The Great Migration 1717-1754: The Ocean Crossing and Arrival in Philadelphia



The following excerpt from Pennsylvania Germans, A Persistent Minority by William T. Parsons is posted for its excellent discussion of conditions confronting early 18th century German immigrants on the voyage to America and upon arrival at the Port of Philadelphia. It is probable that these or similar conditions were experienced by our Mosier and Culp immigrant ancestors.

Large numbers of prospective migrants to America met at Rotterdam, a site very suitable for travelers who had come down the Rhine from their towns and farms upstream. The Neckar River valley had been home for many of them. Rotterdam was a sizable flourishing trade center, one of the two major shipping centers in the Low Countries. In many ways, Rotterdam was the typical trading port of its time. Cluttered dock and shipping facilities and bustling street markets with crowded living quarters were an indication of its prosperous condition. The addition of thousands of Germans, fleeing from districts their families had inhabited for generations, placed a great strain on the city. Merchants and shippers looked upon them as living cargo, to be accommodated the same way any cargo was.

Germans found the surroundings strange yet congenial, although for most of them this was merely a stopping place on the way to America. Some remained in Rotterdam, becoming a part of the varied population of that trading center; but most of the Rhineland travelers, on their way to the promise of the New World, found it too commercial or too worldly. The little substance that these poor wanderers had gathered for the voyage to America was dissipated by even a brief spell in or near the port. Many who left their German homes in a solvent financial condition departed Rotterdam without any funds (and very few goods) at all.

Most had found their way down the river valleys of the Neckar and the Rhine by available river transportation. Many others simply walked or pulled their carts of possessions along the paths which fed into the river valley system of roads, highways and bridges. Whether they brought their families with them depended somewhat on local and personal circumstances. Usually the father of the family tended to make the voyage alone. When it became economically feasible, he later sent for his family. Yet a surprising number of the Palatines and other minority Germans brought all or most of the family with them, uncertain as they were of the prospects at the American terminus of the trip.

From the several detailed accounts of the ocean crossing which have come down to us, it seems quite evident that the voyage was the chief hazard or obstacle of the flight from Europe to America. Many who had never sailed before crowded the small vessels with poor sailors and rotten accommodations. They lived for six to eight weeks in cramped space on board, holding fast to the trunks, chests or baggage which contained all their worldly wealth. They were fortunate to find deck space.

Many of the families on their way to Pennsylvania were crowded onto ships that carried double the number of passengers the vessels could theoretically accommodate. In those cramped and crowded conditions, numerous passengers died at sea. So extensive was the list of casualties that ship captains finally settled upon a formula on how to avoid an excessive number of deaths which reduced their cargo. Occasionally fatalities also made them subject to quarantine regulations in the American ports. They agreed (and by the 1740s made it part of the verbal contract with prospective passengers) that the halfway point of the voyage was the critical time. If a passenger died before the vessel had traveled half the distance to Pennsylvania, then the captain would bear the expense and the corpse was reckoned as no fare. If, on the other hand a passenger died after the halfway point of the voyage, then his family must pay full fare to America, even though he was buried at sea.

Various accounts of the passage have survived, leaving a literature of frustration and suffering. Few of the accounts make the experience appear pleasurable; most of them summarize weeks and months of hardship and deprivation. One such description by John George Jungmann of a sea voyage of the ship Love and Unity, in the years 1731-32, relates the problems in detail. Originating at Rotterdam the vessel made port in Falmouth, adding supplies and food there. Twelve days out of Falmouth, the captain declared half the journey had been completed; five months later, the ship had not yet sighted land in America, but after nearly six months on the high seas, they came ashore at Martha's Vineyard. The emaciated passengers told tales of intense suffering. After eight weeks their bread and water had to be rationed, but during the last six weeks before Christmas, no bread ration was distributed and water was apportioned at a pint per family per day. Ship rats sold at a shilling sixpence and mice at sixpence each, when available. Deaths on this terrible voyage ran exceptionally high. Only four dozen persons reached American soil of an original passenger list of one hundred fifty-six. Barely forty, represented by a mere thirteen heads of families, eventually reached the original destination of Philadelphia, and that by the compassion of a Quaker master who happened upon them at Boston. The survivors claimed the only final choice they had was mutiny, whereby they forced the ship to make a landfall.

