Redemptioner

What is a Redemptioner?

A ‘redemptioner’ was a person from Europe that was often persuaded to come to North America in the early days and during the development of our country.  They were promised that their condition would improve.  These were called ‘free-willers’, or ‘redemptioners’ who chose to bind themselves to labor for a definite time to pay for their passage to America. The best known of these were Germans, but many English and Scottish men and women came in the same way. Two other groups began arriving at the same time.  The second group was those who came to escape poverty or were forcibly brought to the colonies because of the scarcity of labor in America. The third group was convicts that were sentenced to deportation and on arrival in America were indentured unless they had personal funds to maintain themselves. The West Indies and Maryland appear to have received the largest number of immigrants of the third group.[1]  So a redemptioner was someone who travelled to the US and in exchange for their fare, was held in ‘bondage’ or ‘servitude’ for a set number of years.

When speaking of German emigration, the owners and captains of the ships that carried the redemptioners would carry them to the US if the parents or the redemptioner themselves (if of age), would sign a contract.  The contract made them responsible to pay for the passage upon delivery to the new country.  The early redemptioners did not sign contracts, but it became apparent when many left the ship to collect funds from relatives or friends, in order to pay their passage, and never returned, that some type of agreement was necessary. 

It was considered an ‘apprenticeship’ whereas a free person, voluntarily enters into a contract for a term based on advanced wages before the services were performed.  Anyone that violated this apprenticeship could be punished by corporal punishment or imprisonment or both. 

Several early Maryland laws passed to protect redemptioners.  This category of ‘redemptioner’ was more of the ‘free willers’ and came primarily from England, Scotland and Ireland:

  • ·        1638: the term of service of a redemptioner was limited to 4 years
  • ·        1715:  the term of service for anyone over twenty-five years old were to serve 5 years and those between eighteen and twenty-five to serve 6 years; fifteen to eighteen to serve 7 years and those below fifteen up to their twenty-second year.

When a redemptioner completed their service, their master would give them a reward, which in 1637, was one cap, one new cloth or frieze (heavy wool cloth) suit, one shirt, one pair of shoes and stockings, one ax, one broad and one narrow hoe, fifty acres of land and three barrels of corn.[2]

So who were the redemptioners?  During the early days, up until the American Revolutionary War,  England sent prisoners of war, which they captured during insurrections in Scotland and Ireland and also convicts who were sent to serve the rest of their sentence, prior to the official pardon.  There are reports that London once sent a hundred homeless children.  Laws were passed in all three countries, England, Ireland and Scotland, to protect the redemptioners, only those contracts approved by a Magistrate would be accepted in the colonies.  This stopped many of the early abuses.  More commonly, however, all walks of life travelled as redemptioners.  There are records of persons coming to the US as redemptioners and becoming pillars of society.  For the most part, they were well treated.  There are reports that many redemptioners married their masters.  Persons such as Reverend Samuel Schwerdfeger, a native of Bavaria and a graduate of the University of Erlanger, at the age of twenty four, fell into the hands of emigrant runners and came to the US, arriving in Baltimore as a redemptioner.  He was actually purchased by the Lutheran Congregation of York, PA, where he remained until 1758.  He then went to Frederick to serve at Frederick Lutheran Church.

There were not many, if any at all,  German redemptioners in the early stages of immigration.  The first Germans arrived in 1683 in Germantown in PA, the Labadist in 1684 in Maryland followed by the Palatinates, the Menonites, the Tunkers, Schwenkfelders, Salzburgers, etc.  All of the trips were orderly and arranged with leaders.  There are no redemptioners reported among these early arrivals.  There were no redemptioners among those Germans arriving in Annapolis from 1753 to 1755.   It is not known when the first German redemptioner arrived in Maryland, but most assume that it was after the War of Independence.  Prior to that time redemptioners were primarily English, Irish and Scottish.  One of the developments that led to the increase is the money that could be made by the shippers.  It became a lucrative job with promises of huge profits.  Filling the ship’s cargo holds with human beings and bringing them to the US…became big business.  Generally, it is believed that around 1817 a large population of German immigrants, due to the economic conditions in Germany and the ongoing famine, escaped Germany for the promises of a better life in the U.S. About 60,000 persons in 1817-1818 left, mostly from the Rheinland.  Wiki reports that more than half of the 18th and 19th century redemptioners were from German speaking countries.

