Servitude had a long history in England, dating back to medieval serfdom. The Ordinance of Labourers, passed in June 1349, declared that all men and women under the age of sixty who did not practice a craft must serve anyone requiring their labor. Parliament updated the law in 1495 and 1563, with the latter version, the, still being in effect when the English founded . Between 1520 and 1630, England’s population more than doubled, from 2.3 million to 4.8 million, and Parliament hoped its 1563 statute might “banishe Idleness[,] advance Husbandrye,” and so deal with the near-overwhelming number of poor and unemployed citizens. In fact, the founding of Virginia itself was partially in response to this problem. In his (1584), argued to that new American colonies would energize England’s “decayed trades” and provide work for the country’s “multitudes of loyterers and idle vagabondes.”
In England, an indenture, or contract for labor, was known as a “covenant merely personal,” and could apply either to farm laborers or apprentices learning a trade. Contracts generally lasted a year, after which terms were renegotiated. As the merchant and adventurer Sir George Peckham noted in 1583, many English men and women willingly became servants “in hope thereby to amend theyr estates,” and young children were sometimes bound to service by parents who might not otherwise be able to afford their upbringing. While there was not necessarily a strong stigma attached to indentured servitude, the institution—first in England and then in Virginia—temporarily transformed free men and women into chattel, or property to be bought and sold.
Land and Labor
The Virginia Company of London always had more land than labor to work it. At first, the company attempted to entice investors by offering them shares in the company that were redeemable for land. But when profits failed to materialize and the colony became infamous for its high mortality rate, the company began shipping servants to Virginia at its own expense and placing them on company-owned land. (An Englishman willing to risk his life in order to work someone else’s acreage was not usually someone who could afford transatlantic passage.) Once the servants arrived, the company could rent them out to planters for a year at a time, requiring the planters to take responsibility for the workers’ food, shelter, and health.
With the introduction of marketable tobacco, however, demand for labor skyrocketed. Private investors who, alongside the company, had shipped servants at their own expense continued to do so while the company rid itself of its role as rental agent. Instead, it sold servants directly to planters at a price based on the cost of passage. Planters, mariners, and merchants then fixed the servants’ years of service based on the labor required to recoup their purchase price and subsequent care.
Servants, who ranged fromto skilled workers, in time came to occupy the lowest rung on the social ladder in Virginia. While tenants kept half of what they earned, servants kept nothing and were almost entirely at the mercy of their masters for the terms of their indentures. Movement up the ladder was limited, even once a term of service had been completed, although servants with marketable skills had a greater chance of success. Few servants were like Robert Townshend, who arrived as an apprentice in 1620 and eventually served in the .
In the summer of 1620, the Virginia Company of Londonthat it would send to Virginia, at “publike charge,” “eight hundred choise persons,” half of whom were assigned to be tenants of company land. One hundred “yong Maides” were sent to “make wives for these Tenants,” and one hundred boys to serve as apprentices. Finally, “one hundred servants [were] to be disposed amongst the old Planters, which they greatly desire, and have offered to defray their charges with very great thankes.”
Soon, however, the company found it unnecessary to continue incurring the “publike charge” of transporting servants. Instead, it implemented a system by which it used the prospect of land to entice new colonists, and with them laborers. Headrights, first described in the so-called, awarded 100 acres of land each to planters who had been in the colony since May 1616, and 50 acres each to anyone who covered the cost of transporting a new immigrant to Virginia. These newcomers, more often than not, were indentured servants, allowing successful planters simultaneous access to land and labor, with no upfront cost to the company. Merchants and mariners reaped a benefit, too, for they prospective servants, bargained their indenture terms with them, and then sold the contracts to planters in Virginia. Merchants also accumulated headrights that could be used to acquire land. In time, these headrights, or land certificates, were bought and sold much like modern-day stock certificates.
Sometimes groups of investors collectively absorbed the cost of outfitting and transporting workers to the colony. Virginia Company of London stockholders were entitled to 100 acres per share, and high-ranking officials were furnished with indentured servants as part of their stipend. In some instances groups of investors promised to give land to their indentured servants after they fulfilled their contracts. The Society of Berkeley Hundred‘s investors offered their skilled servants parcels that ranged from 25 to 50 acres, to be claimed once they had fulfilled their contracts.
