“Many sigh and cry: ‘Oh, that I were at home again, and if I had to lie in my pig-sty!’ Or they say: ‘O God, if I only had a piece of good bread, or a good fresh drop of water.’”
Gottlieb Mittelberger was a German musician who traveled to America to install an organ that had been purchased by a church in the Philadelphia region. On board the ship on which he sailed were a number of redemptioners—individuals who contracted to work for someone for a specified period of time as the means of paying for their passage to America. Mittelberger later wrote a memoir, Journey to Pennsylvania in the Year 1750, and Return to Germany in the Year 1754, in which he discourages Europeans from taking the risk of immigrating to America as redemptioners. His memoir is most noted for its negative assessment of the opportunities presented to these immigrants, describing the terrible conditions they had to endure in crossing the Atlantic, the system by which their contracts for labor were purchased by landowners or businessmen in the colonies, and the often-brutal conditions under which they labored.
A large percentage of the laborers who came to America in the 1600s and 1700s were indentured servants, workers who agreed to work for someone, usually a landowner or business owner, in return for their transport to America. Their terms of service were defined by their contracts and typically ranged from two to seven years, although young people often had to serve until they were twenty-one years old. Landowners preferred laborers who were legally bound to a term of service because, with the ready availability of cheap land in America, free workers would likely leave after a brief time to start their own farms. Although this institution had a number of similarities to slavery, landowners who employed indentured servants did not technically own the servants; rather, they owned the contracts for their labor.
The people with whom Mittelberger traveled to Pennsylvania were referred to as redemptioners. Sometimes this word is used interchangeably with “indentured servant,” although it is usually only applied to servants from continental Europe, as opposed to those from England. English indentured servants usually already had their contracts for labor worked out before they left their homeland; they often knew exactly where they were going, who they would work for, and how long they were contracted to work. In contrast, the contracts for the labor of redemptioners were sold after they arrived in America, and the laborers had to bargain for the best terms they could obtain. Young, healthy, and highly skilled servants were the most sought after and could generally bargain for a better contract, while older or unskilled workers had fewer opportunities for negotiation.
In the southern colonies, the use of indentured servants began to decline in the late 1600s. Economic conditions in England had improved somewhat, making it harder to recruit potential servants. Also, as landowners became wealthier, they could afford to import or purchase African slaves, who were considered better long-term investments. In Pennsylvania, where Mittelberger lived for several years, indentured servants and redemptioners were probably still more common than slaves during the late colonial era, in part because there were few large plantations growing staple crops.
Little is known about Mittelberger’s life prior to his journey to Pennsylvania. He was born in about 1715 in Enzweihingen, a small town in the Duchy of Württemberg, a state in the Holy Roman Empire (now Germany). Germans from this region had been coming to Pennsylvania since the early years of William Penn’s colony, which was chartered in 1681.
Mittelberger’s voyage to America was connected with the purchase of an organ by a church in a settlement called the Trappe, located in New Providence, Pennsylvania. The church that purchased the organ was a Lutheran church led by Reverend Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, who had immigrated to Pennsylvania in 1742 and was one of the first ordained Lutheran ministers in America. Mittelberger apparently came to help install the organ. He then served as an organist and also taught in a school connected to the church. This, plus the fact that he wrote a literate account of his journey and the time he spent in Pennsylvania, indicates that he had some basic education, though the exact nature and extent of his schooling is unknown.
Mittelberger’s account of coming to Pennsylvania is best known for its description of the conditions in which the redemptioners were transported and under which they worked. However, Mittelberger himself was not a redemptioner; it appears that he came to America as a regular passenger, either paying for his passage or having it paid for him. Mittelberger returned to Germany in 1754, and his book, his only known publication, was published in 1756. There is little historical information pertaining to Mittelberger’s life following the publication of his memoir. He likely died in Germany around 1779.
Mittelberger’s account of his journey to Pennsylvania describes the hardships endured by Europeans traveling to the colonies as redemptioners. He focuses in particular on the risks of the journey and on the fate of the redemptioners upon their arrival in America. As a visitor to the colonies who neither served as a redemptioner or indentured servant nor employed them, Mittelberger provided an account that, while not free of personal bias, was not based on personal investment in the institution. Ultimately, Mittelberger argued against the positive descriptions of indentured servitude written by some of his contemporaries and sought to dissuade his fellow Germans from choosing to become unpaid laborers.
Scholars have suggested that possibly more than half of the European immigrants who came to America were indentured servants or other kinds of unfree workers, such as convicts sentenced to work as laborers in the colonies. Many indentured servants entered into indenture voluntarily, and their reasons for doing so were largely economic; many of those recruited to immigrate to America as indentured servants were desperately poor and were willing to risk much on the hope that they might find better opportunities. Individuals writing at the time and early historians of colonial America developed a kind of rags-to-riches mythology that told of how poor servants came to America and, after serving a period of indenture, became wealthy landowners or businessmen themselves. In some cases, this was likely true. While they did work hard and had few legal guarantees of proper treatment, those who survived their years of servitude could then work as free laborers. Furthermore, because of the need for labor in the American colonies, free workers received wages higher than those they would have received in Europe. Many servants probably ended up better off, in strictly economic terms, than they would have been had they remained in their homelands.
