Sunday, June 10, 2018

Arriving in America

One of the great things about studying history is that there is always something new to discover, simply by asking a different question. As I work on a fictionalized account of historical events, I find myself asking very specific questions that I would not have asked otherwise. For example, it's generally known that German immigrants in the 1740s would most likely arrive at Philadelphia, but what was that experience really like? If you put yourself in their position, what were the logistical details of arrival?

I had casually assumed that everyone disembarked as soon as the ship docked, and that the ship would dock as soon as it arrived. The truth is far more complex.

"Philadephia in the Olden Time," print by F. J. Wade, circa 1875
Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division


Arrival at Port

After weeks or months at sea, immigrants could end up spending weeks more time trapped on the ship after it reached the port. Before anyone could disembark, before the ship could even get permission to dock, the ship's crew and passengers would be inspected for signs of disease or plague (Wokeck, p. 139).

The next step in the process was a loyalty oath, which would take place in the local courthouse. All adult male passengers 16 and older were informed that the country "belongs to the King of England," and they were required to swear an oath of allegiance to the King and his successors, obey the local laws, and renounce any ties to the Pope (Wokeck, pp. 139-140). Women and children did not take the oath, since it was expected they would follow their husband or father in all matters.

Most of the ships from Europe arrived during August, September, and October. There was no way of knowing when any particular ship would arrive, and no way of knowing for certain who was on which ship. If you were expecting family to arrive from Europe, you would have to keep an eye on the shipping news and swing by the docks whenever a new ship came in.

Every port city had at least one inn near the docks. Innkeepers received an influx of customers from every ship and could set up a side business helping immigrants with money get oriented (Wokeck, p. 141). If you had money, but didn't know anyone here, the innkeeper was a ready source of information and community connections.

There were three basic categories of passengers: those who could afford to pay for their passage in full; those who borrowed the funds for the journey from the shipper, promising to repay them upon arrival (redemptioners); and those who had no hope of coming up with the funds for the journey, so they instead signed a contract agreeing to work off the debt over the course of a certain number of years (indentured servants).

German, Irish, and Scottish immigrants all used the redemption and indentureship systems to pay for their passage to America.


Redemptioners included people who had family or friends waiting for them in America.  Those family members or friends would pay the bill for the newly arrived immigrant.

Other redemptioners, with no one to pay their debt, would be free to negotiate a labor contract upon arrival in America. They would have up to a few weeks in which to make arrangements to pay off the debt (Grubb, p. 245).

Some redemptioners arrived expecting friends to pay their debt to the shipper and were disappointed when those friends never appeared. They were then obliged to negotiate contracts for indentured servitude to pay off their debt. In 1773, Stephan Doechmann signed an indentureship contract with the stipulation that it would be "void if his friends come up and pay" (Wokeck, p. 153).

In some cases, the shipper would assist in advertising and negotiating for the redemptioners. An advertisement in the Philadelphia Gazette on April 13, 1738, offered both indentured servants and redemptioners. Interestingly, the redemptioners had specific skills highlighted, whereas the servants did not, as seen in the following advertisement:

JUST IMPORTED, In the Brigt, Charming Sally, A PARCEL of Likely SERVANTS, Men and Women, whose Times are to be dispos'd of reasonably, by John Mathers at Chester, and by Robert Barton, opposite to the Post-Office in Philadelphia; at both which Places a considerable Number of said Servants are to be Seen.
  *** Note, There are also come in the same Vessel on Redemption, 5 Forgemen, 4 Finers, and 1 Hammerman. Any Person enclining to engage such Workmen, may treat with the Persons above mention'd, and agree on reasonable Terms.

The shipper took on a slight risk with the redemptioner system, since any passengers who left the ship could, and sometimes did, disappear forever.

