Friday, September 16, 2011
Guest Post by Janet Grunst: Coming To America
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.
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.