In his memoir, Mittelberger attempts to dispel these notions of economic betterment and reveal the dangers associated with life as an indentured servant in the colonies. While his opinion of indentured servitude prior to his journey to Pennsylvania is unknown, Mittelberger returned to Germany an ardent opponent of the practice. Seeking to discourage his fellow Germans from traveling to America as redemptioners, he set out to describe the conditions under which indentured servants were brought to America and labored in Pennsylvania. His account illustrates both the value and the potential problems with primary sources from any era. Mittelberger witnessed many things with his own eyes, and his testimony about these is particularly valuable. However, he sometimes generalizes from the examples he has seen and draws conclusions that may not be representative of the experience of most indentured servants in order to deter his fellow countrymen from taking that path. Nevertheless, his account is an important one, particularly as a counterpoint to the writings of those in favor of indentured servitude. Mittelberger’s account and those by others like him suggest that the possibility of future prosperity is not worth the risks of a dangerous journey and poor working conditions.
Mittelberger begins by describing the unpleasant voyage from England to America. He writes that the trip typically took eight to twelve weeks, but many crossings were shorter, in the range of three to six weeks. Storms, or contrary winds, could cause the voyage to take longer than usual. Many sources from the colonial era testify to the health risks of an Atlantic crossing, and the hardships Mittelberger describes were not confined to ships carrying redemptioners. Even paying passengers such as Mittelberger or military personnel whom the government would naturally want to arrive healthy enough to be of service suffered much during such voyages. “I myself had to pass through a severe illness at sea,” he writes. Overcrowding, poor sanitation, and a lack of knowledge about how contagious diseases were spread, combined with poor-quality food and impure drinking water (both often in severely limited quantities), accounted for much of this suffering.
Although he was not an ordained clergyman, Mittelberger appears to have been personally devout, and he sought to minister to the needs of the people with whom he traveled. In the absence of a clergyman, he held worship services on Sundays, during which he read from a collection of sermons. He also led daily prayer meetings. He mentions baptizing five children; these were probably infants born during the voyage. When people died and were buried at sea, he also provided a basic funeral service.
As Mittelberger reports, many died on such voyages. It appears that losses in the range of 10 to 30 percent of the total number of passengers were not uncommon. Of course, some remarkable voyages were made with little loss of life, but on the other hand, ships and all on board were at times lost at sea. Mittelberger focuses in particular on the harmful effects of the voyage on children, reporting that thirty-two children died on his voyage. Based on this experience, he suggests that children between the ages of one and seven rarely survived such journeys. Port records indicate that living children were often on board arriving ships, however, so Mittelberger’s statement was probably incorrect.
Mittelberger believed that the poor quality of the food and water the passengers received contributed to the suffering experienced on these voyages. They received hot food only three times a week, and he reports that the water they were given was often foul and dirty. Some passengers may have brought some of their own provisions on board, but since most of the people seeking to become servants in the colonies were very poor, it is unlikely that many of them could have procured much to supplement their diets. When a crossing took longer than expected and other food supplies were exhausted, passengers had to eat the “ship’s biscuit,” a kind of hard bread or cracker. This was meant to be an emergency ration that could be stored for a long time, but as Mittelberger records, it was susceptible to becoming contaminated by worms and bugs.
After the horrific experience of such a voyage, landfall in America was a welcome relief to those on board. But as Mittelberger points out, their suffering was not over just because they had reached a port. Indentured servants usually already had contracts for their labor in place, but redemptioners such as those who traveled with Mittelberger did not. Ship owners or captains had borne the expense of transporting these people, speculating that in America they could sell their labor contracts for enough to make a profit. Because the ship’s captain had a stake in the sale of these servant’s labor contracts, no one was allowed to leave the ship until the cost of their passage was paid. Masters took a risk if they bought servants who were sick, so naturally the healthiest passengers sold first and were able to negotiate the best terms. This meant that passengers who were sick were confined to the ship until their labor contracts were sold, perhaps getting sicker or even dying. As Mittelberger notes, many who died might have recovered if they had been removed from the unhealthy environs of the ship’s hold. He does note that after a time, the very sick were taken to a “sick-house” until they recovered, but if they ever did recover enough to leave the sick-house, they still had to pay for their passage to America by contracting to work for someone. While Mittelberger mentions that healthy workers were valued over sick ones, he does not discuss the role that skills or trades played in the negotiation process. Redemptioners or indentured servants who had marketable skills such as blacksmithing, carpentry, or masonry could command better terms and usually were able to work for a shorter time.
Adult servants usually had to contract to work for three to six years in order to pay the cost of their passage to America. Children might go into servitude to pay their own cost of passage or to help pay the cost of their parents’ passage so that the adults in the family could start out as free laborers. If someone died after having been on board more than half the journey, surviving members of the family had to pay the full cost of the passage of the deceased person. Many parents had to sell the contract for a child’s labor to someone other than the master for whom the parents would be working. Mittelberger stresses the negative effects of this system on children and on the family as a whole, noting that “after leaving the ship, [parents and children often] do not see each other again for many years, perhaps no more in all their lives.”
