Indentured Servants in Colonial Virginia


Indentured servants were men and women who signed a contract (also known as an indenture or a covenant) by which they agreed to work for a certain number of years in exchange for transportation to Virginia and, once they arrived, food, clothing, and shelter. Adults usually served for four to seven years and children sometimes for much longer, with most working in the colony’s tobacco fields. With a long history in England, indentured servitude became, during most of the seventeenth century, the primary means by which Virginia planters filled their nearly inexhaustible need for labor. At first, the Virginia Company of London paid to transport servants across the Atlantic, but with the institution of the headright system in 1618, the company enticed planters and merchants to incur the cost with the promise of land. As a result, servants flooded into the colony, where they were greeted by deadly diseases and often-harsh conditions that killed a majority of newcomers and left the rest to the mercy of sometimes-cruel masters. The General Assembly passed laws regulating contract terms, as well as the behavior and treatment of servants. Besides benefiting masters with long indentures, these laws limited servant rights while still allowing servants to present any complaints in court. By the end of the seventeenth century, the number of new servants in Virginia had dwindled, and the colony’s labor needs were largely met by enslaved Africans.


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 Statute of Artificers, still being in effect when the English founded Jamestown. 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 Discourse on Western Planting (1584), Richard Hakluyt (the younger) argued to Queen Elizabeth 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

Merchants of Virginia


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 from convicted criminals to 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 House of Burgesses.

Tobacco Tamper


In the summer of 1620, the Virginia Company of London announced that 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 Great Charter of 1618, 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 recruited 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

Another factor creating a need for new servants was the rapidly expanding tobacco market. It created substantial opportunities for would-be planters, but because tobacco was a demanding, labor-intensive crop, it also required a large number of laborers. At the same time, tobacco’s acceptance as a medium of exchange prompted planters to enhance their productivity. Between the 1620s and the 1670s, the annual output of tobacco per hand rose from approximately 710 pounds to around 1,600 pounds; during the same period, shipping costs decreased. Although tobacco prices had begun to decline sharply by late in the 1620s and continued to fall, production remained profitable because planters were able to produce larger crops with fewer hands. Yet even as they technically required fewer servants, planters demanded more. That’s because tobacco consumption rose in response to lower prices, and planters, eager to meet that demand, increased their production.

Contract Terms

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 Assembly required all 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 passed a law 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 passed 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, the law 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 required slightly different terms for Irish servants.

William Buckland

The assembly declined to dictate standard terms for privately negotiated indentures; as a result, contracts varied in length and specificity. On September 7, 1619, Robert Coopy, whose age went unnoted, signed an indenture for three years’ service to the proprietors of Berkeley’s Hundred requiring that he be “obedient” to his betters and that they “transport him (with gods assistance)” to Virginia and there “maintayne him with convenient diet and apparel.” In a much shorter document, dated March 14, 1664, Lott Richards, a merchant from Bristol, England, sold “one Sarvant boy by name William [F]reeman being about eleven years old and haveing noe indenture” to John Barnes for a term of eight years. By 1755, Thomson Mason could simply fill out a form, which he did in order to indenture for four years William Buckland, a twenty-one-year-old carpenter and joiner, to his brother George Mason, who was overseeing the construction of Gunston Hall. Buckland’s agreement was somewhat unusual in that, as a skilled worker, he was paid wages of £20 per year in addition to receiving “all necessary Meat, Drink, Washing, [and] Lodging.”

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 who charged his master with cheating him asked the General Court 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.

Servants’ Behavior

The Whole Duty of Man

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 who ran away and to those who, while still under contract, hired themselves out to new masters under better terms. The 1642–1643 assembly passed a law—subsequently revised 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 in “Against ffornication,” passed in 1661–1662, which responded to servant pregnancies by requiring large fines to be paid to the local parish. If the master refused to pay, then the servants were to be whipped. Another law, 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 a 1662 law, 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 “An act for punishment of ffornication and seaverall other sins and offences,” 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’ Treatment

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, who visited Virginia in 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 Captain John Smith termed a proper and civil gentlewoman, arranged for her runaway maidservant Elizabeth Abbott 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 charged 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 Opechancanough‘s Indians attacked in 1622. After killing Ralph Dickenson, the Pamunkey Indians 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 petition 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, conspired to rebel against their masters; in 1663, a group of nine indentured servants in Gloucester County plotted to arm themselves and march to Governor Sir William Berkeley‘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 a 1657 statute otherwise 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, one act required “suffitient” diet and clothing to servants on their transatlantic voyage, while another 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 further directed 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 protect 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

Census of Tobacco Plants


“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 Bacon’s Rebellion (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 Virginia gentry—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.

