Indentured Servitude in Colonial America

Indentured Servitude in Colonial America

This compulsory work system was an important form of labor in colonial America, especially in 17th century Chesapeake. In exchange for several years of labor, English men and women received passage to America and opportunity. A cruel life, servitude was ultimately replaced by African slavery.

Indentured servitude was an American invention with English roots. The idea of serving for a period of years had long been a part of apprenticeships; after 1563, English law had required nearly all wage laborers to contract by the year.

In both cases, masters assumed nearly total control over their workers: They could set them to a variety of tasks and punish them physically but also had to feed and house them. Apprentices and servants were typically young and unmarried people seeking money to establish their own households. A large percentage of English men and women, perhaps a majority, spent a portion of their youth in service.

England’s decision to plant colonies in the New World precipitated the invention of indentured servitude. In 1584, Richard Hakluyt advocated colonization as a solution to England’s “valiant youths, rusting and hurtful by lack of employment” and a number of young laborers accompanied the first settlers to Jamestown in 1607.

However, most colonists expected that Native Americans would work for them and it was only after attempts to enslave the Powhatan Indians failed that the Virginia Company seriously looked to England for workers. In 1616, the company instituted the headright system by which colonists received 50 acres of land for every servant imported. That same year, tobacco was introduced to Virginia and the demand for workers increased dramatically.

In the 17th century, 90,000 of the 120,000 English emigrants to Virginia and Maryland were indentured servants. Most were between the ages of 20 and 24, and men outnumbered women by six to one. Most came from desperately poor backgrounds and had no other opportunities.

Before leaving England, a servant signed (usually with an X) a contract. Two copies of the contract were written on the same sheet of paper and then cut apart, leaving a rough or indented edge, hence “indentured” servitude.

Indentured servitude work in tobacco field
Indentured servitude work in tobacco field

The servant received one copy and the other was sold in America. Typically a servant agreed to serve between four and seven years for passage to America. When the contract ended, a servant received “freedom dues”: clothes, tools, food, and for the first half of the 17th century, 50 acres of land.

Life as an indentured servant was hard and cruel. “Am toiling almost day and night, very often in the horse’s drudgery,” wrote Elizabeth Sprigs. “Scare any thing but Indian corn and salt to eat ... almost naked no shoes nor stockings to wear.” In addition to inadequate food and clothing, beatings were common.

In 1624, Elizabeth Abbott died at the hands of her master, leaving a corpse “full of sores and holes very dangerously raunckled and putrified above her wa[i]st and upon her hips and thighs.” In the case of Abbott and others, Chesapeake courts habitually sided with the masters. Masters were allowed to sell their servants’ contracts, practically reducing the workers to chattel.

Servants who ran away, killed a master’s pig, or bore an illegitimate child faced extensions of their servitude. Not surprisingly, many died before completing their indentures: Although 15,000 servants arrived in Virginia between 1625 and 1640, the population only increased by 7,000.

Among those who survived, success was attainable, at least at first. For Maryland servants freed before 1660, a majority obtained land and many held public office. Yet the unbalanced sex ratio prevented many freedmen from marrying.

Opportunities for ex-servants declined considerably after midcentury as available land became scarce. As this happened, many ended up working for their former masters for wages. Disgruntled ex-servants were a primary impetus behind several uprisings including Bacon’s Rebellion.

Indentured servitude also existed outside the Chesapeake. Perhaps 20 percent of immigrants to New England in the 1630s came over as servants, while indentured servitude supplied critical labor for the early plantations of Barbados and the Carolinas. However, by the middle of the 17th century, a decline in the English population reduced unemployment and motivation for servitude.

As this happened, planters acquired African slaves. Barbados was the first English colony to switch from servitude to slavery, and by 1660, blacks outnumbered whites. A similar process took place in the Chesapeake in the 1680s and 1690s. Indentured servants fell to less than 5 percent of the population, and by 1710, were outnumbered by slaves six to one.

Indentured servitude remained an important source of labor in the 18th century. Between 1718 and 1775, 50,000 English convicts were sent to America as servants and typically indentured for 14 years. Other servants emigrated from Scotland and Germany and settled in the middle colonies.

In 1760, indentured servants constituted 20 percent of Philadelphia’s workforce, many laboring in trades alongside black slaves. Although servants continued to arrive by the thousands through the 1770s, the American Revolution caused many to question their presence.

In 1784, “a number of respectable Citizens” of New York paid to free a cargo of servants because they found “the traffic of White people” contrary “to the idea of liberty this country has so happily established.” Thereafter indentured servitude rapidly declined and all but disappeared by 1800.