Irish and German Migration to
Eighteenth-Century North America
MARIANNE S. WOKECK
VOYAGERS LEAVING Irish ports and German-speaking lands for eighteenth-century North America made up relatively small currents in the massive stream that has carried European migrants across the Atlantic since the 1600s. Yet these flows were the precursors for the mass migrations from Europe to the Americas in the nineteenth century that many Americans now think of as “classic.” The large absolute numbers of the later immigrant waves and the easy ethnic categorization of the newcomers according to national origin have obscured the importance of the eighteenth-century tides and their exemplary character. The early German and Irish flows represent a migratory regime that was basically voluntary in nature and that depended on sailing vessels for transportation across the Atlantic. Since the voyage was long, difficult, and expensive, relocation was expensive. The ocean and the high price of the fare for crossing it created obstacles for persons of limited means; contract labor offered ways for financing the move. Although this alternative was always restrictive and often coercive, indentured servitude was a common option of considerable impact. It broadened the pool of potential emigrants to include large numbers of ordinary people— single young men and families—eased the demand for labor in the American colonies, and made use of cargo space on vessels employed in transatlantic trade.
The eighteenth-century migrations from Ireland and Germanspeaking lands reveal the forces that created, shaped, and guided distinctly ethnic waves of voluntary migrants; and they show that the development of substantial migration currents depended on a selfgenerating effect to sustain free immigration over time and to determine cycles of ebb and flow. In efforts to generalize from observa