Friday, July 6, 2012

Tracing Indentured Servant Ancestors

Indentured servitude was the historical practice of contracting to work for a fixed period of time. Typically it is for a period of three to seven years, in exchange for transportation, food, clothing, lodging and other necessities during the term of indenture. An indenture was a legal contract enforced by the courts. Indentures could not marry without the permission of their owner, were subject to physical punishment, and saw their obligation to labor enforced by the courts. To ensure uninterrupted work by the female servants, the law lengthened the term of their indenture if they became pregnant. But unlike slaves, servants could look forward to a release from bondage. At the end of their term they received a payment known as "freedom dues" and become free members of society.

The practice was popular in England and throughout Europe. It provided an efficient method of populating the North American colonies with a reliable labor force. Ports of entry such as Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Charleston, Savannah, and New Orleans thrived as merchants, wealthy businessmen, ship captains’, etc. engaged in various types of trade and commerce while benefitting from the continual flow of indentured servitude contacts processed through the local courts within, or in close proximity, to these jurisdictions.

Emigrants who were unable to pay costs associated with passage would sell themselves into service for a specific period of time in return for the cost of passage and provisions. Ship captains’ would transport the indentured servants to the colonies, and sell their legal papers to someone who needed workers. When the ship arrived, the captain would often advertise in a newspaper that indentured servants were for sale.

This process may have involved signing a contract with an emigrant agent or auctioning themselves off to the highest bidder upon arrival. The latter group was often referred to as “redemptioners”. Emigrant agents sometimes worked for the shipping company, ship captain, wealthy businessmen, or local merchants. Upon arrival at the port of entry, the contracts were processed in local courts and sold to the highest bidders.

In the North American colonies, merchants, land owners, and businesses often found it problematic to hire free workers, primarily because cash was in short supply. The most economically sensible solution was to pay the passage of a young worker from places like England and Europe, who would work for several years to pay off the travel costs debt. During that indenture period the servants were not paid wages, but they were provided food, room, clothing, and training. Most white immigrants arriving in the American colonies did so as indentured servants.

Indentured servants were a separate category from bound apprentices. The latter were children, usually orphans or from an impoverished family who could not care for them. They were under the control of courts and were bound out to work as an apprentice until a certain age. Many immediately set out to begin their own farms, while others used their newly acquired skills to pursue a trade.

Bryan L. Mulcahy

Reference Librarian

Fort Myers-Lee County Library