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The John Naas Letter

A 1733 Crossing

in the

"Pennsylvania Merchant"





Still Life with Inkwell, by John Frederick Peto



This was a letter written by passenger John Naas, who arrived in Philadelphila on September 18, 1733 in the brigantine "Pennsylvania Merchant", of London, John Stedman, Master, from Rotterdam, last from Plymouth. On their crossing 12 passenger died. Johannes Naas was born, 1670 and died May 12, 1741, in Sergeantsville. Hunterdon County, New Jersey
Although the two groups of 1719 and 1729 comprised the main body of the Brethren, there were others who came to Pennsylvania later. One of the first eight, Luke Vetter, arrived with his family on September 21, 1731. Abraham Dubois of Eppstein came with his family on the Pink "John and William" on October 17, 1732. The Krefeld leader, John Naas, sailed with a group of Brethren on the Pennsylvania Merchant, arriving in Philadelphia on September 29, 1733[sic] {Sept. 18, 1733}. He wrote a lengthy letter to his son Jacob William, which is in the form of a diary of his ocean crossing. This can be taken as typical of the conditions which the Brethren experienced and which they gladly endured in order to migrate from the land of their origin to a land which promised them freedom of religion. The letter also gives some glimpses of life in the New World. His encouragement of his son to migrate with his family was apparently successful, for the latter arrived on the Billender Oliver on April 26, 1735. Source: "European Origins of the Brethren." by Donald F Durnbaugh.

The John Naas Letter



(John Naas to His Son)

Dearly beloved son, Jacob William Naas:

I greet you and your dear wife, Margaret, and her dear children very affectionately; also Brethren Grahe, Jacob Schmitz, Liebe, Lobach, Stetius, Muller, Hubert Rahr, Linge, Zwingenberg, Clemens, and also Mrs. Benders and Marie Mumert. We greet them all in affectionate love and friendship, and all their dear ones, without exception; also those who in love inquire about us. The eternal and all-sufficient God give you all mercy, light, and faith, so that you may not only choose the good in this time given us by God's mercy, but rather through the true and active faith and in true salvation and childlike obedience, you might obtain it in Christ Jesus; may the great God through Jesus Christ work this in us and all who love Him. Amen. Yes, amen.

Because I have been requested by some to describe our trip, I have not been able to reject doing this completely, and therefore will try to describe, as briefly as possible, what I think necessary. I sent a letter back via Rotterdam from Plymouth in England with the request to make it known. Therein is described how it went from Rotterdam to England and in Plymouth - now following that, I will describe the voyage from England or Plymouth here. I certainly hope you will have received by now my last letter of September 15 from Germantown, in which is reported our happy and pleasant arrival with our dear known and unknown brethren and friends; therefore, I now describe briefly what occurred on the journey from Plymouth until here in Pennsylvania as follows.

On June 24 we sailed from Rotterdam until a half-hour from there, where we stopped, because of counter winds until July 3. We then left and the ship had to be towed by many men along the Maas River, until near Hellevoetsluis we received a good wind so that we sailed into the sea at Hellevoetsluis. There began seasickness among the passengers, namely, running and vomiting, most of whom, as soon as they had vomited, began to eat again.

The thirteenth of the same month, in early morning, we arrived at Plymouth in the harbor, which is all rocks. There we had to lie in the middle of the harbor until the ship was cleared by customs and provisioned. We then sailed in the evening of July 21 into the great ocean and lost sight of land on the left, France and Spain. On the twenty-fourth we also lost sight of it on the right, namely England.

On the 25th a small child died, who had come on board very ill, and was buried in the sea on the next day at eight o'clock. I noticed with great amazement that as the body fell into the water from the plank, a swarm of large fish shot ahead of the ship as though they were fleeing from the dead body. We had rather good wind for about ten days, so that we sailed a good distance into the great ocean.

Before daylight on July 28, around two o'clock, a French warship came by, named Elizabeth, whose captain examined our captain in French; after they made themselves acquainted, they wished each other a safe trip and each went on his course. After this day we had very inconstant weather, so that in three weeks we (were in motion) less than sixty hours, (covering a distance) which otherwise would have taken one day in good wind.

