7 Year Tea Party Winners: Susan Craft's winner of her trilogy novels - The Chamomile, Laurel, and Cassia is: Lucy Reynolds, The winner of a copy of The Backcountry Brides is: Tammy Cordery, the winner of a silver quill charm is: Kathy Maher, Choice of one of three books by Carrie Fancett Pagels in paperback: Joy Ellis, A Bouquet of Brides Collection by Pegg Thomas winner is: Becky Smith, Janet Grunst's Selah-Award winning novel, A Heart Set Free, is: Sherry Moe.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Guest Post by Janet Grunst: Coming To America

No, I’m not referring to the 1981 Neil Diamond hit song or the 1988 Eddie Murphy movie, but the seventeenth and eighteenth century emigration to the North American Continent of a vast number of people, many in servitude.

Two common means that brought Europeans to North America:

Free Willers or Redemptioners were emigrants who had a portion of their passage to the west paid prior to their passage and were permitted a specific amount of time once they arrived in the Colonies to raise the unpaid portion of the cost of their transportation. Failing to do this they would become indentured for a period determined by the amount of passage costs still owed.
Indentured Servants were emigrants who signed contracts, or “indentures,” committing themselves to work for a fixed number of years, usually four to seven, in payment for their passage. The captain would transport the indentured servants to the American colonies, and sell their legal papers to colonists; farmers, planters, and shopkeepers, thereby providing them a labor force.

Why would these people leave their homeland for such an uncertain future? There are probably as many reasons as there were people who emigrated from their homeland to an uncertain future in a distant land. Some unscrupulous people called “spirits” profited by prowling seaports and slums recruited victims who were destitute and might sign anything for a meal, a drink, or a promise of a better life. Others, in Britain or Germany, found the cost of a transatlantic passage might cost anywhere from a half to a full year’s salary, so they saw it as an opportunity to escape the poverty at home. Several poor crop years in the eighteenth century brought people from Britain and northern Europe.

The conversion to commercial agricultural enclosures and the high cost of rents caused many Scots to emigrate. Between 1763 -1775 about 20,000 Scottish Highlanders came to North America. Ireland was impoverished causing many to flee for what they perceived to be a better life. Many from England wanted to escape what they viewed as a dismal future. Others were convicts, sentenced to deportation and on their arrival in America were indentured unless they had personal funds to maintain themselves.

What conditions did they endure to come to America? If you think travel is stressful today it’s a walk in the park compared to travel across the Atlantic in the seventeen and eighteenth centuries. It was risky for anyone but often perilous if not deadly for indentures servants. Often a hundred or more passengers were housed below deck in poorly lit, stuffy, cramped quarters so low that adults couldn’t stand up straight for what could be a seven to twelve week voyage. During frequent ocean storms the vessels would pitch and roll creating sickness and terror. Food was limited to salted meat, smoked fish, peas, hardtack, and molasses as long as it lasted and the water was brackish. A prolonged voyage often meant severe rationing. Scurvy was commonplace due to the lack of fresh fruit and vegetables. Many of the travelers became ill and died as a result of these conditions.

What was life like once they reached the Colonies? The lives they found on this side of the Atlantic depended largely on who purchased their indenture and what kind of labor they were committed to perform. Their lives could be very restrictive and harsh, sometimes so difficult that they did not survive their years of service. Some of the indentured servants were in the service of individuals who treated them like any other employee and some lived like family members. Often as part of their contract, indentured servants were promised a small tract of land and other incidentals when their service ended.

There was no permanent stigma attached to indentured servitude, and the families of these persons blended readily with the total population. Children born to parents serving their indenture were free. Terms of an indenture contract were enforceable in the courts, and runaway servants could be forced to return to their masters and complete their service. Many of these people were skilled in a trade or were artisans. Upon completion of their years of service, many went on to become very successful business people and pillars of their communities.

In 1775 a formal ban on Scottish emigration along with informal restrictions of overseas movements from England went into effect. Indentured service for the most part ceased after the American Revolution.

What about you? Do you have an ancestor who was either an indentured servant or a redemptioner?

Janet Grunst is a member of Colonial American Christian Writers and a new contributor to Colonial Quills. She lives in the Historic Triangle of Virginia. Janet is a member of Tidewater Christian Writers, ACFW, and My Book Therapy. Her two sons serve in our country's armed forces.


  1. Thank you for your post, Janet--fascinating!
    As far as I know, my ancestors were not indentured, but did come to this country to escape poverty and/or persecution (some were Quakers from England that came to escape religious persecution and some were Scotts Irish Presbyterians intending to forge a better life).
    I've been researching the reasons the Irish came recently--so many reason, and in each one a story!

  2. Janet, Thanks for the great post! We welcome you to Colonial Quills! And Carla did a great job of adding those extra pics - lovely! We have a great team here and many of us have immigrant stories. Including you and me, Janet!

  3. Thanks Cathy and Carrie,

    I was surprised to learn what a high percentage of people coming to the colonies from Northern Europe were indentured servants.

  4. Janet, thank you for a very fascinating and informative post! My Hochstetler ancestors came to this country from the Alsace region between France and Germany, and their passage was probably paid for at least in part by members of their church. They were Amish Mennonites, and a number of immigrants from that community came here in groups over a period of years and established church districts in Pennsylvania and Maryland. So we think that's probably how it was handled. The hardships they were willing to endure are proof that from very early on America was viewed as a land of great opportunity for religious and economic freedom.

  5. My pleasure, on the pics!

    Fascinating article, Janet! I have three indentured servants that I'm sure of, all in the 17th century. One is John Howland of the Mayflower who was a "manservant" of John Carver. Carver and his family died soon after and left him their entire estate, so he made out pretty well I'd say. Another is Thomas Hardy who was "servant" to puritan Gov. John Winthrop. Hardy later went on to establish the town of Ipswich, MA with 8 other families. Richard Currier is my ancestor from Strawberry Bank, Scotland and indentured to Francis Dove. All of them were right hand men to their masters and soon became freemen and wealthy land owners and earned places of honor in their communities. I do not think this would have been so typical of the 18th century, however. I still find this arrangement very interesting and think of the perseverance of these individuals to work for so many years to earn their freedom and rights in the communities.

    A few of these real life accounts have given me inspiration for stories I might like to tell some day. As for now, the heroine in my novella in Colonial Courtships that I'm finishing up writing is an indentured servant, one who was spirited away from England against her will.

  6. Thank you for sharing about your ancestors, ladies. I've been fascinated by these courageous individuals, immigrants from such diverse backgrounds, who took tremendous risks for an unknown future. My heroine in the manuscript I hope to pitch next week is an indentured servant from Scotland.

  7. Janet, Such a great post. I've tried to learn a lot about indentures and apprenticeships for my next novel. Some very sad stories in history but also some happy endings. Love that Carla's kin inherited an estate, etc. My fictional apprentice is a rags to riches story, too.

    Thanks so much for this wonderful post. History is endlessly inspiring and I can tell you love it like we do:)


Thanks for commenting, please check back for our replies!