Indentured Servants and the Pursuits of Happiness

Crandall Shifflett
Virginia Tech

Indentured 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.

Indentures 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 written contract, if it existed, was a legally enforceable agreement. Its terms usually meant a period of service—typically four to seven years—in 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.

Labor recruiters 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.

The indentured 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.

Historians have sifted the evidence on the social origins of Chesapeake servants. Although the record is thin—we have evidence on about 15,000 of the roughly 120,000 indentured servants who came to Virginia and Maryland in the seventeenth century—we 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 ship—provides information on the largest single group (10,000). Click to See a Larger ViewThe 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.

The terms 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.

For most 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.

In the 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.

Not surprisingly, 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.