On August 3, I rose one hour before daybreak in order to see how it was going, as I had decided to watch the compass during the whole trip to see if a change of course took place. As I came to the ladder, all the people were still sleeping, and a bedroll was under the ladder, and the bed-blankets lay high on the ladder. During the night it had rained a little, making it slippery under the hatch, and as I stood on the last rung of the ladder and was about to step on the deck, the persons stretched themselves in their bed and involuntarily knocked the ladder from under me, so that I fell from the level of the deck with my left side striking the ladder. I was almost unconscious and lay there a long time before I could stand up. Then I had to lie on my back for fourteen days until I could get up again, and walk a bit. I was at first afraid that I would become lame but the great God in His Son be praised, who allowed me to recover without herbs or bandages, so that I hardly feel it any more.

In the early morning of the 14th same the sailors harpooned a large fish, which was as long as a normal-sized man and had a head like a sow, also a body and entrails like a sow. On August 7, another infant died during the night and in the same hour a baby boy was born; the dead child was buried in the sea on the 8th.

On the 11th and 12th we had a storm, which, although not very severe, continued for forty-eight hours, so that all of the sails had to be lashed, the rudder tied, and the portholes covered with boards. We sat in darkness while the force of the waves broke through the glass into the beds. Some of the passengers had to vomit in every storm and strong wind.

On the 13th same another baby boy was born. On the 17th we had another storm, which for the first six or eight hours was noticeably worse than the first and drove the waves very high. It lasted one and a half days and one and a half nights, diminishing in force at the end, however. Sails, rudder, and portholes were secured very quickly, and the ship was left at the mercy of the wind and waves. Afterwards it was so still that we remained almost stationary for many days, and the passengers recovered from vomiting and running. Later came a strong side-wind, so that the ship traveled speedily. On August 23, another child died in the early morning and was buried in the sea in the evening.

On the 26th same, around five o'clock in the afternoon, we sailed with a strong wind past an unmoving mast, the tip of which stuck a foot out of the water, completely still and with a piece of sail still attached. To our great fortune our ship passed about a rod's length away. The captain had just taken tea. Many people were very fright-ened at this sight, because the mast could not have been stuck in the ocean floor, but despite this did not move.

On the 30th same, another child of the above-mentioned man died, and was buried in the ocean in the evening; we then saw the first small fish with wings fly over the water from two to three rods.

On the morning of September 6, the chief helmsman harpooned a dolphin, which looked much different from what they are described in Germany. This day had great heat and little wind.

On the 7th same another large fish, called a shark, was caught by the sailors; the sailors took a hook which was very large and strong and thick as a finger, and baited it with one and a half pounds of bacon. When they saw the fish near the ship they threw in the hook with the bacon, which it instantly swallowed; because the fish was very broad and five feet long, with an exceptionally strong tail, out of as well as in the water, when they heaved him on the ship they drove all of the passengers away, so that it could not injure anyone. It struck the deck with the tail with such force that if it had hit someone's legs, they would certainly have been crushed, but when the ship's carpenter hacked off its tail with barely ten strokes, the strength was gone. Its mouth was so large it could have swallowed a two-year-old child. The captain was pleased to pass out the meat for the passengers' good.

On the 11th same, another infant died, which the parents did not realize until it was nearly stiff; it was buried in the sea on the 12th.

On the 13th same, a young woman, who had always been sickly, died in labor, and was buried in the sea on the 14th, with three children, two previously, and the baby after her, so that the husband had no one else.

On the 16th, around four o'clock in the morning, a fifty-year-old woman died, who had not been well during the whole voyage and had always regretted her leaving home. She was buried in the sea on the same day. Since the trip was prolonged because of the frequently changing winds, and since most of the people had already eaten most of the provisions that they had brought along - as their mind was set on a voyage of six weeks from land to land, they had gorged and swilled from early morning until evening - so that at the last it was hard for them to live on the ship's provisions only. Then most lost their courage and were convinced they would never set foot on land again.

