Positive Lessons from Indentured Servants in Colonial America

Church history goes wider than the famous theologians and preachers and political reactions. It embraces the common people.

An indenture was a simply a contract. There was nothing automatically oppressive about it, unless people abused its terms. Here are stories of success and kindness.

It is commonplace that historians too often take out cudgels and bash nearly everything about America, and the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries are for them a rich target.

But she was not a bad place back then.

Though abuse of indentured servants did happen, America was a land of opportunity. The vast majority of them moved up the social scale to become landowners and artisans in their own right.

An indentured servant signed a contract (or indenture) to serve his master or mistress for a certain number of years.  When the service was expired, he got clothing and some money.  Don’t professional athletes sign contracts to serve teams for a length of time?

Servant had rights, as the following sample evidence will show, beginning with Virginia and then Pennsylvania.

With 32 other people, Samuel Wilbourn landed in Westmoreland County, Virginia, bordering the Atlantic (where, incidentally, George Washington’s ancestors arrived a little later) by October 5, 1654.  He was poor because he left no other record, and this indicates that he was an indentured servant.  (We should not expect these importation records to announce indentured servants.)

Was Samuel a success even on a small scale?  We can conjecture that he got married, because his (probable) son appears in the same county just 25 years later as a full adult (slightly edited):  “December 17, 1679: Rob. Hewitt v. John Wilbourn. Non-suited, not prosecuting his action, 50 pounds of tobacco.”  (Yes, tobacco was the currency, since earliest Virginia didn’t mint coins, so don’t break out the cudgels, because they grew other crops.)  There is no record of John coming to this or any county by ship.  And it was rare, if it happened at all, for a male indentured servant to marry, because women were so few and could pick whomever they pleased in early Virginia.  He had to show he could make it by owning land or applying a trade.  Therefore, Samuel was a success on his own and through his son John.

Indentured servants learned trades, like farming, carpentry, and bricklaying, which benefited them personally and colonial society.  In 1701, members of St. Peter’s parish, New Kent County, Virginia, intended to build a brick church (still standing and probably where George Washington got married, in 1759).  According to parish records, church wardens had to supply three laborers to help the experienced bricklayers.  The wardens could supply them only if they controlled them.  The terms of the contract also spell out that the laborers must have “diet, washing, and lodging” for six months.  Whether those three laborers were free or indentured to the wardens, the terms look a lot like an indenture.

It is alleged that toddlers were taken from England and brought over to America. Regardless of the exact numbers, it is not difficult to decipher the backstory.  Church wardens handled cases of “bastardy” and orphans or extreme cases of poverty in which the mother gave up her child.  In Virginia, church records are filled with stories like this one.  In St. Peter’s parish, in 1686, Mary Wilkinson was to get payment in tobacco “for nursing a bastard child belonging to a servant woman of Capt. Joseph Forester this ensuing year.”  Though not conforming to our standards, mothers who had children out of wedlock were considered unfit in many (though not all) cases.  But the church took care of them, and often the wardens did not rip the babies from their mothers’ hands, though this did happen at times, sadly.

Sometimes a girl or boy was infirm, and the church folk took care of her or him.  In the same parish record, 1728, we read a sad story of an abandoned or orphaned girl:

Agnes Tudor, a poor infirm girl, being put upon this parish for a charge, and Richard and Sarah Brooks being willing to take the said girl, ordered [by the vestry] that the church wardens bind the said Agnes Tudor to the said Richard and Sarah Brooks for seven years.

Thus, Agnes got a new contract or indenture for whatever slight labor her infirmity allowed her to provide around the house.  It looks as though it would cost the Brookses more money to maintain her than they could earn from her labor.  Sacrifice and kindness. Let’s hope little Mary lived her life well and safely.

Let’s head up to Pennsylvania.

