Published March 13, 2017

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“Roots & Branches” rarely wades into political waters and, actually, even though the column will mention some folks in government, it’s merely for example and not meant as political.

When Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson called African-Americans brought in bondage to North America “immigrants” with hopes and dreams, he created a bit of controversy.

Now, technically, “immigrant” is defined as “a person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country” but in common usage the phrase “without being kidnapped and forcibly transported” normally would be in mind when the term is used.

Even those whites who came to America as indentured servants in the 18th and early 19th centuries did so of their own free will.

In addition, genealogy scholars such as Marianne Wokeck (author of Trade in Strangers about the business in transporting people – mostly Germans – in the 1700s) have shown that in many cases indenturing was a conscious strategy by a family. Wokeck has noted that families would be able to indenture their teenage children (considered the most valuable servants) to pay for the voyage of the entire family.

Other researchers believe that while about a third of 18th century German immigrants could not pay for their passages up front, only about one in 10 actually served an indenture when accounting on individuals whose passage was paid upon arrival by previously arrived family members or people from the same village of origin (Scholar Aaron Fogleman has put out the theory that many of those who actually served an indenture and came as single people never reintegrated into society or had children … meaning that probably far fewer people actually have indentured ancestry than who claim to have it).

Another interesting facet of this is that while “illegal immigration” as such didn’t exist before the 1900s – in its nation-building process, free labor was often in short supply and therefore immigrants were welcomed – the concept of illegal emigration was a big thing.

At its barest, the people of nearly all of the German states were not free to exit their states without permission from their lords and (in the 18th century) payment of exit taxes. In the 19th century, when many of the German states finally abolished this serfdom, the “hoop to jump” for emigrants was completion of military service.

No less person than Friedrich Trump, the grandfather of President Trump, illegally emigrated from the lands of the Bavarian king without putting in his time in the army.

Friedrich Trump returned to Europe and wished to stay (saying his wife couldn’t tolerate the climate of New York) and pleaded his case by writing, “Why should we be deported? This is very, very hard for a family.”

Bavarian officials were unyielding, however, and Friedrich Trump returned to America.