Monday, October 17, 2011

Indentured Servitude in Virginia

Page 20 of "So Obscure A Person” begins the tale of Alexander STINSON's adventures as an Indentured Servant in Williamsburg, Virginia, even to his bequeathal in the will of his Tavern-keeper owner to her heirs or to be sold at public auction. So what exactly was this Indentured Servitude that our forebear was subjected to?

Indentured Servitude was commonly practiced in the early settlement days of America, especially in the Tidewater Colonies of Maryland and Virginia. The use of indentured servants for labor was practiced long before the arrival of slaves to Virginia, as the intensive labor required to raise crops such as tobacco needed large scale importation of farm laborers. The scheme was devised to pay the ocean passage for an immigrant, and then for that new laborer to be bound by an indenture contract for five to seven years. Even after the importation of slaves began, indentured servitude continued. The British crown even used the scheme to export undesirables, including debtors and criminals from Great Britain. In 1681, more than twice as many plantation laborers were indentured whites than black slaves.
"Servant in the colonial era meant about the same as employee in ours; and within the class there was as wide a variation as today between a migrant farm laborer in California and a master electrician. In the English colonies, a servant was usually a person whose passage was paid, or assisted, in return for working for a certain number of years--usually four or five for an adult. When released from this apprenticeship, the servant became a freeman like any other. Servants in Virginia might be of any class, from poor gentleman, to convicted felon. The average servant was a respectable young person who wished to better himself in the New World but could not afford the cost of outfit and passage. During the four or five years he worked for his master, he became acclimated, learned how to grow tobacco and corn, and in many instances learned a trade. During this term of service the servant received only food and clothing; but at the end, the former servant could set up as a yeoman farmer, vote, and even be elected to the assembly."

Morison goes on to say that the range of membership in the servant class varied from respectable young men and women; to Scottish and Irish prisoners taken in the civil wars; to boys and girls kidnapped and sold to ships' masters who then resold them on arrival in the New World; to convicted felons. These latter in turn might vary from people imprisoned for nothing worse than stealing a loaf of bread, to hardened habitual criminals." (Samuel Eliot Morison, "The Oxford History of the American People," Oxford University Press, New York, 1965, page 82)