Cover image for Souls for Sale: Two German Redemptioners Come to Revolutionary America Edited by Susan E. Klepp, Farley Grubb, and Anne Pfaelzer de Ortiz

Souls for Sale

Two German Redemptioners Come to Revolutionary America

Edited by Susan E. Klepp, Edited by Farley Grubb, and Anne Pfaelzer de Ortiz


$111.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-02881-1

$38.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-02882-8

288 pages
6.125" × 9.25"
5 b&w illustrations/1 map

Max Kade Research Institute: Germans Beyond Europe

Souls for Sale

Two German Redemptioners Come to Revolutionary America

Edited by Susan E. Klepp, Edited by Farley Grubb, and Anne Pfaelzer de Ortiz

“This volume will not only serve scholars of early American history and culture as key source material in the interpretation of the immigrant experience, but it should become assigned reading for American history or literature courses from the survey course up.”


  • Description
  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects
In 1773, John Frederick Whitehead and Johann Carl Büttner, two adolescent Germans, were placed on board the same ship headed to colonial America. With few options in Germany, each had been recruited by the labor contractors known popularly as soulsellers—men who traded in human cargo. On arrival in America they were sold to different masters, and, years later, each wrote a memoir of his experiences. These two autobiographies are valuable historical records of immigrant attitudes, perceptions, and goals. Despite their shared voyage to America and similar condition as servants, their backgrounds and personalities differed. Their divergent interpretations of their experiences provide rich firsthand insights into the transatlantic migration process, work and opportunity in colonial America, and the fates of former bound servants.

Souls for Sale presents these parallel accounts—Whitehead's published for the first time—to illustrate the condition of German redemptioners and to examine the religious, economic, familial, and literary contexts that shaped their memoirs. The editors provide helpful introductions to the works as well as notes to guide the reader.

“This volume will not only serve scholars of early American history and culture as key source material in the interpretation of the immigrant experience, but it should become assigned reading for American history or literature courses from the survey course up.”

Susan E. Klepp is Professor of History at Temple University and Affiliated Professor of Women's Studies and African American Studies.

Farley Grubb is Professor of Economics and History at the University of Delaware.

Anne Pfaelzer de Ortiz is an independent researcher and freelance writer.



List of Illustrations and Maps

General Introduction: German Immigration to Early America

Part I: John Frederick Whitehead

1. Introduction: Understanding the World of John Frederick Whitehead

2. The Life of John Frederick Whitehead Containing His Travels and Chief Adventures

Part II: Johann Carl Büttner

3. Introduction: On the Trail of Johann Carl Büttner

4. Narrative of Johann Carl Büttner in the American Revolution



General Introduction

German Immigration to Early America

While still in their teens, John Frederick Whitehead and Johann Carl Büttner independently migrated alone out of Germany and took ship to Philadelphia in 1773, where they worked as bound servant laborers in the nearby countryside for a number of years . By chance they traveled to America on the same ship. There is no indication that they knew about, met, or corresponded with each other before or after the voyage. Their fates post-servitude diverged substantially. Later in life both set down their memoirs. Despite experiencing the same voyage to America and similar working conditions as servants in America, their personal perspectives and interpretations of what they experienced are vastly different. These two narratives, Whitehead’s published here for the first time, provide a rare glimpse into the transatlantic migration process and servant labor experience of Germans immigrating to colonial America. Currently, these are the only known first-hand accounts by Germans who migrated as servants.

The broad contexts within which Whitehead’s and Büttner’s experiences are set, including the quantitative dimensions of German transatlantic migration and emigration out of Germany, the nexus of contractual relationships in the transatlantic passenger and servant business, and the use of autobiography as a communicative device, are presented in this introduction. How representative their experiences were is also assessed. Separate introductions dealing specifically with Whitehead and Büttner as individuals precede each narrative.

