Special to the Tribune-Star
TERRE HAUTE —
If you can trace your ancestry back to the early colonies, especially the mid-Atlantic states and the South, it is highly possible that you have an indentured servant in your family tree.
Trade in indentured servants started after Jamestown was founded in 1607 and lasted into the 1770s, but it was most common between 1620 and 1680. It was gradually replaced by slavery.
One-half to two-thirds of all the immigrants sailing to colonial America were indentured servants. This meant that they sold themselves into labor to a master for a period of four to seven years in exchange for their passage to the colonies, room and board for the time of their servitude, and eventual freedom when their contract was over.
These people more often came alone, rather than in family groups, so are more difficult to trace. They were young and single and most likely male. However, there were a number of female indentured servants, and their destiny could be quite different from that of the males.
During the first 20 years of the Jamestown settlement, most of the women who sailed there were indentured servants. As an indentured servant, a woman had to be single, often referred to as a “spinster,” and without a child. She was called a “bondswoman” or a “bound woman,” and her contract holder was her “master” or “mistress.” During her period of servitude, she was forbidden to marry or have children. She had to follow the rules of the master or mistress, or be punished. Punishments included whipping and adding time to her period of servitude.
Bound women’s situations could be much worse than the conditions for bound men. She could be sexually abused by her master, with virtually no recourse under the law. If she became pregnant, she would suffer penalties. If she was carrying her master’s child, she could accuse him of adultery and he would be punished. She would be removed from the offending master, but her contract for servitude would be sold to another master or mistress.
If she became pregnant by another servant or a slave, her master could add one to three years on to her contract for servitude, to make up for the lost labor during her pregnancy and the cost of rearing her child. She would also receive a ceremonial whipping of 21 lashes.
White indentured servants and African slaves of a household or plantation often commingled and this resulted in inter-racial pregnancies. English primogeniture law (tracing a person’s lineage through the father) was reversed in the colonies due to the miscegenation between blacks and whites. A child’s condition (free or slave) was the same as his/her mother’s condition. Thus the mulatto child born of a white bound woman was free, like her mother. However, the master could add seven years to the mother’s contract for having a mulatto child. He also could make the resulting child an indentured servant for a period of years. But the mulatto child of a female African slave and a white man would be considered a slave, following the condition of his mother. This plight induced some mothers to kill their child rather than condemn him to a life of slavery.
There was a small positive side to being a female indentured servant. Being a scarce commodity, a bound woman who was clever, intelligent and attractive could get the attention of a man who would buy her out of servitude.
Some bound women played this card, intentionally getting pregnant with the hope that her child’s father would buy her contract and marry her. This plan often worked. (But as a married woman, she still didn’t have many rights.)
Next week the column will continue with research tips for finding indentured servants in various records.