Thursday, August 23, 2007

Was Your Ancestor an Indentured Servant? If You are at a Brick Wall, Don’t Overlook the Possibility

Was Your Ancestor an Indentured Servant?

If You are at a Brick Wall, Don’t Overlook the Possibility

By Doug Phelps, 8/23/2007

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 America, I am convinced many Americans descended from these little studied mostly English immigrants. Clearly, Annapolis and Baltimore were major reception points of many or even most (?) these immigrants. Indentured convicts numbered about 50,000, comprising up to one-forth of all immigrants in that general area. Large numbers of voluntary indentured servants also arrived and were sold similar to the convicts. This may be an untapped source of research.

I will be revising this paper as needed. The following notes and paraphrases taken from a number of books. Most came from Bound for America: The Transportation of British Convicts to the Colonies, 1718-1775. A bibliography of books and sources is below. A list of possible overlooked primary sources from just one chapter of one book is below also. Many of the books are available through interlibrary loan services, however the primary sources are likely in major archives. I was impressed by the very large number of documents of which genealogists are likely unaware.

History of Unfree Labor in Colonial America

Colonial America had three distinct types of unfree laborers: apprentices, indentured servants and slaves. Apprentices were mostly native born Americans. The awful history of slaves is well known.

Much less well known is the important history of the indentured servants. They included those who saw an opportunity for a better life in America by agreeing to an indenture, arrived without cost, and being sold to an owner for times ranging from 3 to perhaps 7 years. Less well known were those who were forced into the indenture. Forced indenture included those who were “spirited” from Europe by trickery and other devious ways – and those who were “pardoned” by the king for a range of crimes for transportation to America. They were also sold to owners. (source: To Serve Well…”, chpt 1)


Most people are aware of the transportation of about 150,000 convicts from the British Isles to Australia after the Revolutionary war. Few are aware and little has been written for the general public of the 50,000 convicts sent to colonial America - mostly to the central Atlantic seaboard states.

“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 Pennsylvania. (source: To Serve Well…”, p 77)

During the 18th century, some 50,000 convicts were transported from the British Isles to Colonial America. They represented as much as one fourth of all British immigrants. Crimes ranged from small offences to murder. Extreme lawlessness and poverty existed in the British Isles during this period and the transportation system provided a way to avoid the cost and problems of a homeland penal system. The “pardoned” became indentured usually for 7 or 14 years and were delivered in wretched conditions by private ships to America where they were sold to owners. They had no rights.

A merchant or captain paid a contractor 3 pounds per convict. In America they were sold for 9 pounds for unskilled and 25 pounds for skilled. For more insight to the history of transportation see the article at the National Archives web site . (source: To Serve Well…”, p 78)

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 Maryland counties:

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

Non- Convicts

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 America for years of servitude. Later in the 1700s the types varied greatly depending on the area (urban or plantation) to which they came. Those who voluntarily committed to seven years or so - were of a more skilled, better background. Skills ranged greatly and escaping from bad conditions in Europe and the British Isles was paramount. Regardless, the indenture usually was usually for 7 years and the person effectively was owned by the buyer.

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 Pennsylvania. (p. 31)

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 Bristol, several likely Servants, Men and Women bred to most sorts of Business: also most sorts of Europaen Goods, as, Fine Salt, Glass Bottles…: . (source: To Serve Well… p.75)

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 Carolinas. Many owners advertised their losses in the Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, and Gazette publications.

Destinations of Maryland and Virginia Runaways

Ship boarding: 67%; Philadelphia & NYC: 10%; Backcountry: 3.5%; VA: 3.5%; Md: 2.4%; Carolinas: 2%; Other: 7%

“More than half a century ago, Abbot E. Smith, in his book Colonists in Bondage: White Servitude and Convict Labor in America, 1607-1776, found that few ex-servants enjoyed much financial success, and his conclusion has been supported by a number of more recent studies. “ Smith, Colonists in Bondage: White Servitude and Convict Labor in America, (Referred to in Howard Zinn’s book A People’s History of the U.S.) (My conclusion at this point is that he is referring to the convict indentured servants)

From 1732-35 in Kent Co, Md. Of 145 felons, only 5 could clearly be identified to having property later.

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 Pennsylvania on which his book concentrates.) (source: To Serve Well… p.45)

Virginia, in 1705, passed a law “requiring masters to provide white servants whose indenture time was up with ten bushels of corn, thirty shillings, and a gun… Also, freed servants were to get 50 acres of land.” Morgan, Edmund S. American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia, NY: WW Norton, 1975.

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, Virginia shifted from the headrights system and allowed individuals to purchase 50 acres for 5 shillings, substantially reducing the price of Virginia land.

