Special to the Tribune-Star
TERRE HAUTE —
The past two weeks have focused on indentured servitude in America. An indentured servant was a poor person who immigrated to the colonies, most often between 1607 and the 1770s, whose passage was paid for by another person. In return, the immigrant then had to work for up to 7 years for the person who imported him/her. The immigrant was referred to as a bound person because he/she was bound to the master by contract to serve for a period of years.
Many of us are descended from one or more indentured servants and don’t even know it. It’s often difficult to trace whether an ancestor was a bound person or not, because there is no single record that lists all indentured servants. There are two free and informative online databases, however, that can be very helpful in locating indentured servant ancestors.
The Virtual Jamestown website at www.virtualjamestown.org/indentures/about_indentures.html has databases that list a total of 15,000 entries from the port cities of Bristol, Middlesex, and London in England. The Bristol Register spans the years 1654-1686 and contains 10,000 entries of indentured servants who emigrated from the port of Bristol during those years. The Middlesex Register, 1682-1685, contains about 1,000 indentured servants who sailed from Middlesex. The London I Register for the year 1682 includes 1,000 names of indentured servants and the London II Register covers the years 1718-1759, listing 3,000 names.
Information in these registers can consist of the date, servant’s name, gender, age, marital status, place of origin, occupation, parents’ names, their occupations and place of origin, destination, length of indenture, ship’s name, ship’s captain, witnesses to contract, agent’s name, place of origin, gender, and occupation. Not all of this information will be available for every indenture, however. The search engine allows the user to check all four registers at once.
A second online database at pricegen.com/immigrantservant/search/simple.php allows the user to search from a list of more than 15,000 immigrant servants’ names from various records in the colonies. Information that can be obtained from this database are the servant’s name, gender, family status, whether landowner, convict, or literate, length of indenture, year of indenture, location, master’s name, and proof of indentured status. This last piece of information can come from any of dozens of records, as there was no central location for recording indentured servitude.
The above web site uses information from the following sources to prove indentured servant status, focusing on the Chesapeake Bay area: church registers (the term “servant” was included after a person’s name), court records (including infractions and punishments on the part of the servant or the master denying the servant’s rights), deeds (owners buying and selling their indentured servants, and the servants selling their “freedom dues” at the end of servitude), indentured servants’ contracts (compiled by county clerks into books in Pennsylvania, but not kept in the Chesapeake area), journals and personal narratives (very few exist), land patents (granted under the “headright” system–this will be discussed next week), merchant account books (recording business transactions of buying and selling servant contracts), newspapers (advertising for runaway indentured servants), passenger lists (from the ships that brought them over), probate records (servants named in wills because they could be inherited if their master died before their servitude was completed), and a number of English sources. All of these are listed in greater detail at pricegen.com/resources/servants.htm.