indentured servants in america -- 7/11/22

Today's selection -- from The Economy of Colonial America by Edwin J. Perkins. Given the vast lands of America, and the scarcity of labor to work those lands, colonists sought every available means to bring labor to the New World. Early on, a substantial portion was through indentured servitude:

"[The strategy of enlarging] the supply of workers through the acquisition of in­dentured servants and slaves proved irresistible. Vast acreage was of only modest value without complementary laborers to clear the fields, plant the seeds, nurture their growth, and harvest the crops.

"Before 1680, when Virginia and Maryland were undergoing the early waves of settlement, the most common form of bound labor was the white indentured servant. Indeed, up to two-thirds of the English migrants who came to Virginia between 1630 and 1680 ar­rived in servile status. In return for the cost of a complete outfit of clothes, a steady diet, and transportation across the Atlantic, the servant signed a legal contract, or indenture, which permitted the sale of his or her labor to the highest bidder in the colonies for a pe­riod usually running from 4 to 7 years. Estimates of outfitting and transportation costs vary from £6 to £10 ($540-$900), or about 75 to 130 percent of median incomes in the Chesapeake in the seven­teenth century. The labor contracts of servants sold at varying prices depending on the age, sex, length of contract, skills of the servant, and on the local demand for bound labor. The contract normally specified the conditions of work and stipulated that the servant was entitled to fair treatment, including an adequate diet, sufficiently warm clothing, decent lodging, and, for males, a gener­ous supply of alcohol.

"Most contracts called for the payment of a sizable bonus, either in land or in money, upon the successful completion of the labor term. This feature provided an incentive for servants to remain faithful workers throughout the indenture. In the seventeenth cen­tury, these freedom dues gave thousands of indentured servants the means to become eventually independent farmers and property holders. Gloria Main estimates the typical payment at £3.5 ($315) in the early eighteenth century in Maryland.

"The institution of indentured servitude, a temporary status somewhere between slavery and freedom, was perfectly acceptable in colonial society. The system was unique to the English colonies, with characteristics in common with the apprenticeship tradition in Europe, whereby adolescents bound themselves to an employer in return for an opportunity to learn the skills of a given trade, and with the English system of life-cycle servitude in husbandry as out lined in recent work by Ann Kussmaul. In the colonies, servant contracts were normally acquired by farmers who sought males to provide extra labor in the field and females to assist in caring for children and routine household chores.

"In the Chesapeake region, servants made a good return cargo for vessels engaged in the tobacco trade. Most were young, the major­ity males, between the ages of 15 and 25. Although a few isolated cases involved kidnappings, the vast majority entered into contracts voluntarily. Scholars are still debating the social origins of inden­tured servants; the most recent evidence indicates that they were drawn from a wide spectrum of British society and in fairly equal numbers from the ranks of farmers and artisans, unskilled laborers, and domestic servants. The one clear exception to the generaliza­tion about the voluntary character of indenture relates to the roughly 30,000 criminals languishing in English jails who were transported to the colonies for sale between 1718 and 1775. This criminal clement represented about 10 percent of the total transat­lantic trade in servants.

"For most indentures who came to North America voluntarily, the lure was the potential benefits of a new life in an atmosphere where labor was in heavy demand and where the opportunity to reside on land owned by the household unit, after a few years of servitude, was genuine. At home in Europe, the likelihood of eventually ris­ing to the status of landowner was almost nil. Moreover, servants were actually selling only a claim on their surplus production, for in this era of relatively low per capita output, most of the fruits of their labor were normally returned in the form of food, clothing, shelter, health care, and freedom dues. By the late eighteenth century, around three-quarters of their output went toward routine mainte­nance. Despite their servile status, the living standards of colonial indentures were probably not much, if at all, below the conditions they had experienced back home. From an economic standpoint, their short-run sacrifices were minimal and their long-run opportu­nities for advancement much enhanced.

An indenture signed by Henry Mayer, with an "X", in 1738. This contract bound Mayer to Abraham Hestant of Bucks County, Pennsylvania, who had paid for Mayer to travel from Europe.

"The competitive features of the indenture market have been outlined in recent work by David Galenson, Robert Heavner, and Farley Grubb. In general, they have argued that variations in indenture contracts were based on rational economic considerations. In analyzing a sample of nearly 3,000 extant contracts housed in London, Galenson found that the terms of a given contract were the result of negotiation between the potential immigrant and a host of merchant contractors. Workers who were likely to be the most productive -- on the basis of such factors as knowledge of a valuable trade or more advanced age (above 25) -- were in the best position to bargain for shorter contracts and higher freedom dues. Galenson listed literacy as a positive factor in the servant's bargain­ing position. But Heavner's research on the Philadelphia market in the 1770s suggested that literacy had little effect on the value of la­bor contracts. In Galenson's sample the literacy rate for men was al­most 70 percent, a rate considerably higher than for the English population as a whole. Just over one-half of the servants in his sam­ple listed trades, with the percentage rising with the age of individuals.

"Other factors affecting the length of the indenture were the im­migrants' selected destination and their sex. Youths under the age of twenty who chose the West Indies sugar islands, where the op­portunities to acquire land were diminishing and the climate was less healthful, bargained for shorter contracts than youths headed for the mainland. In the seventeenth century females received terms about one and a half years shorter than males. Buyers valued them more highly at the time because of the great imbalance of the sexes in the Chesapeake. By the eighteenth century, however, the sex ratio was moving into equilibrium, and females served only a few months less than males. By the 1770s, in fact, Grubb found that Irish women normally served slightly longer terms than their male counterparts.

"In the tobacco colonies, planters constantly complained about the poor quality of their servant labor. Masters invariably described their white indentures as lazy, ignorant, and alcoholic idlers, who were universally ungrateful, unruly, and irresponsible. In the eight­eenth century, planters depicted black slaves in virtually identical words, which suggests that the status of subservience alone could explain the persistence of contemptuous white attitudes toward black slaves in eighteenth-century America, and for years thereafter.
Masters could use corporal punishment and could go to court to enforce the terms of a labor contract. If a servant failed to perform assigned duties clearly within the scope of the indenture agree­ment. or attempted to flee, or when a female servant became preg­nant by someone other than her employer, the master could ask a judge to impose penalties. Whippings could be ordered for mem­bers of both sexes. The most serious penalty was an extension of a servant's contract for additional years; merely the threat of exten­sion was usually sufficient to keep most servants in line.

"At the same time, the indentured servant, unlike slaves, had the option of taking a cruel and overbearing master to court for breach of contract. Servants typically asked judges to instruct masters to abide by the terms of the indenture or, if serious injury had already occurred, to reduce the length of service. Pregnant servants raped by their owners could sue for child support. Suits for the nonpayment of freedom dues were fairly common.

"After 1680 black slaves steadily replaced indentured servants as the primary source of bound labor in the southern colonies. Although the number of English departing for the mainland colonies declined sharply from 1690 to 1760, Scotch-Irish and German migration rose substantially, especially into Pennsylvania. Many new arrivals were actually redemptioners, persons who brought their own clothing and supplies but had insufficient funds to pay the full price of a trans­atlantic passage. In these cases, the term of their labor contract was adjusted to correspond with the amount still due for transportation to the colonies. A fair number of German redemptioners came in family units and went into service that way."



Edwin J. Perkins


The Economy of Colonial America


Columbia University Press


Copyright 1988 Columbia University Press


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