Indentured labor

During the colonial period and into the eighteenth century, the system of indentured labor provided a workforce for labor-intensive businesses such as tobacco farming. It also provided a means for individuals, many of whom were already skilled tradesmen but who lacked money, to pay their ship’s passage to the United States. These workers played an important role in the building of a prosperous economy.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Great Britain and the German principalities had a surplus of labor. There were more skilled artisans, domestics, and general laborers than there were jobs. Moreover, a substantial number of rural workers who farmed as tenants or as small landowners found that they could not make an adequate living. These individuals saw an opportunity in the American colonies but lacked the funds to pay their passage.Indentured labor

The colonies, in contrast, suffered from a shortage of laborers. There was land to clear and cultivate, timber to harvest, agriculture products to be processed, and goods to be manufactured, as well as a thriving fishing industry. Workers were needed to transport these products to markets or points of export. Domestics were needed in the homes of affluent planters and entrepreneurs.

Indentured labor did not resolve the problem of labor shortage indefinitely, because most indentured servants left their masters at the end of seven years, and there was no assurance for the master that another indentured servant would become available. However, the indentured servants who sailed to the American colonies did provide a valuable short-term solution.

Redemptioners and Contracts

There were two ways in which payment of ship’s passage to the New World could be arranged. A few individuals were able to sign contracts with someone they knew or with whom they were put in contact in America. The majority of those willing to accept indenture in exchange for passage, however, sailed without a prearranged situation. A shipowner or captain advertised the group of people he was bringing, giving details as to the kind of labor for which they were suitable. Colonists needing laborers paid the passage owed. The redemptioner, the person whose passage was paid, signed a contract with the individual who paid the passage. The contracts were regulated by the local government.

The master was required to provide food, lodging, clothing, and other necessities. He typically agreed to give the indentured servant a set of clothes, a gun, and a small tract of land–or tools or a sum of money, depending on the type of work to be performed during the indenture. The indentured servant agreed to work without monetary pay for a specified period of time, usually seven years. The contract was binding, and if the indentured servant left the master before the end of the indenture, the individual was forced to return. An additional period of time was added to the service time. The length of an indenture could also be increased for other reasons. If children were born to the indentured servant, the children were free, but the indenture time increased to provide for the children. Often, indentured servants borrowed money from their masters and agreed to continue their indenture to pay the money back.

Although many people willingly became indentured servants, others had little or no choice in the matter. The transporting of individuals to become indentured servants was a profitable business for shipowners and captains. Thus, it was not uncommon for people, especially women and orphans, to be kidnapped and brought to America. The deportation of convicts also provided large numbers of indentured laborers. A convict with adequate funds to pay the passage could avoid indentured labor and enjoy freedom once in America. This rarely occurred, however.

Condition and Contributions

The majority of indentured servants were white adults, most often from England, Scotland, or German principalities. The Chesapeake region, Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, as well as Virginia and the Upper South, were highly dependent on indentured labor for a healthy functioning of their economy. In the cities of the North, the indentured servants worked as domestics for affluent households or as apprentices for skilled tradesmen. In Pennsylvania, they worked as farmhands, while in the Upper South, they worked in the tobacco fields.

The conditions under which the indentured servants worked varied considerably. Life on the tobacco plantations was harsh, while work for a skilled tradesman provided not only better working conditions but also the opportunity to learn a trade. Some indentured servants actually lived with the families for whom they worked and were treated as members of the family; others, however, were ill treated. Female domestics and children were often at risk of sexual abuse by masters. Theoretically, they had recourse to courts of law, but the majority of them lacked the funds and the social status to bring suits against their masters.

Indentured or contract labor played an important role in the American economy into the early years of the eighteenth century. This type of labor was essential to the development of the American economy, as many of the business activities were labor intensive and required workers who worked long hours at minimal expense for the employers. During the eighteenth century, however, the increasing Slaveryslave trade brought large numbers of Africans to America, and slaves replaced more and more of the indentured labor force on plantations and farms. Although the colonial system of indentured labor had declined rapidly after the American Revolution, the use of similar types of contract labor continued until the late nineteenth century. In 1885, the Contract Labor Law made it illegal for individuals or companies to bring aliens into the country as contract labor.

Further Reading

  • Ballagh, James Curtis. White Servitude in the Colony of Virginia: A Study of the System of Indentured Labor in the American Colonies. Whitefish, Mont.: Kessinger, 2007. Provides details of the establishment of indenture. Bibliography.
  • Bush, Michael L. Servitude in Modern Times. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2000. Portrays indentured labor in relation to other bound labor and to capitalism.
  • Dubofsky, Melvyn, and Joseph A. McCartin. American Labor: A Documentary History. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. Discusses indentured labor, how it disappeared, and what replaced it.
  • Northrup, David. Indentured Labor in the Age of Imperialism, 1834-1922. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995. The author examines the indetured laborers from Asia, Africa, and the South Pacific.
  • Palmer, Colin A., ed. The Worlds of Unfree Labor: From Indentured Servitude to Slavery. Brookfield, Vt.: Ashgate Variorum, 1998. Collection of essays that looks at both indentured servitude and slavery.


Child labor

Colonial economic systems

Cotton industry

Farm labor

Labor history

Plantation agriculture


Slave era

Slave trading

Tobacco industry