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 England did not much exceed a shilling a day. Source: Bound for America: The Transportation of British Convicts to the Colonies, 1718-1775. That would be about $10 a day in 2003

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 Transportation - Colonial America Transportation to America and the West Indies, 1615-1776

Books you may want to read

Smith, Abbot E. Colonists in Bondage: White Servitude and Convict Labor in America, 1607-1776 ($80) (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1946), 297@-300; (Referred to in Howard Zinn’s book A People’s History of the U.S.)

Russell Menard, "From Servant to Freeholder: Status Mobility and Property Accumulation in Seventeenth-Century Maryland," William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 30 (1973): 37@-64;

Lois Green Carr and Russell R. Menard, "Immigration and Opportunity: The Freedman in Early Colonial Maryland," in Thad W. Tate and David L. Ammerman, eds.,

Morgan, Edmund S. American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia, NY: WW Norton, 1975

The Chesapeake in the Seventeenth Century: Essays on Anglo-American Society (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1979), 73@-95;

Sharon V. Salinger, "To Serve Well and Faithfully": Labor and Indentured Servants in Pennsylvania, 1682@-1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 115@-36. (interlibrary loan; very expensive) (Reviewed - CC Library, Interlibary loan

A. Roger Ekirch, Bound for America: The Transportation of British Convicts to the Colonies, 1718-1775 1987 (Reviewed - CC Library, Interlibrary loan)

The following is a very partial list of primary sources of the book Bound for America: The Transportation of British Convicts to the Colonies, 1718-1757



Alderman Library, University of Virginia, Charlottesville

John Hook Papers

Harry Piper Letter Book

Prentis Papers, Documents, 1743-1858

Colonial Williamsburg Inc., Research Center, Williamsburg

John Hook Papers, Duke University Library, Durham (microfilm)

James Lawson Letterbook, Scottish Record Office, Edinburgh (microfilm)

Russell Papers, Coutts & Co., London (microfilm)

Library of Congress, Washington, DC

Aadditional Manuscripts, ?9600, British Library, London (photocopies)

Landing Certificates, 1718- 36, Guildhall Records OFFICE. London (photocopies)

Woolsey & Salmon Letterbook

Maryland Hall of Records, Annapolis

Annapolis Mayor's Court Proceedings

Anne Arundel County Convict Record

Baltimore Countv Convict Record Baltimore Countv Debt Books

Kent County Bonds and Indentures

Kent County Court Criminal Proceedings Kent County Debt Books

Kent County Inventories

Maryland Inventories and Accouts

Maryland Shipping Returns

Maryland Wills

Provincial Court Judgements

Queen Anne's County Land Records

Maryland Historical Society. Baltimore

Thomas Cable Letterbook

Carroll-Maccubbln Papers

Cheston-Galloway Papers

Maryland Shipping Returns

Massachusetts Historical Society.

Boston Matthew Ridlev Collection

VIrginia State Library, Richmond

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


Unknown said...

Hope we can find this book, now out of print, but supposedly to be in Raleigh in Oct 2007. Look for Thomas Phelps...

Colonial Families of Maryland: Bound and Determined to Succeed
Robert W. Barnes
Genealogist Robert Barnes has chronicled the life experiences of 519 persons who entered Maryland as indentured servants or, to a lesser extent, as convicts forcibly transported. His book covers these servants and convicts and their descendants, including 102 that are traced to the third generation or beyond including: From Anne Arundel County: Simon Abbot, Francis Crandall, Emm Dowling, Richard James, Thomas Knighton, Lawrence Maynard, Benjamin Scrivener, Richard Snowden
From Baltimore: Jonathan Ady, William Allen, Martin Bacon, Lewis Barton, William Bell, Anthony Chamness, Thomas Constable, Christopher Cox, Daniel Curtis, John Durham, Peter Ellis, Samuel Guishard, John Guyton, Charles Hissey, William Isgrig, Abraham Jarrett, William Jessop, Thomas Knightsmith, Benjamin Lego, William Lofton, Robert Love, Mary Slider Majors, Peter Mallonee, Dorothy Manley, William Mead, Charles Motherby, Edward Mumford, William Pearle, Simon Pearson, Joseph Peregoy, Thomas Phelps, Amos Pilgrim, John Royston, William Seabrook, William; Philip Sindall, Charles Wiesenthal

Unknown said...

Struck out again. An email from one who has the book says his son was Avington who moved to Rowan Co, NC. Ah yes, I remember that one. Mark Phelps wrote an article on him..,%20North%20Carolina%20and%20Jasper%20County,%20Georgia..htm

Unknown said...

My name is james wilson.My grandmother was Bessie Goff.Her sister was Rosie Goff who married Randy Phelps in Somerset,Kentucky.I don't have much information. I met randy and rosie several times.They once traveled to Chattanooga,Tennessee and stayed with us.I remember that at their house we walked down a small road to a primitive church not far from their house.Would like to have more info about them.

Doug Phelps said...

This report "Was your ancestor an indentured servant...." has been updated a bit. A later version is now at

Randy said...

I have a request and some information on Phelps families of Buckingham.
Please contact me at