June 1349
The English Parliament passes the Ordinance of Labourers, declaring that all men and women under the age of sixty who do not practice a craft must serve anyone requiring their labor.
England's population more than doubles, from 2.3 million to 4.8 million people.
January 12, 1563
The English Parliament passes the Statute of Artificers, which compiles and revises 200 years' worth of law regarding indentured servitude. It is still in effect when Jamestown is founded in 1607.
Richard Hakluyt (the younger) presents a treatise on colonization, the Discourse on Western Planting, to Queen Elizabeth. He is awarded the next open appointment as prebendary of Bristol Cathedral, which he will take up in 1586.
November 18, 1618
The Virginia Company of London issues its "Instructions to George Yeardley," which include the establishment of the General Assembly and the headright system. These instructions come to be known as the Great Charter.
August 4, 1619
The General Assembly passes a law requiring all servants to register with the secretary of state upon arrival in Virginia.
September 7, 1619
Robert Coopy of North Nibley, Gloucester, England, age unknown, signs a three-year indenture to work as a servant for the proprietors of the Berkeley Hundred plantation in Virginia.
During this time, the annual output of tobacco per hand rises from approximately 710 pounds to around 1,600 pounds. During the same time, shipping costs decrease.
Fifteen-year-old Robert Townshend arrives in Virginia as an apprentice to Dr. John Pott.
July 18, 1620
The Virginia Company of London declares its intention to pay to ship 800 new settlers to Virginia, including tenants, apprentices, young women, and indentured servants.
March 30, 1624
In a petition addressed to the governor and General Court, the indentured servant Jane Dickenson pleads for her release from Dr. John Pott. A former prisoner of Virginia Indians, Dickenson claims that Pott's treatment of her is worse.
October 10, 1624
The General Court hears testimony concerning the deaths of two indentured servants, Elizabeth Abbott and Elias Hinton, at the hands of their masters, John and Alice Proctor.
January 31, 1625
The General Court hears testimony in the case of an indentured servant, William Mutch, who allegedly was attacked by his master after he demanded his so-called freedom dues, or the payment servants customarily receive upon completion of their contracts.
During this time, 75,000 people immigrate to the Chesapeake Bay colonies, 50,000 of whom are indentured servants. The large majority of these newcomers are men.
March 1633
The Dutchman David Pieterson DeVries visits Virginia and makes note of the high mortality rate among newcomers and the poor treatment of indentured servants.
March 1642
The General Assembly passes laws regulating the time served by servants without indentures, requiring servants to carry certificates, prohibiting masters from hiring servants without proper papers, and punishing servants who become pregnant.
July 31, 1649
The Lower Norfolk County Court considers two depositions that attest to the mistreatment, by Deborah Fernehaugh, of her indentured servant Charetie Dallen.
March 1657
The General Assembly passes laws revising the required time of service for servants without indentures; granting servants the right to take complaints to court; and adding time to indentures, in the case of pregnancy and secret marriages, to male and female servants both.
The Whole Duty of Man, a Protestant devotional work, is published anonymously. Many scholars believe the author to be Richard Allestree.
March 1661
The General Assembly passes laws requiring "suffitient" diet and clothing for servants making their transatlantic voyage, prohibiting "cruell" treatment once they arrive in Virginia, and requiring large fines to be paid to the local parish by the master of any servant who becomes pregnant.
March 1661
In "Concerning Indians," the General Assembly regulates the various interactions Virginia colonists have with neighboring Virginia Indians.
December 1662
The General Assembly passes two laws stipulating that the children of servants who become pregnant should be handed over to the church, and that, upon their freedom, the mothers should serve the parish for two years as reimbursement.
March 14, 1664
Lott Richards, a merchant from Bristol, England, sells "one Sarvant boy by name William [F]reeman being about eleven yeares old and haveing noe indenture" to John Barnes for a term of eight years.
June 16, 1675
The General Court orders the black indentured servant Phillip Gowen to be freed, finding that his master cheated him.
February 1676
In "An act lymiting masters dealing with their servants," the General Assembly directs masters not to make bargains with their indentured servants in an attempt to trick them into extended terms of service.
By this year, enslaved Africans and African Americans account for nearly all of the Virginia gentry's bound workforce. Slaves account for only 25 to 40 percent of the non-elites' workforce.
September 1696
In "An act for punishment of ffornication and seaverall other sins and offences," the General Assembly addresses the perennial problems of swearing, drunkenness, and sex.
October 1705
In "An act concerning Servants and Slaves," the General Assembly compiles and revises more than eighty years of law regarding indentured servants and enslaved Africans.
August 1755
Twenty-one-year-old William Buckland, a carpenter and joiner from Oxford, England, signs a four-year indenture to work as a servant for George Mason. Buckland will oversee construction of Gunston Hall in Fairfax County.
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APA Citation:
Wolfe, Brendan. Indentured Servants in Colonial Virginia. (2020, December 07). 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, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 17 Jul. 2024
Last updated: 2021, November 10
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