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Indentured Servitude Analysis

Updated on February 2, 2013

Imagine barely surviving day by day, with only a handful of food to feed a family. Then one day someone offers you the chance to own your own land and be able to farm on it and grow what you want, and in as much abundance, without repercussions. This was the scenario given to many indentured servants in West Africa and various parts of the Mediterranean, Asia and South America. However, what they were not told was that in order to receive the land one would have to devote years to farming other peoples land as slaves. The contracts specifically bonded one person to work for another over a set period of time, in exchange for food and shelter (Created Equal, 116). The contract outlined everything from what work would be done, to years of service required. There were also stipulations for those underage or born to indentured slaves. Not only adults were indentured servants, but children. Indentured children born to indenture servants, were bought and sold and exchanged as property. “David Drown and Polly Drown as apprentices, until they shall come of age, that is until David Shall be of the age twenty one years which will be on the twelvth Day of April in the year Eighteen hundred and twenty one and Polly until She Shall be of the age of Eighteen which will be on the first day of March in the year Eighteen hundred and twenty, and that they Shall Obey all his lawfull commands in all things as good and faithful apprentices ought to do (Vermont Historical Society, 2007).” What this citation of a primary indentured servitude contract meant was that until the 12th of April 1821 for the boy and March 1st 1820 David and Polly Drown would have to work for their masters. “Early internal investigations resulted in reports that indentured children were treated well for the most part (Freed, 2007).” However, there were some scattered cases of neglect, lack of education, and beatings. An 1885 study by the National Conference of Charities and Correction found that many children were overworked and underfed. Being malnourished and overworked is a dangerous combination, which often led to child mortality. This contract was usually a long term binding contract, which the indentured servant would have to abide by for many years. The indentured servants had little choice when it came to singing these contracts some of which explicitly told the signer how serious this was. “He the said William Buckland shall and will, as a faithful Covenant Servant (Virtual Jamestown, 2007).” This excerpt shows that Mr. Buckland, is forced (shall and will) to act accordingly and perform the duties without choice. The constant work day to day and hardships of living as indentured slaves is demonstrated in this quote from a former indentured slave. “I never know what it was to rest. I just work all the time from morning till late at night. I had to do everything there was to do on the outside. Work in the field; chop wood, hoe corn, till sometime I feels like my back surely break. I done everything except split rails (Back of the Big House, 2007).” Sara worked from morning till night, with barely any break and little food. With no education and not being allowed to be educated, this is what Sara had to live with no chance of freedom until her contract was up. It is not clear through my research whether or not indenture servants were promised certain luxuries in addition to land. However after researching the conditions if a family or person is in poverty, this is definitely an appealing contract. They will be fed, housed and clothed in return for general labor. It is in this thought indentured servitude survived and thrived. Indentured servants never knew or thought of the repercussions of singing such a contract. Before the Civil War, slaves and indentured servants were considered personal property, and they or their descendants could be sold or inherited. This was obviously not explained in the contracts they signed. The work and living conditions were beyond poor, leaving the indentured servants weathered an unhealthy. This was significant because when it came time for them to receive their land and farm it; many were unable to do so. Indentured servants did not have disposable income and thus could not afford to pay anyone else to work their lands. In the end these were contracts to enslave people even though they would be receiving something in return. With civil rights and education this no longer could be justified and for good cause ended.

Bibliography

Primary Sources

1) “Vermont Historical Society,”http://www.vermonthistory.org/community/pages/projects/morrisville/pages/sub/indentured.html”(accessed Feb 1st 2007)

2) “Virtual Jamestown,” http://www.virtualjamestown.org/map1c.html (accessed Feb 1st 2007

3) “The Civil War,” http://www.sonofthesouth.net/slavery/photographs/slave-woman.htm (accessed Feb 3rd 2007)

4) “Back of the Big House: The Cultural Landscape of the Plantation,” http://www.gwu.edu/~folklife/bighouse/panel9.html“ (accessed Feb 1st 2007)

Secondary Sources

1) American Social History Project, “History Matters,” http://historymatters.gmu.edu (accessed Feb 1st 2007)

2) Lisa Freed, “The Rise and Fall of 19 th Century Indentured Servitude,” http://www.law.georgetown.edu/glh/freed.htm (accessed Feb 3rd 2007)

3) Jones, Jacqueline. Wood, Peter. Borstelmann, Thomas. May, Elaine. Ruiz, Vicki. Created Equal, A Social and Political History of the United States. Volume 1 to 1877 Second Edition. Copyright 2006 by Pearson Education, Inc.

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