Ordinarily, for a six- to eight-week voyage, the captain's costs were modest. To feed hundreds of passengers cost him a few pennies per week. In return for the food he supplied, the master was ordinarily well reimbursed. Cash customers paid from three to five pounds when they landed. In 1750 adults paid ten pounds for passage. Ten to 20 percent of the passengers paid cash fares. Time of the year, conditions in Rotterdam, and the particular individuals transported determined passenger distribution. Prospective employers (or occasionally, prospective husbands) bought up indentures or contracts of the remaining mature arrivals, at profits which exceeded the cash fares for the masters or ship captains. Underage passengers without families were nearly always apprenticed or bound out. Philadelphia ship captains late in the 1740s generally agreed that human cargo was more profitable that cloth or hemp. Many captains could scarcely restrain themselves as the shipped from Rotterdam with a 100 percent overload of such human cargo.

The ocean passage required six weeks under favorable conditions, but even then preliminaries at Rotterdam and Cowes added days or weeks to the voyage. Debarkation at Philadelphia was sometimes delayed because of wind and tide, or due to mercantile or port requirements and official red tape. Food consumption from the traveler's own stock was apportioned for a six weeks' crossing. When that was gone, they subsisted on meager rations from the ship's stores, at inflated prices. Occasional suffering from storm delays or navigational miscalculations, as described above, affected both crew and passengers, but especially the latter.

Journey's end caused loud celebrations and extended rejoicing among the weary passengers. Those who had, weeks earlier, given up all hope of ever reaching port, now offered up thanks to God for their safe arrival after their journey across "the very big sea." Even the broad Delaware River reminded many of them of the familiar Rhine River in its lower reaches, broad, smooth-flowing, and bordered by impressive natural growth on both banks, with occasional dwellings and out-buildings visible.

Philadelphia was an eye-opener for the migrants who arrived between 1717 and 1754. The majority of Germans came from farms or rural villages. Philadelphia was a major population center, although in 1717 its population numbered under ten thousand. Penn's capital was a very young city, just beginning to grow, with much space for development and improvement. The leading Quaker city had been built to accommodate trade, as the number of docks, ships, and taverns particularly illustrated. On the whole it contained broader streets, larger lots (although many tiny ones existed as well), and newer construction than that of any town or city they had passed through on their way to America.

Wide streets and broad thoroughfares were particularly evident in this model town, although narrow back streets and alleys could be found. At the insistence of William Penn and because of its recent development, Philadelphia was much more a planned town than the ancient and often archaic villages the German migrants had left. Implementation of the Proprietor's plans was often imperfect, but the effort to provide "a green country town" bore results. It was true that new streets and roads under harsh weather conditions became virtually impassable quagmires.

Still, the overall impression was a favorable one, however novel and strange to the migrant in transit. Philadelphia grew rapidly during the great Palatine migration boom. It had a population of perhaps thirteen thousand in 1740 and nearly twenty thousand by 1754; the population of forty thousand by 1776 turned Philadelphia into the second largest British city in the empire, second only to London itself. It had surpassed Boston and all the other port towns of the Atlantic coast in a remarkably short time. Before the end of the high migration of Palatines, Philadelphia enjoyed streetlights and the beginnings of paved cartways and sidewalks along the major streets of the town.

To the immigrant from Württemberg or the Palatinate, confined to shipboard in the harbor, nearby Philadelphia was both awesome and welcome. In many ways, it represented the New Land, no longer far off. Yet, standing as an achievement of English Quaker colonization, it posed obstacles of language, custom, and organization. To a majority of the immigrant Germans, Philadelphia was a symbol of new opportunities, not a reminder of hardship. From the decks of the ships in the river, they literally looked up to the new city, built on high ground, a gateway to the interior river system and the land they coveted.

However, after the hardship and trials of the long sea voyage with its memories of hunger and burials at sea, some of the travelers felt bereft and confused. For the discouraged or the solitary voyager, it was especially gratifying to be greeted by fellow Germans, who were sufficiently organized and concerned to row out to the ship to see who had arrived and where they came from. Often they offered assistance. During the autumn months they brought apples or other fruit of the province and gave them to passengers as a sign of concern and welcome. Less enthusiastic was the welcome for ships rumored to be arriving with large numbers of passengers ill or dying, even though the need might be far greater under those conditions.

A few, particularly older persons, or those of some rank or status at home, to whom the prospect of heavy physical effort did not appeal, changed their minds and arranged to return. Others carried out an initial term of obligation and then returned to the more settled procedures of the old country. Some arrived in such a state of exhaustion or shock that they did not grasp the meaning of indenture as local employers or farmers bid for their service.

