Indentured Servants

The growth of tobacco, rice, and indigo and the plantation economy created a need for labor in southern English America. Without the aid of modern machinery, humans were necessary for the planting, cultivation and harvesting of the crops. While slaves existed in the English colonies throughout the 1600s, indentured servitude was the method used most by many planters before the 1680s. This system provided incentives for both the master and servant to increase the working population of the Chesapeake colonies.

Virginia and Maryland operated under what was known as the headright system. The leaders of each colony knew that labor was essential for economic survival, so they provided incentives for planters to import workers. For each laborer brought across the Atlantic, the master was rewarded with 50 acres of land. This system was used by wealthy plantation aristocrats to increase their land holdings.

The system helped the servant as well. Indentured servants' fares across the Atlantic were paid in full by their masters. Upon the completion of the contract—usually five years, the servant would receive “freedom dues,” a pre-arranged termination bonus; possibly money, a gun, clothes or food. It seemed like a terrific way for the English poor to make their way to prosperity in a new land, but that was not often the case.

Only about 40% of indentured servants lived to complete the terms of their contracts. Female servants were often harassed by their masters. Early in the century, some servants were able to get their own land as free men. But by 1660, much of the best land was claimed by the large landowners. The former servants were pushed westward, where the mountainous land was less arable and there was a constant threat from Indians. A class of poor, angry pioneer farmers began to emerge later in the 1600s. After Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676, planters began to prefer permanent African slavery to the headright system that had previously enabled them to prosper.

Source: Indentured Servants
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