Quantitative Dimensions

John Frederick Whitehead (1757-1815) and Johann Carl Büttner (1754-182?) were part of a substantial German exodus to 18th-century America. Knowing the quantitative dimensions of this exodus will help place their narratives in context. Germans comprised the largest non-British European migration to British colonial America. Just over 108,000 arrived between 1720 and 1775 with about 80,000 of those landing in Philadelphia. By comparison, the export of British convicts to all of colonial America between 1718 and 1775—roughly half of all English arrivals—was only 50,000, and Irish migration to the Delaware Valley between 1730 and 1774 was only 52,000. From the end of the Revolution to 1820 another 21,000 to 25,000 Germans crossed the Atlantic and landed in Philadelphia.

The typical German migrant to colonial America followed the Rhine into the Netherlands, embarked at Rotterdam, cleared English customs at Cowes on the Isle of Wight, debarked at Philadelphia, and settled in Pennsylvania and eastern New Jersey. Between 1727 and 1775 roughly 90 percent of the Germans debarking in Philadelphia had embarked at Rotterdam. Between 1763 and 1775 roughly 67 percent of these ships from Rotterdam cleared English customs at Cowes and 28 percent cleared English customs at Portsmouth. The volume of migration, however, fluctuated over time. Between 1727 and 1748 about 1,200 Germans landed in Philadelphia each year. This migration peaked between 1749 and 1755 with an average of just over 6,500 landing per year in Philadelphia. By 1760 slightly less than half of Pennsylvania’s population was thought to be of German ethnicity. German immigration fell off sharply during the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), and then resumed thereafter at roughly 1,000 landing per year in Philadelphia through 1774. German migration to America between 1765 and 1775 peaked in 1773—the year Whitehead and Büttner arrived in Philadelphia—with about 1,800 landing in Philadelphia that year. Immigration ceased during the Revolution and then continued at a smaller pace thereafter—averaging 650 landing per year in Philadelphia between 1785 and 1808. By the 1790 census, a third of Pennsylvania’s population was reported to be of German ethnicity. Between 1809 and 1815 German immigration to America again dropped off to almost nothing, but another spurt averaging just over 2,000 landing per year in Philadelphia occurred between 1816 and 1819.

The volume of ships arriving with German passengers and the voyage conditions experienced by Germans crossing the Atlantic also varied over the colonial era. From 1727 through 1749 and from 1763 through 1769 an average of 5 to 8 ships arrived in Philadelphia each year carrying around 180 German passengers each. From 1750 through 1754 these yearly averages rose to 18 ships carrying 300 passengers each, declining for 1770 through 1774 to 9 ships carrying 98 passengers each. German passenger ships carried on average about one passenger per measured ton of shipping, except during the peak migration years such as in 1750-1754 when passengers per ton were temporarily higher. Most ship captains who participated in the German passenger trade did so only once. Out of 317 voyages between 1727 and 1775 with 190 captains known to have landed German passengers in Philadelphia, only ten ship captains made more than five voyages each with German passengers. The typical length of time at sea from Rotterdam to Philadelphia was between eight and ten weeks, though on rare and unlucky occasions a ship could be over six months at sea. Finally, while considerable variation by voyage and across ships occurred, on average 3.6 percent of the adult male German passengers died during the voyage. An additional 3.5 percent arrived too sick to immediately walk off the boat in Philadelphia. By contrast, the British transatlantic slave trade to Virginia in this period averaged 1.44 enslaved individuals per measured ton of shipping and the voyage mortality for slaves was between 10 and 15 percent.

The voyage from Rotterdam to Philadelphia (clearing English customs at Portsmouth) that Whitehead and Büttner experienced in 1773 on the Ship Sally was typical in some respects but atypical in other respects for that period, which should be kept in mind when assessing their narratives of the journey. Approximately 210 passengers were landed off their ship in Philadelphia. The ship was rated at about 213 measured tons (150 registered tons), thus yielding a (landed) passenger per measured ton ratio of 0.99 on their voyage. Their ship captain, John Osmon, was experienced in the trade, having made at least five prior voyages from Rotterdam to Philadelphia with German passengers using the same ship—one with even more passengers landed (in 1767) than on the voyage with Whitehead and Büttner. Whitehead’s and Büttner’s narratives indicate that the length of time they spent at sea, estimated to be at least 17 weeks, and the voyage mortality on their ship, estimated to be maybe as high as 15 to 25 percent, were both well above the average experienced in this trade.

