MORE THAN HALF, almost two thirds of immigrants coming to Colonial America, came as indentured servants. During the 1600 and 1700s many poor people in Europe couldn't find work. They heard of jobs in America but couldn't afford the trip
to come here. The cost of travel by boat (the only available way to go) was equal to more than half, almost a whole year's worth of their wages (if they had been working). So, instead of paying for their trip in money, they made the journey to America by signing themselves into contracts, or "indentures." The word "indenture" was used to describe the "indented" appearance of the torn, jagged edge contract paper that was signed by both the indentured servant and his/her owner. Each kept their half of the contract to show what had been agreed upon. Most of them came from England, Ireland, Scotland, France, and Germany. By signing indentures, they promised to work for a fixed number of years (usually 4 to 6 years). In return, they were promised a "freedom wage" at the end of their indenture, which included a small amount of money, some clothes (including one new set), and some tools. Most were young (12 to 25 years old) and unmarried. Sometimes entire families, including children, became indentured. Sometimes people became indentured servants unwillingly. They were sold into indentures to repay debts. Orphan children were at times signed into indentures by their villages to reduce the cost of their care. Often prisoners were signed into indentures to get rid of them. People who had committed crimes were put into prisons.6 However many people were also imprisoned because they could not pay their debts.
The voyage to America for these indentured servants was very difficult. They were given small amounts of food and water that had to last for days, during the six to eight weeks it took to cross the ocean. Most of the time, they weren't allowed freedom to come up on deck. Many became motion sick from the ocean's continual waves; others developed contagious diseases from being locked up in cramped, dirty rooms below deck. Some of them died during the trip. For those that did arrive, they usually had no choice in where they worked. Most indentured servants went to work on large farms called plantations located in the middle and southern Colonies in America. Farming that rich soil, with a long growing season, required many more laborers for a plantation to be successful.
The contract for these servants could be sold or traded from one owner to another.
How much control should property owners have over the lives
of indentured servants during their contract?
As indentured servants, these people were owned and had no personal rights. They could not marry. Sometimes they were treated kindly, but too often they were not. When they finally earned their freedom, they traveled west to find their own land. The earliest indenture contracts had included a promise of some land be given to the indentured servant at the end of their service time, but this practice soon ended. Land in the east was too scarce and expensive for the freed servant to buy. Land ownership was very important to them. In Europe there was no chance of improving their wealth or status without owning land and property. Even if you were skilled enough to earn some money, you could never be considered important unless you were born into wealth. After completing their years of indentured work, the pioneers who traveled west usually came on foot, carrying their few belongings. In the American West they finally had the freedom and opportunity to work for a better life.
What would you want to do when your indentured years were finished?
People living in the Southern Colonies soon developed large farms called plantations where their crops needed many laborers for growing, harvesting, and shipping. The Dutch brought the first African people into Jamestown, Virginia in 1619 as indentured servants. Like the European people, who were brought in as field hands, the Africans worked without pay until their indenture time was over. Then they became free landowners. It wasn't until 1662 that this changed. Then more and more African people were brought by force as slaves, instead of as enlisted indentured servants. Many of them and their children became slaves for life.
What do you think changed between 1619 and 1662? Why was the unfair treatment
of Africans as slaves allowed to replace their indenture service?
There was another type of indenture in the American colonies. An apprentice signed an indenture contract binding him or her for a length of time to a master craftsman in exchange for being taught a trade. Benjamin Franklin, who became a famous American Patriot during the Revolutionary War, became an indentured apprentice. He was very bright and did well in school, but when he was 10 years old his father could no longer afford to pay for his schooling. Benjamin worked with his father making soap and candles, but he was very bored. Benjamin's father convinced him to indenture himself as an apprentice to his brother James who was a printer. Benjamin worked hard and soon became a very good printer. Benjamin said,
"I signed the indentures when I was yet but twelve years old. I was to serve
as an apprentice till I was yet twenty-one years years of age ... I now had access
to better books."
Benjamin became well educated and eventually was a well-known scientist, writer, and leader of what was to become the United States of America.
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