Indentured Servants

 

One of the more overlooked features of American history is just how expensive it was to immigrate to America.  The sea voyage could take up to two months, and the fare was not cheap.  Passengers would usually have to supply their own provisions during that time period.  After this expense most immigrants would arrive with not much more than the shirts on their backs.  Small wonder that indentured servant contracts, or articles of indenture, were so popular. 

Colonial America had a chronic labor shortage.  The population was small, and young men and women were always heading to the frontier to start new lives on cheap land.  Employers were therefore willing to eat the cost of bringing an immigrant to America for labor for a certain term, often for three or four years, although some states limited the term to two years.  In theory it was a practical solution to a labor shortage.  In practice, it often was unsatisfactory.  Indentured servants often complained about being overworked and underfed.  Employers often complained about lazy indentured servants who would run away to the frontier the first chance they had.  On the other hand some indentured servants were treated as if they were members of the family, and not infrequently ended up becoming actual members of the family through marriage.

As population density increased and the labor shortage became less acute, contracts of indenture became less popular and tended to be fairly rare after the American Revolution.  Here is a typical contract:

This Indenture, Made the Fourth
Day of August in the Twenty-ninth Year of the Reign of our Sovereign
Lord George the Second King of Great Britain, &, And in the Year of our Lord,
One Thousand Seven Hundred and fifty five __ Between William
Buckland of Baford Carpenter & Joiner of the one Part, and
Thomson Mason of London, Esq. of the other Part,
Witnesseth, That the said William Buckland
for the Consideration herein after-mentioned, hath, and by these Presents doth Cove-
nant, Grant, and Agree to, and with the said Thomas Mason Executors and
assigns, That He the said William Buckland shall and will, as a faithful Cove-
nant Servant, well and truly serve the said Thomas Mason his Executors and
assigns in the Plantation of Virginia beyond the Seas, for the Space
of Four Years, next ensuing his Arrival in the said Plantation in the Employ-
ment of a Carpenter and Joiner. And the said William Buckland doth hereby
Covenant and Declare him self, now to be the Age of Twenty two Years
Single and no Covenant or contracted Servant to any other Person or Per-
Sons, And the said Thomas Mason for himself his Executors
Or Assigns, in Consideration thereof, doth hereby Covenant, Promise And Agree to
and with the said William Buckland his Executors, and Assigns, that He the
said Thomas Mason his ___________________ Executors
or Assigns, shall and will at his or their own proper Costs and Charges, with
what convenient Speed they may, carry and convey, or cause to be carried and convey-
ed over unto the said Plantation, the said Wm Buckland __ and from
henceforth, and during the said Voyage, and also during the said Term, shall and will at
the like Costs and Charges, provide for and allow the said Wm Buckland all
necessary _____________ Meat, Drink, Washing, Lodging, ____________ fit
and convenient for Wm as Covenant Servants in such Cases are usually provided
for and allowed and pay and allow William Buckland
Wages on Salary at the Rate of Twenty Pounds
Sterling per Annum Payable Quarterly
And for the
true Performance of the Premisses, the said Parties, the these Presents bind themselves,
their Executors and Administrators, the either to the other, in the Penal Sum of
Forty Pounds Sterling, firmly by these Presents. In witness whereof,
they have hereunto interchanged by set their Hands and Seals, the Day and Year
above-written.
Sealed and Delivered
in the Presence of

 

Tho Hayes Wm Buckland
W Kidd
These are to certify, that the above-named Wm Buckland came
before Me Gyles Sone Deputy to the Patentee at London
the Day and Year above-written, and declared him self to be a Single Person
no Covenant or Contracted Servant to any Person or Persons; to be of the Age of
Twenty two Years; and to be desirous to serve the above-named
Thomas Mason or his Assigns Four Years, according
to the Tenor of the Indenture above-written. All which is Registered in the Office
for that Purpose, appointed by Letters Patents. In witness whereof, I have here-
unto affixed the Common Seal of the said Office.

Gyles Sone DL

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Published in: on December 1, 2010 at 5:30 am  Comments (4)  
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4 Comments

  1. Interesting post. Thank you for bringing up an interesting, yet rarely thought about topic.

  2. Thank you Hemlock. It really is an area that could use more research.

  3. Many buccaneers came from a background of indenture in the West Indies, particularly the French and English. These men experienced indenture that was more akin to the brutality of slavery and at least one, Francois L’Olonnais, became a sadistic madman after the experience. I often wonder is the darker side of the institution is what keeps indentured servitude out of main stream history.

  4. Fascinating Pauline! The West Indies was a living hell for most slaves and I can imagine it was little better for indentured servants working on a sugar plantation. The epic movie Captain Blood has Errol Flynn and his colleagues sentenced to the West Indies to perpetual indentured servitude for participation in Monmouth’s Rebellion in 1685 and then becoming buccaneers:


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