INDENTURED SERVANTS in colonial America were, for the most part, adult white persons who were
bound to labor for a period of years. There were three well-known classes: the free-willers, or redemptioners; those who were enticed to leave their home country out of poverty or who were kidnapped for political or religious reasons; and convicts. The first class represented those who chose to bind themselves to labor for a definite time to pay for their passage to America. The best known of these were Germans, but many English and Scottish men and women came in the same way. The second class, those who came to escape poverty or were forcibly brought to the colonies, was large because of the scarcity of labor in America. Their services were profitably sold to plantation owners or farmers, who indentured them for a period of years. The third class, convicts, were sentenced to deportation and on arrival in America were indentured unless they had personal funds to maintain themselves. Seven years was a common term of such service. The West Indies and Maryland appear to have received the largest number of immigrants of the third class.
Indentured servants made up a large portion of the population of the Chesapeake region, especially during the seventeenth century, when they accounted for 80 to 90 percent of European immigrants. The middle colonies of Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey also relied heavily on indentured servants, and in the eighteenth century more lived there than in any other region.
Most of the colonies regulated the terms of indentured service, but the treatment of individual servants differed widely. Some were mistreated; others lived as members of a family. It was commonly required that they be provided with clothing, a gun, and a small tract of land upon which to establish themselves after their service ended. These requirements applied especially to those who were unwilling servants. There was no permanent stigma attached to indentured servitude, and the families of such persons merged readily with the total population. Children born to parents serving their indenture were free. Terms of an indenture were enforceable in the courts, and runaway servants could be compelled to return to their masters and complete their service, with additional periods added for the time they had been absent.
When the prospects for upward mobility dimmed, as they did in the late-seventeenth-century Chesapeake region, indentured servants proved willing and ready to participate in violent rebellions and to demand wealthier colonists' property. The threat posed by great numbers of angry indentured servants might have been one of the reasons this type of servitude diminished over the course of the eighteenth century, with many farmers and plantation owners coming to rely instead on the labor of enslaved Africans.
Although indentured service of the colonial genre ceased after the American Revolution, similar kinds of contract labor were widespread in the United States during periods of labor shortage until the passage of the Contract Labor Law of 1885.
Galenson, David W. White Servitude in Colonial America: An Economic Analysis. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981.
Morgan, Edmund S. American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia. New York: Norton, 1975. Salinger, Sharon. "To Serve Well and Faithfully": Labor and Indentured Servants in Pennsylvania, 1682–1800. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
O. M.Dickerson/t. d.
"Indentured Servants." Dictionary of American History. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 18, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/indentured-servants
"Indentured Servants." Dictionary of American History. . Retrieved February 18, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/indentured-servants
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The arrival of indentured servants in the American colonies addressed a labor shortage that emerged in the early 1600s because of the success of a system of land distribution that was meant to encourage the establishment of farms. In 1618 the Virginia Company, a joint stock enterprise that wanted to settle and develop of Virginia, adopted a new charter based on the "headright system." Englishmen who could pay their own Atlantic crossing were granted fifty acres of land; each of their sons and servants were also granted an additional 50 acres. Other colonies were developed under the headright system in which the land amounts varied by colony. Soon there were more farms than there was labor to work the fields. The colonists solved this problem through the system of indentured servitude.
There were two kinds of indentured servants: voluntary and involuntary. Voluntary servants were people, often trained in a craft or skill, who could not afford passage to the colonies. In exchange for their passage, they agreed to work for a period of four to seven years for a colonial master. At the end of this period, the servant became a freeman and was usually granted land, tools, or money by the former master. Involuntary indentured servants were the impoverished, those in debt, or criminals whose sentence was a period of servitude. Most indentured servants in North America were voluntary. Their period of obligation to a colonial master was longer than that of a voluntary servant, usually seven to fourteen years. But, like their counterparts, the involuntary servants also received land, tools, or money at the end of their contract, called "freedom dues," and they also became freemen.
Many indentured servants were drawn from England, Ireland, Scotland, and Germany. In European ports people contracted themselves or became involuntarily contracted to ship captains, who transported them to the colonies where their contracts were sold to the highest bidder. Roughly speaking, half of colonial immigrants were indentured servants. Colonial laws ensured servants would fulfill the term of their obligation; any servant who ran away was severely punished. Laws also protected the servants, whose masters were obligated to provide them with housing, food, medical care, and even religious training. The system was prevalent in the Middle Atlantic colonies, but it was also used in the South. When the economies of the Caribbean islands failed at the end of the century, plantation owners sold their slaves to the mainland. There the slaves worked primarily on southern plantations, replacing indentured servants by about 1700. In other colonies the headright system ended with the American Revolution (1775–1783).
See also: Slavery
"Indentured Servants." Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 18, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/indentured-servants
"Indentured Servants." Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History. . Retrieved February 18, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/indentured-servants