A History of White Slavery in Pennsylvania

When we think about American slavery, our thoughts invariably turn to the cotton plantations of Dixie. Yet very few Pennsylvanians are aware that slavery existed in Pennsylvania as early as 1681 and was shamefully common until our state passed its first legislation toward abolition in 1780. However, this act of legislation was designed to gradually abolish slavery over several decades: Adult slaves were first liberated on July 4, 1827, and the children born before that date were to become free as they reached adulthood. From 1676 to 1776, it is estimated that three million men, women and children of all races, from every corner of the globe, were imported and sold as slaves in the United States.

In 1790, there were 3737 slaves in Pennsylvania. By 1840, that number would fall to 64 (see fig. 1). The last known slave in Pennsylvania was an African-American named Lawson Lee Taylor, who belonged to James Clark, of Donegal Township, Lancaster County.

Blacks weren't the only class held in servitude by Pennsylvanians, however. White slavery was carried on by "entrepreneurs" who called themselves Newlanders. These speculators ran vessels to European seaports and induced Europeans to emigrate to Pennsylvania, promising them a brighter future and a better way of life. During the voyage to America, these Europeans would be robbed of their money and beaten. They arrived by the boatload at the wharves of Philadelphia only to discover that they were penniless and alone in a strange country, unable to pay the ship's captain for the trans-Atlantic voyage.

Fig. 1, total number of slaves in Pennsylvania between 1790 and 1840

The brilliant scheme was that these Newlanders operated by exploiting a loophole in the judicial system; the penalty for not paying a debt to a sea captain was to be sold into slavery. This would be the only way that a "freeloading stowaway" could reimburse the shipping line and pay his debt to the ship's captain.  In this manner, Pennsylvania managed to legally procure slaves without arousing the ire of the judicial system.
The Newlanders consisted of the first German emigrants to Pennsylvania. After learning the language and the customs of Americans and saving up a small sum of money, Newlanders would return to Germany and display items of wealth to the peasants in their homeland. "I moved to America and look how successful I have become!" they would say, adding that the same wealth awaited them in Philadelphia. The Newlanders would receive from the owner or captain of the vessel a stipulated sum per passenger. The more Europeans a Newlander could get to sign up for the voyage, the more money the Newlander made. The Europeans were encouraged to bring as many of their possessions as they could.

Fig. 2, Number of slaves by state in 1776

Using his gift of gab, the Newlander ingratiated himself into the trust and confidence of the passengers and managed to secure their personal property by presenting them with a contract written in English, thus enabling the Newlander to more fully exploit his victim. When the vessel arrived in Philadelphia the list of passengers and their signed agreements would be presented to the merchants, with each contract rigged in such a way that the foreigner would be in debt to the ship's captain. The merchants advertised the slaves and the place of sale would be on the ship. By law, the purchasers would have to board the vessel to pick up their slave, and then legally bind the sales transaction before a magistrate. Unmarried and young people brought the best prices, of course, although the elderly and sick were sold with ease. Under the law, if the elderly passengers had healthy children, the children as well as their parents would be sold to pay off the debt to the captain. The pitch was essentially: "Purchase this old Bavarian and we'll throw in his three children for free." If the elderly didn;t not have any children, however, they would be turned loose into the streets to beg. As prisoners, the poor foreigners on board weren't allowed to go ashore until they paid their alleged debt, which, of course, they could never do. And it was all perfectly legal.

Of course, the state felt compelled to enact some sort of legislation protecting white slaves. One act, passed on April 8, 1785, was entitled: "An Act for establishing the office of a register of all German passengers who shall arrive at the port of Philadelphia, and of all indentures by which any of them shall be bound servants for their freight, and of the assignments of such servants in the city of Philadelphia". Under this act, the registrar was required to be fluent in both English and German and would be granted all the powers and authorities of a justice of the peace.

Another white slavery bill, passed on February 7, 1818, ordered the captain of a ship to give a bill of lading of merchandise to passengers, or else face a one hundred dollar penalty. Whenever passengers were sold into slavery, the transaction had to be acknowledged before the mayor of Philadelphia. Most importantly, this bill ordered that no family be broken up by slavery:

"but no master, captain, owner, or consignee of any ship or vessel shall separate any husband and wife, who came passengers in any ship or vessel, by disposing of them to different masters or mistresses, unless by mutual consent of such husband and wife; nor shall any passenger, without his or her consent, be disposed of to any person residing out of this Commonwealth, under the penalty of one hundred dollars."

The captains of these vessels, on the other hand, felt no need to abide by the law. They made more money out of the deaths of their passengers than they did from the living. They resorted to every cruel trick in the book to fleece their victims. One of these captains was John Stedman. In 1753, Stedman bought a license in Holland and began a career in the white slave trade. His cruelty was legendary; it has been written that, in less than one year, more than two thousand white slaves were thrown overboard.

History proves that many leading Philadelphia merchants- whose names now grace city streets, buildings and public parks- were engaged in this nefarious practice. City newspapers advertised "Redemptioners for Sale", drawing buyers from all parts of Pennsylvania. Astonishingly, this practice continued until July of 1842, when a law was passed abolishing imprisonment of those who could not pay their debts.


The Life of a White Slave

For many, the fate of being sold into white slavery was a fate worse than death. They received harsh beatings and punishment for even the most minor of offenses. Many were worked to death or died from insufficient food or exposure due to poor lodging. By many accounts, the life of a black slave was easier, because black slaves belonged to their masters for life- it was in a master's best financial interest to treat his slave well. White slaves, on the other hand, were "disposable". If you were to beat one to death, you could easily go to Philadelphia and pick up a new one for very little money.

