In the first post in this series, Heidi Mathis provided a great overview of the push and pull factors that motivated our Pennsylvania German ancestors to come to America. In this post, I will answer the questions “How did they get here?” and “What happened once they arrived?” I will also discuss records that might (or might not) have been created along the way.
Preparing to Leave the Homeland
In order to leave Germany, emigrants were required to pay manumission and emigration fees to territorial rulers.1 Some manumission records were kept, and have been compiled by Werner Hacker. Visit WorldCat to find a copy in a library near you. Manumission fees were prohibitive, so many Germans emigrated illegally. Either way, the process of leaving their homeland was a difficult one.
The journey itself was long and arduous. Emigrants first traveled on the Rhine River to Rotterdam; through the Strait of Dover to Cowes, which is on the Isle of Wight; through the English Channel; and finally across the Atlantic. The voyage across the Atlantic was difficult, passengers had to deal with death, exploitation, hunger, storms, sickness, and weeks or months of boredom. 2
Arrival in America
Once the immigrants arrived in Philadelphia, all men over the age of 15 who were well enough to walk were escorted to the courthouse where they were asked to sign oaths of fidelity and abjuration to King George III of England. While passenger lists are rare for this time period, a record was kept of those who signed at the courthouse. These records can act as a substitute for ship’s lists.
Surviving ship’s lists and the lists of men who signed the oaths at the courthouse have been compiled into a series called Pennsylvania German Pioneers: a publication of the original lists of arrivals in the port of Philadelphia from 1727-1808, 3 vols., by Strassburger and Hinke, available digitally at FamilySearch. The number of surviving lists is estimated to cover only about half of all arrivals from Germany during this time period.
Volume I includes ship and courthouse lists from 1727-1775. There was no standard format when making a passenger list. Some captains included the names of all passengers, including women and children. Others included only the names of the men. Some lists are organized by family, others separated passengers into groups of men, women, boys, and girls. Volume II includes facsimiles of the signatures of the men who signed the oaths at the courthouse. Volume III includes lists from 1785-1808 and an index for the entire three-volume set.
It is important to note that Germans often migrated in groups with other family members or members of their villages. In fact, in studying villagers from a sample of six parishes, it was found that “eighty-five percent of emigrants traveled with family members, and ninety-six percent traveled with other persons from the same parish on the same ship.”3 Once the immigrants got off the ship, they lined up with their friends and family at the courthouse in Philadelphia and signed the oaths together. The lesson: the FAN club is very important when studying Pennsylvania German ancestors. As a general rule, Germans immigrating to Pennsylvania followed other relatives to the same locations in the New World, traveled together, and stuck together once they arrived.
Finding Pennsylvania German Ancestors on Lists of Arrivals
The passenger arrival lists compiled by Strassburger and Hinke will be one of the first sources created for your Pennsylvania German ancestors, and should not be overlooked. The first step will be to look for your ancestor in the index in volume three. Next, find that ancestor on the passenger and arrival lists in volume one or three. The lists are organized by ship, so consulting the index first is necessary. Finally, find your ancestor’s signature in volume two.
I have been researching Adam Fisher/Fischer, who was living in Northampton County by at least 1761 when his son Philip Jacob was born.4 I have wondered if Adam might have been born in Germany. To begin my search for Adam on passenger arrival lists, I first consulted the index in volume three of Pennsylvania German Pioneers. The only Adam Fisher listed was George Adam. The index states that Georg Adam is listed on p. 415 of volume one.
*Note: I will discuss German naming customs and the reason I think it is possible this could be Adam Fisher in my next post.
I navigated to p. 415 of volume one and found Georg Adam Fischer. He traveled on the Isaac. The list states that the ship was “from Rotterdam, but last from Cowes in England.” I made note of those who were listed on the same page as Georg Adam Fischer. These men are Georg Adam’s FAN club. They likely traveled together and lined up together to sign the oath at the courthouse.
Finally, I navigated to volume two, found the list for the Isaac, and was able to see Georg Adam Fischer’s signature on page 469. More research is needed to find out if this is the same man who was the father of Philip Jacob Fischer, born in 1761, but I hope this has helped you understand the process for finding Pennsylvania Germans in these records.
After a ship carrying German immigrants arrived in Philadelphia and the men signed the oath of Fidelity and Abjuration, the immigrants lived on the ship until they could figure out a way to pay their passage. Those who couldn’t find a way to pay were sold as indentured servants. About half of all German immigrants were consigned to indentured servitude for a period of four to ten years.5 Records of indentures are rare. If you find your ancestor in Pennsylvania German Pioneers and then don’t find a record of him in other documents for a period of several years, you can assume he was probably an indentured servant.
A Continual Quest for Land
As Heidi mentioned in the first post in this series, land was at the forefront of Pennsylvania Germans’ minds. As soon as they were able, they sought to purchase a piece of land for themselves and their posterity. Author Christopher Saur, a former pharmacist who began printing yearly almanacs in Germantown, ran a long series of fictional dialogues between a well-settled Pennsylvania German inhabitant (Einwohner) and a newly arrived immigrant (Neukommer). Fogleman quotes parts of these dialogues in Hopeful Journeys. This passage by Einwohner sums up the feelings of Pennsylvania Germans about land:
I made the difficult move across the sea so that I could improve my situation and establish for myself a peaceful life, as I once had had. To this end I have searched this land for the best place I can find and yet afford. While I can still work, I hope to set myself up in order that I shall have saved enough so that by the time I am old and can no longer work, I shall not need to. Thereafter I want to serve GOD so that I might be blessed in death.6
Once our Pennsylvania ancestors arrived in America, they became Americans while still retaining much of their German identity, including the German language and tight-knit German communities. My next post will focus on some guiding principles to keep in mind as you begin to search for records for your German ancestors in Pennsylvania. Subsequent posts will focus on finding the land records, along with other important record types like probate, church, tax, and military records. I will be sharing insights specific to Pennsylvania German research along the way.
- Aaron Spencer Fogleman, Hopeful Journeys: German Immigration, Settlement, and Political Culture in Colonial America, 1717-1775, Kindle edition (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996); locations 402-415.
- Fogleman, Hopeful Journeys, Kindle Version, locations 1071 and 1096.
- Fogleman, Hopeful Journeys, location 1055.
- Rev. A. S. Leiby, (Easton, Pennsylvania), “Record of the Jordan Lutheran Church in Whitehall Township, Lehigh Co., PA, Opened 1740, Volume I” p. 14, entry 8, birth of Philip Jacob Fischer, 21 May 1761; digital image, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org : accessed 10 February 2020); citing FHL microfilm #940906, item 3, image 375.
- Fogleman, Hopeful Journeys, locations 1146-1149.
- Fogleman, Hopeful Journeys, location 1540; quoting Christopher Saur, Neukommer-Einwohner dialogues, published in his almanacs between 1751-1757.