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'Souls for Sale,' memoirs of early German immigrants

5:14 p.m., Nov. 10, 2006--In 1773, two young German immigrants, John Frederick Whitehead and Johann Carl BŁttner, boarded the Sally in Rotterdam and sailed to Philadelphia as bound servants, or redemptioners, to seek their fortunes in America. Both wrote memoirs in their later years, which are now being published in a new book, Souls for Sale: Two German Redemptioners Come to Revolutionary America, edited by Farley Grubb, UD professor of economics, with coeditors Susan Klepp from Temple University and Anne de Ortiz.

What makes these memoirs important from a historical point of view is that these memoirs are by German immigrants of the servant class, which is very unusual, Grubb said. Most existing memoirs are by English immigrants or by more affluent Germans.

The amazing coincidence is that they sailed to America together and must have known each other and started their new lives in America at the same time, although they took widely divergent paths, Grubb said.

BŁttner's odyssey, which was written in German, has been published in Germany and in a very limited edition in the United States. Whitehead's memoir, on the other hand, is in English and has been handed down from father to son for generations but never has been published.

John Frederick Whitehead IV, a descendent of the original John Whitehead, contacted the Pennsylvania State University Press about publishing the memoir, and Grubb, whose expertise is in early immigration to America, was asked to authenticate the manuscript.

“I already was familiar with BŁttner's story, and I was able to compare details of life on board, the general milieu in which the men found themselves, check out records and determine that Whitehead's manuscript was a genuine and important document,” Grubb said.

Author Farley Grubb, UD professor of economics
The decision was made to publish both memoirs with detailed introductions and notes by the editors, putting the narratives into historical context.

As the editors wrote in the preface, “...the individual voice of the narrator provides the information that cannot be gleaned from official documents and general surveys of the importance of bound labor in the development of the British Empire and the early American republic. Coincidence, serendipity--call it what you will--we have here a remarkable opportunity. Two narratives by German immigrant servants...have survived and become available for examination.”

Both men, while seeking their fortunes, became indebted to the Dutch East India Company, which lured them with tales of riches in Indonesia and but instead sent them to America. The popular name of those engaged in this practice was “soul sellers,” hence, the title of the book, Grubb said. Redemptioners were not indentured servants, the difference being that redemptioners negotiated their own contracts to pay off debts, while indentured servants were sold into servitude by the shipper, Grubb said.

The personalities of the two young men and the lives they led were quite different. BŁttner was an optimist who viewed life as a glass half full, and his life would make a good plot for a mini-series, Grubb said. After some years as a servant, even running away one time, he became a soldier during the Revolutionary War, changing sides as fate directed from being a revolutionary to a Hessian soldier and back again, even playing dead a few times when the occasion demanded. He became a barber surgeon and eventually returned with the Hessians to Germany and his family, married and became quite prosperous.

Whitehead was the opposite, more introspective and emotional, viewing life as a glass half empty, Grubb said. He was mistreated by his stepfather and basically had no family ties when he left Germany. When he landed in Philadelphia, there seemed to be few takers for him as a servant. Calling himself a “poor distressed looking object” he wrote “none seemed to fancy me.” Finally he was chosen and he agreed to six and a half years of servitude to have his debts paid off. His narrative lists an account of his “disasters and infirmities” and he laments his “ignorance of the English tongue” because his master's family laughed at him. He eventually settled in Ohio as a weaver but never really prospered.

Grubb worked on the book while on sabbatical at Harvard University, where he received an American Philosophical Society Sabbatical Fellowship grant. This year, he received the Lerner Outstanding Scholar Award from UD's Lerner College of Business and Economics and he received the college's outstanding teaching award in 1994. He serves on the editorial board of Explorations in Economic History. A graduate of the University of Washington in Seattle with master's and doctoral degrees in economics from the University of Chicago, Grubb joined the UD faculty in 1983. He has served as visiting professor of economics at the University of Illinois, at the Universite Lumiere Lyon 2 and at the University of Paris X.

Article by Sue Moncure
Photo by Kathy F. Aktinson

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