Awhile back I wrote about the bonded (convicts) and indentured servants who came to America from England. What I didn’t address there was the very similar plight of the German Redemptioners, who came to America at about the same time, settled primarily in Pennsylvania, and experienced very similar hardships and fate.
My goal today is to offer some insight into this very interesting immigrant group and provide you with a handful of resources to learn more on the subject and maybe find your ancestor!
The term “redemptioner” 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.
In Germany there were two types of redemptioners – “indentured servants,” who made arrangements before leaving home to work for the benefactor (American farmer or tradesman) of his passage fare for a certain number of years; and the “free-willers,” who agreed to be sold into servitude by the ship captain in compensation for his passage to America.
Additionally, there was a character called a “Newlander,” who trafficked in unwitting peasants. He was well dressed and professed to be a successful merchant from Philadelphia. He would traverse up and down the Rhine River looking for persons to “convince” there was an opportunity for them in America, when in reality he was selling them into indenture. He would receive a $7/head commission for each person collected from the ship captain, who would in turn sell them upon arrival in America.
The practice began in England in the late 1600s, early 1700s. It didn’t come into wide practice in Germany until the 1770s, after the more well-off Palatines had already came to America, and those less well off and left behind were hearing the stories of great fortune in America.
Once in America their life – male and female alike – was that of hard labor in the farms and fields for a period of three, five, or most typically, seven years. Just as their English counterparts experienced, there were stiff penalties for having a child, running away, or any other infraction of the law. Notably, in Pennsylvania, William Penn put in place a number of laws or regulations to protect both the servant and master.
- Servants were not allowed to be sold into another colony without the servant’s consent
- Servants were not allowed to be sold to another party without a Justice being present
- Servants were allowed to become soldiers with the consent of their masters
With this general introduction, I offer a few resources to extend your research.
- Record of Servants and Apprentices Bound and Assigned Before Hon. John Gibson, Mayor of Philadelphia, December 5th, 1772 0 May 21, 1773, (full text online on Internet Archive) republished in Emigrants to Pennsylvania 1641-1819 edited by Michael Tepper published by Genealogical Publishing Co., 1992. [One of the few actual passenger lists you’ll find in the Colonial era. A goldmine if your ancestor fits this profile.]
- The German Immigration into Pennsylvania through the Port of Philadelphia from 1700 to 1775 and the Redemptioners by Frank Ried Diffenderffer published by Genealogical Publishing Co., 1979 (Full text online on Internet Archive) [Excellent history of human trafficking in the Colonial era both from England and Germany. Strong use of original sources including newspapers, legislative acts, and diaries/journals. Not intended as a list of passengers, but a historic account of the period.]
- Redemptioners and indentured servants in the Colony and Commonwealth of Pennsylvania by Karl Frederick Geiser (HathiTrust, Full Text Online)
- White Servitude in Pennsylvania; Indentured and Redemption Labor in the Colony and Commonwealth (HathiTrust, Limited Text (every word searchable online) by Cheesman Abiah Herrick, published by Book of Libraries, 1970
- The Historical Society of Pennsylvania has the following items in their manuscript collection:
- Register of German redemptioners 1785 – 1831
- Registry of redemptioners, 1786-1804.
- Registry of redemptioners, 1785-1786.
- Custom House (London, England) redemptioners registry 1774-1775
I’m fascinated by the story of the indentured servant or redemptioner. I hope you find a story here that adds color and texture to your own fascinating history.