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History Beyond The Textbook
Indentured Servitude
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History Beyond The Textbook
Introduction
Indentured servants, or bonded laborers,
played a large role in the creation of the
British colonies in America.
Most of these laborers made their way to
the southern colonies, where they were
put to work cultivating tobacco and other
cash crops.
After serving their term of service these
settlers would be the ones who would
venture west in search of new land to
farm and would form the foundation of
early American society.
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History Beyond The Textbook
Origins
Indenture Marks
The term indentured servant gets its
name from the indenture, or mark
that was made on two copies of the
contract that was signed by the
master and servant.
To prevent one of the parties from
trying to alter the contract, the two
copies of the contract were laid on
top of each other and identical marks
were made.
If anyone questioned the contract, the
two pieces of paper would be placed
on top of each other again in order to
try and match up the marks.
This contract has been
marked, but not yet
indentured.
A contract that has
been indentured.
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Supply & Demand
In the early part of the 1600’s there were
many unemployed people in England as
well as other European countries.
At the same time, the Virginia Company
was beginning to make money raising
tobacco. But with a shortage of laborers
to plant and pick the crop, settlers were
unable to meet the demand back in
Europe.
Company agents quickly began to
advertise a new life in America in
exchange for a few years of bonded
labor.
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History Beyond The Textbook
The Deal
An indentured servant contract was
usually pretty simple. The servant would
agree to a term of service (usually four
years for skilled workers and seven years
for unskilled workers) in exchange for
passage to America, food, shelter,
clothing along with freedom dues at the
end of their contract.
The freedom dues usually consisted of
clothing, two hoes, three barrels of corn
and fifty acres of land. To the
unemployed and hopeless people of
Europe, the opportunity to own their
own land and learn a skill were
irresistible.
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History Beyond The Textbook
The Journey
The journey to America took about two months
and was a very difficult one, especially for the
poor settlers traveling to the colonies.
Servants were given rations of food every two
weeks. If the servant were to finish their food
before the next distribution of rations, they faced
starvation.
Many passengers died from diseases and illness
that would often sweep through the ships
carrying settlers to the colonies.
Servants made the journey in
the steerage or hold of the ship
where there were cramped
conditions and little privacy.
Upon arrival in the colonies, the ship’s captain
would be repaid by the master or company agent.
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Who Were Indentured Servants?
People of all ages and races came to America as indentured
servants. However, most of the people who came were young
men between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five.
Some of the first indentured servants in Jamestown arrived
about 1619 on a Dutch ship carrying African slaves captured
from a Portuguese ship. While some of the Africans were sold
as slaves, about half were sold as indentured servants.
It is estimated that during the 1600’s, more than 300,000
settlers arrived in the colonies as indentured servants. In fact,
75 percent of the settlers in Virginia during the 17th century
had come as servants.
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History Beyond The Textbook
Treatment
The treatment of indentured servants depended on their
masters. Servants were considered their master’s
property.
The most common punishment was to have time added
to your term of service. Servants were also flogged, or
whipped (usually twelve times).
Women were sometimes raped by their masters. If a
child resulted from the attack, the servant could have
more than a year added to her contract.
Young boys were often
given the task of whipping
those who broke the rules.
Servants were forbidden to marry or have children
during their term and were also unable to trade or sell to
freemen. Indentured servants could not even travel
without written permission from their masters.
Minors who became indentured servants were often
cheated and forced to work for far more than the usual
seven-year maximum.
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History Beyond The Textbook
Enforced Servitude & Redemptioners
Bonded laborers came to the colonies in a variety of
ways. Many were brought against their wills.
A person who committed a crime back in England
could be sentenced to a term of servitude in America.
This involved tens of thousands of criminals, many of
whom became the first settlers of Georgia.
Another way a person could become an indentured
servant was known as redemption. Redemptioners
often included families from Germany and Switzerland
and Ireland, who would sell their labor upon arrival in
the colonies. Many of these people settled in
Pennsylvania and the western regions of Maryland and
Virginia.
Diary entry regarding Samuel
Mau, a redemptioner from
Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
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Racism & Servitude
By the middle of the 1600’s the colonial
governments began to treat servants who were
white different then those of African descent.
A 1640 court case was the first to establish that
only Africans could be held in slavery for life.
In 1662, a law was passed in Virginia (and later in
other colonies) that stated that a child born to a
black woman automatically became the property of
the master. This practice would come to be known
as generational slavery.
Laws were also passed that forbid intermarrying
between races along with others that allowed for
much harsher treatment of black servants.
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Slavery Replaces Indentured Servants
While the practice of indentured servitude
would continue well into the 19th century, the
practice was already beginning to be replaced
by the end of the 1600’s. One of the factors that
led to the slowing of the practice occurred in
1676 when many indentured servants along
with poor farmers rallied behind Nathaniel
Bacon who led a rebellion against wealthy
planters who controlled much of the available
land. A second uprising In Maryland a year
later would mark a sharp decline in the number
of indentured servants brought from Europe.
Instead, southern planters and merchants in the
north turned to the African slave trade as a
source of cheap, lifelong labor.
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IndenturedServitude - Teaching American History