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Indentured Servants

Updated on January 20, 2016
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Rebecca Graf is a seasoned writer with nearly a decade of experience and degrees in accounting, history, and creative writing.

Most people leave school thinking that America was colonized by those seeking fortunes or for freedom to follow their religions in peace. Yes, those people did play a large part in the colonization of the New World, but they were far from the only ones who played a major part. In reality a large piece of the puzzle is missing. Colonization was largely due to indentured servants who arrived from Europe hoping to start a new life with a little bit of sacrifice.

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Indentured servants became the most popular way to get to the New World. It offered a way out of a hard life with a chance for a brighter future at least for one's children. Like today, travel costs money. Crossing the ocean wasn't cheap.

Most of the people who were willing or even eager to leave their native lands were not well provided for in terms of their bank account. To get to the new lands would require sacrifice and that would entail becoming a “slave” for a short time. That was their payment for the crossing.

The Role

The role of indentured servants was very similar to that of a slave, yet but with several large differences. In essence, they became the “property” of the people who purchased them just as slaves were considered to be. They were to provide services as needed and did not have much in rights during their indentured time. The owners were required to clothe, feed, and provide all basic necessities during this period. Ideally, it would be a win-win situation for all parties. At least, ideally. But they were still under the control of their masters until the allotted time was up. Basically it was voluntary enslavement.

Becoming Indentured

Many of the new world indentured servants were originally “bought” by the captains of ships that were crossing the Atlantic and were sold upon reaching land. In the hopes of seeking a new life, they committed three to seven years of their life to the service of another. This was a completely legal act with all such buyings and sellings recorded by the local courts. The indentured walked into the situation with eyes completely open and knew what the terms entailed.

Some indentured servants were obtained by those in professions who trained them and gave the servants experience to succeed. Others were not so lucky.


It was not uncommon, more the norm, to become the indentured servant to a master that was not so kind. This would become the preview on how American slavery would become in the years ahead. Mistreatment, rape, and abuse were not unheard of. Though the initial agreement of becoming an indentured servant seemed appealing, after a short time in the service of a harsh master the servant either chose to runaway or to commit suicide. If a female indentured servant became pregnant, the law allowed the contract period to be extended to cover the time lost during her time off of work.


Indentured servants were similar to that of slaves, but there was a huge difference. Unlike slaves, indentured servants were legally able to obtain their freedom at the end of the contract with no stigma attached to them. Since many of them were from the same countries as their “owners”, they did not stand out like the slaves that came from Africa. They were able to blend back into society and make a place for themselves in the new world with little trouble once they made it through their service period.

The Work

In the new world, many indentured servants were used in the cities and other areas. Some took the role of apprentice to learn new trades that were in high demand, but the vast majority were used to farm the new tobacco plant that was becoming increasingly popular in Europe. As the population grew and the indentured servants were released after their contractual period, many farmers began to see that they needed more than short-term works. They needed true slaves. The increase of the slave trade from Africa began in earnest.

Much of the colonization of the new world can be attributed to the indentured servants who gave up a portion of their lives into the service of others in an effort to make a new life for themselves. Those that were lucky to have kind owners and the ones who had the strength to survive did just that. Unknowingly, they paved the way for the slave trade to establish itself.


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