There were other differences between the early redemptioners and those now arriving from Germany.  As stated earlier, it was customary to have a set term of service.  The earlier arrivals served four years or until the age of twenty-one.  When the German emigrants became big business and due to the rising costs of the shippers, as well as the fact that many Germans travelled with their entire family, the cost to ‘redeem’ or settle the passage money also became more flexible.  This distinguished the German redemption system.  The terms were negotiated.  Often in the early stages of immigration, a family would ‘bind’ out their teenage children to pay for the passage. This was also a good way for younger German emigrants to learn a trade and about their new country.  The teenagers would serve until they were ‘of age’ or until the costs for the families travel had been met. 

The first shippers were the Dutch.  After many years of transporting the black slaves from Africa to the US, they found that the white slave trade could be even better financially.  It was less trouble shipping redemptioners from their own country, Germany, Switzerland and those countries surrounding those to the US.  The Dutch shipping merchants would send agents who received pay for every redemptioner shipped.  Many of these shipping agents were ‘newcomers’ themselves …promising the redemptioner that they too could go to the land of milk and honey.  Passage money was not required. All they had to do was sign the contract and their passage would be paid out of their first earnings.  The agents went from village to village like the pied piper…having the most desperate and ignorant follow.  He would escort them to the shipping harbor in Holland.  It was festive, almost like a parade, and the people thought they were leaving their poverty to become rich in the US.  A story from the History of the German Society of Maryland… An old man related to me years ago how he came to Baltimore as a redemptioner.' He said : "I was a journeyman baker in a small town in Germany; had much work and scant wages. One day being dissatisfied and in bad humor over my condition, I was standing at the door of the bakery, when a well-dressed man passing by stopped and said: 'What is the matter, young man ? Why so downhearted?' I told him my condition. 'Why,' said he, 'don't you go to America, where you can earn plenty money with much less work?' I told him that I had not the money to pay for my passage across. 'You don’t need any,' said he. 'I will take you along if you want to go. You can pay me for the passage over there out of the first money you will earn. If you do want to go, make yourself ready; in ten days I will pass here again with a wagon full of emigrants for America, then you may go along.' He then departed. Without my boss knowing anything of it, I packed my clothes in a bundle and made ready to leave. On the appointed day my friend really came into the town in a fine decorated wagon full of emigrants. I seized my bundle, cried a farewell into the room where my boss with his family was sitting, crying to them, to their great astonishment, that I was off for America and jumped on the wagon. Away we went toward Amsterdam, full of joy and in the best of spirit, till we were on board of the vessel and had signed the contract. Then there came a change."[3]

Of course, the Dutch did not do this alone.  Trade required agreements on both sides of the pond and London and Rotterdam had agreements with merchants in Philadelphia and Baltimore for their cargo.

Many of the early redemptioners arrived on their own free will and after their period of bondage became productive, sometimes wealthy citizens.  There were also many young redemptioners that made good and even profited on their exchange, however, not all redemptioners were handled properly. 

After a time and the awareness that this could be a very profitable endeavor, many of the shippers came up with creative ways to beat the system.  Unfortunately, one of the ways was overcrowding and mixing the cargo so that there were enough younger redemptioners to potentially absorb or subsidize the cost of families or those with issues.  On arrival the younger cargo was ‘bound’ off the ship almost immediately.  It wasn’t always the case with large families or those that had a hardship, such as a death aboard the ship.  They could remain on the ship for weeks.  The shippers padded the fares to absorb the extra costs involved. 

There are documented reports at the Maryland archives of redemptioners that were worked to death, starved and provided little clothing and shelter.  Upon arrival, the redemptioner could not pick their master and families were often split up, husband and wife to one family and children to another or husband and wife separated.  They were often punished severely for minor offenses.  When comparing the treatment of black slaves to the redemptioner, it is often reported that the white redemptioner received harsh treatment because of the limited number of years the master would have use.  Black slaves were often treated better because they were slaves for life.  The master wanted to keep them in good health and it was in the master’s interest to take care of the black slave.  The master wanted to squeeze as much from the redemptioner as possible in the specific term of years.   It was common that both the black slaves and the redemptioners share quarters, etc.  This led to many intermarried slaves giving birth to bi-racial or as it was called then, mulatto children.   This was not acceptable at that time in our history.  The Maryland Assembly responded by passing a law that the mulatto children would be as their fathers, slaves for life.  Also, this law made it clear that if any English women intermarry with black slaves, the women will serve the master of such slave during the life of her husband.[4]  This was contrary to the doctrine of partus sequitur ventrum incorporated into state law, by which children followed the legal status of their mother at the time of birth. It wasn’t until slave owners figured out a way to manipulate the law to their advantage that the new law was withdrawn.  It is reported that many married their redemptioners (Irish, German, etc. ) to their black slaves, thus making the mothers and their children slaves for life. 

