Who Were the Indentured Servants?

Jamestown, the first colony of the Virginia Company, had only been founded for ten years when the first Indentured Servants began to make an appearance in the Americas.

The idea and probably the practice of indentured servitude sprang from the dire need for cheap laborers to work the land in colonial Americas. The early settlers were quickly met with the need for manpower to work the sprawling acreage available to them.

Passage to the Americas in itself was a considerable cost for anyone but the very rich. The very rich were in the Americas to acquire land and accumulate wealth not do the actual work themselves. They needed a way to attract a considerable workforce to power their enterprise and this was made available with the indentured servant.

The concept was popularized by the dire circumstances for the populations of Europe who were recovering from the destructive Thirty Years War that depleted the major economies. There was also a considerable unemployment problem at the time and Europe was crowded with skilled and unskilled laborers of all types.

It is understandable that the concept of life far away from the dreary depression of Europe was both exciting and inviting. The accommodations and arrangements available to these original “migrant workers” were tough but fair and indentured servitude was a far cry from the harsh realities of slavery.

An indentured servant would work for of a period as long as seven years or as short as four. During this time they would apply their skills or manpower to the service of their employer who would provide a home, food and all other necessary provisions until their contract had expired. The deal was restrictive and an indentured servant could extend their time of service as punishments for running away or becoming pregnant, in the case of female servants.

Those that managed to survive and gain their freedom had a considerably good position in the growing American colonies at the time. Many historians say that the indentured servant had a better opportunity for success than those colonists who came over of their own volition. While some did make it to the elite class in the Americas, it was a modest life in the opportunity rich colonies that attracted many indentured servants from Europe.

In 1619, the first black slaves arrived in the American colonies. At the time, there were no slave labor laws and they were given the same liberties as white indentured servants. By, 1641, all slavery laws had been established and the few rights that applied to blacks were stricken from the law.