On the 17th same, a small land bird similar to the yellow water wagtail of Germany alighted several times on the ship, so that the people could see it well. This caused such great joy among the people that they all clapped their hands.

On the 18th a ship from Rhode Island came to us, with sheep and other things aboard for the West Indies, which our captain had hailed through the megaphone. After they had discussed with each other, both ships dropped sails, since little progress was being made anyway, and our captain had a boat lowered into the water and went with four sailors to the ship. And after they had drunk welcome with each other, he returned and brought half a sack of apples, a goose, a duck and two hens, and distributed the fine apples among the people at once. This caused great joy that they received such wonderful American fruit, which was very tasty, at sea, and he threw the apples which were left among the people to be caught; all fell over one another for the nice apples.

On the 19th same a very unusual fish came on board; it was like a large round table and had a mouth like two small baskets. The same evening a great number of large fish approached the ship from the north in schools, and when they reached the ship they shot into the depths in front of, behind, and under the ship, so that one could not see them on the other side of the ship.

On the 20th same another boy died and was buried in the sea on the same evening. And again this evening came untold numbers of large fish to the ship from the north, which, as one looked, went high above the water like the previous ones so that one did not see them from the other side. Afterwards there came such a powerful, strong rain that some people caught half pails of water with sailcloth alone, and from the captain's cabin. Then came a powerful stormwind from the northwest, so that the sea or ocean rose so high that when one looked at it it was as if one traveled in high mountains, where all moun-tains were covered with snow. One mountain or wave after the other struck the ship, so that the captain, chief steersman, and cook were hit by one wave leaving them without a dry stitch of clothing on their bodies. The water came into the ship with such force that many people's bedrolls which lay by portholes were completely wet. In great haste all holes were quickly closed, the rudder bound, and the ship set sideways against the wind with close rigged sails so that it did not roll so much to both sides. The storm continued throughout the night with great force. All could see without fear that it was not the strength of the ship that endured such blows, but rather the almighty hand of the Lord who preserved it in order to make known His might to the people - to Him be above all and before all the honor. Amen.

Not a person remained on the deck of the ship, except a sailor tied to the rudder who held watch. All the others - captain, steersman, and sailors - crept in their wet clothes into their beds. The ship lay for a time at the mercy of the wind, always on its side so that it shipped water, but the water always ran off again. Around midnight the waves struck so hard on the aft portholes that two porthole boards broke loose, and as the people lay partly in sleep and slumber the water poured in through the portholes, a stream as large as the hole, and immediately into the beds which caused a great panic among those who lay near the porthole. The water took a board with rope completely away again. We leaped up, because the friend who lay near the porthole had not tied the board tightly enough, and this misfortune could have been great; we took a wool sack close at hand and stuffed the porthole shut again and the other porthole with the remaining board. The ship's carpenter made a new shutter the next morning.

The storm began to let up a little bit, also the fear of the people decreased, and around two o'clock in the afternoon the sky cleared, the wind died down, the portholes were opened, and there was quiet beautiful weather. The captain had rice cooked in a kettle quickly, so that the people received a little something warm on this day, and the night until [text incomplete].

The 22nd same at noon the ship lay quite still as a house, and the people dried their things again. During the afternoon we got a good wind which held on during the night also, so strong and yet so steady that one did not realize on the ship that it was moving, yet we still progressed two and a half [?] in one hour. At midnight the first sounding was taken, over one hundred fifty fathoms deep without finding bottom.

On the 23rd same around nine o'clock another sounding was made and at fifty-five fathoms bottom was found; at eleven o'clock, thirty-five fathoms; shortly thereafter twenty fathoms deep (and still we saw no land), but were rapidly nearing the [Delaware] River. The people were very happy because of such a good wind and because we had found bottom. The captain did not think it possible to reach the river by daylight because no land could be seen, and had the sails all lowered despite the good wind around four o'clock, and the rudder bound because there were many sandbanks before and in the river.

