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Life in Mid-Eighteenth Century Pennsylvania

By John T. Humphrey


Records Used to Tell the Story of

Life in Mid-Eighteenth Century Pennsylvania

  • County Tax Lists
  • Diaries and Letters
  • Road Petitions
  • Business Ledgers
  • U.S. Direct “Window” Tax of 1798
  • U.S. Census of 1790
  • Deeds
  • Estate Inventories


“Black clouds rested heavily on the southern horizon and foretold of an unusually severe storm…all port-holes and hatches were closed and fastened, the upper yards were lowered and the sails furled…Soon after 8 o’clock a hurricane broke loose, far more terrible than we dreamed an ocean could be…winds howled, roaring waves ran mountains high…All passengers were gathered in the cabins and a solemn stillness reigned about 10 o’clock there was a terrible shock…the side of the ship against which my wife was leaning was now the bottom and the bottom had become one of the sides of the cabin and we realized the ship had capsized…a cry was raised for axes to cut away the masts…the Captain bravely climbed the main mast, and under his blows it parted and went over. Instantly, the ship righted itself and floated on even keel!” [1]

The foregoing is an account of a voyage recorded by a Moravian minister traveling from Germany to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. It offers the kind of detail most family historians would like to find on their eighteenth-century ancestors. Yet, how often can any historian find this kind of detail? Seldom, if ever!

Details concerning what an ancestor may have done on any given day can be difficult, if not impossible, to find. But, details concerning shared or common experience have been recorded, and that information is useful in gaining insight into eighteenth-century life in rural Pennsylvania.

Shared experience is an analytical tool used by historians to research, interpret, and analyze the past. Men and women of all generations have shared experience, such as our contemporary habit of purchasing food in a grocery store. Details of that experience include the day of the week, time of day the purchase, and the name of the store. The fact that most of us purchase food in a store provides an experience we all share in common.

Immigrants Had “Shared Experience”

The same was true of all eighteenth-century Pennsylvania immigrants. All newcomers had to journey there on a ship—an experience shared in common. The specifics of each voyage were unique to that journey and to the passengers who traveled on that particular ship. But, on that ship and others, people had shared experiences as well.

Ship’s captains carried out similar or routine sailing maneuvers on each and every trip across the Atlantic. As a sailing vessel approached the North American continent, for example, the captain of the ship would have ordered a member of his crew to start “sounding for the bottom.” The crewmember dropped a rope with a heavy lead weight over the side of the ship to test the depth of the water. He was trying to find the bottom.  If the weight touched bottom at eight fathoms, that meant the ocean was only forty-eight feel deep.  (One fathom equals six linear feet.)  That indicated the ship was approaching land.  Testing for the bottom was especially important if the ship approached the coast of New England or New York in a fog bank, a common occurrence.  An account of one voyage noted,  “No land was seen even though the ship had proceeded to eight fathoms.  When at 10 a.m. the mist lifted, America was seen for the first time.”  [2]

A 1742 account of another voyage noted that the captain found the bottom at 35 fathoms or 210 feet.  On May 19 a cold, thick fog covered the sea. [3] The captain of this particular ship dropped anchor, as he wanted to send a small boat ashore to find a local navigator—another common experience. If a ship’s captain was unfamiliar with his present location or his destination port, he waited until he could arrange with a local expert who could pilot the boat into the harbor with some degree of safety.

Depending on the distance to shore and the condition of the passengers and crew, the captain may have sent a smaller boat ashore for other reasons—to get fresh water or to bury the dead. A record kept of one crossing noted that a boat went ashore near New London, Connecticut, to bury an infant born in route to Pennsylvania. [4] While ashore they encountered a resident who commented on how fit they appeared after such a long voyage.  He noted that passengers on most ships usually got a fever and many often perished.  He went on to say, “They [the dead] were placed in scores in large ditches near the shore and covered with sand…” [5]   Statements similar to this one suggest that the remains of many immigrants were, perhaps, similarly buried on the beaches of New England, Long Island, New Jersey, and Delaware. 


Next Page > Voyage - A Slow Boat > Page 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7


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