Indentured Servitude Becomes Institutionalized in America Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

To meet the need for unskilled labor in the American colonies, European colonists imported poor people who were willing to agree to a limited period of servitude in return for passage to the New World and a parcel of land once their servitude ended. This practice began the reliance upon unfree labor that would shape the history of American agriculture well into the nineteenth century.

Summary of Event

The American colonies were started by early capitalistic enterprises, such as the London Company (also known as the Virginia Company Virginia Company of London), which had been assigned the southern portion of the American coastline as a trading post by King James I. James I (king of England);Virginia and Between 1607 and 1618, several attempts were made to establish a settlement on the James River, but their original concept failed, and by 1618 the company had been converted into a system for encouraging the settlement of Englishmen in America. [kw]Indentured Servitude Becomes Institutionalized in America (beginning c. 1619) [kw]America, Indentured Servitude Becomes Institutionalized in (beginning c. 1619) [kw]Servitude Becomes Institutionalized in America, Indentured (beginning c. 1619) Colonization;Beginning c. 1619: Indentured Servitude Becomes Institutionalized in America[0780] Social issues and reform;Beginning c. 1619: Indentured Servitude Becomes Institutionalized in America[0780] Agriculture;Beginning c. 1619: Indentured Servitude Becomes Institutionalized in America[0780] Trade and commerce;Beginning c. 1619: Indentured Servitude Becomes Institutionalized in America[0780] American Colonies;Beginning c. 1619: Indentured Servitude Becomes Institutionalized in America[0780] England;Beginning c. 1619: Indentured Servitude Becomes Institutionalized in America[0780] Caribbean;Beginning c. 1619: Indentured Servitude Becomes Institutionalized in America[0780] Indentured servitude

The concept of “indentured servitude” was based on the common practice in England of “service in husbandry,” in which individuals bound themselves or their children to work on the farms of the larger landowners for a period of a year or more. Adapting this concept to the peopling of the New World was first suggested by Sir George Peckham Peckham, Sir George and picked up by Sir Edwin Sandys Sandys, Sir Edwin , treasurer of the London Company, which established the first colony in Virginia in 1607. In the case of indentured servants in America, the idea was for impoverished Englishmen to take passage on a ship to the colonies and to repay those who financed the sea voyage with their labor for a fixed period of time. After they had worked off their debt, indentured servants became freemen with the ability to own land of their own, an ability that would have been beyond them back in their home country.

The opening up of land in America occurred at a time in Europe when the population had been expanding more rapidly than wages, and there was in consequence a significant surplus of agricultural workers. In Elizabethan England, these workers were classified as “rogues and vagabonds,” and were regarded as a superfluous population. Many wandered into the rapidly growing cities, such as London and Bristol, and the authorities in those cities were anxious to get rid of them. As accomplish this goal, laws were passed and strictly enforced mandating heavy punishments for relatively minor crimes, and the large number of convictions that resulted provided an instant, exportable pool of labor for the colonies. Furthermore, the religious conflicts of the period resulted in many military prisoners, and “transportation” was the easiest way to dispose of them. Likewise, the many orphans roaming city streets could be rounded up and sent to America.

In the earliest years, the need for labor was greatest in the southern colonies on the American continent and in the West Indies. The enormous profitability of sugar led to many indentured servants being sent to the sugar plantations Plantation system;Barbados in such colonies as Barbados, but the tropical climate killed many, and by the middle of the century, indentured servants were used in the sugar colonies chiefly as supervisors of the African slaves who began arriving in large numbers at that time. On the mainland, the need for indentured servants was greatest in the tobacco colonies, Virginia and Maryland, for next to sugar, tobacco Tobacco was the most profitable product of America. Agriculture;tobacco growing

Though some indentured servants went to the Carolinas Carolinas;slavery , the combination of a semi-tropical climate and the character of the chief agricultural product, rice, soon led to their displacement by African slaves. Although slaves Slavery;Carolinas came during the seventeenth century to provide much of the field labor in the tobacco fields, however, there continued to be a demand for white indentured servants to fill other roles in the Carolina colonies. In the middle colonies, where the chief crop was wheat, the need was not so great, and the indentured servants who worked there continued to be used for agricultural labor. In New England, the earliest immigrants had large families and used them for a workforce, so few indentured servants were needed. Agriculture;American colonies