The key demographic characteristic distinguishing German and British immigration to colonial America was the relatively high proportion of families among the Germans. Under 10 percent of English migrants to Pennsylvania were married persons and dependent children whereas between 51 and 72 percent of German migrants to Pennsylvania were either married persons or dependent children. Surviving passenger ship lists for the years 1730 to 1750 also indicate a high degree of kinship or coincidence of last names among German passengers on a typical voyage, with about 17 percent of all men having the same last name as at least one other man listed next to their name on their ship’s passenger list. Finally, German immigrants were relatively educated and literate—roughly 80 percent of the adult males after 1750 could sign their names in German. Whitehead and Büttner were typical German immigrants in that they were educated and literate in German, but their narratives and the surviving passenger list for their ship indicate that they, and their voyage, were atypical in that neither Whitehead nor Büttner were related to anyone else on their ship nor were there as many family or kinship groups among their fellow passengers relative to what was typical in the German passenger trade.

When German immigrants debarked in Philadelphia, the principal port of arrival in America, they entered not only one of the largest English-speaking cities in the Atlantic world (but still small compared with London), they also entered a deadlier disease environment (for them) than they had left in Europe. Immigrants were especially at risk during the first year after their arrival both because the arduous transatlantic voyage compromised the health of many new arrivals and because immigrants had not yet built up immunities to the particular strains of diseases they would face in the New World—a process called seasoning. Between 1727 and 1754, 3.5 percent of German adult male passengers arrived too sick to immediately walk off the ship in Philadelphia. In some years, such as 1727, 1735, and 1743, this rate was higher—between 8.5 and 11.0 percent. The crude death rate (deaths per 1,000 individuals per year) between 1738 and 1762 for German immigrants during their first year in Philadelphia has been estimated to be around 61.4. In some years, such as 1738, 1741, and 1754, it was much higher, 105, 182, and 105, respectively. By contrast the crude death rate for the resident population in Philadelphia for these years averaged 37, with the rate being above 60 only in 1759.

While Whitehead’s and Büttner’s narratives indicate that they suffered and witnessed others suffering illness during their voyage, neither mention illness-related health problems at debarkation, and Büttner mentions nothing about illness-related health problems post-debarkation. Whitehead, on the other hand, mentions suffering from significant health problems during his first year or so after arrival—serious enough that his master lost a substantial amount of Whitehead’s labor work time. As such, Whitehead’s and Büttner’s narratives seem representative of what German immigrants were likely to experience health-wise upon debarkation and shortly thereafter.

The Context of Emigration out of Germany

John Frederick Whitehead’s and Johann Carl Büttner’s immigration to British North America came at a time when migration seemed to be a leitmotif in German-speaking principalities, duchies, and kingdoms. Many indigenous factors are thought to have contributed to emigration out of central Germany. In general, German lands were poorer than other Central European regions and many people still suffered from religious persecution. Poverty was the consequence of a variety of causes: the lingering aftereffects of the Thirty Years War, a heavy load of intrusive bureaucracies and high taxes, rapidly rising populations, natural harvest failures caused by draught, and incessant wars that led to death, disease, and the destruction of property and crops. Inheritance laws in some Germanic areas that disallowed the division of property and favored the eldest son were another important factor that contributed to creating a steady flow of emigrants from German lands in the 18th century. Rising urbanization that was faster than the natural rate of increase meant that internal migration—rural to urban—had to be increasing. This in turn may have also made the next step of external emigration psychologically easier. Finally, religious freedom, while a minor theme by the 18th century, was still significant. The major Christian dominations—Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed—were mutually intolerant. Minority faiths—Mennonite, Amish, Moravian, and other pietist sects—had little or no protection under the laws of any European state. Both religious persecution and persistent poverty caused thousands of people to migrate.

