Many of you probably do not know that I am not originally from Berks County. I was born and raised in Lockport, New York, which is roughly 30 minutes northeast of Niagara Falls and an hour north of Buffalo. Lockport, while having many claims to fame, is known for having the most locks along the Erie Canal. In fact they are currently restoring the flight of five (as they were known) to make them operational again. Growing up, I used to listen to my Great-Grandmother tell us, how she liked to make produce deliveries in Buffalo with her father, because she had to stay overnight at a hotel. I never could figure out why, until much later when I realized they traveled by horse. An hour trip today, was a half-day to a day trip at the turn of the century.
The German Immigrants, who traveled to Berks County in 18th Century, did not have the luxury of planes, trains and automobiles. Their journey started a lot farther away than Lockport and many did not survive crossing the Atlantic Ocean. The decision to leave one’s home is never easy, especially when you know you will never see your friends and family again. Germany did not become a unified country until 1871. Until then, Germany consisted on many principalities and the Princes ruled however, they saw fit and took whatever they wanted. Someone interested in traveling, needed to seek permission from the Prince before leaving and anyone accumulating any amount of money (if found) were looked at suspiciously and the money could be confiscated.
The trip to America was not free. Immigrants saved what they could and often left in the middle of the night, when the Prince was not looking. As they traveled down the Rhine, each Prince stopped the travelers and demanded fees for their passage through their principality, after they paid the captain for his services. Many were penniless by the time they reached the port town. The trip down the Rhine could take a couple weeks, if you were able to travel by boat. At the port town, such as Amsterdam, Immigrants purchased their passage to America. The trip across the Atlantic took roughly three months. When the ship landed in Philadelphia, sailors rounded up the men, walked them to the Immigration Office or Courthouse, where the Immigrants took the Oath of Allegiance to the King of England. They returned to the ship to settle their debt with the Captain.
If they were able to pay for their passage in full, the Captain allowed the Immigrant to leave the ship. If the Immigrant could not pay for the passage, the Captain kept him/her or families on board until someone paid for their release. This Indenture (Indentured Servants, Redemptioners) was a private contract and the individual agreed to work for a number of years until his debt was paid. We have heard that there might be records of these contracts in Philadelphia. However, we do not have confirmation on this yet. The Indentures left the ship with the person who bought their freedom. If the Immigrant paid for the passage, he/she or they headed toward Germantown, where they had family and friends. Many stayed in Germantown long enough to earn enough money to buy their own land and then headed west toward Berks County.
There is an old saying…”All roads lead to Rome.” Unfortunately, there were no roads leading to Berks County; at least not until the mid-to late 18th century. Traveling through unknown territory, through forests, by foot, would have taken a couple of days. What lay ahead was a future full of hard work and promise.
Many new researchers are often surprised when we explain that their Immigrant did not “land” in Berks County. One researcher recently wondered if their ancestor traveled Interstate 81 to Virginia. We forget how easy moving from one place to another is because of automobiles, interstates highways, roads and planes. We have our ancestors to thank for that!
Written by former BHC Archivist, Kim Brown.