Indentured Servants, Indians, and Rum in Colonial Philadelphia

Dateline: Philadelphia, 1684-85: This time the combination and interaction turned out bad.

Prior to May 10, 1684, two years after Penn claimed what is now Pennsylvania, the inhabitants of Philadelphia, many of whom were Quakers, but not everyone, were forbidden to sell Indians rum. Whether people kept to this law is an open question. A black market may have been running. But I have not researched it.

In any case, the law can change.

The 26th day of the 1st month, 1684 (March 26, 1684)

In this entry in the minutes to the Provincial Council, the highest governing body in Pennsylvania, Penn thinks about relenting.

Modernized transcription begins:

A Bill was read that it should be left to the Governor and Provincial Council to discourse with the Indians concerning an agreement with them about letting them have rum.

The Governor put the question: “All that are of opinion that they foregoing Bills should pass, say yea”; passed in the affirmative.

Transcription ends.

So did the Indians put pressure on Governor and Proprietor Penn to relax the rules?

Probably. He cedes to their wishes, in the next entry.

The 10th day of the 3rd month, 1684 (May 10, 1684)

Modernized transcription begins:

“The governor [William Penn] informs the Council that he called the Indians together and proposed to them to let them have rum if they would be contented to be punished as the English were, which they did agree to, provided that the law of not selling rum be abolished.”

So the Indians can get their rum, if they are willing to be punished as the English were.

About a year later, things turn ugly. Indentured servants and their overseers abuse the Indians, at least how the Indians tell it.

The 21st day of the 5th month, 1685 (July 21, 1685)

Modernized transcription begins:

Several Indians made complaint to the Secretary [of the Council] of abuses they received from the servants of Jasper Farmer, at the said Jasper Farmer’s plantation, vizt.: their making the Indians drunk, then lying with their wives and of their beating both men and wives. The Secretary told them by the interpreters, Lasse Cock [a Swedish captain and Councilor] that the Council would sit on the 28th Instant [this year] and desired they would be there then, and the servants should be sent for; but they telling him they could not stay so long from hunting, but desired it might be on the 24th Instant, and them they would talk about the land not yet bought. The Secretary sent a summons to the servants by the sheriff, to appear the aforesaid 24th day, dated the 21st Instant, and likewise sent a letter to Capt. Holmes, President of the Council, to acquaint him of it, dated the 22nd Instant, sent by the sheriff to Capt. Holmes’s plantation.

Transcription ends.

An interesting sidebar: the whites in the neighborhood had not purchased their land from the Indians, and the Indians wanted this to be concluded. Quakers did not take land by improving it alone; they bought it from the Natives.

Then it looks like the Indians and servants got their appearance days mixed up.

The 27th day of the 5th month, 1685 (July 27, 1685)

Modernized transcription begins:

The Indians … made complaint against the servants of Jasper Farmer on the 21 Instant [this year] and appointed the 24th for a hearing before the Council, the Indians mistook the day and came not till the 25th Instant, and the sheriff’s messenger, with the summons to Jasper Farmer’s servants, losing his way in the woods, returned without summoning them to appear, upon both which disappointments, the Indians concluded to appear the 28th Instant, and accordingly the secretary sent a summons to John Skull, overseer to Jasper Farmer’s servants, for him and the servants to appear, especially John Belew.

Transcription ends.

Next, the overseer and indentured servants appear, but not the Indians.

The 28th day of the 5th month, 1685 (July 28, 1685)

Modernized transcription begins:

John Skull appeared with the servants of Jasper Farmer, according to a summons bearing date the 27th Instant, but the Indians being drunk in the woods and the servants declaring they were afraid to go home before the business was ended, when the Indians were to be in town to receive pay for the land bought of them.

Transcription ends.

Accusations of battery and rape are serious, but the Council minutes don’t record what happened afterwards. Maybe the case and land purchase were adjudicated in a court.

Whatever happened, Indentured servants, Indians and alcohol didn’t mix in that case.

The Quakers had a law against selling rum to Natives, and then they repealed the law, and things turned ugly. Lesson learned.


Minutes of the Provincial Council, vol. 1, 1683-1700, (Jo. Severns and Co. 1852), pp. 98; 105; 148-49

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s