Early the next morning all the sails were hoisted again, and directed toward the river, although the wind was not good at all, and there was a thick fog. They made soundings again and found fifteen fathoms, and an hour later seven fathoms. Around twelve o'clock we saw land with great joy; around four o'clock we approached the river closely, since when one first sees it one is six hours away. The captain and I saw three boats sailing in, and the captain cried they must be pilots or steersmen; one could hardly see them in the waves. He had all sails hoisted and was very happy that the pilots came to meet him. The first that came he did not accept, but when the second came, he knew him and took him at once aboard the ship and planned to sail into the river the same night. But when we had land on both sides, around eight o'clock, at the mouth of the river, there suddenly came a stormwind from the southwest worse than any before. All had to help lower the sails and anchor for the first time. We remained firm in one place and the water had not very much power because it was not over seven fathoms deep. Therefore we stayed at anchor the whole night and the storm died away soon after.

The 25th same the above-mentioned newly born baby died, and was buried in the river. We sailed the night of that day into the narrows of the river, which is truly very pleasant to look upon, as wide as the Rhine River, where it is broadest, and on both sides the most beautiful woods or bushes. Here and there stood houses on the river bank, and their fishing nets were hung up on the shores. We passed by New Castle on the following 27th same with a small wind and thick fog. The mentioned city is still forty English miles from Philadelphia.

Because we had very little wind then, we had to travel more than once with the flood tide, or with the water, so that we traveled all the 28th and arrived very happily on the afternoon of the 29th in Philadelphia.

Brethren and sisters came to meet us in small boats with delicious bread, apples, peaches, and other refreshments of the body, for which we praised the great God publicly on the ship, with much singing and resounding prayers. There were many tears that He had preserved us as a Father and carried us on eagles' wings, and that we had met each other in love again before eternity. This, dear children, brethren, and friends, is very briefly the description of our trip over the great ocean.

If I were to report everything that happened among the passengers, on the ship, there would be much more to write. It makes my heart sorrowful to recall that often aboard ship I said to them that I did not think it was worse in hell with all the unclean spirits than aboard ship with cursing and swearing, blasphemy, nagging, and fighting, swilling and gorging and quarreling day and night in storm and strain, so that the captain often said that he had taken many groups across the ocean, but the equal he had never seen.

He thought that they were possessed with devils and therefore he was a real example of hell [to them]. However, they treated us all in a friendly and obliging manner and had great respect for us. The captain often threatened them that he would have some of them tied to the mast by sailors and beaten from head to toe. However, they remained wicked people.

I would like to report some observations and comments concerning the great danger and difficulties of the trip to Pennsylvania.

The danger of this trip is [that] if God is against one and wishes to exact His revenge and judgment on the ocean, no one could evade Him at sea or on land. Secondly, it would be dangerous to travel in an old ship across the ocean, or with a captain who was tyrannical and did not understand sailing. If the Lord is with one (which I assumed) and one has a good ship and good sailors, the danger is not half so great as one imagines. The Lord bears the earth and the sea, and one in and upon the other, and therefore the ship on the sea, and those who travel in the heights and the depths. The eternal Jehovah has saved them, so that they should know Him and praise His name, who performs great miracles for the children of men.

The hardship of this trip lies in many factors and things. I personally did not have much hardship - very little actually - but I observed and experienced much from others: first, when people do not really need to make the trip.

Second, when people undertake the trip without enough deliberation for worldly reasons.

Third, when people set out to leave, especially married couples, and are not completely agreed to start such a long journey.

These three things are the main causes behind the hardships of this long trip, for I can and must say in truth that of the six or seven ships full of passengers, I found but few people who did not regret having made the trip. Most of them said that great need had driven them to it, even though many had been rich and they had lost much. Because of the severe pressures of the authorities, they either had to leave or become poverty stricken, and could not keep from becoming beggars and debtors. In spite of this, many regretted the trip so much that they became ill, and did not know what they were doing for anger. Neighbors accused one another; man, wife, and children picked quarrels instead of helping one another, thus not only leaving the burden for them to carry but even increasing it. People like that cause a good deal of trouble living so close together on a ship for thirteen or fourteen or fifteen weeks where they cannot do as they please.

