Indentured Servitude in Colonial America

By Deanna Barker, Frontier Resources

One half to two thirds of all immigrants to Colonial America arrived as indentured servants. At times, as many as 75% of the population of some colonies were under terms of indenture. Even on the frontier, according to the 1790 U.S. Census, 6% of the Kentucky population was indentured.

Citizens of the colonies would deal with indenture on a daily basis. My intent is to give the reenactor or interpreter some of the background about working beside, owning or having been an indentured servant.

This was a labor system, not a system of apprenticeship. (Galenson, 6) The historic basis for indenture grew out of English agricultural servitude and began because of labor shortages in England and in the colonies. It developed at a time when England had a great number of people being displaced from farming. This led to an early growth of the indentured labor system.

The importation of white servants under contracts known as indentures proved more profitable as a short-term labor source than enslaving Indians or using free labor. Eventually, the final attempt to ease labor shortages was enslavement of Africans. Wherever you find slavery, you first find indentures.

A labor-intensive cash crop such as tobacco required a large work force. The earliest indentured servants were brought to Virginia as farm laborers. The importance of indenture can be seen in Virginia, where in 1618 the colony offered a headright, a grant of 50 acres per servant, as an incentive to planters to import more servants from England. The headright became the property of the owner, not the servant. (Galenson, 12) According to Galenson, “the basic elements of the system were in use by the Virginia Company by 1620, and may have been worked out earlier …”(3)

In practice, the servant would sell himself to an agent or ship captain before leaving the British Isles. In turn, the contract would be sold to a buyer in the colonies to recover the cost of the passage. The crossing in steerage was grim. One indentured servant, Thomas Morally, was given three biscuits a day to eat and each mess of five men was given three pints of water per day.

Criminals convicted of a capital crime in England could be transported in lieu of a death sentance (for the theft of an item with a cost of as little as one shilling). Servitude also could result from indebtedness, where a person, their spouse or parents owed money, and the person was sold into servitude to recover the debt. In other cases, a parish indentured orphans in order to keep them off the poor roles. Plus, the poor sometimes sold themselves into indenture just to survive.

In most cases, the work of the indentured servant would be household or agricultural unskilled labor. There was also a great demand for skilled craftsmen. If an indentured servant had a skill that was in demand, like weaving, smithing or carpentry, the change of negotiating a shorter contract was quite good.

In theory, the person is only selling his or her labor. In practice, however, indentured servants were basically slaves and the courts enforced the laws that made it so. The treatment of the servant was harsh and often brutal. In fact, the Virginia Colony prescribed “bodily punishment for not heeding the commands of the master.” (Ballagh, 45) Half the servants died in the first two years. As a result of this type of treatment, runaways were frequent. The courts realized this was a problem and started to demand that everyone have identification and travel papers. (A.E. Smith 264-270).

If a servant worked their full indenture, they received freedom dues, which were based on Hebrew law from the Old Testament. (Deut. 15:12-15) Many colonies also granted land to the newly freed servant.

As reenactors of the eighteenth century, every one of us would interact with indentured servants on a daily basis. A fairly large number of us would have been servants at one time. Yet, at most reenactments, this institution is noticeably lacking, along with travel papers and identification papers. As an early Virginian, John Pory, put it, “Our principal wealth … consisteth in servants.” (Galenson 3)

James Curtis Ballagh. White Servitude in the Colony of Virginia. Baltimore MD: John Hopkins University Press, 1895.

Fredrick M. Binder & David M. Reimers. The way we lived: Essays and Documents in American Social History, Vol. 1; 1607-1877. Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath & Co., 1992.

Phyllis Cunnington; Costume of Household Servants from the Middle Ages to 1900. London, UK; Harper and Row Publishers, Inc., 1974.

Joseph Doddridge; Notes on the Settlement and Indian Wars. Parsons, WV: McClain Printing Co., 1996.

David W. Galson; White Servatude in Colonial America: An Economic Analysis. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

W. Preston Haynie (Ed.) Northumberland County Virginia Records of Indentured Servants 1650-1795. Heritage Books, Inc., 1996.

Peter Kolchin. American Slavery 1619-1877. New York, NY: Hill and Wang, 1993.

Abbot Emerson Smith; Colonists in Bondage: White Servitude and Convict Labor in America, 1607-1776. Chapel Hill, NC.: University of North Carolina, 1947.

Warren B. Smith: White Servitude in Colonial South Carolina. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1961.

Charles Woodmason; Journal of C.W. Clerk.