Reprinted from the Laurel Messenger, August 1990
Trials of 18th Century Germans by Jeanne M. Coleman
In tracing the genealogy of a Somerset County family it is very likely that one will be led back to an eastern county of Pennsylvania, and beyond that to Germany and/or Switzerland. It is often possible to discover the name of the ship on which the forefather(s) sailed to the New World. With some difficulty the familyâ€™s roots in Europe may be found. But how often do we give thought to the trauma involved in the voyage those families made, or con-sider the reasons that impelled their actions?
During the 17th century conditions in Europe were not easy for most people and this applied especially to Germany. Interminable wars had shattered the economy, caused thousands of people to be homeless, and many people died of disease and starvation. These intolerable situations added fuel to the tire of the religious reformation then taking place. Many were dissatisfied with the state of the church, the lack of concern they fit it showed toward the ordinary people, and the arrogance and wealth displayed by the high clergy. Leaders arose who quickly found followers willing to create their own new sects and congregations. These groups were soon persecuted both by government and established church.
Among them were the Mennonites, Amish, Lutheran, Reformed, and various Anabaptist organizations. Living condi-tions for these groups were well nigh insufferable.
Even in Switzerland, which today is thought of as a peaceful nation, the Mennonites were unwelcome because their men refused to bear arms. In 1711 the Swiss government actually encouraged them to leave the country by offering to pay their way down the Rhine River to Holland where they could take ship, pro-vided they would never come back. Many of them did go, all the way to America, where they settled in the Lancaster Co. area of PA. A few earlier Germans had gone to the New World at the urging of the Quaker William Penn and taken up land between Delaware and New Jersey.
Another larger group left Germany in 1709 and became the first to be truly exploited, defrauded and generally misus-ed. At this time the British were looking fin settlers for Their American colonies and they distributed propaganda that por-trayed the New World in glowing colors. They hired unscrupulous Germans to play the part of men returned from successful ventures in America. These Newlandersâ€™ as they were called, cir-culated among their impoverished and desperate countrymen and persuaded them to emigrate. Th actuality, at this point, the British wanted colonists to establish a settlement in New York to pro-duce â€œnaval suppliesâ€ - pitch. Not realiz-ing any of this, many of the hard-pressed people in the Palatine area of Germany decided to make the move. What they ex-perienced was perhaps not worse than what they left, but the shame is that they had been lead to expect something only a little less perfect than Paradise.
The first large movement consisted of about 13,000 persons who crossed to England between May and October of 1709. Before boarding ship they had to make their fly down the Rhine to the sea arid it was on the river that their misfor-tunes began. There were many tariffs to be paid and their own countrymen charg-ed exorbitant fees at these customhouses. The travelersâ€™ money supplies dwindled rapidly. With all the necessary stops the trip to Rotterdam took 5 to 6 weeks, and after reaching the port there was usually a wait of a month or more for a ship to sail. Upon reaching England at last, the travelers were put in camps in the fields outside of London where they presented such a novel sight that the citizens of the town found entertainment in gawking at then. There were far too many Germans for the original plan hr the New York set-tlement so 3,800 were sent to Ireland. Some to the swamps of Mississippi where they perished of fever, and some to North Carolina. In the end about 3,000 went to the Hudson River country.
Those bound for NY boarded ships in December but not until April did the vessels finally sail! The cost of passage varied but averaged 3 pounds each for adults. Further they were required to pay for their supplies - dried peas, oatmeal, beer, 24 lbs. of dried beef, 15 lbs. of cheese. 8Â¼ lbs. of butter, tools, linens. bedding, powder and lead, furniture, stoves, and money to purchase livestock. Many were unable to meet these expenses and if they wanted to continue the trip they were compelled to sign agreements (in English which they couldnâ€™t understand) with the captains by which they agreed to be sold as indentured servants upon arrival in America to pay for their transport.
Also, there were dishonest captains who â€œmisplacedâ€ trunks and other luggage and the hapless owners never saw their possessions again. Often the crew stole whatever they could as well.
Conditions on the overcrowded ships were wretched, even during the months of waiting in harbor. All of which became even worse once at sea. Below deck there was scant light or air, with little attempt at sanitation. Food spoiled and became ex-ceedingly scarce on most of the vessels. Those who could catch mice and rats could easily sell them for food. Passengers died daily and the elderly and very young were at greatest risk. Children between 1 and 7 rarely survived. Contagious diseases could sweep through a ship and fell even the relatively strong. Beyond all of this there was the real and constant threat of enemy ships, including pirates. Of the 3,000 bound for New York over 500 perished at sea. The Pilgrims of New England, almost 100 years previously, did not have an easy journey, but compared to the Germans, they had a luxury cruise.
Upon reaching New York harbor the survivors were landed on Governorâ€™s Island where they lived in tents. That sum-mer 250 more died of typhus. Orphan children were bound out as indentured servants, even some whose parents still lived. The people who at last went to the settlement along the Hudson where they were to manufacture the naval supplies found shelter almost non-existent and food in short supply. As winter came on the conditions worsened to such a degree that the British abandoned the project and left the settlers to shift for themselves. They scattered in various directions. Eventually some 33 families made their way into PA and settled in the Tulpehocken area in what would be Berks Co. Some of their descendants moved west into Bedford and Somerset Counties.
After that unfortunate experiment, most of the Germans headed directly for Pennsylvania and so many came in the next decades that it was feared they would set up a separate nation. So in 1727 the Pro-vincial Council ordered captains to sub-mit passenger lists and emigrants were required to take an Oath of Allegiance to the British King. As mentioned, some had sold themselves in order to sail at all. Others who had been persons of means, position and education in Germany now discovered they had been robbed by seamen and their belongings nowhere to be found. Suddenly impoverished, they also had to indenture themselves. Men from 16 to 40 brought 24 pounds and women 2/3 that much. Children over five could be bound out until the age of 21.
Adult servitude at first was for 7 years, later only 4. Families were torn, apart by this system perhaps never to be reunited. At the end of their servitude they received â€œpaymentsâ€™ that varied over the years. In the late 1600s it was a provision of corn and 50 acres. After 1750 it was clothing and a horse for a man, clothing and a cow for a woman. Not much return for years of almost free labor. It s said that most servants were fairly treated but never-theless there were runaways and quite a few men and boys found refuge in the military. Marriage was not allowed except with the consent of the master, unless a large sum, of money was paid, which the servants did not have.
As a group, however, the German immigrants survived and on the whole they prospered. In Europe they had been farmers, for the most part, and good ones. They knew their trade, were industrious and thrifty, and had found fertile ground in eastern PA, This area, under their husbandry, became widely known for its beautiful farms with their luxuriant crops. Some of the most successful families in the state have come from this old German stock, even from those so temporarily down on their luck as to have to be inden-tured for a time.
Many of the German and Swiss settlers of Somerset County arrived here from eastern PA, some through mid-state migration and some by a southern route through MD. It is almost certain that they, or their parents, had experienced the horrors of the sea journey and the difficulties of adjusting to a new land. When we state, â€œMy ancestors arrived in America in the -1730sâ€, (or whatever early date), let us give a moment to remember all the travail and grief that accompanied such a trip. Names and dates are the framework of genealogy but the reality of history lies in the experiences and actions of the people. In trying to imagine their thoughts and emotions we come closer to our forebears than just in knowing the bare statistics of their lives.
Jeanne M. Coleman