Servitude . Many Europeans came to North America under the condition that they perform several years of in-voluntary labor to pay for their transportation to the New
World. These men and women were known as indentured servants, or in the case of the Germans, redemptioners. In the major port cities of Great Britain many jobless individuals signed contracts to work for a term of years, at the end of which time they might be paid a freedom wage—a small amount of money, some tools, or simply the clothes on their back. Conditions of servitude varied widely; some servants were able to become independent farmers or artisans at the end of their terms. Others, unable to improve their fortunes, simply signed on for another term. Indentures had been quite common in the 1600s, and servants formed the backbone of the labor force in the Chesapeake region. But as slave prices declined in the late 1600s and early 1700s, white servants were gradually displaced as the main source of plantation labor. Even so, many artisans, displaced farmers, and young people without prospects signed on for terms of four to seven years. The port cities served as great clearinghouses for these servants. They waited by the docks or in boardinghouses to be taken to interior farms, where they were put to work.
German Redemptioners . More than seventy thousand German redemptioners arrived in Philadelphia before U.S. independence. They swarmed around the wharf area and as they were taken away to work on farms were quickly replaced on the docks by newer arrivals. German servants were called redemptioners because the captain of the ship that brought them over had to personally sell their labor contracts, thereby “redeeming” the cost of their passage. In 1775 hundreds of desperate redemptioners were packed into dockside boardinghouses run by German widows, waiting for someone to purchase their labor. Warehoused under these conditions for months, they suffered greatly, and many died of malnutrition and diseases. They also passed diseases to the natives and increased the death rate in the city.
Decline of White Indentures . Only the dynamic birth-rate among the youthful population of the colonies offset these horrendous losses. As Patriots began to demand an end to their “slavery” to the British Crown, many North Americans, black and white, were working in conditions
of servitude. Indentured servitude came to an end only gradually in the nineteenth century as the fares for the transatlantic crossing decreased. Immigrants could then save enough money to travel to America without a price on their heads.
AN IMMIGRANT’S TALE
A story of a typical immigrant of the 1770s reflects the circumstances of a man leaving his isolated rural home in search of work, with no intention of going to America, and with every intention of returning to his native place after finding work away from home. The North American colonies became another stop on the ever-widening circuit of the unemployed of Europe. John Harrower, a Scot, found work on the New World periphery but did not live to return home. Harrower was a shopkeeper and tradesman from the town of Lerwick in the Shetland Islands. He left home “in search of business” carrying eight and one-halfpence in cash and three pounds worth of wool stockings he hoped to sell along the way. He hoped to find work in the cities of Great Britain or Holland, earn some money, and return home. He tramped unsuccessfully around Scotland, finding nothing, then made his way south, walking eighty miles from Portsmouth to London.
The English capital was overflowing with skilled but unemployed workers like himself, many of them reduced to beggary. Having exhausted his meager funds, Harrower sold himself into four years of indentured servitude on a Virginia plantation.
After a month at sea on the ship Planter Harrower was handed over to a merchant who dealt in indentured servants. The tobacco planter Col. William Daingerfield, needing a tutor for his children, bought Harrower’s four years. Harrower was relatively fortunate; he was treated with kindness and respect. Harrower apparently liked the New World, for he put aside some money and planned to bring his wife and children over to Virginia. But his plans came to naught, and he was still a servant when he died in 1777.
Aaron S. Fogleman, Hopeful Journeys: German Immigration, Settlement, and Political Culture in Colonial America, 1717-1775 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1996);
David W. Galenson, White Servitude in Colonial America: An Economic Analysis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981).
Colonizing the New World required hard labor. Governments and investors who wanted to profit from the New World's resources needed people to build and run communities, farms, and trades. Indentured servitude, and then slavery , were the primary means of obtaining that labor.
In 1606, the Virginia Company first tried to attract settlers to the New World by offering company stock, or a share of the company's profits. The method failed when the company had no profits to share with the settlers after seven years.
In 1618, the Virginia Company tried attracting settlers using a new method called the headright system. For Englishmen who could pay for themselves and their families to travel to the New World, the company gave 50 acres (20 hectares) of land to the head of the family and additional land for every family member and servant he brought along. In exchange, the settler had to pay the company a share of profits he earned from the land. Headright systems were soon used by other companies throughout the New World, but it was difficult for the companies to collect all of their profits and difficult for the settlers to find enough labor to work the land.
Indentured servitude was a way to obtain labor for farming, production, and trade in the New World. Under the system, a landowner or producer paid to transport a person from Europe and to house, feed, and clothe him, usually for seven to fourteen years. In exchange, the person agreed to work for the landowner or producer for those years. At the end of the agreed on number of years, the person became a freeman and received from his former master a small amount of land, some money, tools of his trade, or just a set of clothes.
Many indentured servants could afford to travel to the New World but needed help establishing themselves once there. Most indentured servants came involuntarily as an alternative to punishment for crime or to escape debt or poverty. Many Germans came to the New World through a system called redemption. Under redemption, ship owners paid to transport German laborers to the New World and then sold them into servitude to redeem the cost of their passage.
The life of an indentured servant was hard. Servants had to do whatever work their masters required of them. Indentured servants, however, had more rights under the law than slaves. While some indentured servants had to extend their periods of service when they could not afford their freedom, others earned freedom after their period of service, an option unavailable to slaves who were held against their will for their entire lives.
Indentured servitude slowly came to an end in the nineteenth century. During the eighteenth century, slavery replaced servitude for operating plantations in the South, and during the nineteenth century, economies in the North, fueled by crafts, trades, and industry, attracted free labor from Europe as the cost of passage to the New World fell.
ear·nest1 / ˈərnist/ • adj. resulting from or showing sincere and intense conviction: an earnest student. PHRASES: in earnest occurring to a greater extent or more intensely than before: after Labor Day the campaign begins in earnest. ∎ (of a person) sincere and serious in behavior or convictions. DERIVATIVES: ear·nest·ly adv. ear·nest·ness n. ear·nest2 • n. a thing intended or regarded as a sign or promise of what is to come: the presence of the troops is an earnest of the world's desire not to see the conflict repeated elsewhere.