Close this page to return to the previous page
Indentured Servitude in America
17th and 18th century
As many as half of the Europeans who arrived in North America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries may have come as indentured servants. As such, they were not free to move where they wanted, marry, or work for themselves. They had "bound out" their labor and their lives for four to seven years to somebody in the colonies whom they had never seen before.
. . . One of the most important comparisons the student may wish to make while reading this and the following selection is between the quality of life for the white indentured servant and that for the black slave. Both servant and slave endured a debilitating and disorienting Atlantic passage; both faced not only physical acclimatization in North America but psychological adjustment to a new condition; and both were locked into an intimate and oppressive contact with a hitherto unknown master. Of course there were major differences between servitude and slavery. The slave was bound for life and the servant for a limited period of time. The children of slaves inherited their parents' status, whereas children of servants were born free. And the slave, if freed, faced many more obstacles than the indentured servant who had served his or her time. But the large number of servants who ran away or committed suicide suggests that the conditions of life during the period of bondage may not have been so different for the servant and the slave.
. . . Certainly a good many more than half of all persons who went to the colonies south of New England were servants in bondage to planters, farmers, speculators, and proprietors. The tobacco economy of Virginia and Maryland was founded upon the labor of gangs of indentured servants, who were substantially replaced by slaves only during the course of the eighteenth century.
. . . In law an indenture was a contract in which the servant promised faithful service for a specified period of time in return for his housing and keep and, at the end of his term of work, that small sum of things, known as "freedom dues," which his master promised him upon their parting. The typical term was four or five years, although it might run anywhere from one or two years to seven. Longer terms were commonly specified for children, and were calculated to bring them to freedom at or just past the time they reached majority. Most indentures followed a standard pattern: as early as 1636 printed forms were available, needing only a few details to be filled out by the contracting parties. Often an emigrant's original indenture was made out to a merchant or a ship's captain and was sold with its holder to an employer on arrival. Indentures became negotiable instruments in the colonies, servants bound under their terms being used to settle debts, even gambling debts. In theory the contract protected the servant from indefinite exploitation, but in practice it had quite limited powers. It was a document vulnerable to loss, theft, or destruction, and when one considers both the fecklessness and inexperience of most indentured servants and the lack of privacy under which they lived, it is little wonder that their contracts often disappeared.
. . . As for the indentured servants, the dismal estimate that only two out of ten may have reached positions of moderate comfort is an attempt to generalize the whole two centuries of the experience of English servitude, taking the seventeenth century when the system was brutal and opportunities were few with the eighteenth, when it became less severe. In the early years more servants returned to England, and mortality was also higher. But it will not do simply to assume that freed servants, especially those from the tobacco fields, were in any mental or physical condition to start vigorous new lives, or that long and ripe years of productivity lay ahead for them. If we consider the whole span of time over which English indentured servitude prevailed, its heavy toll in work and death is the reality that stands out.