The early redemptioners had little or no liberty in Maryland.  They were equal, by law, to their black counterparts.

·        Could not buy or sell without permission of master

·        Could not be outside of a specific radius or would be labeled a runaway.  The rewards for returning runaways were steep.  Tobacco being the primary bartering tool, the standing reward for capture of a runaway was 200 lbs. of tobacco.  If you were caught harboring a runaway, the cost to you was 500 lbs. of tobacco.

·        The redemptioner could be whipped by the master (no more than 10 lashes per offence).

·        For every day’s absence from work, the master could add ten days to his/her servitude.

Another little tidbit unknown to many of those signing the redemptioner contracts is that if the person sailing were to die during passage, the surviving members of the family or the surviving passengers would have to make up the loss.  So if a husband died during the voyage, the wife would be held to his passage fees.  This could mean up to ten years to redeem (five for the wife and five for the husband). And yes, if the entire family dies or if there is only one person travelling, the time would be divided among all of the redemptioner passengers.  Dying while at sea was a common occurrence.  One source stated that in 1752, one ship was at sea for 24 weeks with 150 passengers on board.  More than 100 died of hunger.  Upon arrival, the survivors were imprisoned and held for the passage of the 100 dead, as well as their own.  It was estimated in 1758, more than 2000 passengers died at sea. 

The contracts were not made public and no public records existed.  The redemptioner did not get a copy of the contract and the master could hire the redemptioner out for shorter periods or they could be sold or transferred.[5]  Basically, it wouldn’t matter if the German redemptioner had a copy of the contract.  They couldn’t understand them as the contracts were executed in Dutch or English, of which they knew neither. 

There are several histories of redemptioners. One of the most famous is the ‘Lost German Slave Girl’, Sally Müller.  This is a story of a family that emigrated and the mother and youngest child perished at sea.  The remainder of the family was sold to a sugar cane plantation owner.  Sally was only three at the time of passage.  They travelled with other family members.  After arrival at the plantation, both the father and the oldest son perished, leaving only Sally and her sister Dorothea.  The story goes that Sally was sold into slavery as a black slave and it wasn’t until twenty three years later, another family member recognized her in a coffee house.  The other sister, Dorothea was never found.  This tragic story led to a law suit and several cases in the New Orleans court system, eventually Sally winning her freedom.  There is a book, ‘The Lost German Slave Girl: The Extraordinary True Story of Sally Miller and Her Fight for Freedom in Old New Orleans’, by John Bailey, available at Barnes & Noble and Amazon. 

The problem of redemptioners and the poor treatment of immigrants was a widespread situation and certainly Maryland was not immune.  In fact, one of the primary reasons behind the formation of the German Society of Maryland was to address the treatment of redemptioners and free immigrants.  Specifically the treatment the Redemptioners received while sailing to the US.  The first indication of this is in a letter written in 1783 indicating that ‘A society for the aid of the Germans, not speaking the language of the country, was formed’. [6] The Philadelphia Society was the first.  It would appear Maryland was second and followed by many of the Atlantic Seaport cities.

We find further evidence of the role played by the German Society of Maryland when a letter is sent to Captain Claus Kulkens of the Brig Lavater arriving in the harbor on August 9, 1784 and the Secretary of the Society, John Conrad Zollikoffer, thanking the Captain for his humane treatment and safe voyage of his redemptioner cargo. [7]

