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Trade in Strangers: The Beginnings of Mass Migration to North America

Author(s):Wokeck, Marianne S.
Reviewer(s):Wegge, Simone A.

Published by EH.NET (October 2001)

Marianne S. Wokeck, Trade in Strangers: The Beginnings of Mass Migration to

North America. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press,

1999. xxx + 319 pp. $60.00 (cloth), ISBN: 0-271-01832-1; $21.50 (paper), ISBN:


Reviewed for EH.NET by Simone A. Wegge, College of Staten Island – City

University of New York.

Trade in Strangers presents an in-depth account of two prominent

migration movements to the British colonies in the eighteenth century, one

from the southwest area of Germany and another from Ireland. Most of the book

discusses the larger emigration of Germans from the Palatinate region to

Philadelphia. A whole chapter, however, is devoted to the smaller emigration

of Irish from the Ulster ports and from the southern area of Ireland, who also

landed and presumably settled in the Delaware Valley region. This work

contributes to our understanding of the nature of transactions in the business

of overseas transportation of these emigrant groups.

Wokeck’s historiographical approach is a valuable one. Emigrants leaving from

southwest Germany through Holland to the American colonies ventured through

three distinct regions with three distinct languages. To tell this story,

Wokeck has gathered evidence from primary sources scattered among various

British, Canadian, Dutch, German, and American archives and libraries. Only a

historian versed in the Dutch, English and German languages and armed with

tenacity could accomplish such a carefully researched chronicle. Particularly

in the case of the German emigrants, her account makes use of archival

documents from the emigrants’ homelands, the places through which they

journeyed and finally the places in which they settled.

Germans who made the audacious decision to leave their homeland were

successful largely because of a transportation network that arose among ship

owners and merchants in Rotterdam, London, and Pennsylvania. Ship owners in

the business of transporting goods from the colonies to Europe were happy to

find ways to charge for space on the return voyage, space that otherwise would

have been empty. Irish emigrants seem to have had an easier time of migrating

than these Germans, because they lived close to ports and thus existing

information and trade networks between Ireland and North America — “no new

transportation system had to be invented” (p. 218). Further, a more direct

trade network between Irish merchants and businesspeople all over the colonies

provided a wider variety of destination choices for the Irish, and resulted in

an immigrant population much more spread out than the German immigrants who

mostly ended up in Pennsylvania.

One of the main contributions of Wokeck’s work is her vivid account of exactly

how migrants moved from their homelands to ports and then to Pennsylvania. As

fruit of an incredible amount of detective work, Wokeck provides all kinds of

information on the voyages of the German and Irish emigrants bound for the

colonies. Included are ship names, ship captains, merchants, tonnage,

disembarkation port, and dates of departure and arrival. From this she

estimates the likely number of emigrants who landed at various ports and

argues persuasively that her new estimates of German and Irish immigrants to

the British colonies are the most accurate.

Even more interesting from an economic standpoint is what one learns about the

various business incentives and perspectives of all players involved,

including passengers, ship captains, ship owners, middlemen, merchants in

Holland, England and Pennsylvania, and established immigrants in Pennsylvania.

Wokeck carefully explores the incentives of these participants in the

trans-Atlantic passenger market. The details supplied pay off in the analysis

of how contracts and trading methods evolved over time, some of which

transferred risk from transportation providers to purchasers of indenture

contracts or improved the welfare of passengers en route.

Most immigrants arranged for travel with long-term players in the market.

Wokeck has described many of these businesses in detail and accounted for

their share of the market. There were many short-term transportation

providers, mostly businesspeople who tried it once and who were more than

happy to make off with as much money from the emigrants as possible. Those in

the business of shipping passengers for the long term, usually businesspeople

with large interests in the business of importing and exporting goods, had

reputations they wanted to protect. Such individuals and firms tended to have

a greater incentive to make sure that the emigrants’ experiences were

successful, particularly when their profits were tied to the money from

indentured servitude contracts.

Over time, more and more emigrants showed up in Rotterdam and in Irish ports

without the cash resources to pay for their passage. Credit arrangements

evolved to provide the financing such that emigrants could arrange to pay

outstanding balances upon arrival in the British colonies. Emigrants then used

various methods, selling goods from Europe, using money from a relative or

friend at the destination or selling the rights to their labor for a specified

amount of time.

Wokeck’s work helps us to understand the self-selection aspects of emigrants,

how the early waves were a different subset of the general population than the

later waves. In the early decades of the German emigration, most left in

family groups and paid the transportation costs with personal funds.

Gradually, more Germans left without family members and also without the

financial resources to pay the transportation costs. Irish emigrant cohorts

changed over time in similar ways. Overall, however, Irish emigrants were more

likely than German emigrants were to finance the trip up front. Contract

prices differed, depending on gender, nationality and skill. Here a reference

to other work in the literature on the econometric and multivariate analysis

of indenture values would have been useful.

Interesting work typically provokes new questions and in turn suggests new

projects for future research. I describe here just two examples. Wokeck’s

findings suggest that successive emigrant cohorts relied increasingly on

previous migrants in the colonies who were family members or friends. More

people moved to North America once family and friends who could help finance

the move existed at the destination. This suggests that chain migration

effects were important in generating more migration and helping the later

arrivals to afford it. An issue for future consideration would be to show this

more specifically by demonstrating numerous links between old and new

immigrants as a percentage of all immigrants. It is important because the

explanation of financing for many immigrants, namely through reliance on

family and friends, rests on the assumption that many family connections

existed between new and old immigrants.

Secondly, and at the risk of asking that Wokeck’s work be all things to all

people, I believe that the author could have incorporated more of the recent

research on eighteenth century labor contracts. In particular, readers would

have welcomed more discussion from Wokeck about where she stands on the debate

concerning the demise in the early nineteenth century of the indentured

servitude contract. Rightly so, as Wokeck explains, the institution of prepaid

tickets was a typical way to pay for overseas migration in the nineteenth

century. Migration scholars, however, are more confident of this for the

latter part of the century, especially in regards to German emigrant

populations. It would also help readers to appreciate more fully Wokeck’s

argument that nineteenth century migration institutions were similar to those

developed in the eighteenth century.

Trade in Strangers introduces many new findings on the migration of

Germans and Irish from Europe to the British colonies. In particular,

carefully researched emigration flow series are presented. From her

microeconomic analysis of the market for overseas transportation we learn a

great deal about the nature of various contracts used by emigrants to achieve

their migration goals. Wokeck’s work is an important contribution to the

literature and valuable reading for anyone doing research in similar areas.

Simone A. Wegge’s research focuses on migration decisions in nineteenth

century European migration. Her recent work includes “Chain Migration and

Information Networks: Evidence from Nineteenth-Century Hesse-Cassel,”

Journal of Economic History, 1998); and “To Part or Not to Part:

Emigration and Inheritance Institutions in Mid-Nineteenth Century Germany,”

Explorations in Economic History, 1999); as well as a chapter on female

migrants in Women, Gender and Labour Migration: Historical and Global

Perspectives, edited by Pamela Sharpe (Routledge, 2001).

Subject(s):Servitude and Slavery
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century