Almanac for the Year of our Lord 1778.6  While the next few editions of the almanac bore the Lancaster imprint, by 1790 the imprint had been switched to Frederick.  Bartgis spent the next several years printing forms and other ephemera, of which few have survived.  In 1786 Bartgis established his first newspaper, The Maryland Chronicle, or the Universal Advertiser and shortly thereafter established a parallel German language newspaper.7  Both newspapers were published on a weekly basis, and the work involved in editing and publishing two papers led to his continual advertising in his papers for an assistant, either a young boy to train or a journeyman printer, but trained printers were hard to come by in the still undeveloped hinterland.8  In 1787 Bartgis was hired to both translate into German and print the Constitution of the United States by the Maryland State Assembly.  Only one copy of this Constitution in German has survived, and a photocopy of it, owned by the New York Public Library – along with a copy of the bill - was on display in the Maryland State House until the 2007 renovations.

Bartgis continued to expand his business, establishing papers in York, Pennsylvania and Winchester, Virginia.  The Virginia Gazette, and Winchester Advertiser began its run in July of 1787 under the firm name of Bartgis and Willcocks, and the York paper began in late 1787.9  Bartgis continued to publish in both English and German, and in addition to newspapers published numerous books and blank forms over the years.  He later built both a bookbinding shop connected to his press workshop and a paper mill on the Tuscarora, advertising for cotton and linen rags for the mill in his newspapers, and married Susanna Shriner.

From 1792 until his retirement Bartgis published several weekly papers under various different names in both German and English; these include The Hornet (1802-1814), The Independent American Volunteer or Der Americanische Voluntair (1807-1808), and the General Staatsbothe (1810-1813).10  A complete list of his printed newspapers can be found on page 1374 in Volume II of the History and Bibliography of American Newspapers, 1690-1820, as well as an online bibliography here. The Hornet was of strong Republican leanings and carried the motto

To true Republicans I will sing
But aristocrats shall feel my sting,
while Bartgis' Republican Gazette (1800-1820) both avoided politics and lasted much longer.11  In 1811 Bartgis took his son, Matthias E. Bartgis (1791-1849), in partnership; his younger son, Benjamin Franklin Bartgis, chose to become a farmer.  Bartgis retired in 1820, sold his newspaper to Robert Ritchie and John Macgill, and died at his home on the Tuscarora in 1825.12

Bartgis was the first printer to establish himself in the Shenandoah Valley and bring local print culture to the area, and also established a mail route to deliver his paper from Frederick to "Funk’s-Town, Hager’s-Town, Sharpsburg, Sheperd’s-Town, Martinsburgh, and Winchester," allowing him to become the "newspaper king of the piedmont" with his additional newspapers in York and Winchester.13  His publications, though not groundbreaking in their intellectual content, satisfied his consumers, included the significant German minority of the area, and spread news and culture throughout the Shenandoah in its early days of settlement.

Biography written by 2008 summer intern Rachel Bartgis.

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