Serious activity from the society was prompted by an event in 1817 at the Annapolis harbor.  It was at this time that a ship, the ‘Johanna’ carrying about 300 men, women and children became stuck in the Annapolis harbor.  The ship was under the command of Capt. H.H. Bleeker and most passengers were on board as redemptioners.  It was a dangerous journey in the middle of winter.  In Baltimore, at that time in February 1817, the temperatures fluctuated between 4 and 5 degrees above 0.  In fact, it was one of the coldest winters recorded.  The great Chesapeake Bay was frozen from shore to shore.  It took the ship 15 weeks from Amsterdam to Annapolis.  The ship had run out of provisions and unfortunately, not knowing they would be icebound and excited about seeing the promised land, passengers began to throw their bug infested, filthy bedding overboard.  It wasn’t long before the suffering and illness from cold and hunger began to take its toll.  It was at this time that ads began to appear in the papers.  A few examples:

German Redemptioners

The Dutch ship "Johanna," Capt. H. H. Bleeker, has arrived before this City and lies now in the cove of Wiegman's Wharf ; there are on board, desirous of bindingthemselves for their passage, the following single men : two capital blacksmiths, a ropemaker, a carrier, a smart apothecary, a tailor, a good man to cook, several young men as waiters, etc. Among those with families are gardeners, weavers, a stone mason, a miller, a a baker, a sugar baker, farmers and other professions, etc.

This ad appeared daily and on April 7, 1817, five months after their departure from Amsterdam, it was assumed that the last redemptioner had been removed from the ship. 

It was this tragedy and the entire redemptioner system that re-activated a docile German Society.  During the months of March and April 1817, the following appeared in the ‘American’ newspaper.

For Sale or Hire

A German Redemptioner, for the term of two years. He is a stout, healthy man and well acquainted with farming, wagon driving and the management of horses. For further particulars, apply to C. R. Green, Auctioneer. 

On March 1 1 Patrick McCrystal offers $30 reward for the capture of a German redemptioner, a bricklayer.

On March 13 Aquila H. Sparks offers $50 reward for an absconded German redemptioner.

April 11 the following: 

German Redemptioner—$30 Reward

Absconded from the subscriber on Sunday, the 5th, a German Redemptioner, who arrived here in November last, by name of Maurice Schumacher, about 30 years of age, 5 feet, 9 inches, well proportioned, good countenance, but rather pale in complexion, short hair, has a very genteel suit of clothes, by trade a cabinet maker, but has been employed by me in the making of brushes. He is a good German scholar, understands French and Latin, an excellent workman, speaks English imperfectly. $30 reward if lodged in jail.

Jas. M. Stapleton,

Brush Maker, 139 Baltimore St.

The Counsellor of the German Society, William Frick, Esq., was requested to bring suit against the Captain of the Johanna.  There were three offenses:

·        From the start of the voyage of the ship "Johanna," the passengers neither in sufficient quantity nor quality, received the provisions stipulated in the contract.

·        The captain ignoring the contract, arbitrarily demanded of several passengers a larger sum for their passage, than had been agreed upon, and whereby they were in the true sense of the word sold and not released from their debt, as it should have been.

·        The captain seized and kept for himself the clothes and effects of the passengers who died on board.

This began the legal and the legislative activity of the German Society.  It was one year later on February 16, 1818 that the law prepared by the Society to protect redemptioners and immigrants was passed:

An Act Relative to German and Swiss Redemptioners

Whereas, it has been found that German and Swiss emigrants, who for the discharge of the debt contracted for their passage to this country are often obliged to subject themselves to cruel and oppressive imposition by the masters of the vessels in which they arrive, and likewise by those to whom they become servants, BE IT ENACTED:

Public General Law -The Governor and council to appoint, in every port of entry, some person skilled in the German and English languages, as registers of deeds of apprenticeship or servitude of German or Swiss emigrants—1817, ch. 226[8]

Ø  Section 1:  The register (after taking the oath prescribed,) to open an office and draw up and see to the due execution of writings, regulating the apprenticeship of every German and Swiss redemptioner

Ø  Section 2:  No indenture to be of any avail, unless drawn up or approved by said register.  (Duty of the register to transmit the indenture when executed, to the clerk of the county court to be recorded. To keep account of the name, sex, age, time of apprenticeship or servitude, whence came, and to whom bound, and transmit it for record.

Ø  Section 3:  Minors under twenty-one years not to be indented, except by their parents or next of kin, and in default of relatives, by the direction of the orphans courts.

Ø  Section 4:  The indentures to covenant to give minors annually at least two months schooling.

