Indentured Servants

White indentured servants came from all over Great Britain. Men, women, and sometimes children signed a contract with a master to serve a term of 4 to 7 years. In exchange for their service, the indentured servants received their passage paid from England, as well as food, clothing, and shelter once they arrived in the colonies. Some were even paid a salary. When the contract had expired, the servant was paid freedom dues of corn, tools, and clothing, and was allowed to leave the plantation. During the time of his indenture, however, the servant was considered his master’s personal property and his contract could be inherited or sold. Prices paid for indentured servants varied depending on skills.

While under contract a person could not marry or have children. A master’s permission was needed to leave the plantation, to perform work for anyone else, or to keep money for personal use. An unruly indentured servant was whipped or punished for improper behavior. Due to poor living conditions, hard labor, and difficulties adjusting to new climates and native diseases, many servants did not live to see their freedom. Often servants ran away from their masters. Since they often spoke English and were white, runaway servants were more difficult to recapture than black slaves. If runaway servants were captured, they were punished by increasing their time of service.

Since indentures were not recorded, information about indentured servants at Stratford is scarce. Most information has been taken from advertisements for runaway servants and court records. Some of the male indentured servants were highly skilled laborers, holding such jobs as bricklayer, joiner, plasterer, cook, clerk, gardener, coachman, butcher, blacksmith, and musician. Female indentured servants performed domestic chores like laundry, sewing, and housekeeping.

Children also were indentured. William Gunnell, Jr., was born in Great Britain, probably Scotland, in 1705. He and his family sailed together to Virginia. They became the indentured servants of Richard Lee in Westmoreland County. William had his tenth birthday in November 1715. His master Richard Lee died soon after. William’s indenture was inherited by Richard Lee’s son Thomas. He still had five years and eleven months to work. William was one of Thomas Lee’s clerks. He ran errands and, if his writing and numbers were neat and easy to read, helped keep accounts. William shared a bed and a room with some of the other servants. He became free when he turned sixteen in 1721.

Transported convicts, both men and women, were sold to plantation owners as another form of labor. One-fourth of the British immigrants to the colonies were convicts. Most of these convicts were male, young, unskilled, and poor. The usual crime was grand larceny. Generally, the only people exiled were those judges felt could be rehabilitated. Convicts performed the same type of work as indentured servants but were less trusted. Their length of service was usually longer than that of indentured servants. Like indentured servants and slaves, convicts frequently ran away. Political prisoners also were shipped to the colonies. Most of these were convicted following religious persecutions.

Suggested Reading

  • Ekirch, A. Roger. “Bound for America,” in The William & Mary Quarterly, 3d. series, 42(April 1985): 167-83.
  • Ekirch, A. Roger. “Bound for the Chesapeake: Convicts, Crime, & Colonial Virginia,” In Virginia Cavalcade, 3(Winter 1988): 100-13.

Suggested Activities

Have students list characteristics of indentured servants and black slaves. Discuss similarities and differences.