Indentured Servitude in Colonial America Research Paper

October 14, 2020 by Essay Writer


Indentured servitude is a complex and controversial phenomenon, which appears to be essentially barbaric to the modern public, primarily because of the fact that the servants were denied a number of rights and were considered to be the property of their purchasers (Lund 640). However, at the time of its existence in America, indentured servitude successfully fulfilled numerous functions that included supplying the workforce, facilitating immigration, and spreading knowledge and religion among the population (Friedman 44).

Despite being a relatively short-lived phenomenon that was soon almost substituted by African slavery, it has supported the economy of Colonial America. Moreover, indentured servitude played an important part in the socio-economic life of Europe as well. In order to demonstrate the significance of this phenomenon, its characteristic features are going to be described in this paper.

Indentured Servitude: Main Features

General Information

Even though indentured servitude did not entirely disappear until the nineteenth century, it may be said that the seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries were the period of its prosperity in Colonial America (Lund 639). An indentured servant is a person who had signed a written contract called indenture.

The contract described the terms of service: usually, a European person (most often male) wanted to be transported to America and in exchange, was ready to provide his or her services to a purchaser who was willing to buy the indenture. Most often, the servant would not receive any payment for the duration of the contract (the term was usually from four to seven years long), but the purchaser was expected to provide him or her with food and clothes (Monaghan 31).

For example in the Indenture Contract of William Buckland (1755) it was stated that upon transporting the man to Virginia, his purchaser Thomas Mason was supposed to provide him with “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” (par. 1).

Apart from that, occasionally, a payment of freedom dues was expected on the day of the contract termination: those could include money or land (Lund 639).

There exist different versions of indenture agreement, but as the practice became common, certain patterns were developed. As a result, preprinted documents could be used in standard situations (“Indenture agreement, 1742”).

For example, the Indenture Agreement of John Riad was mostly printed, and the phrase “of his own free Will and Accord put himself an Apprentice to Robert Livingston Jun of New York with him to live” included free space for the pronouns to be used (“Indenture agreement, 1742” par. 4). Similarly, the Indenture Contract of William Buckland, 1755, was mostly printed with space left for the name and the pronouns applicable.

It should be pointed out, however, that the indenture was not a labor contract in the modern sense. An indentured servant was deprived of many rights and was often a subject of abuse. Whether to consider them to be slaves in the proper meaning of the word is a controversial question, but there is no denying the fact that the life of an indentured servant could be easily complicated by his or her purchaser.

Reasons for the Phenomenon’s Existence

The main reason for the appearance of indentured servitude was the high demand for the labor force of American tobacco (and later sugar) plantations (Lund 639). Tobacco was extremely popular in Europe, and American lands were fertile, which meant that suppliers needed many workers.

At the same time, plantations were not the only option for indentured servants. It was not uncommon for them to take up other professions: men would often become apprentices of various trades; women became maids (Friedman 45). In general, from the point of view of America, indentured servitude was an excellent source of the workforce.

From the perspective of the migrants, going to America offered them a chance to improve their financial situation. The people who signed the contracts were often poor or broke (Monaghan 31). Many of them could also be described as victims of propaganda: recruiters did their best to attract people with unrealistic promises, which was obviously in their best interests (Friedman 45). In such a way, indentured servitude offered workforce and working opportunities

The Sources of the Workforce

It should be pointed out that indentures were not always signed willingly. Some of the indentured servants were criminals, and the servitude was their punishment for the crimes. Apart from that, kidnappings were not uncommon. Finally, orphans could become indentured servants as well, regardless of their wishes: in this case, the servitude became a crude kind of social work instrument (Friedman 44). For children, the period of servitude was usually longer than for adults (Monaghan 31).

Also, it is worth mentioning that at the beginning of the seventeenth century, Africans were treated as indentured servants in a number of colonies, for example, Chesapeake ones (Lund 640; Hoffer 130). At the time, racial slavery was only beginning to become popular. As a result, Africans could successfully end their service, become free men and, possibly, landowners.

Finally, the children of colonists could also become indentured servants. This was also regarded as a chance of educating youngsters both in the field of their work skills and religion (Lund 640). However, in any case, servants were deprived of many rights and often mistreated.

The Hardships of the Servitude

The servants were often subject to harsh discipline that was most often maintained with the help of corporal punishments (Monaghan 31). These people had no political rights and were not allowed to trade; apart from that, they were prohibited from marrying (Lund 639; Friedman 46).

Christian owners did not appreciate it when their female servants gave birth to bastard children and would mistreat such a woman. Apart from that, pregnancy was an inconvenience that did not allow a woman to perform her duties properly. As a result, the service term of a pregnant servant could be extended. As a kind of prevention measure, the extension period was longer than nine months (Hoffer 138).

As was pointed out, it was not uncommon for the owners to mistreat servants, beat and rape them, force them to starve, and provide inadequate clothing, medical service, or accommodation (Friedman 46). Legally the servants were the property of the purchaser (Lund 640). However, they had the right to sue their owners for mistreatment and were even known to win the cases (Friedman 46).

