servants have a long history in America. Since slaves replaced servants
as the major source of labor in the late seventeenth century, we tend
to forget that indentured servants continued to work into the early
nineteenth century. Indentured servants have an even greater longevity
as first symbols of the American dream, early icons in the persistent
discourse of American exceptionalism. Who were these men and women who
made up the ranks of indentured servants? How were they treated and
how did this experience in the formative period of their lives shape
the attitudes of later generations? These questions raise the much larger
issue of Jamestown's place in the formation of an early American culture.
were mortgages on the future, a promise made to work for the person
who paid one's freight and guaranteed passage to the New World. The
contract, if it existed, was a legally enforceable agreement. Its
terms usually meant a period of servicetypically four to seven
yearsin exchange for the cost of transportation, sustenance, and
shelter. By one estimate, three-fourths of the white population were
dependent laborers when they arrived in the New World. But for a variety
of reasons, many sailed without a contract in hand and took their chances
on working out an agreement once they arrived in Virginia or Maryland.
If they found no suitable employer, the ship's captain could sell them
to anyone he pleased.
promoted Virginia as a paradise on earth and an open society where laborers
were sure to become landholders. Yet in 1623, Richard Frethorne, writing
from Martin's Hundred, a settlement about ten miles from Jamestown,
begged his parents to redeem him or send him food. He wrote in the immediate
aftermath of one of the bloodiest Indian assaults in a series of retaliatory
attacks on settlements along the James River. Frethorne provided dramatic
first-person testimony of the settlers' fears of leaving the fort to
seek food, having become virtual hostages of local Indians who were
angry over unkept promises, encroachments upon their economy, and threats
to their culture. Frethorne
made the bitter claim that many Englishmen would give one of their limbs
to be back in England. Granted this was a low point in the history of
the colony; nevertheless it is a reminder that after a decade-and-a-half
of settlement, indentured servants were far from realizing the dream
of a better life in the Chesapeake Bay region, the dream that had lured
many to mortgage their futures.
servants' chances for success improved substantially after the Virginia
Company period. In 1624, after eighteen years of settlement, Jamestown's
population numbered only 1,200 people. But after 1625 and until the
end of the 1650s, a bullish tobacco market and high labor demand drove
the immigration rates upward to almost 2,000 per year. With cheap land
and low fixed-capital costs for tools and equipment, a man could start
at the bottom and with hard work, thrift, avoidance of legal troubles,
and good luck become a landholder and, perhaps, an officeholder. Even
without statistical evidence to measure how many fulfilled their terms
of service and became landholders, enough servants achieved status gains
to satisfy the aspirations of most and keep the dream alive. In the
last quarter of the seventeenth century, the switch to slavery further
added to the servants' sense of achievement, redemption through hard
work, and a new-found sense of superiority over black labor.
have sifted the evidence on the social origins of Chesapeake servants.
Although the record is thinwe have evidence on about 15,000 of
the roughly 120,000 indentured servants who came to Virginia and Maryland
in the seventeenth centurywe do know that they played a substantial
role in the formation of what might be called the charter culture. Most
were young (15-24), male (six men to every woman in 1635; three men
to every woman at the close of the century), and single. Mostly they
came from the same regions of England: London, the Southeast, and counties
extending from the Thames Valley to the West country. Common laborers,
skilled artisans, husbandmen, yeomen, and even an occasional gentleman
formed the occupational ranks of servants. In other words, they came
from a broad spectrum of working men and women, from the ranks of the
destitute and homeless through the lower-middle classes and sometimes
beyond. The Bristol
registration, a remarkable official record of the emigrant's name,
length of indenture, occupation, sex, place of origin and destination,
owner's name, and name of shipprovides information on the largest
single group (10,000). The
record was maintained at the Bristol port from 1654 until 1676 and,
although, incomplete, no earlier records exist of comparable value.
