Indentured Servitude in Colonial America
Indentured Servitude in Colonial America
Indentured servants helped out a great deal in the British colonization of North America, more so than the aristocracy. An estimated one-half to two-thirds of the English immigrants were indentured between the 1630s and the American Revolution. They came in search of work and the ownership of land. Becoming an indentured servant had a price: the long ride to the colonies, the working conditions, and the treatment they endured from their masters. After decades of this system in place, it finally came to an end around the time of the American Revolution. There are many theories as to why the system went out of practice, from slavery being cheaper to there being less of a draw for immigrants to join servitude.
Two of the major motivations behind moving to the colonies were the promises of land and work. In England, only those of the aristocracy owned land and by going to America not only did people have an increased chance of owning land, they also would have guaranteed immediate employment, housing, and food upon arrival. The earliest immigrants to the American colonies had the best chance at obtaining their promised land after serving their expected terms of servitude. After the first few decades of colonization, the price of land rose quite considerably. This still did not deter people from going into servitude.
The people that signed into servitude were under no illusion that their future would be unconditional any more than their freedom was back in England. People from England were not the only people drawn to this new life. Many Europeans from other countries became servants too. Many German immigrants came as “redemptioners". Redemptioners were a type of indentured servant that instead of forming their contract before the voyage to the colonies, they would have to make them after they arrived and before they were allowed off of the ship. Redemptioners were particularly vulnerable to abuse; other European countries did not have the same types of laws in place that would protect them from transporters and the people making the contracts from taking advantage of them. Some abuse that they would faced included being kidnapped and forced into the service, or being lied to by recruiters.
Europeans were not the only ones who entered servitude; native people were tied into it as well. Native people mainly became part of servitude because they became so dependent on European goods. They also became restricted from their resources by the change in their environment caused by the Europeans. By the mid-18th century, close to a third of all native people that were in Rhode Island were indentured servants working in white households. Servitude was becoming such a large part of the native peoples live that between the 1730s and 1760s, some tribes petitioned the courts complaining about predatory lending of servitude by Europeans in their area. Statutes were eventually applied to help prevent and regulate the practice. Even during military enlistment, natives would go into servitude. During King George’s War in 1746, out of 980 men, 139 of those men were native and out of the men, close to half of those me had signed their wages over to creditors before leaving to war.
In servitude, people had to live alongside their masters. Although servants did have access to courts at the time, they still ran the risk of the courts falling in favor with their masters. This happened frequently since the landowners and the courts were each other’s peers and they were less likely to relate to the servants. If they were found guilty or their complaints frivolous they were subject to extend the time in servitude, and/or faced corporal punishment. This threat of punishment reduced the likelihood of a servant seeking out justice, on the chance that if they did so they could also be punished or threatened. It also was not unusual for cases that involved abuse or neglect to be found in favor of the master which would cause an unfavorable judgment for the servant.
The southern plantations and the Caribbean had the most unlivable situations for servants. Indentured servants worked along slaves but were driven harder, the reason being that the master only had them for a limited time and wanted to get as much as they could out of them before their required time was up. As for the slaves they had them for their entirety of their life and they wanted to make sure they would stay alive to get the most out of them. As quoted from William Eddis on his opinion on the treatment of servants and slaves in the South: "Negroes being a property for life, the death of slaves, in the prime of youth or strength, is a material loss to the proprietor; they are, therefore, almost in every instance, under more comfortable circumstances than the miserable European, over whom the rigid planter exercises an inflexible severity. They are strained to the utmost to perform their allotted labor; and, from a prepossession in many cases too justly founded, they are supposed to be receiving only the just reward which is due to repeated offenses.” The South and the Caribbean had the most appalling living conditions of any person that worked in all plantations.
