Ancestry from the Great Migration Period in America is one that many family researchers seek to claim. This period includes the time between the Pilgrim’s landing in Plymouth to about 1640. In reality, about 80% of the total immigration from Great Britain and the continent prior to the Revolutionary War were indentured servants.
Indentured servants could be sold during their indenture and were in about the same situation as a slave except they would be released after the agreed upon time, usually 5-7 years. Even this could be extended if the servant violated a term of their contract. For example, if a woman became pregnant, extra time would be added to her contract. Criminal behavior or running away had the same consequence.
The indentured servant had few rights. They could not vote, were not allowed to marry, leave their houses or travel without permission. Servitude also meant their punishments from the court were more severe.
There were three classifications of indentured servants.
- Willing migrants who agreed to sign the contracts in order to start a new life in the colonies.
- Unwilling migrants who were forced to escape religious persecution.
- Those who chose America rather than prison: convicts, vagabonds, rogues and other undesirables.
Indentured servitude was born of the immense needs for survival in the new land. The pilgrims in Plymouth tended to be farmers and tradesmen, but even they needed the additional manpower to build the colony. The Puritans in the Massachusetts Bay Colony were more highly educated and wealthy, and so the indentured servant market increased with the need for cheap labor.
Some indentured servants served as an apprentice during their indenture, but many already knew a trade, such as farming, but could not afford the cost of the journey across the Atlantic. They would agree to an indenture that bound them to a wealthy planter for 5-7 years and then be released to make a living themselves.
Some poor people in England sold themselves into indenture just to survive and this benefitted England by clearing the streets of the many beggars and homeless people.
Once the contract period ended, the liberated servants expected to receive the “freedom dues” that had been agreed upon. For the indentured farmer, this might have included tools, livestock, corn, and other necessities to start a new life. Some received nothing other than the clothes on their back.
A practice known as “spiriting” soon developed where young or intoxicated victims were persuaded, or even kidnapped and then transported by pirates or unsavory sea captains. These involuntary servants had fewer rights than the voluntary indentured servants, and many of them were prone to running away as noted in early town records.
Mehitabel Braybrooke’s birth mother, Alice Elyss was the indentured servant of Mehitabel’s father, Richard Braybrooke. Alice was whipped “after her travail” and released from her indenture.
One of my ancestors, Samuel Terry (1632-1730) was the indentured servant of another ancestor, William Pynchon. The first records for Samuel Sr. are his indentured servant contract where Pynchon agreed to teach him the skill of linen weaving took Samuel to America in 1650. They arrived in Boston on July 2, 1650, where Mr. Pynchon had disagreements with colonial authorities on account of his theological views published in a pamphlet. It was likely that Pynchon wished to relieve himself of the indentured contract with Samuel and the contract was rewritten to continue with a new master, Benjamin Cooley. In January of 1654-55, the town of Springfield granted Samuel ten acres of land with the condition that he remain in town for five years.
Overall, the experience of servitude in the colonies was dismal. Although some success stories exist, most indentured servants lived difficult lives even if they served out their indentures and gained their freedom.