Ø  Section 5:  No emigrant to be bound to serve more than four years, except males under seventeen, and females under fourteen, to serve respectively till twenty-one and eighteen.

Ø  Section 6: German or Swiss emigrant not to be detained on board longer than thirty days, and to receive from the master, a sufficient provision without an increase of the term, or any charge.

Ø  Section 7:  Directions for their being brought on shore & in case of longer detention, sickness, ill-treatment, and for the interference of the county court or judge on the information of the register.

Ø  Section 8:  Children not answerable for the freight or passage money of their parents, dead or alive, nor parents for the deceased children, nor a husband for his deceased wife, nor a wife for her deceased husband.

Ø  Section 9:  Masters of vessels, in case of the death of such emigrants, to give to the register, within ten days after his arrival, an inventory under oath of all property of such emigrants, under a penalty of $200, to be recovered as other fines.

Ø  Section 10: The property to be disposed of by the register for payment of the passage, and to the heirs as therein provided.  Fees and allowance to the register.

Ø  Section 11:  The proceeds of sales uncalled for during three years after publication, to be paid by the register to the German society.

It was also customary for the Society to choose or suggest to the Governor, the register.

One year later another well-known case took place.  It happened in January of 1819.  The Swedish ship ‘Prima’ arrived in the port of Baltimore with about 250 German and Swiss immigrants, most being redemptioners.  There was a great deal of confusion aboard the ship.  First, the Germans/Swiss on board boarded in Bergen, Sweden.  How they got there is uncertain, but most assume they were there as a result of their ship being shipwrecked.  Those on board were treated kindly and with respect.  Something the German Society appreciated and recognized.  The redemptioners, however, could not disembark because the Captain of the ship, Captain Moxwold, could not pay the foreign tonnage fees.  The German Society stepped in and paid the fees.  Among the passengers on this ship was the Breuning family, husband, wife and two infant sons.  The Register boarded and began to check all the contracts as provided by law.  He being on one side of the ship was unaware that on the other side of the ship, a man, W. Denny, from Queen Anne County boarded, liked what he saw in the infant boys (they would be in servitude for twenty two years) and approached the Captain.  He offered the Captain a good sum of money to buy the infants as redemptioners and the Captain agreed.  Before anyone knew what was happening…actually, it was at the cries of his mother as Mr. Denny sailed off in his boat with her infant sons, the boys had been sold. After attempts and calls from Mr. Thomsen to return the boys, Mr. Denny ignored the calls and sailed across the Chesapeake Bay to his farm.  Complicating the entire issue, the parents were sold to a farmer in Pennsylvania. 

A petition for the Breuning boys was filed in the court for Queen Anne County. The President of the Society sent a personal letter to the chief judge of the County on behalf of the boys.  The judge knew Mr. Denny personally and thought he was an upstanding and respected citizen and would not violate the law.  The Society persisted and demanded the release of the boys and they were set free.  Unfortunately with their parents in bondage, they could not care for them.  The young boys at the direction of the Ophans’ Court had them bound as apprentices and they learned the farming trade.

So it was the early years of the German Society that time was well spent in the protection of the redemptioners and immigrants.  After the law passed in 1818, abuses became less and less each year.  The Society took the position as overseer and certainly the appointment of the Register helped many avoid the earlier hardships of the redemptioners.  It wasn’t until the last two decades of the 1800’s that the Society would be called upon again…this time for the protection of those signing agreements to work with the oystermen of Baltimore.  But this is another story.

Although indentured service of this type ceased after the American Revolution, similar kinds of contract labor were widespread in the United States during periods of labor shortage until the passage of the Contract Labor Law of 1885.


[1] Galenson, David W. White Servitude in Colonial America: An Economic Analysis. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

[2] Maryland Archives, case of Henry Spinks from his deceased master’s, Nicholas Harvey’s estate.

[3] History of the German Society of Maryland, Compiled by Louis P. Hennighausen-1909-Published W.E. C. Harrison & Sons; 214 E. Baltimore Street

[4] Maryland Archives:  Vol. 1, September 1664.533, Assembly Proceedings, p. 29

[5] Maryland Archives, 1637-50, p. 132, 486

[6] History of the German Society of Maryland, Compiled by Louis P. Hennighausen-1909, p.42

[7] History of the German Society of Maryland, Compiled by Louis P. Hennighausen-1909, p. 43

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