There are multiple reasons and theories behind the decline and ultimate end of indentured servitude. It was becoming harder for masters and sea captains to hold servants to their contracts when they had finally reached the colonies. Because people who profited from the sale of contracts were having such a hard time selling them, the demand for servants might have begun to fall. The rise per capita in England was making the cost of travel more affordable to people who would have been more likely to become servants as they were now able to pay for their own passage. People who would have been in need to hire servants were beginning to find substitutes for their employments. Slavery was much cheaper than servants and the masters did not have to worry about giving servants their freedom dues. The end of debtors' prisons may have increased the decline, servants could agree to the captain's contract as when they arrived they could refuse the work and there would be no repercussions. Increased lobbying from immigrant aid societies led to increased regulation of the indentured labor market, further increasing the difficulty of enforcing contracts. With less ability to enforce the contracts, demand for indentured servants may have fallen. However, most debtor prisons were still in service when indentured servitude disappeared and many regulations on indentured servitude were put in place well before the disappearance. Slaves were cheaper than unskilled servants. With paid labor you could fire an employee and not be out of cost of an indentured servant. White indentured servants were harder to capture compared to the African slaves if they ran away. Servitude laid the foundation of slavery, first in Virginia and then Barbados
With the beginning of political and economic change, indentured servitude fell out of favor and gave way to more favorable and cheaper slavery. With the quick increase in population immigration was not able keep up to the demand of servants. The price for a servant increased to 60% in some locations but this did not affect the people coming to the colonies. The servants were still given the same amount for their services and the cost for bring them to the colonies stayed the same; the only thing that changed was the demand. The captains of the ship did not take this into consideration so there was no incentive for people to come to the colonies.
Servitude at the beginning was a rite of passage for new immigrants traveling to the colonies. People in servitude did their best at starting new homes by making farms and plantations in hopes of making the new land viable. Servitude actually left a bigger legacy as they helped make America distinctly known as the land of opportunity.
 David W. Galenson, “The Rise and Fall of Indentured Servitude in the Americas: An Economic Analysis” .The Journal of Economic History, Vol. 44, No. 1 (Mar., 1984), pp. 9
 Mathew Pursell, “Colonial Servitude And The “Unfree” Origins Of America.” Southern Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of the South, Spring/Summer 2014): 55-85.
 David Silverman, “The Impact of Indentured Servitude on the Society and Culture of Southern New England Indians 1680-1810.” The New England Quarterly 74, no. 4 (2001): 622-66.
 John Sansbury, "Indian Labor in Early Rhode Island." The New England Quarterly 48, no. 3 (1975): 378-93
 Merril D. Smith, “Encyclopedia of Rape.” Greenwood Publishing Group, 2004, 150-160.
 William Eddis, “Letters from America”The Founders' Constitution, 20 Sept. 1770, 17 Feb. 1772, Land 35--41, 63--65, http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/v1ch15s6.html
 Russell R. Menard, “From Servant to Freeholder: Status Mobility and Property Accumulation in Seventeenth - Century Maryland” 37-64, 10.2307/1923702
 Galenson 11
David W. Galenson, “The Rise and Fall of Indentured Servitude in the Americas: An Economic Analysis” Cambridge University Press, March 1984
Mathew Pursell, “Colonial Servitude And The “Unfree” Origins Of America.” Southern Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of the South, Spring/Summer 2014
David Silverman, “The Impact Of Indentured Servitude on the Society and Culture of Southern New England Indians 1680-1810.” The New England Quarterly 74, no. 4 (2001)
John Sansbury, "Indian Labor in Early Rhode Island." The New England Quarterly 48, no. 3 (1975)
Mender, Russell R.“From Servant to Freeholder: Status Mobility and Property Accumulation in Seventeenth - Century Maryland.” The William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd Ser., Vol. 30, No.1 Chesapeake Society (January 1973), 37-64
William Eddis, “Letters From America” 20 Sept. 1770, 17 Feb. 1772
Merril D. Smith, “Encyclopedia of Rape.” Greenwood Publishing Group, 2004