JimWes Thinks

November 5, 2018


Filed under: Immigration — jimwes @ 9:26 pm

At this time of great interest in the issue of immigration I happened to accidentally find out a bit about my own family’s immigrants of the 18th Century.

John Wolfe (1686-1759) and Ziblilla Witgens (1683-1759) were my great grandparents five generations removed on my mother’s side of the family. They immigrated to the United States from their native country, Switzerland, at the price of becoming bond servants having to work for three years as such in order to pay their passage since they were “too poor to pay passage-money.” They travelled from their home in Berne, Switzerland to a German seaport and endured a long and very trying sea voyage to their new home in America. Once free they were awarded land upon which to settle and farm in what is now Orangeburg County, South Carolina. It is estimated that as many as two-thirds of the people who came to the colonies between the 1630s and the American Revolution did so as indentured servants.

Emigrants from Europe like my 5th generation great grandparents were called “redemptioners,” a term that stems from the practice of an apprentice fulfilling his obligation to his master and therefore being “redeemed.”  Similarly, the practice of indenture, bonding, or redemptioners all stem from the much-accepted practice of apprenticeship, where a young man would learn a trade and in return serve a certain number of years in unpaid labor for the master.  The practice was common in England and in Germany.

The following extract indicates that my 5th generation grandparents were sold and located in Saxe-Gotha, Germany to fulfil their servitude and after their legal discharge they obtained the king’s bounty and a tract of land, the same as other settlers,

“Journal of Council, vol. xi, p. 486: ‘Petition of John Wolfe and wife, natives of Berne, Switzerland, too poor to pay passage-money, entered into the service of Anthony Stack, of Saxe-Gotha, Germany for three years, being now discharged from service, prays for his quota of land and bounty-money. Granted, on evidence of his written legal discharge.’ ”[i]

These forebears of mine were erroneously called “redemptionersbecause they could have been “redeemed” by payments made by other relatives who were already in the country, but in actuality they and very few others had such relatives, thus they were obliged to serve basically almost as white slaves, but only for a specified time period. Redemptioners were European immigrants, generally in the 18th or early 19th century, who gained passage to American Colonies by selling themselves into indentured servitude to pay back the shipping company which had advanced the cost of the transatlantic voyage. Most paid for their emigration with their own toil, tears, and sometimes their life. In America their labor was considered a good to be lawfully bought and sold until their indentures matured. The big differences between redemptioners and African slaves, were that redemptioners came of their own accord (even if misinformed) and that they had some legal rights and an “out of indentures” date to look forward to.

Unlike my more fortunate forebears, typical redemptioners were at a disadvantage because they were usually forced to negotiate their indentures with their future master at the worst possible time, before they were allowed to leave a stinking, vermin-infested ship at the end of a long voyage with no prospect to return to their homelands. Fortunately my 5th generation grandparents performed their contracted labor in Germany before their voyage. Abuse of redemptioners on board ship is well documented. If a person died after half way across the Atlantic, the surviving family members had to pay the deceased’s fare as well as their own. Their baggage was often pilfered by the crew. Many travelers started their journey with sufficient funds to pay their way but were overcharged so that they arrived with a debt to settle and they also had to be redeemed or work off their debts. If the ship needed to sail before some of the passengers’ indentures had been sold, an agent in the American port kept them confined until a buyer presented himself. In such cases they could be auctioned off just like slaves. The redemptioners who became indentured servants in the US ended up working as farm laborers, household help, in workshops, and even as store clerks. Involuntary servitude, along with slavery in the United States, was finally banned as a part of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, ratified in 1865.

Here is a description of the reasons for and conditions of this kind of servitude:

Dr. Bernheim, on p. 131 of his history, writing of the settlement of Redemptioners, says: “Some of our best and most useful settlers in the South were persons, who, too poor to pay their passage-money across the ocean, were sold by the captains of the vessels, that brought them to America, to any one of the settlers who felt inclined to secure their labor. The price for which they were sold in Carolina was usually from five to six pounds, sterling money, and both men and women were thus alike sold to service; and then, by hard labor, which extended over a period of from three to five years, they eventually redeemed themselves from this species of servitude.

“The advantages of such an arrangement to them and to their adopted colony were, upon the whole, important and salutary.

“1. Our infant colonies stood in need of a useful population which would prove a defence [sic] to the country in case of the execution of the continued threatenings [sic] of a Spanish invasion, and the sudden attack of hostile Indians.

“2. Besides, labor was greatly needed for the cultivation of the virgin soil, and these poor Germans-many of them excellent farmers, some of them useful artisans, and all of them hard-working people-furnished this labor, and at very cheap rates.

“3. The country also needed permanent settlers who would become habituated to the soil and climate, who would learn to love their adopted country, by being compelled to remain until they had fully tested all the advantages of the same; these the Redemptioners abundantly supplied in their own persons.

“4. Nor were the advantages to them of slight importance. They had nothing to risk in the shape of property, as they possessed nothing of this world’s goods, and thus they never became a prey to those landsharks which often despoil the less sagacious immigrants of much of the possessions which they brought with them to America.

“5. Besides, they were the poorer class of people at home in Europe, and would always have remained in this condition, had such an arrangement not existed: but now they enjoyed the flattering prospect of receiving competency and wealth at some future day.

“6. Then again, their servitude became their apprenticeship in America; in the meantime they learned the English language, they became acquainted with the laws and customs of the ‘new country, they discovered by silent observation what would in future be to their advantage, and thus in every way did they become qualified by sagacity, industry, and economy, for their new and independent sphere of life.

“Yet it must be confessed that they had to endure many hardships: often were they rigously [sic] treated by their ship captains: ill and insufficiently fed on their voyage across the ocean, and on shore before they were purchased for their services: exposed publicly for sale as the African slave: often treated harshly by their masters who purchased them, and compelled to labor in the broiling sun of a southern climate, and many, by disease and death, frequently closed their short earthly career.

“However, when our country had become sufficiently populated, the government interposed and put an end to this kind of servitude, on account of the severity of the lot of these unfortunate laborers, and thus abandoned this source of colonization.[ii]

[i] The History of Orangeburg County, South Carolina From Its First Settlement to the Close of the Revolutionary Warby A. S. Salley, Jr., 1998  http://www.genealogytrails.com/scar/orangeburg/history1.html#sec2
[ii] Ibid.


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