Shippers whose passengers took off without paying for their passage had legal recourse, but first they had to find them. On November 4, 1731, the captain of the Snow Lowther ran an a pair of advertisements announcing that the ship was preparing to depart for Dublin and that any of the Palatine (German) passengers from the inbound journey needed to hurry up and pay their debts:

For DUBLIN directly, THE Snow LOWTHER, Joseph Fisher Master, will sail in a Fortnight: Any Persons that are enclined to take Passage for the above Port, may agree with said Master on board his Vessel now lying at Israel Pemberton's Wharff.
THIS is to give Notice to those Palatines who came Passengers in the Snow Lowther, and have not yet paid for the Passages, that they are required forthwith to pay for to Joseph Fisher what is respectively due from them, or they may expect further Trouble. Nov. 11, 1731.

A Philadelphia merchant ran the following advertisement in the Philadelphia Gazette on December 30, 1735 and January 15, 1736:

NOTICE is hereby given to sundry Persons who came over Passengers or Servants upon Redemption, in the ship Hopewell, Anthony Faucet, Master; in the Brigt, Lawson, Benj. Lowes, Master; and in the Snow Frodsham, James Aspinat, Master, that if they do not appear and pay or cause to be paid, the several Sums for which they indented, to James Mackey, Merchant in Philadelphia, within twenty Days from the Date hereof, they will be prosecuted as the Law directs.          Philadelphia, Jan. 6, 1735/6  

A related advertisement ran in the Gazette two years later, on January 24, 1738 (and was reposted weekly through February 15):

ALL Persons indebted to Capt. Robert Hogg, in Redemption or otherways, are desired to pay the same to William Shaw, Esq; at New-Castle, or James Mackey, at Philadelphia, whose Receipts shall be a sufficient Discharge. Otherwise they will be immediately sued.               Robert Hogg

While most of the redemptioners who disappeared without paying their debt weren't identified by name, an advertisement in the Philadelphia Gazette on April 9, 1747 gives quite a lot of detail about two specific Irish redemptioners:
Whereas James Camton and John M'Cluir, as concerts, came over in Deccember last in the John Galley Thomas Crosthwaite from London, but have not comply'd with their contract (the time the redemption money was to be paid in being out long since) This is to give notice, to any person that will inform William Crosthwaite (in Front-street, near the Pewter-platter) where the said Camton and M'Cluir may be come at, in order to bring them to Justice, shall receive Twenty-shillings for Camton, and Forty-shillings for M'Cluir. They are both Irishmen. Camton professes the joiner's business, and M'Cluir the spinning-wheel making.

By the 1740s, passenger contracts specified that redemptioners could not leave the ship until their debt was paid, and that the debt must be paid within 10 to 14 days. In 1765, this practice became law, with redemptioners allowed 30 days to pay the debt, with no additional fees incurred for their food and lodging on the ship during that period (Grubb, p. 256).

In at least one passenger contract, the shipper specified that "No passenger shall be allowed to leave the ship in America without knowledge of the Captain, especially such as have not yet settled for their passage." (Grubb, p. 248)

Once redemptioners were no longer allowed to leave the ship to find someone to pay off their debt, they became dependent upon potential employers taking the time to visit the ship (Grubb, p. 257).

Redemptioner Families

Depending on the amount owed and the individuals involved, a family making the journey together might be able to pay off their combined debt by hiring out only one or two members of the family. During the 18th century, it was routine for older children and teens to become apprentices, servants, or laborers, leaving their families to live with their employer.

