Indentured Servants

views updated May 21 2018

Indentured Servants

Indentured servitude was an important form of labor utilized in British North America during the colonial and early national periods. Bound laborers came in a variety of forms and their experience changed significantly over the time period, both in type of labor performed and in opportunities for advancement. The term "indentured servant" applied to the largest and broadest group of European immigrants who sold their labor for a period of years in exchange for passage to the New World. Indentured servants first appeared in the Chesapeake colonies, but they also were present in the middle colonies and the Lower South. The term "redemptioner" applies to eighteenth-century immigrants, usually from Germany and Switzerland but also from England and Ireland, who traveled to the colonies in family groups and sold their labor upon arrival to repay the cost of passage. This group was most common in Pennsylvania. A third group, transported convicts, became more prevalent after the Transportation Act of 1718 permitted the banishment of convicted felons. They usually went to Virginia and Maryland, were of English, Scottish, or Irish descent, and were the least popular form of bound laborer in the colonies. Colonists complained about the questionable character of convict servants and were thus more reluctant to purchase their services.

legal standing and contracts

Likened to slaves in that masters had almost complete control over them, including the right to control their labor and the ability to severely punish them, indentured servants nevertheless possessed some legal rights that clearly distinguished them from lifetime chattel. Reflecting the colonies' British heritage, as did the impulse to enter into an apprenticelike or servant relationship in one's teens and early twenties, servants negotiated contracts, owned property, sued their owners for abuse, and testified in court while in service.

Servant contracts varied in length. For adults, who were sometimes able to negotiate their contract based upon their skill level, periods of service usually lasted from four to seven years. For minors, indenture lasted until they reached adulthood. In reality, this meant that most servants did not achieve their freedom until they were in their early to mid-twenties. Until they were free, servants could not marry without the consent of their master. This restriction had long-term consequences on colonial population growth. At the end of their indenture, servants received their freedom and "freedom dues," which consisted at various times and different locations of land, clothing, corn, tobacco, a musket, blankets, or tools—or some combination of these.


Indentured servants played a critical role in the process of populating the North American colonies, and their motivation to migrate changed over time. Estimated to have made up 75 percent of the seventeenth-century migrants, servants were critical both to population growth and to successful tobacco cultivation in the Upper South. They continued to arrive in significant numbers during the eighteenth century, especially in the middle colonies. Most seventeenth-century servants were drawn from the mass of the increasingly mobile English population unable to find work because of enclosure, economic instability, and overpopulation. Eighteenth-century bound migrants came from more diverse backgrounds and for a variety of reasons. With many of the previous century's challenges in England resolved by the eighteenth century, English servant migration waned. Scottish Covenanters and Jacobites from the 1715 and 1745 uprisings were deported to American plantations as an expediency. Irish from Ulster traveled out of Belfast as indentured servants and redemptioners. Restrictions on Irish trade, the rack-renting of absentee landlords, and anti-Catholic fervor made survival in Ireland difficult and many saw emigration as an appealing alternative. Famine in the late 1720s gave particular impetus to emigration. Germans from the Rhineland and Palatinate, having survived decades of war, found themselves persecuted for their Protestant practices as the eighteenth century unfolded. The British government also sent thirty-two-hundred Germans to New York in 1710, hoping to provide a labor force to produce naval stores. Convict laborers were also more common in the later period. An estimated two-thirds of British felons were transported between 1715 and 1775, with estimated total numbers varying from twenty thousand to fifty thousand. There was a particularly intensive period of migration between the end of the Seven Years' War and the American Revolution (1763–1775).

changes in occupation

As the southern colonies came to rely upon African slave labor in the eighteenth century, the type of labor in which indentured servants engaged and their opportunities for advancement changed. Most worked as agricultural laborers during the seventeenth century, learning the skills they hoped would one day enable them to establish their own farms. Although seventeenth-century bound laborers faced grueling conditions and high mortality rates, their opportunities for advancement and economic independence were reasonable. By the end of the early eighteenth century, however, reduced availability of land, a more complex economy combining agriculture, nascent industries, urban commercial ventures, and a more diverse and plentiful supply of labor changed the nature of servitude and the opportunities for freed servants.