Margaret Pearson had gumption.  She knew her rights.  Chester County court records for December 1684 say, “She complained against her master John Colbert for his ill usage and beating her contrary to law; ordered [by the court] that she be disposed of for seven pounds.”  Colbert broke the contract.  A month later, the court ordered Randolph Vernon and Robert Eyre, clerk, to look for a suitable master for Margaret.  So it was “contrary to law” for a master to abuse his servant.  She could seek from the court a way out of her indenture and look for a new one with another family willing to buy out the first contract.

Human nature the world over can go astray.  A man was not permitted to have sex with a servant girl, whether his own or someone else’s.  In May 1686, the Minutes of the Provincial Council state that councilman Luke Watson was accused of having carnal knowledge with his brother-in-law’s servant, and he was asked to give an account.

The board ordered Luke Watson to be called and told him that he was accused of having carnal knowledge of this brother-in-law’s woman servant and further that he then stood bound to the peace for misdemeanors and therefore until he appeared in law innocent of those great offenses he was accused of, they could not admit him to sit amongst them, upon which he went forth.

For this sexual misconduct and other misdemeanors, it took several years for Watson to be readmitted to the council, so he experienced redemption in the end.  (No word on whether Mrs. Watson gave him redemption.)

Worst of all, human nature can go to extremes.  A master, Henry Reynolds (a distant uncle-in-law), was accused of killing his servant Mary King by hitting her with a broomstick.  A short time later, she died.  In April 1685, the case went to court, and witnesses were called.  Reynolds’s mother-in-law, Prudence Clayton, testified that she was called to dress the body but could find no wound.  Apparently, the jury could not reach the conclusion that the hit was the final cause of death, and the jury may have even doubted that Reynolds had hit her.  Nonetheless, servants could be abused, but the abuser could get punished by law if found guilty.  Servants had rights according to their indenture.

Finally, James Brown’s servant John Martin stole money one year and then deerskin another year. For stealing money, he had lashes laid on his bare back. For the deerskin theft he was sold to another province, probably Maryland, in 1690. His master James Brown (our direct line) had to pay back the victims.

But then this deed abstract says:

Francis Chadsey passed a deed to John Martin, laborer, for one hundred and twenty-five acres of land and premises, it being in the township of Concord, the deed bearing date the seventh day of September Anno Domi. 1696.

In other words, John Martin graduated from being an indentured servant to become a laborer and came back to his home area. Then Francis Chadsey believed in him and sold him 125 acres in nearby Concord, in 1696. So he settled down, experienced practical redemption, and became a land owner.

We can draw these conclusions.

These cases could be multiplied by the thousands across the colonial eastern seaboard (except, hopefully, Mary King’s suspicious death).  If modern historians don’t dig into social history and specific cases like those, instead of looking at america from 30,000 feet, they can draw the lopsided conclusion that America was completely oppressive.

The majority of indentured servants in the New World lived better lives than they did in the Old World, regardless of the decade.  Figuring they had nothing to lose and much to gain, a huge number volunteered to come over to the New World on a new adventure, pursuing a new life and serve the established families.  They were not always rounded up. That would have been a logistical nightmare.

The masters and the servants got along just fine in the huge majority of cases. The ones who didn’t often made it in the court records. Thus if a master became abusive, the servant could take his case to court.  Then the judges could find a new arrangement.

When toddlers were taken to the New World, surely church folks were very eager to shelter them.  They might have found even childless couples.

Indentured servants were not “slaves.”  That insults blacks, who really were slaves and rarely acquired their freedom.  Instead, white servants, though under a binding contract, were somewhat like free apprentices.  Servants learned a trade.  Then they worked and aged out of servitude and acquired land for cheap or kept up their craft.

On the whole, they did not live miserable lives, and America was not uniquely evil for continuing this (imperfect) economic contract system–imperfect because humans are.

Though not utopia, because human nature has “issues,” colonial Virginia, Pennsylvania, and the rest of America was a great place to start a new life.  The vast majority of indentured immigrants followed the track to prosperity and freedom.

Millions of their descendants are living proof today.

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