Mittelberger suggests that if servants ran away, they had little chance of remaining free. He notes that a master could sell the contract for a recaptured servant if he did not wish to assume the risk of the servant running away again. The remaining time on a servant’s contract could also be used to pay a debt or pass on to heirs if the master died. Servants generally had no say in these transfers, although some colonies did require a court order to approve long-term arrangements. It is correct that there were substantial penalties for running away and that local authorities were tasked with helping to recover runaways. However, historical evidence casts doubt on Mittelberger’s assertion that escape was nearly impossible. Colonial newspapers often printed ads offering rewards for the return of runaways, indicating servants running away was a common occurrence and suggesting that perhaps escape was more possible than Mittelberger suggests, if so many servants were willing to attempt it. In addition, because of the great demand for workers, a landowner or businessman might hire someone even if he or she suspected the worker might be a runaway indentured servant. Some colonies passed laws against this practice, known as piracy of labor, thus hinting that it occurred frequently enough to be a concern. During colonial wars, indentured servants sometimes ran away and enlisted in the militia. This was not supposed to be allowed without the master’s permission, but enlistment officers who had quotas to fill decided at times not to look closely into the status of potential recruits.
If a person wished to marry an indentured servant, Mittelberger notes, he or she would have to buy out the remaining time on the potential spouse’s labor contract. This was more commonly true when a man sought to marry a woman in servitude. Masters generally did not want their female servants to get married, because if they became pregnant, they might not be able to do as much work. Owners of slaves owned the children born to their slaves, but this was not the case with servants, and a child born to a servant would not be old enough to do much work before the time of the parent’s indenture was over. Since there were significantly more men than women in the colonies, it was fairly common for a female servant to marry her master.
Despite his opposition to the institution of indentured servitude, Mittelberger does mention some of the benefits servants could typically expect to receive if they survived. Following the end of a servant’s contracted term, he or she was entitled to a new suit of clothes and, if it had been expressly specified in the contract, possibly even livestock. In some colonies, these “freedom dues,” as they were called, were specified by law. They often included basic farm tools such as axes or hoes, which indicates that authorities expected former servants to start farming on their own. In some colonies, a former servant would receive a “headright,” a grant of land from the colonial government given to any laborer who came to the colony. The proprietors of Pennsylvania (the descendants of Penn, to whom the colony had been granted) also sold land at good prices on liberal credit terms. For Mittelberger, however, these benefits did not outweigh the risks of the journey and the hardships endured by many servants in the colonies.
In general, Mittelberger writes as a person incensed by the suffering he had seen among the redemptioners he traveled with and others he observed after arriving in Pennsylvania. Although he recognized that poor Europeans could benefit economically from indentured servitude, he believed that the negative effects of the journey and life as a bonded laborer, particularly on children and families, were severe. By publishing his memoir, Mittelberger attempted to discourage others from his homeland from making what he believed to be an unwise decision.
For many modern readers, it may be difficult to believe the accounts of the suffering associated with the system of indentured servants or understand the existence of a legal system that sanctioned such abuses. Few people in the colonial era, however, seemed to have any moral qualms about it. To understand the treatment of indentured servants, one must recognize that in this system, human beings were treated simply as commodities. They were recognized for the value of their labor, but little attention was paid to their basic rights or dignity. While Mittelberger may have exaggerated the sufferings of servants in a few cases, other sources substantiate the general accuracy of his observations. In reading such an account, one can only wonder why people undertook the risk of a dangerous sea voyage followed by the prospect of years of labor and bondage. The answer is that for many, the conditions they experienced in their homelands were so bad that any chance for better prospects was worth taking. While Mittelberger was convinced that redemptioners and indentured servants would fare no better in the colonies than in Europe, some few did prosper, while perhaps a larger number found a somewhat better life after their period of indenture was over. Many, however, never saw freedom; many died on the voyage across the ocean or during their years of bondage. Nevertheless, this idea of risking everything for the possibility of a better life became a key theme in American history and culture, shaping the development of the colonies and eventually the United States as immigrants from diverse countries willingly faced many of the same dangers as Mittelberger’s redemptioners in the hope of finding financial security, religious freedom, and new opportunities.
History has often been written with a bias toward the elites in society—the wealthy and powerful who are by definition the minority of any nation. In the twentieth century, historians began to pay more attention to the lives and the historical impact of common people. In colonial America, a large percentage of these common people were laborers held in bondage. Mittelberger’s account is valuable because few firsthand accounts of the sufferings of the Atlantic crossing have survived, and many of the contemporary accounts of the lives and work of indentured servants in the colonies were written by wealthy people who often benefitted from the work of these servants. Mittelberger was neither a servant nor an employer of servants, so he wrote as an observer who had no stake in the system of servitude, other than his desire to see that people were made aware of the risks associated with the decision to come to America as an indentured servant. As such, the study of Mittelberger’s memoir reflects the increasing interest in exploring historical events and institutions from multiple diverse perspectives among historians and other scholars.
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