In my guest post for Colonial Quills, Coming To America, September 16, 2011, I delved into the subject of immigrants coming to the colonies as indentured servants.
Indentured Servants were emigrants who signed contracts, or “indentures,” committing themselves to work for a fixed number of years, usually four toseven, 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.
That post examined some of the reasons people left their homeland to start a new life in the young colonies. It also detailed some of the challenges they endured to cross the Atlantic and what they experienced upon arrival.
Indentured servitude was a subject that has interested me for a long time and was the basis for the story I wrote, A Heart Set Free, a tale of an indentured servant who travels from Scotland to the Virginia colony in 1770.
The research I did for the story was fascinating. Since my character, Heather Douglas emigrated from Scotland; I primarily studied the people signing indentures from the British Isles.
Poverty and unemployment were rampant in early seventeenth century Britain, which prompted many to seek a better life in the colonies. Poor crop years in the eighteenth century also brought people from there and northern Europe to the colonies.
The Enclosure Acts, a series of Parliamentary Acts in England passed between 1750 and 1860, and the high cost of rents caused many from England and Scotland to emigrate. Impoverished Ireland also caused many to emigrate for what they hoped would be a better life.
The ages of men and women who indentured themselves varied in ages from the teens through those in their sixties. They came from rural areas and cities throughout England, Scotland and even Ireland.
Most indentured servants were laborers and often uneducated. As the slavetrade became more common, particularly in the south, many indentured servants learned trades. They did wool spinning, tailoring, hat making, retailing, baking, brewing, butchering, leather processing and smithing of all sorts, and the construction trades also apprenticed bondservants in carpentry, joinery, masonry, plastering, wheel-righting, and shipbuilding.
It was not uncommon for bondservants to prosper once their term of service was over.
I was surprised to learn that as many as 48% of European immigrants to all 13 colonies before 1775 were indentured. The onset of the American Revolution reduced the entry of indentured servants significantly.
If your ancestors came from Western Europe before the Revolution, It is likely that some may have been indentured.