Indentured Servitude: Origins of US Labor Conflict

Myths and Misunderstandings

      The study of labor in the United States has a tendency to lean towards a myopic analysis of the battle between corporations and unions. Working-class organization struggling against industrial titans understandably dominates any modern labor discussion, but the sources of these conflicts in the US are older than the nation itself. The labor system in Colonial America established the pattern of labor exploitation witnessed and discussed continually throughout US history.
      Before the formation of the United States, the European colonies in the Americas had an insatiable demand for cheap, exploitable labor. Despite myths to the contrary, the land was not untamed nor virginal. Native Americans were seen as the ideal choice for wealthy Europeans seeking cheap labor, however many could not survive contact with diseases carried over the Atlantic by the colonialists. Local labor was out of the question. The next option was to bring over workers from England, Ireland, Germany, and other European countries, where a glut of low-skill workers had resulted in a growing impoverished class.
      For many early European immigrants, life in the American colonies was sold as a fresh start. Pamphlets were distributed to all classes of life selling the bountiful riches of the colonies in an effort to sustain functioning population levels. Wealthy merchants established businesses profiting from the region's rich natural resources, politicians used their favor with royalty to acquire huge swaths of 'untamed' land, and mercenaries gained massive fortunes establishing white, European superiority in North America. For many the passage to the 'new world' was far too expensive. Many early immigrants were impoverished, low-skilled individuals with very few prospects for success in their homelands. They had few resources to draw upon to afford the journey, yet such a journey was perpetually pushed as a path towards wealth and reinvention. In the mid-17th century, indentured servitude became the method of choice for the poor to reach Colonial America.

Indentured Servant Contract

Contract for the sale of four-year-old Benjamin Evans in New York. Photo from the The Brooker Collection Spring 2004, Boston College Law Library, Boston, MA.
Contract for the sale of four-year-old Benjamin Evans in New York. Photo from the The Brooker Collection Spring 2004, Boston College Law Library, Boston, MA.

A History of Forced Labor

      For the first hundred years of colonization in what is now the United States, the majority of inhabitants were either indentured servants or slaves. Indentured servants were individuals who entered into a temporary agreement to serve another person in exchange for payment for the passage across the Atlantic and maintenance upon arrival. Such servants ranged in background from second sons to convicts to entire working class families. Some were indentured against their will, such as children, young women kidnapped to be breeders in the colonies, or convicts forced by law to emigrate. The agreements usually entailed between four and seven years of labor from the servant, with housing and support provided by the owner. Children were kept until they reached adulthood. One example is Benjamin Evans, a "Pauper Apprentice" in New York, who became indentured at the age of four in 1797 and remained trapped in servitude until he turned twenty-one. At the end of the contract, a large allowance called a freedom due was given to the indentee. This was intended to be used by the servant to obtain housing and establish themselves in free society.
      Just like many contemporary labor contracts written today, such an exchange sounds like a reasonable deal. It is affordable for the contract holder, and the laborer receives his or her freedom at the end of a contract period. The same cannot be said for kidnapped slaves from Africa. There was, of course, a catch. Indentured servants were abused, tortured, insufficiently clothed or fed, and suffered from injuries and disease with little medical treatment. More than fifty percent did not survive longer than five years. As such servants were generally cheaper to purchase than slaves, and freedom dues were left unpaid in the event of the servant's death, many landowners opted to use such servants over slaves from Africa, suppressing the growth of slavery for several decades.
      By the 18th century, the popularity of indentured servitude began to wane and was replaced by enslaved African-Americans. The pattern of control over the less fortunate by the wealthy in exchange for merely sustaining the life of the laborer had been established. Many parallels can be drawn between indentured servitude and modern labor compensation, with freedom dues and retirement benefits seeming eerily similar to one another. Today, minimum wage earners across the country work horrific hours in physical demanding roles in order to sustain their families in impoverished squalor. It is important to remember that the United States has never represented the bastion of workers freedom. Any gains in that direction should not be expected, but should be viewed as a worthy struggle against hundreds of years of intense exploitation and class stratification.

