The Bond-Servant
The Scarlet Letter


Summarized from "Colonists in Bondage: Indentured Servants in America," by Barbara Bigham, Early American Life, October, 1979, v10n5, p30-33, 83-4.

An "indentured bond-servant" was one who signed a contract to work as a servant for a period of years, in return for passage to America, clothing, room, and board, and at the end of the period to receive sufficient land and tools to start as an independent farmer. In some cases, the migration was forced (or as a form of punishment for crimes) and included some children. The term "indenture" refers to the fact that the contract was "indented", or torn in half, so each party could keep a signed copy.

1619--first known contract of indenture in America, for three years, with Robert Coopy, Virginia.

1625--out of 1,227 total population of Virginia Colony, 487 were indentured servants.

1629--Seven burgesses in Virginia assembly had been indentured.

1635--Thomas Carter, 25, was among 200 indentured servants in one ship landed in Virginia. After his service, he became a respected farmer and had four indentured servants of his own. One of his descendants, Jimmy Carter, became President of the United States.

1636--blank printed indentured forms widely available in England

1637--15 members of Maryland assembly had been indentured.

1640--Maryland required freedom dues: suit of clothes and linen, socks and shoes, two hoes, one ax, three barrels of corn, fifty acres of land.

1683--Maryland law dropped requirement of land for freed bond servants, as unsettled land became scarce.

1691--Stafford County, Virginia, court freed black servant Benjamin Lewis when his master claimed Lewis was not a servant but a slave--the court upheld the original contract; Lewis had been an indentured servant for four years in England earlier.

1700--Lancaster County, Virginia, court upheld original four-year indenture contract of bond servant Catherine Douglas, who had been resold for another seven-year term to another master.

1717--forced exile from England established for criminals, so they could be transported to America or the West Indies for no less than seven years as bond servants.

1729--from this point to 1776, at least 70 per cent of Old Bailey criminals in London were transported as bond servants; at least 30,000 convicts in all.

1733--Philadelphia newspapers carried advertisements for reward for return of runaway indentured servants.

1748--Virginia law established freedom dues of three pounds, ten shillings, cash, in lieu of land (generally this had been "according to the custom of the country" and so varied with the master).

1758--Spotsylvania, Virginia, court ordered sufficient clothing be given to a bond servant William Hust.

1776--Continental Congress passed Declaration of Independence-- Charles Thomas, Secretary, and Dr. Matthew Thornton, New Hampshire delegate, had been indentured. Declaration does not outlaw slavery.


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1999-02-02 -- Last updated: Wed Sep 8 12:09:13 EDT 1999
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