Marianne Wokeck, historian and author of the book Trade in Strangers: The Beginnings of Mass Migration to North America, gave a fascinating presentation about German immigrants in the 18th and early 19th centuries at a fall seminar sponsored by Ohio Chapter Palatines to America. Since I have an ancestor, Johan Adam Rausch, who came to Philadelphia in 1736, I found her talk especially interesting.
Among other things, I learned that about a third of the immigrants coming from the Rhineland to America in the 1700’s chose to sign a contract for indentured service in order to pay for their transatlantic fare. These immigrants faced a lot of challenges, and their decision to make a new life in a new land wasn’t an easy one. They had to learn the social customs, business practices, and language of America, and secure food, housing, and other necessities for their families. Agreeing to a period of indentured service not only paid for the journey, which was quite expensive, but also made it easier to do these things.
Unfortunately, very few written records about indentured servants, or “redemptioners” as they were called, have survived. The contracts these immigrants signed were private ones, and did not have to be recorded with the government. Wokeck suggested checking court records for a possible contract dispute that may have resulted when either a redemptioner or his or her “master” failed to uphold their end of the agreement. She also suggested checking business records in and around Philadelphia for a possible connection. I hope to be able to do that soon.
Johan Adam Rausch was in his early twenties in 1736. If he was young and healthy, and hadn’t yet saved up a lot of money, might he have opted to spend a few years as an indentured servant in exchange for a start in Pennsylvania? Quite possibly. Will I ever know for sure? To be honest, given the scarcity of records, probably not. And finally, does it matter? No, not really—but it sure would be interesting to find out! One thing’s for certain: since Wokeck’s presentation, I have a new respect for these hard-working early German immigrants, and the difficult choices they had to make.
© 2012 Shelley Bishop