It is not surprising, therefore, that servants would often run away from their masters. For example, Benjamin Franklin managed to escape his older brother, whom he was sold to (Lund 640). Another runaway from New Jersey, William Morley, was less lucky and had to return to the owner (Lund 641). These cases were not unique. For example, the Maryland Gazette issued in May 1755 had three “wanted” notes about runaway servants. One of them states that an indentured servant named Patrick Smith has runway from his master.

The note is supplied with the description of the servant and the following promise: “whoever shall secure the said Patrick Smith, or convey him to the Subscriber, shall receive Ten Shillings, besides what the Law allows” (“Indenture agreement, 1742” par. 3). Finally, rebellions among dissatisfied workers also took place. The examples of such are the riot that took place in Virginia in 1675-1675 or the rebellion in Barbados that happened in the 1640s (Lund 641).

The Results for the Servants

Given the information above, it is evident that indentured servants had all the chances of dying of a disease or beatings (Friedman 44; Lund 640). Those who survived their service term did not always achieve the wealth they sought in America. For example, upon completing his term of service, the returned runaway William Morley could not find a place in Philadelphia and returned to Britain (Lund 641).

Others, for example, Daniel Dulany, who came to Maryland and became a lawyer like his former owner, managed to find jobs and success. In general, about half of the servants that came to America became free laborers, about 17% managed to turn into smallholders; just about 5% of them accumulated the wealth they searched for in the distant lands (Friedman 45; Lund 640).

The Changes in the Influx. The Alternative

The decline of indentured servants influx started in the second part of the seventeenth century. It was the consequence of several factors, one of the main of them being the declining tobacco prices (Lund 640). This process made American plantations less attractive to servants who most often intended to start a business at the end of their service. At the same time, in order to stay profitable in the situation of decreasing prices, tobacco producers needed to increase output and, consequently, the number of their workers with minimal expenses.

As we have already pointed out, Africans used to be treated as indentured servants at the beginning of the seventeenth century. That changed, however, as the popularity of African slavery increased. The process progressed rather fast: for example, in Richmond County (Virginia), slaves came to comprise almost half of the workforce within the period of twenty years between 1690 and 1710 (Hoffer 143). Similarly, slavery predominated in South Carolina in the 18th century (Lund, 640).

Obviously, the initial price of an indentured servant was lower; however, purchasing an African slave proved to be more profitable in the long run. Besides, an indentured servant was to be freed at the end of the term and was a potential rival, which decreased their value in the eyes of employers. At the same time, the quality of life in Europe rose, which meant that people had fewer reasons to leave their homelands (Monaghan 31). Apart from that, as colonization progressed, the chances of acquiring land and becoming a farmer were decreasing (Lund 640).

Indentured servants comprised a segment of America’s workforce in the eighteenth century, and the influx did not stop completely until the first part of the nineteenth century. However, the significance of this segment for the economy of the country was growing less and less notable until it disappeared (Friedman 46).

The Significance and the Impact of the Phenomenon

It should be mentioned that indentured servitude was apparently appreciated by the government as “planters received 50 acres of land under the headright system” for every indentured servant (Lund 640). Given the fact that America was in dire need of workforce, this policy becomes understandable.

However, as the information presented above shows, the indentured servitude was, in fact, a multifunctional socio-economic tool. To sum up, it was “a method of organizing labor, of financing immigration, a penal sanction, a way to train the young, a kind of welfare institution, and a crude instrument of credit” (Friedman 44). Consequently, it may be concluded that this was a most remarkable phenomenon for various aspects of both American and European societies at the time.


Indentured servitude was a notable phenomenon in the history of both America and Europe. Originally it was the response to the workforce demand that Colonial America experienced during the early decades of its existence. Apart from that, it was determined by the workforce offered by the impoverished population of Europe that regarded America as a chance of improving their financial situation. However, as the supply started to abate, a more profitable alternative was found to satisfy the said demand.

It is obvious that the modern society is appalled by the hardships that indentured servants had to go through; however, it should be pointed out that they were not completely defenseless, and their rights could be respected and defended in terms of the time. Having served its primary function along with a number of secondary ones, indentured servitude gradually faded away due to the changes in the environment without growing into slavery proper.

Works Cited

Indenture agreement, 1742.” The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History Website. The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. Web.

Indenture Contract of William Buckland, 1755.” Archives of Maryland Online Publication. Maryland State Archives. Web.

Friedman, Lawrence. A History of American Law. New York, New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005. Print.

Hoffer, Peter Charles. The Brave New World. Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006. Print.

Lund, John. “Indentured Servitude.” Encyclopedia of U.S. Labor and Working-Class History. Ed. Eric Arnesen. New York, New York: Routledge, 2007. 639-41. Print.

Monaghan, Tom. The Slave Trade. London, United Kingdom: Evans, 2008. Print.

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