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Comments 21 comments

A M Werner profile image

A M Werner 6 years ago from West Allis

norah casey, great job on your first hub here. The ideals of American freedom have always been shouldered by the less fortunate carrying the more fortunate. As you stated, the wealthy have always wanted to give just enough to sustain the laborers. Profit has always been the motivation and that is why all the manufacturing jobs that became the heart and soul of this nation have moved overseas. Big business looked and found cheap labor somewhere else. Too many still refuse to see this - they simply call it good business. Of course, they were the same ones who called slavery and indentured service good business.


Norah Casey profile image

Norah Casey 6 years ago from San Francisco Bay Area Author

Thanks A M Werner! There are many big businesses and wealthy individuals who do maintain high ethical and moral standards, but there are many do not. As horrible as offshoring of jobs is (my cousin was suddenly laid off several months ago when his engineering job was shipped overseas), it can be an opportunity to expand into new innovative markets. There are plenty of things that can be built in America, hopefully the right entrepreneurs will identify and realize the potential of the American workforce. Such business practices helps the bottom line the business owner, but they damage the individual workers perception of foreign nations. This is certainly a way to ensure that the US becomes more isolationist.


Jim Bryan profile image

Jim Bryan 6 years ago from Austin, TX

Good Hub, Ms Casey.

I'll be following along to see what else you bring.


logic,commonsense 6 years ago

Have you done any analysis as how this compares to the use of migrant labor in agriculture today?


Norah Casey profile image

Norah Casey 6 years ago from San Francisco Bay Area Author

Thanks Jim!

logic, I haven't explored it as much as pre-Revolutionary war labor, but I'd imagine it's quite similar. The US labor policy towards migrant labor from Mexico and South America seems to have been established by the 40s, when the Bracero Program was established to replenish labor lost by WWII enlistment. The program returned later to provide businesses with cheap manual labor, but US policy never intended to have the workers stay on.

Labor is incredibly interesting to study in terms of its relation to overall social dynamics of the period. In the US, periods of hostility towards other races can usually be traced to those races contributing inexpensive labor that supplants the previous group. I plan to write up something on that topic specifically in the next few weeks!


Ghost32 6 years ago

You sold me with this one, Norah. Not that I'm against cheap labor--I'm not except when it's my own ox getting gored--but you illustrate the dynamics of indentured servitude quite clearly.

I grew up on a ranch in Montana where family members (all 5 of us) usually handled most of the labor. During the height of haying season in the summer, however, Dad would hire a "hand" or two for a few weeks of stacking baled hay for the munificent sum of room (in a small bunkhouse built from used, creosote-impregnated railroad ties with the addition of a tin roof) and board plus five dollars a day.

We had one hired hand who stayed on through the winter on two separate occasions, but during the winter months he wasn't really needed and the cash pay was reduced to five dollars per MONTH. However, since the first time he was hiding out from the law under a false name...and the second time he was trying to figure out what to do with the rest of his life after having served a one-to-ten prison sentence in California for having killed another man in a bar fight...he did consider the arrangement beneficial to himself as well as to us kids who got a break from some of the chores at forty below zero Fahrenheit.

Yup. You definitely got it right. Labor IS incredibly interesting to study....:)


Norah Casey profile image

Norah Casey 6 years ago from San Francisco Bay Area Author

Wow Ghost, that is an incredible story! I wouldn't mind ducking out of chores in forty below weather. I can't imagine being paid 5 dollars a month. At least your father didn't have that man contractually obligated to work for that sum of money, although avoiding the law and being a convicted felon doesn't exactly open many doors for employment.

I plan to write more about labor. I'm most interested in the feudal methods of employment/service, though I have yet to find a specific subtopic to focus on for a hub. Writing about feudal labor in general is enough of a subject for a large book!


gramarye profile image

gramarye 6 years ago from Adelaide - Australia

I agree with the above conversation. Labor is a very interesting topic - and feudal labor - I studied for a little while is really fascinating. I loved the changes during the agrarian revolution from the relative freedom of the land to the prison like factories.