Various factors fueled the need for new servants. One was demographics. Approximately 50,000 servants—or three-quarters of all new arrivals—immigrated to the Chesapeake Bay colonies between 1630 and 1680. The ratio of men to women among servants in the 1630s was six-to-one. Between 1640 and 1680, the ratio dropped to four-to-one, but even then, many men could not find wives to marry and therefore could not establish families. As a result of this and the high mortality rate among new servants, company officials and English merchants were forced to constantly replenish the Virginia colony’s servant population.
Export of Virginia Tobacco and Its Popularity in Britain
As indentured servants poured into Virginia, they came to account for fully half of Virginia’s population. Such rapid change caused problems, however, and the General Assembly passed numerous statutes designed to address them. These laws served several broad purposes, including regulation of servants’ contract terms, behavior, and treatment.
Contract terms were important for several reasons. The assembly wished to protect masters from terms that did not fully recoup their cost of transporting servants from England to Virginia, in addition to their subsequent care. The assembly also faced the problem of servants who arrived without any contracts; the English custom of requiring a single year’s service absent any other arrangement would not suffice in America, where the labor market was less stable than in England. Finally, the masters—who included most men who sat in the assembly—had an interest in prolonging terms of indenture because briefer service led to disruptive turnover, labor shortages, and an unstable workforce.
For these reasons, terms of service did not shorten even as tobacco production became more efficient and profitable. Instead, lengthy terms of service became customary and dictated by law. As early as 1619, the General Assemblyall servants to register with the secretary of state upon arrival and “Certifie him upon what termes or conditions they be come hither.” In its 1642–1643 session, the assembly mandating that any servant arriving without an indenture and who was younger than twelve years old should serve for seven years, servants aged twelve to nineteen should serve for five years, and servants aged twenty and older should serve for four years. Legislation in the 1657–1658 session adjusted these ages: anyone under the age of fifteen should serve until he or she turned twenty-one, while anyone sixteen or older should serve for four years. By 1705, had been simplified, so that all non-indentured Christian servants older than nineteen should serve until they turned twenty-four. (“Christian servants” generally referred to non-blacks and non-Indians.) Lawmakers entrusted the county courts with judging the age of each servant. In the meantime, they slightly different terms for Irish servants.
Servants whose contracts had expired typically received “freedom dues,” loosely described as a quantity of corn and clothing. The 1705 statute was the first to explicitly mention this “good and laudable custom,” and required that male servants, “upon their freedom,” be supplied with ten bushels of corn, thirty shillings (or the like value in goods), and a musket worth at least twenty shillings. Women were entitled to fifteen bushels of corn and the equivalent of forty shillings.
During the seventeenth century, freedom dues were negotiated as part of the indenture. Robert Coopy’s contract, for instance, guaranteed him thirty acres of land at Berkeley’s Hundred. John Barnes, who purchased William Freeman, was obliged only to pay the boy “his full due According to the Custom of this Country.” Depending on the time and place, this might have included corn, clothing, and tools. In 1675, an indentured servant whowith cheating him asked the to free him “and pay him corne & clothes.” The judges ruled in his favor, granting him “three Barrels of Corne att the Cropp.” Occasionally the owners of indentured servants refused to release them or give them their freedom dues. At Jamestown, when a male indentured servant who had fulfilled his contract insisted on receiving his “corn and clothes,” his master exploded in rage and struck him on the head with his truncheon.
In addition to contract terms, the General Assembly concerned itself with servant behavior. In The Whole Duty of Man, a Protestant devotional work published anonymously in 1658, the English author reminds readers that all servants owe their masters “obedience,” “Faithfulness,” “Patience and Meekness,” and “Diligence.” In Virginia, at least, such ideals were not always met. For instance, burgesses were forced to pass laws in response to servants whoand to those who, while still under contract, hired themselves out to new masters under better terms. The 1642–1643 assembly —subsequently in 1657–1658—requiring that servants carry certificates and punishing any master who hired a servant without proper papers.