In some cases, parents could lose track of their indentured children after years apart. On November 13, 1756, for example, an advertisement in a German-language newspaper in Pennsylvania stated:
Georg Koeling several years ago indentured his step-daughter, Anna Maria Pfarin, to an Englishman in Bucks County. She is free this year and she may find her mother and stepfather in the Oley Hills, near Conrad Preisz (Berks County).       (Hocker, p. 58)

An advertisement in a German-language newspaper on September 1, 1750 reveals another tale of redemptioner families being separated:
Ernst Sigmund Seydel, Oley (Berks County), gives notice that last year he became security for the payment of the passage costs of a Swiss named Daniel Schaeubeli, and eventually he had to pay these costs. Two small children of Schaeubeli were indentured. Schaeubeli had another son, 19 years old, who was coaxed away from his younger brother from Seydel's service, pretending he was going to raise the money needed to free the lad. He has collected three times the sum required, and has bought a fiddle and a cow with the money.                           (Hocker, p. 21)

Contemporary Descriptions

Gottlieb Mittelberger, a teacher and Lutheran pastor, chronicled his Journey to Pennsylvania in 1750:
Every day Englishmen, Dutchmen, and High Germans come from Philadelphia and other places, some of them very far away, sometime twenty or thirty or forty hours' journey, and go on board the newly arrived vessel that has brought people from Europe and offers them for sale. From among the healthy they pick out those suitable for the purposes for which they require them. Then they negotiate with them as to the length of the period for which they will go into service in order to pay off their passage, the whole amount of which they generally still owe. When an agreement has been reached, adult persons by written contract bind themselves to serve for three, four, five, or six years, according to their health and age. The very young, between the ages of ten and fifteen, have to serve until they are twenty-one, however.

Many parents in order to pay their fares in this way and get off the ship must barter and sell their children as if they were cattle. Since the fathers and mothers often do not know where or to what masters their children are to be sent, it frequently happens that after leaving the vessel, parents and children do not see each other for years on end, or even for the rest of their lives. 

Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, another Lutheran pastor, also wrote about the shipboard redemption process, in 1769:
The ship becomes the market-place. The buyers make their choice among the arrivals and bargain with them for a certain number of years and days. They then take them to the merchant, pay their passage and their other debts and receive from the government authorities a written document, which makes the newcomer their property for a definite period. Young and unmarried persons of both sexes are sold first ... Married people, widows, and the infirmed are dull sale.      (Grubb, p. 262)

Married couples preferred to stay together, making it harder to find someone to redeem their debt. Employers typically wanted to contract with one person only, someone young and healthy, able to work hard. That made teenagers and young adults the most likely to find indentureship contracts.

Indentured Servant Passengers

Passengers who were not redemptioners, who contracted directly with the shipper as servants, had no options when they arrived in America. The shipper would advertisement the arrival of "likely servants" ("likely" meaning "promising" or "suitable" in the 18th century) and auction off their contracts on shipboard or at an office nearby (Grubb, p. 269).

Becoming an indentured servant was not ideal, but it was a viable option for people without enough money to otherwise build a new life in the new world.

The terms of the indentureship were defined by contract, limited to a certain number of years. Indentured servitude was a way of paying off debt, used primarily by families who had no hope of paying their debts otherwise. It was, in many ways, similar to an apprenticeship.

Some auctions of the newly arrived German immigrants clearly stated that it was the cost of their passage being sold, not the people. An advertisement in the Maryland Gazette on October 5, 1752, included a note at the bottom specifying that the sale was only for covering the cost of their passage to America:

Maryland Gazette, 5 Oct 1752, p. 3
Archives of Maryland Online
JUST IMPORTED, In the Ship PATIENCE, Capt. STEEL, from Holland, A Considerable Number of PALATINES of sundry Trades, now on Sale, and are disposing of at Annapolis, by the Subscriber, Richard Snowden, and Comp.
N.B.   They will be disposed of for their Passages only.

An advertisement in the Maryland Gazette on November 8, 1753, specified it was for "The Sale (for their Passages)."

Maryland Gazette, 8 Nov 1753, p. 3
Archives of Maryland Online
JUST IMPORTED, In the Ship FRIENDSHIP, Capt. JOHN RATTRAY from ROTTERDAM, A Considerable Number of PALATINES, consisting of Husbandmen, Tradesmen, &c. they are all healthy, young, single People : The Sale (for their Passages), will begin on Monday the 12th Instant, at Baltimore Town. 
Alexander Lawson, James Johnson.