Population growth, conversion of arable land to pasturage, and recession
in the cloth industry drove thousands to consider emigration while the
Virginia Company in 1619 lured many of them with its misleading offer
of a headright: fifty acres of land to any servant who fulfilled the
terms of the contract. Many servants failed to understand that the headright
went to the person who paid the transportation.
of their contracts, laws regulating their behavior, and court records
and newspaper advertisements on those who ran away promise to open additional
windows on the conditions of indentured servitude. A number of laws
enacted in the seventeenth century governed the behavior of masters
and servants. These laws tell us a good deal about such matters as the
place of bonded labor in the social hierarchy, when race and slavery
came to be connected, and of the role of race and gender in early Virginia.
Restrictions had to be placed both upon masters against "barbarous"
treatment of their servants and upon servants against "fornication"
and "unapproved" marriages. Additionally, distinctions evolved
in the laws between Indians, slaves, and servants, between the baptized
and un-baptized, or Christians and heathens, and so between freedom
and slavery. The laws show as much if not more conflict between masters
and servants as between servants and slaves. Often slaves and servants
ran away together.
of the seventeenth century the lives of white indentured servants and
enslaved blacks were similar. They worked together in the fields; they
ate together and slept in the same part of a building. The changes in
day-to-day conditions really came after Nathaniel Bacon's rebellion
in 1676. But indentured servitude differed from slavery in one very
substantial way. Bondage in perpetuity carried with it (after 1662 in
Virginia) the condition of inheritance for every child born of a slave
mother. This set slavery apart from indentured servitude however similar
were the physical conditions of their lives. And, obviously, indenture
was contractual and consensual; slavery was forced and involuntary,
usually the result of capture and sale. Finally, the right of self-possession
and full control over the labor of one's hands cannot be overestimated.
practice of indenture, not uncommonly, owners treated servants like
slaves. Even those who did have contracts often found themselves at
the mercy of masters who abused them (especially in the case of women),
provided the bare minimum in terms of food, clothing and shelter, and
took their fifty-acre headright. Historians have noted how such abuse
and degradation was bound to shape attitudes of young servants who,
as they grew older, helped set later patterns of labor exploitation.
servants ran away. Without a published newspaper in the seventeenth
century, it is difficult to assess the extent of flight by indentured
servants. Court records will need to be thoroughly examined before we
can take a full measure of such unrest. But it is already clear from
a perusal of some county records that running away was taken quite seriously
by colonial officials and was met with harsh treatment, different from
that given to resistant slaves only in terms of when it was carried
out. Runaway servant entries in York County, Virginia records, for example,
reveal punishments of twenty, thirty, or more "lashes on his bare
shoulders" for a runaway servant, or additions of years, sometimes
twice the original number or more, to the first contract. The leniency
of treating the first sentence as a warning did distinguish indentured
servants from slaves. But it did little to stop runaways. In the eighteenth
century, hundreds of advertisements in the Virginia
Gazette newspaper provide a treasure trove of richly detailed
information on servant and slave runaways. When all of this evidence
is examined carefully, historians will have a fuller picture of the
practice of indentured servitude. Then we can begin to assess how the
practice shaped the attitudes and values of white laboring men and women
whose experience as servants certainly ingrained them to accept black
labor exploitation as a common feature of the American experience.
Suggestions For Further Reading
Bailyn, Bernard. Voyagers
to the West: A Passage in the Peopling of America on the Eve of the
Revolution. New York: Alfred Knopf, 1986.
Breen, T. H. and Stephen Innes. "Myne
Owne Ground:" Race and Freedom on Virginia's Eastern Shore, 1640-1676.
New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.
Campbell, Mildred. "Social Origins of Some
Early Americans." In Seventeenth-Century
America: Essays in Colonial History. Edited by James Morton Smith.
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1959.
Galenson, David W. White
Servitude in Colonial America: An Economic Analysis. New York:
Cambridge University Press, 1981.
Greene, Jack P. Pursuits
of Happiness: The Social Development of Early Modern British Colonies
and the Formation of American Culture. Chapel Hill: University
of North Carolina Press, 1988.
Horn, James. Adapting
to a New World: English Society in the Seventeenth-Century Chesapeake.
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994.
Kupperman, Karen Ordahl. "The Founding Years
of Virginia and the United States." The
Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, 104 (1996): 103-112.
Sacks, David Harris. The
Widening Gate: Bristol and the Atlantic Economy, 1450-1700. Berkeley:
University of California Press, 1991.