Early German Immigration to America

Germany was the source of a major emigration to America in the early 1700’s, of which Hans Nicholas Eisenhauer was certainly a member. John Snider’s parents may have also participated, since by the year of John Snider’s birth (1743), there were 50,000 Germans in Pennsylvania, up from virtually none when massive immigration began in 1726, just 18 years earlier. According to A. B. Faust, in The German Element in the United States, the areas from Germany that furnished these immigrants were the southwestern part of Germany, the Palatinate, Würtemberg, Baden, and Switzerland, perhaps in that order. Much of this appendix is derived from the Faust manuscript, as it provides an excellent look into the actual conditions surrounding the immigration of Germans to America in the early 1700’s.

For the immigrants, passage to America would usually be secured from an immigrant agent. These immigrant agents were known as “newlanders.” These agents were employed by ship companies in either Holland or England, or in some cases acted on their own initiative. Frequently they were people who had been failures as colonists in America or who found immigrant-hunting more profitable and the desperate refugees from lands such as the Palatinate an easy prey.

To entice people to immigrate to America, the newlanders would travel through the region. For each immigrant (over 10 years of age), the newlander received a fee from the ship companies, a fee from the immigrant, and even a fee from merchants in Philadelphia, if the immigrant should arrive safely and be placed in servitude, as was often the case. To convince potential immigrants to make the journey, the newlanders “affected the appearance of wealth begotten in America, wearing pocket watches with heavy gold chains as a sample of the gold to be found lying in the streets of the new country. Stories of rapid advancement in wealth or station constantly issued from their mouths–“The maid had become a lady, the peasant a nobleman … the officers of the government held their places by the will of the people.” None of this was true, of course, no more than the letters of glowing reports shown to the prospective immigrants beckoning them to America. These were often forged by the immigrant agent to entice people to commit to the trip.”The pleasures of house and home on large acreage are emphasized. The land literally flows with milk and honey – the cows roaming about on perfect pasturage all the year round, and honey being found abundantly in hollow trees. Wild turkeys are found in flocks of five hundred, geese, – that some of the farmers possess in flocks to the number of two hundred, – furnish choice feather beds. As for game, the bison put their heads through the windows of the log cabins waiting to be shot; the wolves are by no means as large as the European, and can be tamed."

Most convincing were letters apparently from people who had left the same villages as the newlanders were then soliciting. Deception became so bad that in 1751, even in the Palatinate, the local government issued a command that “no newlanders are to be tolerated in the whole of the Palatinate; that if captured they should be thrown into prison.” But the desperation of the Palatinates and the stories of hope in the New World were too strong, and many were convinced by the grand stories of the newlanders. Ignored were books such as Gottlieb Mittelberger’s Journey to Pennsylvania. His book chronicled a journey to America in the year 1750 and a return to Germany in 1754, showing not only a description of the country according to its actual condition, but a detailed account of the sad and unfortunate circumstances of most of the Germans who had immigrated to America. This book, published in Stuttgart in 1756, was largely unheeded.

For those that chose to emigrate anyway, after committing to the journey to America, they would leave their homeland and begin the journey down the Rhine River toward the seacoast, where their journey would continue across the Atlantic. However, all along the river, each municipality would extract a tax for passage from those on the boats headed for the seaport. Before the ocean journey could even begin, many found they had nothing left to pay for their passage due to the unavoidable taxes levied against them on the river portion of their journey. Not only personal wealth was at risk. When passing from one principality to another, all the baggage had to be reexamined. Often it would be stolen in transit or used to pay tolls along the river. If baggage did make it to the seaport, often it never made it to the ship that would take the emigrant to America. If boxes or trunks were numerous, they were likely as not to be left behind. Often even the well-to-do, having placed all their possessions including their money in their baggage chests, never saw them again.

A system was established very early by which an immigrant could get to the promised land, though at the end of the voyage not in possession of the means to pay for his passage. He would agree to serve for from three to seven years in the colonies until the price of his transportation was paid off to the shipmaster who had advanced it. At the end of this time, he was released, given a suit of clothes, sometimes money or land, and awarded all the rights of a free citizen. Hence the term “redemptioners” (because “redeemed”) was applied to this class of immigrants, who were also known as “indentured servants.”

At first this system seemed humane and liberal, and it was applied extensively to the German immigrants by about 1728. The arrival of a ship was described in this way:

“Before the ship is allowed to cast anchor in the harbor, the immigrants are all examined, as to whether any contagious disease is among them. The next step is to bring all the new arrivals in a procession before the city hall and there compel them to take the oath of allegiance to the King of Great Britain. After that they are brought back to the ship. Those that have paid their passage are released, the others are advertised in the newspapers for sale. The ship becomes the market. The buyers make their choice and bargain with the immigrants for a certain number of years and days, depending on the price demanded by the ship captain or other `merchant’ who made the outlay for transportation, etc. Colonial governments recognize the written contract, which is then made binding for the redemptioner. The young unmarried people of both sexes are very quickly sold, and their fortunes are either good or bad, according to the character of the buyer. Old married people, widows, and the feeble, are a drug on the market, but if they have sound children, then their transportation charges are added to those of the children, and the latter must serve the longer. This does not save families from being separated in the various towns or even provinces. Again, the healthiest are taken first, and the sick are frequently detained beyond the period of recovery, when a release would have frequently saved them!”

The economics of this system favored more people per ship, with fewer able to pay for their passage, since the redemptionist trade yielded a much higher return. The losers in this arrangement were the immigrants, and their losses were severe. Ships were overcrowded to the extreme. More and more people were in the redemptionist class, having no money, and too many were crowded onto small ships. To make room for more immigrants, baggage was often left behind. However the immigrants were responsible for their own food on the journey, and that food was in the trunks and baggage left behind or lost. Starvation and death from thirst were a common occurrence on the long sea trips of many months. Packed tightly without proper sanitation, food, or water, “the sick breathed another’s breath, and that from all the uncleanliness and stench and failure of food, diseases arose like scurvy, dysentery, smallpox, and other contagious sicknesses.”

A diary made during a ship’s passage in 1738 records that of 312½ passengers (a child was counted as one half), 250 died, not including those that died after landing. Others report the loss of 160 people on one ship, 150 on another, and only 13 survivors on a third. In 1745 a ship was destined for Philadelphia with 400 German passengers, of whom only 50 survived. Another chilling report states that “Children from one to seven years rarely survive the voyage; and many times, parents are compelled to see their children die of hunger, thirst or sickness, and see them cast into the water. Few women in confinement escape with their lives; many a mother is cast into the water with her child.”

These deplorable conditions persisted year after year. Countless immigrants died at sea, immigrants from every country, not only Germans, who listened to the tales from across the Atlantic and gave up everything for a chance at catching a dream. Year after year, the “everything” that many gave was their life. A later report, in May of 1773 told of “a ship bearing 1500 Germans, of whom 1100 died at sea.” Germans who did make it to the New World protested the practices that led to so many deaths, but it was several decades before German political power in America was strong enough to force establishment of laws that would protect others from their homeland. The redemptionist trade was very lucrative for the politically powerful merchants and ship lines. The first really effective law was “an act for regulating the importation of German and other passengers” that was passed by the Pennsylvania legislature in 1818, some ninety years after the practice began and after countless thousands had been lost at sea. Two years later, in 1820, the sale of redemptioners was abolished.