March 3, 2008
Last October I took a cruise down the Rhine River from Basel, Switzerland to Antwerp, Belgium. The major purpose of the trip was to trace the journey Joseph Leisey took at age 14 in 1768, as an indentured servant on his way to boarding a ship from Rotterdam to Philadelphia in the Colony of Pennsylvania. Joseph is the first known Leisey to have arrived in the Colonies.
Prior to the cruise, I spent two days in Basel, Switzerland at a university library trying to determine what the conditions were that motivated Joseph to make the journey at such a young age. Since I do not speak German, I hired two university students who were proficient in German and English to help me with the research. It was determined, after going through numerous documents, that there were two major conditions which might have influenced Joseph's family to allow him to leave home at such a young age:
1. Louis XIV of France destroyed a large portion of the German Palatinate during the Thirty Year War, also known as the Palatinate War of Succession. Even long after the Thirty Year War, residents of the Palatinate were still suffering economically as late as 1768 when Joseph left the area for the Colonies.
2. The Protestant Reformation was still taking place and many emerging religions were being persecuted not only by the Catholics, but also by the followers of the Protestant Reformation who were divided into "church" and "sect" people.
Upon my return home I did further research and found following in the book, WHITE SERVITUDE IN PENNSYLVANIA by Dr. Cheesman A. Herrick, "The number of sect adherents was large, and they did not wholly escape persecution at the hands of their fellow Protestants, much less from the Catholics. Sect peoples wandered out in little groups and, with a devotion to their religious opinions as intense as was that of the Puritans, braved the dangers of the deep and faced the uncertainties of a home in the wilderness that these opinions might be cherished and nurtured."
Many persecuted religions throughout Europe and well as in the Palatinate were notified by William Penn after he had received a land grant from the English Crown to pay off a debt to his father. Penn named the new Colony, Pennsylvania, which means Penn's Woods. Penn, a devout Quaker, who had experienced his share of persecution in England, planned his "holy experiment" and established a colony, Pennsylvania, in which religious toleration would be the order of the day. Penn advertised throughout Europe and in the Rhine Valley for immigrants to settle in Pennsylvania to practice their religions without persecution and harassment. Many religions such as the Amish, Mennonites, Reformed, Moravians, Schwenkfelders, Brethren and others were fleeing their homes in Germany to escape poverty and oppression and seek a safe place to live and practice their religions.
Throughout my trip I tried to think of what might have been going through Joseph's mind as he journeyed down the Rhine River. For his passage, Joseph probably worked his way down the Rhine River on a merchant barge carrying produce, wheat, and other items to the various towns along the way. In 1768, as a 14 year old youth, who probably never traveled any distance before, Joseph must have been thinking about what life would be like in the Colonies if he were fortunate to make it that far alive. He also must have been very sad about leaving his family and friends, and knowing that he might never see them again.
Joseph must have enjoyed the beautiful scenery along the Rhine River, especially the castles on the hill sides which were damaged as a result of the Thirty Year War. He must have seen a more pristine, undeveloped and uncommercialized Rhine River Valley than there is today. He also made many more stops than I did because boats leaving the Palatinate at that time were required to stop and pay customs at thirty-six towns before reaching Rotterdam.
Joseph probably met a ship captain in Rotterdam who secured him as a redemptioner, (indentured servant) to cover the expense of the passage to Philadelphia. According to Duncan Clarke in A NEW WORLD: The history of Immigration into the United States, "In the days before slaves, the early colonists relied on indentured servants to do much of the menial work. These were people who wanted to escape poverty and oppression in Europe, but were too poor to pay the passage across the Atlantic. The contract would bind them for usually between three and seven years in return for their passage and board and eventually on the expiry of the contract, a small plot of land." Most of the redemptioners, indentured servants, were agricultural laborers, but Joseph Leisey was fortunate because his master, John Bucher taught him the art of weaving.
If you haven't taken a cruise down the Rhine River, I would highly recommend the trip because the Rhine is a beautiful river with wonderful vistas and interesting history, topography and villages throughout the journey. It is also one of the most heavily commercially navigated rivers in Europe. It was interesting stopping in many of the towns and cities along the Rhine, including: Strasbourg, the capital of Alsace, France; Brisach with views of the Black Forest through the Rhine Valley to the Vosges Mountains in France; Heidelberg a university town since 1386 and the icon of the German romantic period; Rudesheim the home to a number of castles including the beautiful old castle, Ehrenfels; Cologne, the fourth largest city in Germany and known as the cathedral city. We also visited Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Brugge and Antwerp before departing the boat. It was a wonderful trip and made me appreciate just a small part of Joseph Leisey's journey to the American Colony of Pennsylvania.
Donald E. Leisey, Ed.D.
23 Peacock Drive
San Rafael, CA 94901