Was Your Ancestor an Indentured Servant?
If You are at a Brick Wall, Don’t Overlook the Possibility
By Doug Phelps,
Many genealogists reach “brick walls” as they research their ancestries back to the mid to late 1700s. We have all assumed this barrier is due only to the loss of so many early records to fire and the ravages of the Civil War. Also some Anglican records simply vanished from some parishes after the Revolution – especially in NC at least. After my initial study of the indentured servant immigration to colonial
I will be revising this paper as needed. The following notes and paraphrases taken from a number of books. Most came from Bound for
History of Unfree Labor in Colonial
Much less well known is the important history of the indentured servants. They included those who saw an opportunity for a better life in
Most people are aware of the transportation of about 150,000 convicts from the
“Transportation” began slowly in 1697 when magistrates could exile “rogues and vagabonds”. In 1615 James I began giving “royal pardons” of banishment to felons. In 1718 the Transportation Act initiated a systematic program.
Most convict servants [as opposed to voluntary servants] went to the tobacco colonies – rather than places like
During the 18th century, some 50,000 convicts were transported from the
A merchant or captain paid a contractor 3 pounds per convict. In
A different analysis of the numbers from To Serve Well.. is: “One half to two thirds of white immigrants from Britain and Europe came as indentured servants” (p.8) It appears the difference in the numbers is due to definitions of a voluntary indentured servant and transported-convict-indentured-servant” Regardless, the overwhelming point is that huge numbers of immigrants in the 18th century were not “free” but were indentured for many years.
Where from and what type of person?
A sample of the 2074 received convicts in four
Kent Co 1719-1744 402 KC Bonds and Indentures
Queen Ann Co. 1727-1750 249 QA Land Records
Baltimore Co. 1770-1774 574 BC Convict Records
Anne Arundel Co. 1771-1775 849 AA Convict Records
A sample of two ships in 1771 and 1774 shows these labor skills:
Unskilled and low skilled laborers: 61% and 49%
Wealthy and professionals: 2% and 0%
Landed society: 0%
Further details in the book indicates that while the majority were very unskilled and poor, a few were wealthy and professional. A few had funds to later buy out their indenture.
Origins were (approximately) 2% Scottish, 13000 Irish, and 36000 English.
In the mid-1730s there were 6,000 people in Kent Co, Md. Convicts accounted for 271. KC Bonds and Indentures 1732-39, Court Crimainal Proceedings 1732-46
Indentured servants – those who voluntarily committed to seven years or so - were of a more skilled, better background. But the conditions for them were usually the same, especially in the later years.
Early on, the voluntary indentured servant was likely to be a person known by the plantation owner or merchant who paid for the voyage to
Note: Authors of various books may combine voluntary and forced in a single term “indentured servant . Regardless, the servitude conditions varied little.
What happened to these people?
To Serve Well… argues for a “relative ease in acquiring property” and that they expected a “place in society as independent, self-sustaining” people. This comment was in reference to mostly the 17th century
Into the 18th century, the indentured servant concept became much more impersonal. In the early years, families would use the concept to bring in family member or friends in a profitable way. Now they had fewer skills, and included longer terms (3-4 years originally). Owners often used both white indentured servants and slaves – or either as needed. (source: To Serve Well… p.3)
The impersonal nature of the indenture is illustrated with this mid-1700’s Penn Gazette ad:
Lately imported from
The term “runaway” was a specific term used for those who attempted escape from the indenture. Many attempted to return home. Some went to the major cities and some went to the frontiers of VA and the
Ship boarding: 67%; Philadelphia & NYC: 10%; Backcountry: 3.5%; VA: 3.5%; Md: 2.4%;
“More than half a century ago, Abbot E. Smith, in his book Colonists in Bondage: White Servitude and Convict Labor in
From 1732-35 in
A few were able to buy out from the servitude or escaped by marriages.
How could these people acquire land?
In the early times of Maryland [17th century] “about 90% of the former servants [no comment about which kind, but in the 17th century voluntary indenture was much more common] achieved landownership and typically establish themselves as small planters on leased land immediately after they had complete their terms. ..starting at the bottom…to acquire a substantial estate and a responsible position… However many did postpone their claims for various reasons.” (The author is stating the reason it was easier in Md to progress than in
Supporting this statement is a comment from the PBS web site: Black and white women worked side-by-side in the fields. Black and white men who broke their servant contract were equally punished. During their time as servants, they were fed and housed. Afterwards, they would be given what were known as "freedom dues," which usually included a piece of land and supplies, including a gun. Black-skinned or white-skinned, they became free.
However the topic of acquiring land also includes Virginia Headrights . Further explanations are at this site and includes this statement: In 1699, after European immigrants became harder and harder to attract, the colony began to sell "headrights" allowing people to claim 50 acres for 5 shillings. At the start of the 18th Century,
By the late 1700s the cost of land had apparently escalated. In 1779 James Phelps of Caswell Co, NC (my line) purchased land for 50 shillings per 100 acres, per his deed. At that rate 50 acres would cost 25 shillings. Accounting for 20 shillings per English pound, the equivalent dollar cost in 2003 would be about $250. See Money and Denominations
The daily income for unskilled laborers in
Is there information on the names of these people?
Start with the book by Peter Wilson Coldham called The Complete Book of Emigrants in Bondage, 1614-1775 (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co. Inc, 1988) which contains an alphabetical list of men and women transported in this period. An introduction to this book and a list of related Phelps is at the Southern Phelps Research web site and can be viewed here. The list includes nine Phelps from 1695 to 1775.
This multiple volume set is available in some libraries, including my local small town genealogical library.
Web sites of interest
http://www.eogen.com/Transportation Transportation - Colonial
http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/catalogue/RdLeaflet.asp?sLeafletID=268&j=1 Transportation to
Books you may want to read
Smith, Abbot E. Colonists in Bondage: White Servitude and Convict Labor in
Russell Menard, "From Servant to Freeholder: Status Mobility and Property Accumulation in Seventeenth-Century
Lois Green Carr and Russell R. Menard, "Immigration and
Morgan, Edmund S. American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia, NY: WW Norton, 1975
Sharon V. Salinger, "To Serve Well and Faithfully": Labor and Indentured Servants in
A. Roger Ekirch, Bound for
The following is a very partial list of primary sources of the book Bound for
BIBLIOGRAPHY . PRIMARY SOURCES
B. MANUSCRIPTS: UNITED STATES
John Hook Papers
Harry Piper Letter Book
Prentis Papers, Documents, 1743-1858
Colonial Williamsburg Inc.,
John Hook Papers, Duke University Library,
James Lawson Letterbook, Scottish Record Office,
Russell Papers, Coutts & Co.,
Library of Congress,
Aadditional Manuscripts, ?9600, British Library,
Landing Certificates, 1718- 36, Guildhall Records OFFICE.
Woolsey & Salmon Letterbook
Annapolis Mayor's Court Proceedings
Provincial Court Judgements
Thomas Cable Letterbook
Fairfax County Order Books (microfilm)
John Hook Letters
King George County Order Books (microfilm)
Lancaster County_ Orders (microtilm)
Northumberland County Order Books (microfilm)
Prince William County Order Books (microfilm)
Richmond County Criminal Trials (microfilm)
Richmond County Order Books (microtilm)
Westmoreland County Orders (microfilm)
William Allason Papers