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By Sharon DeBartolo Carmack Premium

Q. How did sponsoring immigrants work in the 1880s?

A. Sponsoring an immigrant (that is, paying for another person’s passage to America with the condition that he or she works off the debt upon arrival) is an old tradition. Many arrivals during the Colonial period had their passages paid in exchange for a seven-year period of servitude known as an indenture. This custom persisted into the 19th century, providing newcomers with food, shelter and clothing, in exchange for work and training in new trades. Sounds like a good deal — but if the immigrant didn’t meet the terms of the agreement (often it was more like slave labor with minimal freedom), he risked fines, imprisonment, whippings, disfigurement or additional years of indenture.

Congress legalized contract labor for immigrants in 1864, then flip-flopped and outlawed such contracts 21 years later. As a result, many immigrant sponsorships simply went underground. Because the practice was illegal, the odds of finding a paper trail are slim — unless your ancestor or his sponsor was caught. Passenger-arrival lists won’t be of much help to you, either: Officials didn’t begin asking immigrants who paid for their passage until 1903.

If your ancestor arrived before 1885 and you suspect he or she was a contract laborer, you’ll want to read social histories for your relative’s ethnic group to determine what organizations and businesses may have advertised or recruited immigrants in the old country. Also take note of the place your ancestor first settled in America and the type of work he did. Say your ancestor worked as a laborer for a railroad company upon his arrival. You could check with the railway company’s archives or museum, or write to the state historical society to find out who keeps related records. Availability varies from one company to another since not all organizations retain their records or make them publicly accessible.

From the August 2006 issue of Family Tree Magazine.