"Their fellow black slave was often treated better, for he was a slave for life, and it was in the interest of the master to treat him well to preserve him, whilst the poor Redemptioner was a slave for a number of years only, and all his vital force was worked out of him during the years of his service."- William James McKnight, Pennsylvania Senator from 1881-1884

No public records were kept for these slaves, and in many cases neither they nor their masters knew the time of their expiration of service. As a result, these slaves were often kept in servitude long after the expiration of their contract time.

White slaves bought and sold in newspaper ads

They Came From All Over

In many states, white slaves had come principally from England and Ireland. The treatment of these slaves in America was so detestable that England adopted rigorous laws and measures for their protection. Newspaper articles were published throughout England warning poor people from entering into these contracts. Because England and Ireland were eager to stop the white slave trade, the demand for slaves increased. Merchants turned their attention to other sources, like Switzerland and Germany.

The Dutch, who had sent the first cargo of black slaves to America in 1620, soon discovered that it was less troublesome and equally as profitable to engage in white slavery. The shipping merchants of Holland would send regular agents, or "drummers", who received one-half of a doubloon for every white slave they shipped into the American colonies. These agents, much like the German Newlanders, would appear in gaudy dress and a flourish of wealth and rave about the superior living and working conditions in America. Unlike the Newlanders, however, the Dutch drummers told their victims that they didn't need any money for their passage; their fare would be paid by American businessmen who were desperate to hire them in their mills and factories. All they had to do was sign the contract (written in English, of course). In this manner they went from village to village, suckering the poor and ignorant and inducing them to follow him to America.

"Whenever such an agent had collected a sufficient number, he would take them personally to the shipping harbor in Holland. It was a gay crowd which travelled in this manner in wagons across the country. The horses and wagons were decorated with gay ribbons, and joyous songs were heard from the emigrants, who believed they were leaving toil and poverty to go to the fabulously rich America to enjoy the ease and plenty of this world's goods. This spirit was artificially kept up by the liberality of the agent until they were safely aboard the ship. From thence such a life of suffering, privation, and hardship commenced, that it seems incredible that the Christian nations of Europe and America should have permitted such a trade to flourish... The contracts... contained the proviso that if any passenger died on the voyage, the surviving members of the family, or the surviving Redemptioner passengers, would make good his loss. Thereby a wife who had lost her husband during the sea-voyage, or her children, on her arrival here would be sold for five years for her own voyage and additional five more years for the passage-money of her dead husband or dead children".- Louis Paul Hennighausen, 19th century lawyer, author and historian

Even more shameful was the policy that, if an entire family died during the voyage, the length of their "employment contract" would be added to the service time of the surviving passengers. The property of the deceased, naturally, would be confiscated and kept by the captain. By this, the shipping merchant and captain would gain more from the death of the passengers, as the dead did not require any food or provisions.

Life Aboard A White Slave Ship

Since the goal of the slave merchants was to cram as many passengers onto a ship as possible, overcrowding was par for the course. It has been written that these vessels were so overcrowded that many of the passengers had to live and sleep on the very deck of the ship. Christoph Sauer, in his petition to the Pennsylvania governor in 1775, stated that there was not more than 12 inches of room for each passenger, and that each passenger only received half of a day's rations of bread and water.

In 1752, Caspar Wistar, a glassmaker from Philadelphia and one of the first German colonists in America, wrote:

"Last year a ship was twenty-four weeks at sea, and of the one hundred and fifty passengers on board thereof more than one hundred died of hunger and privation, and the survivors were imprisoned and compelled to pay the entire passage-money for themselves and the deceased".

Sauer, who became the first German-born newspaper printer in America, estimated that, in 1758 alone, more than two thousand passengers on fifteen white slavery ships died during the voyage. In February of 1775 he published the following account in his newspaper:

"Another ship has arrived. Of the four hundred passengers, not more than fifty are reported alive. They received their bread every two weeks. Some ate their portion in four, five, and six days, which should have lasted fifteen days. If they received no cooked victuals in eight days, their bread gave out the sooner, and as they had to wait until the fifteen days were over, they starved, unless they had money with which to buy of the mate flour at three pence sterling a pound, and a bottle of wine for seven kopstick thalers."

Sauer also wrote of a man and woman who had crawled to the captain and begged him to throw them overboard, to relieve them of their misery. The ship's mate responded by giving them a bag filled with sand and coals. The man and his wife died from starvation before the next rations of bread were distributed. Nonetheless, the survivors were charged for the bread which the dead would have eaten if they had managed to survive.

Heinrich Keppele, who later became the first president of the German Society of Pennsylvania, wrote in his diary that of the 312 passengers on the ship he arrived on, 250 died during the voyage.

Because detailed records weren't kept in Pennsylvania (at least not until 1785), there is no way of knowing how many white slaves were sold in Pennsylvania, but we do know that they numbered around 50,000 in Virginia. The trafficking of white slaves in Pennsylvania continued until 1831, when public sentiment compelled it to be outlawed for good.


A Pioneer Outline History of Northwestern Pennsylvania, William J. McKnight, 1905. Philadelphia. J.B. Lippincott Co.
Reminiscences of the Political Life of the German Americans, Louis P. Hennighausen, 1860.
History of the German Society of Maryland, Louis P. Hennighausen, 1887.

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