Over the course of the seventeenth century, the legal requirements of indentured servitude came to be codified, chiefly by the colonial legislatures. As early as 1619, the Virginia General Assembly tried to encourage indentured servants to immigrate by promising that, following their period of service (four years unless the servant was very young), servants would qualify for a land grant, normally 50 acres (20 hectares) Migration;indentured servants into America . Many who qualified never actually acquired the land, however, finding it easier to sell their “headright” (as the land grant was called) to those who already had sufficient capital to exploit the land. In the West Indies, because there was no surplus of land to grant, cash incentives were sometimes offered.

One of the biggest problems with which colonial legislatures had to deal was the relatively high risk that an indentured servant, having reached America, would run away, thus depriving the person who had paid his transatlantic passage of the return on his investment. Heavy penalties, including increased time of servitude, were levied on runaways, who could be legally pursued until they were caught and returned to their “owner.” Because convicts were particularly prone to running away, the colonial legislatures attempted to stop the transporting of convicts, but the English government overturned such laws: The English were more interested in getting rid of their downtrodden masses than they were in aiding their colonial subjects.

In the late seventeenth century and early eighteenth centuries, to aid in keeping track of bonded servants, bureaucratic offices were created where documentation of indenture was to be formally registered. This bureaucratic system was not uniform throughout England, but Bristol, for example, had such a registration service for a number of years. In the eighteenth century, registration became virtually automatic, especially in the case of those who came as families, known as “redemptioners.”

In the seventeenth century, especially in the early years, the majority of the indentured servants were male unskilled laborers who were put to work performing agricultural labor. Some women came as well, and they were normally used as household servants. Not a few became the wives of landowners, and their children sometimes rose in social standing. By the late seventeenth century, however, the greatest demand was for men with recognizable skills, including blacksmiths, masons, carpenters, and wheelwrights, as well as literate individuals who could manage the accounts of plantations. Unskilled labor had begun to be provided predominantly by slaves.


Although the system of indentured servitude undoubtedly made it possible for many individuals without capital to emigrate to the new colonies in the New World, it ultimately served to perpetuate the social system that prevailed at the time, with a small elite at the top and large numbers at the bottom of the social scale. Some indentured servants, even some black indentured servants did indeed between landowners, who ironically employed indentured and enslaved laborers themselves on their new lands. The vast majority, however, merely changed the venue in which they lived hand-to-mouth and ended their lives with substantially the same means they had had when they emigrated from England.

More important than the maintenance of traditional European social hierarchies, indentured servitude gave legitimacy to a system in which individuals, brought to the New World at the expense of others, constituted a capital asset that could be bought and sold. It laid the foundations for the practice of African slavery in America.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Galenson, David. White Servitude in Colonial America: An Economic Analysis. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981. Provides a detailed look at the economic underpinnings of the system of indentured servitude.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Games, Alison. Migration and the Origins of the English Atlantic World. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999. Documentation on indentured servitude is sorely lacking, but Games has made effective use of London port registers of 1635 to track some five thousand indentured servants who came to America.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Menard, Russell R. “From Servant to Freeholder: Status Mobility and Property Accumulation in Seventeenth Century Maryland.” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser. 30 (1973): 37-64. Using local documents, Menard traces the post-servitude careers of some of the seventeenth century immigrants to Maryland, a major destination of indentured servants.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pagan, John Ruston. Anne Orthwood’s Bastard: Sex and Law in Early Virginia. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. The fascinating story of one female indentured servant whose fate is known because she became entangled with the law.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith, Abbot Emerson. Colonists in Bondage: White Servitude and Convict Labor in America, 1607-1776. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1947. The classic account of indentured servitude in America, though a few conclusions have been questioned by later scholars.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Van der Zee, John. Bound Over: Indentured Servitude and American Conscience. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985. Vignettes of the lives of indentured servants.
Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i>

Nathaniel Bacon; John Smith. Indentured servitude

Categories: History