Millions of Americans can trace their ancestry back to the indentured servants who helped establish the American colonies in the 17th and 18th centuries. Although most people have read about the Pilgrims and pioneers, few understand the contributions of the many indentured servants who worked to gain their freedom in early New England.
Finding Records of Indentured Servants
According to PBS, as many as two-thirds of all Colonial settlers arrived in America as indentured servants. In exchange for their passage to the Colonies, these individuals were bound to their masters for a period of between four and seven years. During this time, they did not enjoy the freedoms of the other colonists. They received no wages, could not marry without permission, and endured physical and emotional agonies similar to slaves. Modern history has largely forgotten their contribution, but you can find records of your ancestors' indenture.
Online Indentured Servant Records
Although many of the actual records for indentured individuals are not yet online, you can use ships' passenger lists to get a sense of whether you ancestors arrived in bondage. Often, these lists mention the occupation and bondage state of individuals arriving in America. Even the Mayflower passenger list specifically mentions indentured servants. The following resources can help you find passenger lists for your ancestors:
Many indentured servants worked at plantations in Virginia, and some of these records are available online. Virtual Jamestown maintains a database of more than 10,000 names from indentured servant registers between 1654 and 1686.
More Records for Indentured Servants
Since the majority of indentured servant registers have yet to be uploaded, you may have to do some research in person to find your ancestors. The following publications, which may be available through your local library or interlibrary loan, offer lots of information about Colonial men and women in bondage:
- Emigrants to America: Indentured Servants Recruited in London, 1718-1733 by John Waring
- Runaway Servants, Convicts, and Apprentices Advertised in the Pennsylvania Gazette, 1728-1796 by Farley Ward Grubb
- Emigrants from England to the American Colonies, 1773-1776 by Peter Wilson Coldham
- The Bristol Registers of Servants Sent to Foreign Plantations, 1654-1686 by Peter Wilson Coldham
These and other Colonial research books may help you determine you ancestor's length of bondage, whether he or she tried to runaway, and what the individual received at the end of service.
Understanding Indentured Servitude
The names of your servant ancestors and their dates of bondage are only part of their story. As with most aspects of genealogy, the records may offer just enough information to pique your curiosity. To get a real sense of what indentured servitude was like during this period in history, keep the following facts in mind:
- Indentured servants were among the first settlers of the Colonies. Some arrived in Jamestown, VA as early as 1607.
- Often, individuals indentured themselves to the ship's captain, who then sold the indenture on the auction block when he arrived in the Colonies.
- If servants ran away or became pregnant, their masters could extend their term of service.
- Indentured servants had little recourse if they found themselves with a harsh master.
- Many indentured servants did not survive the period of bondage, but there were great rewards for those who did. The freedom dues often included livestock, a small amount of land, food or grain, and clothing.
Remembering the Sacrifices
For many years, indentured servants were a forgotten part of American history. However, as the Internet makes genealogy research easier, more Americans are beginning to understand and remember the sacrifices and triumphs of their indentured servant ancestors.