While some servants still engaged in agricultural work, the shift to slave labor meant that they increasingly worked as skilled laborers and in supervisory positions on farms or plantations. Indentured servants appeared with much greater frequency in craft shops and as workers for merchants and retailers either in their businesses or as domestic workers. In White Servitude in Colonial America (1981), David W. Galenson noted a rise in the eighteenth century in the percentage of servants who had skills. An estimated 60 percent of registered servants during the period from 1725 to 1750 described themselves as skilled, and that proportion jumped to 85 percent in the 1770s. Similarly, servants identifying themselves as having an agricultural background declined significantly. In northern Maryland, servants worked alongside slaves and wage laborers in the growing iron industry. In cities like Philadelphia, servants made up an increasing proportion of workers in small craft shops and in domestic trades. Bound labor in Philadelphia peaked in the mid-eighteenth century, when it accounted for nearly half of the city's workforce. (This percentage includes slave labor.) During this period, artisans purchased two-thirds of the indentured servants in the city. Given high wage rates for journeyman workers, servants were a better economic investment and were more manageable in the domestic shop structure at that time.

waning of servitude

An important shift occurred during the Revolutionary period, especially in cities such as Philadelphia. With growing economic instability, increasing stratification of wealth, and the gradual move toward a more capitalist wage-labor economy, the proportion of bound laborers in the city shrank while that of wage laborers grew. Artisans no longer purchased long-term servants because their cost grew while that of wage laborers fell. The greater number of journeymen unable to raise the capital for their own businesses provided a ready supply of wage earners whose costs were tied to supply and demand. Wage laborers also permitted a greater flexibility in hiring that was valuable during periods of economic instability. Sharon Salinger has noted that in Philadelphia less than 15 percent of those who owned servants were artisans by 1791. As they disappeared from craft shops, servants appeared with greater frequency in the homes and businesses of merchants and retailers. This transition also signaled the end of a need for skilled servants. Servants now functioned as unskilled workers and domestic help. Concomitantly, those masters seeking servants requested and purchased female servants in much greater numbers.

The shift to a market economy after the American Revolution and in the early nineteenth century signaled the demise of bound labor (apart from slaves) as an appealing choice for employers. The market revolution guaranteed the dominance of wage labor in areas where slaves were not owned, and the practice of indenture became less economically viable and desirable for most immigrants and workers.

See alsoEconomic Development; Immigration and Immigrants .


Ekirch, A. Roger. Bound for America: The Transportation of British Convicts to the Colonies, 1718–1775. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Galenson, David W. "'Middling People' or 'Common Sort'?: The Social Origins of Some Early Americans Reexamined, with a Rebuttal by Mildred Campbell." William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., 35 (1978), 499–524.

——. White Servitude in Colonial America: An Economic Analysis. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

Heavner, Robert Owen. Economic Aspects of Indentured Servitude in Colonial Pennsylvania. New York: Arno Press, 1978.

Herrick, Cheesman A. White Servitude in Pennsylvania: Indentured and Redemption Labor in Colony and Commonwealth. Philadelphia: McVey, 1926.

Salinger, Sharon. "Artisans, Journeymen, and the Transformation of Labor in Late Eighteenth-Century Philadelphia." William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., 40 (1983): 62–84.

——. "To Serve Well and Faithfully": Labour and Indentured Servants in Pennsylvania, 1682–1800. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

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

Alexa Silver Cawley

Indentured Servants

views updated May 14 2018


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.

See alsoApprenticeship ; New Smyrna Colony ; Slavery ; andvol. 9:The History and Present State of Virginia ; Indentured White Slaves in the Colonies .

Indentured Servants

views updated May 18 2018


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 (17751783).

See also: Slavery