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Definition: indentured servant from Merriam-Webster's Collegiate(R) Dictionary

(1723) : a person who signs and is bound by indentures to work for another for a specified time esp. in return for payment of travel expenses and maintenance


Summary Article: Indentured Servant
from Workers in America: A Historical Encyclopedia

An indentured servant is a person contracted to work for another for a specified period of time in exchange for services such as paying transportation costs to another country, room and board, land, or training. Indentured servitude was one of the earliest forms of labor exploitation in America. The term derives from the French dent, meaning “teeth.” In the Anglo-American tradition, identical indenture contracts were written side by side (or top and bottom) and the agreement was torn in half in a ragged, tooth-like pattern. One half was given to the indentured servant and the other half to his or her master. Fitting the two pieces together could authenticate contracts. This was not usually the practice in American colonies, though, as indenture contracts became fairly standard.

Although most 17th-century European nations practiced some form of indentured servitude, the English model had the greatest impact on North American colonies. Many English colonies were established as joint-stock companies expected to earn profits for investors. Those English gentry and lesser nobility immigrating to North American colonies came with no expectation of laboring; that would be the job of servant classes and natives. When attempts to entice Native Americans to work or compel them to work as slaves failed, the colonies suffered a labor shortage. The joint-stock companies and landed elites turned to the English poor to meet their labor demands. Population pressures, land enclosure, and increased agricultural yields had created a large subclass of “sturdy beggars” in the British Isles, many of whom were reduced to casual and occasional day labor. A sizable portion of the population lived in dire poverty with few prospects of alleviating their plight. Many poor individuals were recruited to work in the American colonies. In many cases, individuals sold their perspective services to sea captains, who gave money to struggling family members who stayed behind in Britain. The captains, in turn, hoped to resell the contract at a higher price. Between 1620 and 1700, more than 100,000 poor English men and women came to the English colonies as indentured servants. Half of all white settlers outside of New England were either voluntary or involuntary servants. (A substantial number of individuals were forced into indentured servitude to pay off debts that would otherwise have led to imprisonment.)

Many servants faced deplorable conditions in the colonies, and a substantial number starved or died of complications related to poor nutrition and overwork. The situation was particularly dire in Chesapeake Bay colonies, where, until the 1640s, many servants died within a year of arrival. The headright system encouraged their exploitation. Land was reserved for servants who completed their term—usually four to seven years—but those benefits accrued to their sponsors if the servants expired before the contract ended. This knowledge encouraged some ruthless landowners to work servants to death and/or to use scarce food supplies as enticements to make indentured individuals work harder. Those who survived often ended up working as tenant farmers on plantations, as lands reserved as headrights were often of poor quality or remote from existing settlements. In like fashion, numerous indentured servants reached the end of their terms without ever having been taught promised and necessary skills for success. Many servants fled tyrannical masters, and colonial newspapers featured myriad notices of runaways. In rare instances, most notably Bacon's Rebellion, indentured servants joined military campaigns aimed at overthrowing colonial political establishments.

Indentured servitude began to decline in importance as colonial nutrition and health conditions improved. African slavery largely supplanted the indenture system. Although the first slaves came to Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619, and African slavery was well established in the Caribbean by the 1640s, fragmentary evidence suggests that early North American slaves in British colonies were few in number and were better treated than white indentured servants until the 1660s. It is important to recognize, however, that at least in theory indentured servants enjoyed far greater legal rights than slaves. They could marry whom they wished, travel freely, could not be resold without permission, and (again, in theory) could not be summarily punished or assaulted. By 1700, fewer indentured servants than slaves arrived in the colonies.

Indentured servitude in new guises increased again after 1808, when it became illegal to import new slaves from Africa. Landowners recruited laborers from as far away as India and China, a practice continued by 19th-century railroad contractors and manufacturers. Gang labor contracts made with a labor contractor, such as the Chinese coolie system or the Italian padrone network, could be viewed as forms of indentured servitude even though workers were paid wages.

An indentured servitude/slavery amalgam persists in contemporary America. In 2000, Newsweek and other news sources revealed that some wealthy Americans employ illegal immigrants as unpaid domestic servants. In addition, successful immigrants often use a form of indentured servitude to bring compatriots to the United States. The Southern Poverty Law Center charges that many of the 60,000 “guest workers” coming to the United States in 2004 were modern indentured servants. Other critics see parallels between indentured servitude and farm workers recruited by American labor providers from Asia, Mexico, and elsewhere. Many of these workers must pay upfront fees to recruiters as well as a percentage of their earnings.

Suggested Reading
  • Bowe, John , “Bound for America,” Mother Jones (May/June 2010);.
  • Mittelberger, Gottlieb , Gottlieb Mittelberger on the Misfortune of Indentured Servants, 1754;.
  • Morgan, Edmund , American Slavery, American Freedom, 1975;.
  • The New Face of Slavery,” Newsweek (December 11, 2000).
Copyright 2013 by Robert E. Weir

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