Two decades later, an advertisement in the Maryland Gazette on October 22, 1772, loosely referred to immigrants (probably Irish) as people being sold, but clearly stated that these were temporary indentureships, that married couples were to remain together, and that they were all "orderly and well behaved," refugees from oppression.

Maryland Gazette, 22 Oct 1772, p. 2
Archives of Maryland Online
Just arrived in the Britannia, Capt. William Scott, from Port-Glasgow, ABOUT One Hundred Servants, Men, Women, and Children, the Men and Women are under Indenture for Four Years, and their Children by Agreement are to serve till they are Twenty-one Years old : Those that are married will be sold together ; there are some Tradesmen among them, but the greatest Part are Farmers; these are Part of the People who were compelled to leave their Native Country by the Oppression of the Land-Holders ; they are orderly and well behaved, and will be disposed of at Bladensburg, for ready Cash, or Bills of Exchange, by CHRISTOPHER LOWNDES.

A Note on the Difference Between Indentureship and Slavery

Thanks to internet memes, a misconception about indentured servitude emerged a few years ago, leading some people to believe that indentured servants were slaves. This is flat-out wrong. Indentured servitude was decidedly different from slavery, despite Muhlenberg's comment above about becoming "property." Servants had more legal rights than slaves (every colony had laws specifically targeting and oppressing the non-white population, enslaved or free), and the servant's bondage was temporary.

Contrast the advertisements for white European servants above with a few for African slaves, and you should quickly see the difference. All Africans were imported specifically to be slaves. No mention of skills or trades is made. Family groups are not mentioned, and there is no end date to their enslavement.

Maryland Gazette, 28 May 1752, p. 3
Archives of Maryland Online
JUST IMPORTED, In the ELIJAH, Capt. James Lowe, directly from the Coast of AFRICA, A Parcel of healthy SLAVES, consisting of Men, Women, and Children, and will be disposed of on board the said Vessel in Severn River, on Thursday the 4th Day of June next, for Sterling Money, Bills of Exchange, Gold, or Paper Currency.
Benjamin Tasker, junior, Christopher Lowndes.

Maryland Gazette, 24 Jul 1760, p. 3
Archives of Maryland Online
NOW Selling in South River, a choice Cargo of ANGOLA SLAVES, for Bills of Exchange, Sterling, or Current Money, by Thomas Ringgold, Samuel Galloway.

Maryland Gazette, 26 Aug 1762, p. 3
Archives of Maryland Online

JUST IMPORTED, In the Snow Charming Molly, Captain JAMES BAIRD, from the River GAMBIA, A PARCEL of very fine healthy SLAVES, consisting chiefly of MEN, also Women, Boys, and Girls, and to be Sold by the Subscriber at Nottingham, on Patuxent River, for Bills of Exchange, Sterling Cash, or Currency.
The Sale to begin on Wednesday the First Day of September, and continue until all are sold.
JUST arrived in Rappahannock River, from the Windward-Coast, The Ship Lancashire-Witch, with a CARGO of choice health SLAVES.
The Sale to begin at Fredericksburg on Monday the 23d Instant, and continue till all are sold.
Champs & Hunter.


Farley Grubb, German Immigration and Servitude in America, 1709-1920. NY and London: Routledge Explorations in Economic History, 2011.

Edward W. Hocker, Genealogical Data Relating to the German Settlers of Pennsylvania and Adjacent Territory, From Advertisements in German Newspapers Published in Philadelphia and Germantown, 1743-1800. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc. 1989.

Marianne S. Wokeck, Trade in Strangers: The Beginnings of Mass Migration to North America. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999.

Pennsylvania Gazette, published at Philadelphia, PA; available by subscription through

Maryland Gazette, published at Annapolis, MD; available for free through Archives of Maryland Online

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