Then there are numerous others who would consume all the supplies which they had brought along while the food on board is still good, or even throw it into the sea. in time, when the ship's food supplies have been preserved in salt for quite a long while, and part of the water begins to stink, rice, barley, peas, and the like can hardly be cooked any longer in it. Those people will have by that time stuffed themselves with all their supplies and swilled all that they had (pardon me for saying it but it is true). They are then forced to put up with the poor victuals, which is particularly hard for this type of person. As the people are so crowded together, some begin to steal whatever they can, namely foodstuffs, and liquids. Then there are the many lice among the people, so that many people have to spend the whole day in delousing and one who does not do this is practically devoured. This was a great difficulty for all, and also for my people. Now that we have arrived safely and well on land, and all of ours have met with great love and friendliness, all the previous is suddenly forgotten (so to speak) because of the great joy that we have in one another. This hardship had lasted about nineteen weeks, then it was over, for which the Highest be praised. Amen. Yes, amen.

We have not regretted that we are here and wish from our hearts that you were with us here, with your children. But that is not the case. I dare not urge you, since the trip is so difficult for persons who cannot take everything patiently as it comes, but rather are often restless when all is well. If I could, after God's good will, do every¬thing for you children, I promise you that I would start by deciding to take upon myself another trip, for your sake, not because of the ease of earning a living here. Oh, no, this country demands an industrious people, no matter what trade they have, and then they make their way very well. There are, however, many people here who are in great difficulty, because it seems that some people would be in trouble even if they were in Paradise. Some have themselves to blame because they arrive in the country, see the beautiful plantations, the handsome livestock, and surplus of every goods, and despite the fact that they have. List arrived, want to have everything right away; they not only refuse good advice, but go in debt for large pieces of land, borrow animals and such, and have a miserable time before they make good. Well, what should I say, in this world some have it better than others. Those who will be content with food and shelter can prosper with God's blessing and with a will to work.

Our people are all getting along well, one better than the next, but no one has scarcity. I was amazed at what I heard concerning those indentured emigrants, about the young and strong people and artisans, how rapidly they are gone as masons, carpenters, and all other trades, and even old people with grown children who can do only farm work. There the child takes over the indenture for both his and his father's or mother's passage for four years, and is able in that time to earn all the necessary clothing and finally a handsome outfit from head to foot, a horse or a cow with a calf; small children take on one and a half year's indenture. When they are twenty-one years old they have to be taught reading and writing, and leave well-dressed and with a horse or a cow.

One finds few houses in the city or country where the people are rather prosperous where there are not one or two children. The matter is always discussed at the city hall with great seriousness. Often parents and children are ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, or twenty hours from each other. Often those indenturing themselves are better off than those who paid their passage, as they get their expenses paid by others and learn the peculiarities of the country.

I want to bring this to a close and wish patience for those who will read it.

God be with you all. Amen. John Naas.

P.S. Well, dear children, what more should I write. It might turn out that you would come here, and then there would be no more letter writing. If you do not come and if I live, there will be more to write another time; therefore I will bring this to a close and recom¬mend you and your dear children in the unending love of God. May He guide and direct you that you do not tread in the pathway of the sinners and do not sit in the seat of the scorner. That would not be good for you.

The Brothers Sekler, whom you know, are in eternity except Henry; his [their?] death was described in a letter in Christ to Liebe (I hope he will let you read it). The others extend their warmest greetings: Brother Becker, Brother Gantz, Gumre, Ritter, Paul, Sr., with Brother Mack, the older and younger Ziegeler, and their families greet all. Many other brethren and sisters, who do not know you, and whom you do not know, greet warmly all those in Krefeld who fear God.

In true and uniting love,
your father
John Naas.

Signature from List B of Ship Pennsylvania Merchant, September 18, 1773.
From Pennsylvania German Pioneers, Volume 2; The Facsimilies.






Johannes Naas' funearary record on Find a Grave, here.
    Further Reading:

  • Pennsylvania Germans, A Persistent Minority. William T. Parsons. Collegeville, PA: Chestnut Books, 1985,
  • The German immigration into Pennsylvania through the port of Philadelphia from 1700 to 1775 part II: The Redemptioners, by Frank Ried Diffenderffer, Published 1900 click here







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