The assembly was also perennially concerned with “ffornication,” especially when it resulted in female servants becoming pregnant, which led to a loss of the servants’ labor, for which the law attempted to provide compensation to the master. In some cases, female servants became pregnant as the result of relationships with male servants. Beginning in 1619, the assembly attempted to limit such relationships by preventing indentured women from marrying without permission. In 1643, it banned “secret marriages” between servants and added a year of servitude to both parties’ contracts as punishment.
Sometimes servants were singled out in the context of broader morals laws, such as inpassed in 1661–1662, which responded to servant pregnancies by requiring large fines to be paid to the local . If the master refused to pay, then the servants were to be whipped. , passed in 1662, stipulated that the children of such pregnancies were to be handed over to the church, which would be reimbursed for its trouble by the “reputed father.” If the father of an illegitimate child were a master, then, according to , the maidservant would, upon completion of her indenture, be sold to the local parish for two years. This was to prevent such female servants, who were termed “loose persons,” from avoiding work through pregnancy and then attempting to leave their children in the care of their masters. It also served to remove these women from the homes of the “dissolute” masters who impregnated them. As the historians John D’Emilo and Estelle Freedman noted, “Masters could abuse the law by impregnating a servant and enjoying not only sexual privilege” but additional servitude if the woman were not removed. A number of these laws were combined and revised into passed by the assembly in 1696. Under this revision, a woman servant who had a “bastard child” would be punished by having an extra year of servitude added to her contract or “pay one thousand pounds of tobacco to her master or mistress.” But gone was mention of dissolute masters.
Servants ran away largely because their lives in Virginia tended to be nasty, brutish, and short. Although they often worked alongside their masters in tobacco fields, they usually lived apart and often under primitive conditions. They worked from dawn until dusk, six days a week through the growing season, which on tobacco and wheat farms could last from as early as February until as late as November. The mortality rate was very high, mostly due to what Virginians called the “summer seasoning,” a time during which disease killed a majority of new arrivals. According to the Dutchman David Peterson DeVries, whoin March 1633, immigrants died “like cats and dogs,” while the sick “want to sleep all the time, but they must be prevented from sleeping by force,” lest they die.
In the meantime, servants—whether seasoned or unseasoned—were treated as property subject to overwork and beatings. For instance, in 1624 Alice Proctor, whom Captaintermed a proper and civil gentlewoman, arranged for her runaway maidservant to be beaten, and the punishment was so severe that Abbott died. George Sandys, the colony’s treasurer, allowed his servants to starve and languish for lack of medical treatment, while in 1649 a mistress was with thrashing her “mayd Servant … more Liken a dogge then a Christian,” so that her head was “as soft as a sponge, in one place” and her back was possibly broken. Other female servants were victims of sexual assault. DeVries worried that servants were not treated with appropriate dignity. “I was astonished to observe of the English people, that they lose their servants in gambling with each other,” he wrote. “I told them I had never seen such work in Turk or Barbarian, and that it was not becoming Christians.”
Jane Dickenson was a servant living on the Martin’s Hundred plantation with her husband, Ralph Dickenson, when‘s Indians in 1622. After killing Ralph Dickenson, the held Jane Dickenson prisoner for ten months until Dr. John Pott, a Jamestown physician and future Virginia governor, ransomed her freedom for two pounds of beads. Pott claimed that Dickenson owed him both the remaining time on her late husband’s contract and the time it would take her to reimburse him the ransom he paid for her release. In a dated March 30, 1624, Dickenson asked the General Court to free her, alleging that Pott’s treatment of her “much differeth not from her slavery with the Indians.”
On at least two occasions, servants banded together to protest the way they were treated. In 1661, forty servants in York County, angered by the lack of meat in their diets,to rebel against their masters; in 1663, a group of nine indentured servants in to arm themselves and march to Governor ‘s home, where they would demand their freedom. In both cases, the authorities were notififed before the plans could be carried out, and the conspirators were punished. According to Berkeley, four of the Gloucester County conspirators were hanged for their actions.
