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History

June 17, 2012

GENEALOGY: Looking at the history behind indentured servitude

Indentured servitude is as old as colonial America itself. Following the landing of the Virginia Company on the James River in 1607 and the building of their settlement at Jamestown, the colonists of the Virginia Company quickly realized they needed more manpower to provide the cheap labor needed to tend the tobacco fields.

Back in England, the economy was depressed by the Thirty Year War, which had ripped apart Europe. Many tenant farmers in England were being displaced. One solution for a poor person with no job and limited opportunities was to look to the New World.

The system that grew out of this need for labor on the part of the colonists and the need for some kind of opportunity on the part of the servants was a contractual agreement benefitting both. A person would sell him- or herself to a “master” (often a member of the landed gentry), to work for a set number of years — usually four to seven. In return, the master would pay the ship’s passage for the servant, and would agree to provide food, shelter, and clothing for the servant during the years of the contract. At the end of the contractual period, the servant would be freed and would receive “freedom dues,” which were a pre-arranged reward for completing the contract. Typical freedom dues could include any combination of 25-50 acres of land, a gun, money, new clothing, tools, livestock, or a year’s worth of grain.

Besides selling themselves as a means to survive, people could also sell themselves to get out of debt. Parents who could not care for their children might sell them into servitude because there was no other choice. Parishes sold orphans into servitude to keep them off the poor rolls. In addition, a criminal could be sold into servitude by the state for an offense as small as the theft of one shilling (which was a capital crime resulting in the death penalty at that time). The state also sold and transported political prisoners, who were mainly convicted in religious persecutions, to the colonies.

The servant was nearly a slave during the time of his indentured servitude. His contract could be sold, traded, or inherited if the master died. Servants were prohibited from marrying or having children during the period of indenture. They also could not earn any money for themselves by working outside of the contract, and were essentially required to follow all of the rules that the master put forth. Running away or otherwise failing to follow the rules of the master resulted in often harsh punishment or the addition of additional years onto their contract. Their existence was often harsh, and many did not live to see the end of their contracts. Those who did often became settlers on the frontiers.

Approximately 70 percent of the emigrants from England to colonial Virginia between 1630 and 1660 were indentured servants. Most were young, single males between 15 and 25 years of age. In 1619, the first Africans were brought to Virginia. Because there were no laws governing slavery at that time, these Africans were essentially treated as indentured servants and were given the opportunity to attain freedom after their servitude. But there was an innate problem with indentured servitude — the servant eventually became free and then the landowner needed to pay to transport another servant. Gradually, the idea of permanent African slavery took hold. Slave laws were enacted by several colonies in the mid-1600s. Indentured servitude gradually died out, but did continue into the 1700s.

Next week will continue with this topic.

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