Still, the overwhelming majority of arrivals found the balance vastly in favor of Pennsylvania. The port city represented to them an opportunity to break with a past weighted down by obligations and restrictive conditions. Many soon found temporary employment and some permanent jobs. For them Philadelphia was strange but wondrously different from what they had previously experience. It was an open settlement, where town lots were available and the streets clear and accessible. The port city had no town wall nor fortifications, nor any ruins or semblance of any. More than that, it was hard to tell where town ended and individual farms or plantations began. For most of the arriving Palatine, Swabian, or Württemberger migrants, the roads inland to Germantown, Skippack, Reading, Lancaster, or Easton provided the means to find the farms they sought. In a year, Philadelphia sometimes received migrants numbering more than its own total population. It could provide for only a few of those arrivals, so the destiny of most lay in the interior. These settlers were bauern, farmers by training, experience, and social condition, who arrived fully intent on continuing in agriculture.

An initial hazard for many, if not for a majority of the German arrivals, was the settlement of accounts for passage across the Atlantic Ocean. "Redemptioners" were so handicapped by lack of funds that they signed indenture contracts with the ship captains in Rotterdam; their status was fixed before departure. "Freemen" or "free willers" were slightly better off. They sailed as free men but submitted to indentures after arrival.

Getting off the ship usually proved difficult for those who still owed their passage. Masters were not only reluctant but downright unwilling to see these freights depart, to be swallowed up by back country Pennsylvania, before the debts were collected. Such restriction while at anchor in the Delaware River or even while tied up at a dock seemed to be the ultimate in carelessness or cruelty. When Peter Kalm landed as an honored passenger with Captain Lawson of the ship Mary in 1748, he was shocked to hear orders of the second mate who stayed aboard. "Let no one of the German refugees out of the ship unless he pays for his passage or someone else pays for him." As much as two months might pass awaiting completion of the work contract. Occasionally in the purchase or assignment of indentures, parents and children were separated, a grave cause for concern and sorrow. Some Germans pointed out that being in the service was advantageous for the young. Servants obtained meals and shelter, whereas on their own it might have been much more difficult.

Redemptioners came as early as 1728, although the British use of unfree indentured servants in a relatively free-labor province dated back almost to the establishment of the colony. Most fortunate of all were those persons indentured into rural households of fellow Germans in the upper reaches of the province. There congeniality and the ring of familiar speech prevailed. Familiar social custom helped ease the cultural shock of the change from Palatinate German conditions into those of English custom and tradition.

The major influx of German settlers which began in 1716 or 1717 caused little concern at first, for all understood that in order to prosper the province must gain in population. But the increase was so steady that their large numbers came to be viewed as a threat by provincial officials. Moreover, the German migration increased decade by decade well into the eighteenth century. Even the most careful estimates of entering Germans are subject to error, but by the clamor against them we can judge that by 1727 they were considered a major threat. Fear that the numerous Germans would engulf the original settlement led the new governor, Patrick Gordon, to call for regulations. He asked that arrivals declare their good faith by an oath of allegiance to the king and a promise of fidelity to the Proprietor, "and that a List shall be taken of the Names of all these People, their several Occupations, and the Places from whence they come." Shortly, to add assurances of political reliability, a renunciation of the Stuart pretenders was also required of them.

While these lists, oaths and registry were restrictive, and for a time accompanied by a duty of two pounds per alien entry (double the duty on Irish servants), the requirements seem not to have slowed the Palatine arrivals to any great extent.

The large number who entered Pennsylvania from German-speaking areas of Europe indicate just how attractive Penn's Province was, especially at the peak of the migrations from 1749 to 1754. During the first of the heavy years, twenty-two ships carrying more than six thousand "Palatines" debarked at Philadelphia. In the five years of the most intensive movement, no less than seventeen thousand Germans arrived, and early estimates ranged as high as thirty thousand in the half decade.

The natural increase in population continued to add to these German-speaking Pennsylvanians at a rate that sent their numbers well over one hundred thousand by the early 1770s. The combination of continued immigration, large families, and their skillful and successful tilling of the soil served to underscore the threat posed by this foreign settlement, especially to the non-German, English-speaking elements of Pennsylvania's population.

The Pennsylvania Assembly, concerned for the health and safety of the province, as well as for the German migrants, received a petition against "the overloading of ships bringing German immigrants to Philadelphia." The Assembly passed bills regulating the importation of Germans and required ship captains to be more accountable. In the end, the Pennsylvania laws were invalidated by the Board of Trade.

[Source: Pennsylvania Germans, A Persistent Minority. William T. Parsons. Collegeville, PA: Chestnut Books, 1985. pp 47-60.]


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