The General Assembly did pass legislation aimed at protecting servants from mistreatment. In aotherwise concerned with runaways, servants were granted the right to take to the courts complaints of “harsh and bad usage, or else for want of diett or convenient necessaries.” In 1661, required “suffitient” diet and clothing to servants on their transatlantic voyage, while prohibited “cruell” treatment once they arrived, with burgesses worrying that the “feare thereof” had discouraged some servants from coming to Virginia. In 1676, the assembly masters not to make bargains with their servants in an attempt to trick or manipulate them into extended terms of service. Other acts aimed to the limited rights of Virginia Indian servants. Of course, these laws were neither preventative nor always enforced; rather, they reflected the harsh reality of servitude in Virginia, a reality that, as time passed, became less and less distinct from chattel slavery.
From Servitude to Slavery
“Servitude in Virginia’s tobacco fields approached closer to slavery than anything known at the time in England,” the historian Edmund S. Morgan wrote. “Men served longer, were subjected to more rigorous punishments, [and] were traded about as commodities” beginning in the 1620s. For much of the seventeenth century, those servants were white English men and women—with a smattering of Africans, Indians, and Irish—under indenture with the promise of freedom. By 1705, and the passage of “An act concerning Servants and Slaves,” slavery had become ensconced at all levels of Virginia society and was well on its way to completely replacing indentured servitude as the primary source of bound labor in the colony.
Most historians have explained this shift by citing either social or economic shifts in Virginia beginning around the 1670s. Morgan and others, for instance, have argued that(1676–1677) was, in part, the result of discontent among former servants. By harnessing that discontent and, in the name of racial solidarity, pointing it in the direction of enslaved Africans, white elites could create a more stable workforce and one that was less likely to threaten their own interests. Other historians have observed that the flow of English servants began to dry up beginning in the 1660s and fell off dramatically around 1680, forcing planters to rely more heavily on slaves. Slavery did not end indentured servitude, in other words; the end of servitude gave rise to slavery.
The historian John C. Coombs has suggested a third possibility: “There was no ‘trigger’ cause for the conversion.” Instead, slavery expanded gradually as the English empire grew, its role in the slave trade matured, and enslaved Africans became more available throughout Virginia. By the 1670s, slaves had begun to replace white indentured servants among the—before both Bacon’s Rebellion and the sharp decline in new servants. By 1690, slaves accounted for nearly all of the gentry’s bound workforce but only 25 to 40 percent of the non-elite’s. Over time, as the supply of enslaved Africans increased and their prices decreased, farmers and planters agreed that they preferred a slave for life to a servant who had the hope of freedom. Even so, indentured servants—particularly those with specialized skills—and convict servants continued to be imported to the colony throughout the eighteenth century.
- Billings, Warren M. The Old Dominion in the Seventeenth Century: A Documentary History of Virginia, 1606–1700. Revised Edition. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007.
- Billings, Warren M. “The Law of Servants and Slaves in Seventeenth-Century Virginia.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 99:1 (January 1991), 45–62.
- Brown, Kathleen M. Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs: Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial Virginia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.
- Coombs, John C. “Beyond the ‘Origins Debate’: Rethinking the Rise of Virginia Slavery,” in Early Modern Virginia: Reconsidering the Old Dominion. Douglas Bradburn and John C. Coombs, eds. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2011.
- Galenson, David W. “The Rise and Fall of Indentured Servitude in the Americas: An Economic Analysis.” The Journal of Economic History 44:1 (March 1984), 1–26.
- Kulikoff, Allan. Tobacco and Slaves: The Development of Southern Cultures in the Chesapeake: 1680–1800. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986.
- Morgan, Edmund S. American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1975.
- APA Citation:
- Wolfe, Brendan. Indentured Servants in Colonial Virginia. (2021, November 10). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/indentured-servants-in-colonial-virginia.
- MLA Citation:
- Wolfe, Brendan. "Indentured Servants in Colonial Virginia" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (10 Nov. 2021). Web. 01 Jul. 2022