Norah Casey profile image

Norah Casey 6 years ago from San Francisco Bay Area Author

I agree, gramarye, the switch from agrarian lifestyles to industrialization is fascinating. I have always wanted to sit down and thoroughly analyze the costs vs benefits of both lifestyles at that junction in history. Though I have read a great deal on the transition, I need to research the difference between the two forms of existence to illustrate why so many people left the countryside for the city. Was the more rapid transmission of disease in tenements and factories actually worth tolerating in exchange for reduced dependence on harvest quantity/quality? Things that make you go Hmm! :)


lightning john profile image

lightning john 6 years ago from Florida

Very interesting hub Norah! Along with a labor task requirement, there is always the risk that the person or persons performing the work, could by some degree of carelessness cause an accident. In Texas we call this screwing up more than you fix. Some humans just don't have the capacity for finesse or adroitness.


Norah Casey profile image

Norah Casey 6 years ago from San Francisco Bay Area Author

Thanks, lightning john :)

Yes, many of these individuals hurt themselves out of carelessness, but there a great deal of responsibility falls on those assigning the tasks as well. In one case, a young man who had worked as a jeweler had lost all of his money and signed a contract to work as an indentured servant in the Americas. When he arrived, his owner made him work as a blacksmith! Naturally, he lost a finger his first week.

When I read about a 4-year-old being used for labor on a farm, I simply couldn't imagine what useful, valuable labor a 4-year-old could possibly perform. Many hands make light work, I suppose.


lightning john profile image

lightning john 6 years ago from Florida

A 4-year old? O my God! That is terrible! Thank you, love your writing!


Doug78 5 years ago

Hmm, this sounds eerily familiar! Years ago, I recall reading a great deal about indentured servitude.

Oh, yes, Lightning John, poor or working class parents would indenture some children because they were on unable to feed and care for the kids. I'm not sure what the 4-year old was doing in Colonial America, but, in the 19th century, little children were often used as rag-pickers (in early industrial settings) and doing other tasks where their tiny hands could reach places (next to a loom or other machinery, for instance) that adult hands could not.

Great work, Norah!


Norah Casey profile image

Norah Casey 5 years ago from San Francisco Bay Area Author

Doug78, I believe the four year old had come over with his family, and both parents had died. He was listed just below a girl who appeared to be his 10 year old sister. Even though his parents were dead, he and his sister had to repay the debt of their passage.

I have no idea what his job was, but I have read stories of young children being used in pre-industrial revolution settings for all kinds of horrible tasks. The worst story that I read (though it may only be folklore) was about a child who was lowered into a narrow well to repair a crumbling wall. When he got stuck and eventually died, they sealed him inside.


davenmidtown profile image

davenmidtown 5 years ago from Sacramento, California

Norah: What a fascinating read it would be interesting to compare this stuff to how the homeless are treated today. It feel like a whole new era of indentured servitude and serfdom is at hand.


Norah Casey profile image

Norah Casey 5 years ago from San Francisco Bay Area Author

davenmidtown: I think you are right. If you haven't checked it out, you may want to read Nickle and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich. It reminded me of the adults who worked with me cleaning movie theaters during my first year of college. I can't imagine that they were able to pay their bills on those wages...


steveJM 4 years ago

This information, I suspect, is too poorly known in the United States and should be more broadly disseminated. The connection of indentured servants with the homeless, on the one hand, and farm workers, on the other, is noteworthy. There is also, of course, a tie-in with the decline of unions in this country.


MzChaos profile image

MzChaos 4 years ago from Indianapolis

I tell people my ancestors probably came in as endentured servants. Interesting insight, our government has sort of taken over as almost sole source of our freedom dues now. That just opens a whole other set of musings for me. Nicely done and interesting read.


Norah Casey profile image

Norah Casey 4 years ago from San Francisco Bay Area Author

If your ancestors did come over as indentured servants, paperwork showing their release may have survived. It may be interesting to find where they first appear in tax/land records, and see if that town has successfully preserved the local legal recordings of that time.


MzChaos profile image

MzChaos 4 years ago from Indianapolis

That would be fun to know but I don't even have very good surnames for anything past my grandparents...it's like my history just disappears. So many secrets...but I think the dutch, german, polish ancestry probably screams servant.


Norah Casey profile image

Norah Casey 4 years ago from San Francisco Bay Area Author

Yeah, it can take a lot of work to find surnames in ancestry research. I'm not very good at it myself, I try to stick to researching complete strangers :)

If you do happen to find surnames to start with, here is a book list on indentured servants provided by the state archives of Pennsylvania:

http://www.portal.state.pa.us/portal/server.pt/com...

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