Interestingly, Whitehead’s and Büttner’s narratives say little about these larger issues. As they relate it, the circumstances leading to their decisions to emigrate appear far more haphazard, accidental, and personally idiosyncratic than the presence of these larger forces would suggest. Apparently, wanderlust, uniquely personal family issues, and the accident of circumstance were also important determinants of who emigrated overseas, where they emigrated overseas, and who stayed in Germany.

In 18th-century Germanic states, patriarchal family structures predominated both by law and by custom. Fathers ruled over their wives and children. The urge to migrate was often affected by family considerations. Büttner’s and Whitehead’s family background and the role it played in their migration decision, however, could not be more dissimilar. Büttner came from an intact nuclear family with many siblings. His father appeared to be loving and indulgent—disapproving of but allowing his son to indulge his wanderlust. By contrast, Whitehead came from a broken home with a violent and overbearing stepfather who also did not protect Whitehead from abuse by others. While Whitehead’s desire to migrate can be viewed as having a strong push component—a desire to escape his family circumstances and to assimilate in his adopted country, Büttner’s desire to migrate can be viewed as having a strong pull component—the lure of riches and adventure just over the horizon trumping his comfortable family circumstances while his connections to family eventually pulled him back to Saxony. The different family backgrounds may also partly explain the rather dissimilar interpretations and post-servitude outcomes expressed and experienced by Büttner and Whitehead. But, as these two narratives illustrate, while family background was important to migration, that importance was complex and varied. Family circumstances were not a uniquely uniform determinant or causal force in the decision to migrate.

The attraction of America as a destination for German emigration was fairly insignificant—more of a sideshow than a prominent lure. Internal migration within Germany, seasonal and permanent labor migration to the Netherlands, recruitment by the Dutch East India Company (Verenigde Nederlandse Geoctroyeerde Oostindische Compaigne or VOC) for workers on their ships going to, and in their settlements in, the East Indies (Indonesia), and migration to lands in Eastern Europe and Russia involved substantially more German emigrants than did emigration to America. David Eltis concluded that for “every German that moved to the Americas, nine migrated in the opposite direction.”

German emigration to America in the 18th century was only about a fifth or less of that going to Eastern Europe. One of the most significant population shifts from 18th-century Germany was the migration southeast to the Balkans, east to Hungary, Poland, and the Crimea, but predominantly north and east into Russia, where Germans became the majority of new settlers. Attracted by Catherine the Second’s lenient immigration policy for Germans and her promise to grant religious tolerance, German settlers came in the thousands to homestead in Russia. Empress Catherine the Great intended to increase the population and tax revenues in her empire and promote her own ethnic stock by giving settlement priority to the allegedly hard-working Germans. Thus between 1764 and 1774 over one hundred German colonies were founded in the middle and lower Volga Region. These were in addition to the 100,000 Germans who already lived in the Russian empire by the mid-18th century.

The VOC, using recruiting agents that scoured Germany, sent many Germans overseas to work in the East Indies. The numbers they recruited at times rivaled those migrating to Eastern Europe, as in the decade surrounding Whitehead and Büttner emigration out of Germany. The likelihood of running into a recruiter for the VOC in Germany was far greater than running into a recruiter for emigrant shippers headed to America. Finally, the volume of internal and seasonal labor migration within Germany and into the Netherlands appears to have been at least several multiples or more of the number of Germans migrating to the East or being recruited by the VOC.

In this historical context, Whitehead’s and Büttner’s narratives are illustrative of the larger issues in German emigration. Both came from areas experiencing economic decline. Both engaged in substantial internal migration within greater Germany before being lured by the fabled riches of the East Indies. They both end up in Northern Germany where VOC agents recruit them. While in Germany the possibility of emigration to America was not their overriding intent. Even while in Amsterdam seeking a position with the VOC, they do not mention America. Only at the very end of their European adventure, when employment by the VOC does not materialize, does America seriously enter the picture. America appears as a minor sideshow with little inherent attraction, a last minute outlet for dashed hopes, a hazily conceptualized place with only some vague prior consciousness for each of them. As such, their narratives are an important corrective to the literature on German emigration to America, a literature that perhaps too often presents America as the obvious and only intended choice for emigrants who ended up in America—seemingly having chosen America before they even considered leaving home for the first time.

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