Saturday, April 25, 2020

The Practice of Indentured Servitude in America

If you’re at all familiar with the past (particularly the Colonial era of America, though the practice continued into the early 1800s), then you have probably heard of indentured servants. If not, then I’m here to tell you about this tidbit from our history.

What Was an Indentured Servant? describes an indentured servant this way:

A person who came to America and was placed under contract to work for another over a period of time, usually seven years, especially during the 17th to 19th centuries. Generally, indentured servants included redemptioners*, victims of religious or political persecution, persons kidnapped for the purpose, convicts, and paupers.

*A redemptioner is someone who came from Europe to America by selling themselves into indentured servitude in order to make the journey across the ocean.

Newspaper advertisement about the arrival of a ship full of servants.
So an indentured servant was someone who agreed to work for another for a set period of years (while says seven years, it might have been as few as four or greater than seven, depending on the agreement).

As you might imagine, those kidnapped for the purpose, as the above definition says some were, as well as convicts and paupers might not have entered indentured service willingly. Others, like those fleeing various types of persecution or looking for a way to come to America, as in the redemptioners, did so of their own volition—either to escape their circumstances in Europe or to make a better life in America.

Was Indentured Service Just Another Form of Slavery?

(Let’s all agree right up front that slavery was a terrible blight on our nation and the world, and that “owning” another human being in any capacity was as wrong then as it is today. Please do not send me hate mail for bringing up the topic. The simple fact is, it was a piece of our American history, and there are times where it needs to be discussed).

That said, the short answer is no. Slavery and indentured servitude were two different animals. 

So how were they different? Well, for starters, the masters of indentured servants did not own those laboring under them as slave owners did. Instead, the indentured servant agreed under contract to work for another person for a set number of years. During that time, the indentured servant would receive room and board, and they know that at the end of their tenure, they would be allowed to move on with no strings attached. Also during their servitude, they would be earning “freedom dues,” paid upon fulfillment of their years of service, which could include any or all of the following:

·      Land
·      Livestock
·      Money
·      Clothing
·      Weapons, and/or
·      Food 

The contract for an indentured servant from the 1700s.

Another key difference was that there was a contract that protected the servant during the years of his indenture, and laws were set in place that would help maintain the indentured servants’ rights. Slaves had no such contract, and any laws written about slaves tended only to remove God-given rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Having that contract or laws that protected the indentured servants didn’t mean that working conditions were pleasant. Much to the contrary, the indentured servant’s life was one of hard toil, difficult conditions, and often harassment by his master or others, all similar to a slave’s working conditions. However, if an indentured servant was beaten too harshly or other lines were crossed, the courts could hear the servant’s case and would often rule in favor of the worker. In one such case, a female indentured servant was beaten “more like a dog than a Christian” (this was from an account in 1649). She was beaten so harshly that her “head was like a sponge.” When this was taken before a court, the servant’s master was found to have acted criminally against the poor woman. So while conditions were often terrible for slave and servant alike, at least the servants had some bit of protection. Slaves were at the mercy of their owners and society itself.

What Was an Indentured Servant’s Life Like?

Harsh, even brutal, in many cases. An indentured servant in the 1600s was often a field worker for a farmer, so it was hours of back-breaking toil under the brutal elements. While they were given room and board, they weren’t always given much room or food. Much was expected of them, and the master was often harsh and restrictive. So restrictive, at times, that indentured servants ran way, much like slaves did. If they were caught and returned, their punishment might be harsher treatment or, more often, additional time added to their period of service. Women who were found to be “with child” during their term of service also might have their years extended in punishment. If a servant broke the community laws, the same fate could befall him.

However, remember that indentured servants were learning skills that they could take into their future—the one they’d start at the end of their contracted service. As stated above, many indentured servants were farmhands in the 1600s. As time went on, other opportunities opened up. Some might have been ship’s mates or apprentices to a town blacksmith, a local printer, or other community jobs. And don’t forget the freedom dues mentioned above. While conditions were often awful and the service oppressive, indentured servants could look forward to receiving a leg up from those benefits once their term expired.

So perhaps you’re wondering why I, a western and western-romance author, would be telling you about a largely Colonial-era practice of indentured service? Well, as I mentioned, the practice continued into the early 1800s, finally dying out by the middle of that century. The practice of indentured service forms an important piece of my newest story—A Malleable Heart—part of the Blacksmith Brides Collection. The hero, Bo Allen, was sold into indentured service at the tender age of six, and in the years after that, he learned the skills of a blacksmith. So, as always, I bring you the interesting facts I learn in researching my stories so you can get those glimpses into history as well. Hope you enjoyed it!

It’s Your Turn: Have you heard of indentured servants before? If you lived in the times of such service, would you have considered becoming an indentured servant to come to America? Why or why not?

Jennifer Uhlarik discovered the western genre as a pre-teen when she swiped the only “horse” book she found on her older brother’s bookshelf. A new love was born. Across the next ten years, she devoured Louis L’Amour westerns and fell in love with the genre. In college at the University of Tampa, she began penning her own story of the Old West. Armed with a B.A. in writing, she has finaled and won in numerous writing competitions, and been on the ECPA best-seller list several times. In addition to writing, she has held jobs as a private business owner, a schoolteacher, a marketing director, and her favorite—a full-time homemaker. Jennifer is active in American Christian Fiction Writers, Women Writing the West, and is a lifetime member of the Florida Writers Association. She lives near Tampa, Florida, with her husband, college-aged son, and four fur children.


A Malleable Heart (California—1870) by Jennifer Uhlarik
A hard-hearted blacksmith finds acceptance with the town laundress. But when his past comes to call, will he resist love’s softening or allow God to hammer his ruined life into something of worth?


  1. I have heard of indentured servants. I can understand people doing that if they thought staying in their own country would lead to certain death, like in the Irish potato famine. And I'm sure that "peddlers" looking to earn some money from signing people into indentured work made it sound appealing, emphasizing the "learn a new skill" part. Thanks for posting. I sure hope you don't get hate mail!

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Connie. I bet you're right that the peddlers talked up the positives far more than they should have.