Indentured servants were an important piece of establishing colonies in North America. They first arrived in America in the decade following the settlement of Jamestown by the Virginia Company in the sixteenth century (PBS, n.d.). The growth of tobacco and other crops created a tremendous need for labor in the early colonies. With this need came many changes, problems and unintended consequences of using indentured servants.
Indentured servants were colonists that exchanged several years of labor for the cost of passage to America and the grant of land (Tindall & Shi, 2013, p.38). The idea of indentured servants was born when colonists realized that they had a tremendous amount of land to care for, but no one to care for it. This became very prevalent when tobacco became profitable, as it was labor intensive and the need for servants was rapidly growing (PBS, n.d.). At this time the European economy was depressed, which left many laborers looking for work.
The opportunity of new life in America offered hope; which explains how one-half to two-thirds of the immigrants who came to the American colonies arrived as indentured servants. (PBS, n.d.). Typically, an indentured servant would work for several years. This was in exchange for room, board, passage and freedom to America. Work as an indentured servant could be harsh, but if they survived they would receive “freedom dues” set by custom and law. This included money, tools, clothing, food and occasionally small tracks of land (Tindall & Shi, 2013, p. 75).
Changes, Problems and Issues with Indentured Servants
Indentured servants brought challenges to colonists from several prospective. First, simple supply and demand created issues with indentured servants – if the demand for labor grew, so did the cost of the servants. These servants were not always brought willingly, so you dealt with the struggles of runaways and kidnappings. The servant’s masters would often whip them for bad behavior. There were high death rates, due to disease and exhaustion. Many servants did not live to the end of their terms. The ones that did live posed the most substantial issue for many colonists.
When the indentured servants were free they posed unintended consequences for the already established colonists. They demanded political recognition, and land. (Tindall & Shi, 2013) They eyed and moved to the indigenous land that caused trouble for the colony, as that land was inhabited by the Indians. They started their own farms or pursued a trade, which allowed them to acquire servants of their own. Many colonists also felt threatened by freed indentured servants as they were competition for the land and future wealth for their families.
When the prospects for upward mobility dimmed, indentured servants were willing and ready to participate in violent rebellions and to demand wealthier colonist’s property. The threat posed by the increasing number of indentured servants might have been one of the reasons this type of servitude diminished. (Dictionary of American History, 2013) Another reason for the decline of indentures servants what that many farmers and plantation owners began to rely on the labor of enslaved Africans. Slaves were more costly than servants, but they served for life and by the 1660s colonial legislative assemblies had legalized lifelong slavery (Tindall & Shi, 2013, p.75). Conclusion
Indentured servants were an integral part of the early colonies. They provided a means to aid the farmer’s in providing labor to produce an abundance of crops such as tobacco, rice and indigo. Although, the job proved harsh, it provided an opportunity for depressed European’s to start a new life in the Americas.
Dictionary of American History. (2013). Indentured Servants. Retrieved from http://www.encyclopedia.com/topic/Indentured _servants. aspx PBS. (n.d.). History Detectives Special Investigations. Indentured servants in the U.S. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/opb/historydetectives/feature/indentured-servants-in-the-us/ Tindall, G. & Shi, D. (2013). America: A Narrative History. (9th ed.). New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company