A Trip Down the Rhine, part 2


Most emigrants were well aware of the difficulties and dangers of crossing the Atlantic to Philadelphia in the 18th century. The early refugees literally took their lives in hand when the boarded an English ship for the two, three, or even four month crossing. Pirates, storms, and shipwreck were no idle threats, but most who perished lost their lives to starvation, rations of spoiled food, or disease from water barrels filled at polluted wells.
Interestingly, it didn’t need to be that way. The Moravians operated a snow (type of ship) named the Irene that transported thousands of passengers and lost only two and both of those to natural causes.
In any case, the crossing was the last leg of a three-part trip that started months before. The second leg was the crossing from Rotterdam to England which could take eight days with good winds or a month with bad. Pennsylvania was an English colony, so all commerce from Europe had to depart from an English port. But the initial stage, the trip down the Rhine, would make today’s air travel travails seem a cake-walk.
Goschenhoppen researcher Arthur Lawton writes, “Aggravating as it was, river travel was preferred to road travel which for emigrating families was generally difficult, slow and dangerous, subject to thieves, lacking amenities for travelers and subject to tariffs, city gates that closed at sundown and the whims of the local ruling nobility.
“Early Modern Germany was not a united entity, but rather a crazy quilt of political jurisdictions that interacted in an unfathomably tangled web of locally generated and defined relationships. There was no single over-arching state.”
The river passenger migrated through a multitude of petty jurisdictions, often in the hands of lesser local powers, both ecclesiastical and secular. Gottlieb Mittelberger, who was in 1750 the school master at Trappe, wrote that it took seven weeks from the time he left his home until he sailed for England to begin the transatlantic crossing.
There were a multitude of currencies along the river, and one author notes that in the eighteenth century a family of emigrants traveling from Mannheim (on the Upper Rhine)to Rotterdam (mouth of the Rhine) had to pass through eighteen customs posts along the way. Tolls were levied on all traffic passing through these territories.
Mittelberger tells us that the time for the river trip from Heilbronn on the Neckar (river) and down the Rhine was lengthened by thirty six customs stations on the way. “The cause is because the Rhine boats from Heilbronn to Holland have to pass by 36 custom-houses, at which all the ships are examined, which is done when it suits the convenience of the custom-house officials. In the meantime the ships with the people are detained long, so that the passengers have to spend much money.”
Lawton observes that a particularly burdensome and restrictive measure was the Stapelrecht or staple right. Certain towns along the river had a right to demand that any boat carrying commercial goods stop for three days and offer their goods for sale. This was even imposed on goods that had already been contracted for at their destination. In addition at these staple ports all goods that did not constitute a full boatload had to be off-loaded from the arriving boat and loaded on the next available boat to continue.
All boatmen were guild members. Because the river channel changed so frequently local knowledge was essential for riverboat navigation. This gave the local boatmen guilds a good degree of control over river traffic. The upper reaches of the Rhine were in the control of the Cologne boatmen, the middle predominately under the control of the Mainz, and the delta approaching Rotterdam the Dutch.
Again Lawton writes, “Passage down the Rhine for emigrating families had to have been frequently frustrating and stressful, especially in light of the cost incurred in time and money for boat passage, tolls, customs, inspections, Staplerecht delays, transferring from boat to boat and the ever present need to purchase food along the way. This was simply a pre-curser for stages two and three of the overall journey, the channel crossing and the Atlantic crossing.”
Generally the whole trip took about a half year. They left home in the spring, commonly April or May, left England in June, and arrived, if they were lucky, in Philadelphia in August or September.
One researcher calculated the cost for an adult making the trip to be in the neighborhood of $8,000 in today’s money.
Next week part 3