Indentured Servants' Experiences 1600-1700

BEFORE THE JOURNEY: "Many of the spirits [people who recruited indentured servants] haunted the London slums and those of Bristol and other seaports. It was not difficult to find hungry and thirsty victims who, over a dinner and much liquor, would sign anything before them. The spirit would then hustle his prey to his headquarters to be added to a waiting company of others, safely kept where they could not escape until a ship was ready for them. An easier way was to pick up a sleeping drunk from the gutter and put him aboard a vessel for America, where, with no indenture, he could be sold to his own disadvantage and with the American planter's gain. Children were valuable and could be enticed with candy to come along with a spirit. Sometimes they, and older people too, were seized by force."

THE JOURNEY: The ocean journey to America usually took eight to twelve weeks. Indentured servants were packed into the ships tightly, often being held in the hold without a chance to get fresh air. "Every two weeks at sea the [indentured servant] passengers received an allowance of bread. One man and his wife, having eaten their bread in eight days, staggered before the captain and begged him to throw them overboard, for they would otherwise starve before the next bread day. The captain laughed in their faces, while the ship's mate, even more of a brute, gave them a bag of sand and told them to eat that. The couple did die before the next ration of bread, but the captain charged the other passengers for the bread the two would have eaten if they had survived."

UPON ARRIVAL IN AMERICA: Some indentured servants had their contract of service worked out with waiting American colonists who would be their masters for four to seven years. Others, upon arrival, were bought and sold much in the same manner as slaves. An announcement in the Virginia Gazette read, "Just arrived at Leedstown, the Ship Justitia, with about one Hundred Healthy Servants, Men Women and Boys. . . . The Sale will commence on Tuesday the 2nd of April."

TREATMENT BY THEIR MASTERS: Indentured servants had few rights. They could not vote. Without the permission of their masters, they were not allowed to marry, to leave their houses or travel, nor buy or sell anything. Female indentured servants were often raped without legal recourse. Masters often whipped and beat their indentured servants. One man testified: "I have seen an Overseer beat a Servant with a cane about the head till the blood has followed, for a fault that is not worth the speaking of...."

WORK IN AMERICA: In the 1600s, most indentured servants were put to work in the tobacco fields of Virginia and Maryland. This was hard manual labor under the grueling hot summer sun, under which Europeans were not accustomed to working. Overseers were often cruel, beating the servants to make them work faster and harder.

AFTER CONTRACT WAS COMPLETED: Although many masters craftily figure out ways to extend an indentured servant's bondage (through accusing the servant of stealing, impregnating a female indenture servant, etc.), most indentured servants who survived the first four to seven years in America were freed. The master was required (depending upon the rules of the colony) to provide his former servant with the following: clothing, two hoes, three barrels of corn, and fifty acres of land.

Excerpted from: Multicultural Activities for the American History Classroom.

To be used with Indentured Servants lesson plan.

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