July 7, 1684
Bartholomew Stovall’s fate was sealed when he signed a document granting him free passage to America in return for four years of servitude in the Virginia Colonies. The eighteen year old English lad was to serve as a laborer/slave, but he knew well ahead this was to be the case. Still, he was willing to forfeit these years to avoid the poverty and/or death he knew was a certainty if he stayed in England.
As he stood on the banks of the Thames he watched as his agent, John Bright, Ship’s Captain Master Peter Pagan, and two witnesses include their signatures which made the document binding. Surely Bartholomew must have been apprehensive to risk such a fate, but the decision was made and the deal was done. He boarded the small longboat bound for the Booth and watched the shore line disappear into the early morning fog, knowing he would never again set foot on English soil.
In a previous blog, “‘Indenture Servants – The Reality” I recorded the reasons a person would leave their Mother Country and start a life across the ocean in the savage wilderness of the American Colonies.
Thousands of destitute shared England’s city streets with no possibilities of rising from poverty, and starvation was a certainty in the rural areas, where handouts were nonexistent.
Some willfully tried incarceration, but petty criminals were being removed from institutions and forcibly put on ships bound for the colonies. No one was exempt from the purge of the downtrodden King Charles had labeled as ‘surplus’. Even abandoned children were being carted off to rid London’s streets of the ‘undesirable’.
Bartholomew’s is but one story of the thousands who were indentured servants in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. These slaves were deposited in sites from upper New England to the Deep South. Their plights are well documented, but let us concentrate on the tall young English lad who landed in Jamestown, VA on November 11, 1684.
American Colonies – November 1684
When the Booth finally reached America it was the beginning of winter and the weather was probably much like that in England. I feel sure there was a chill in the air with musty conditions which left most to feel like they were not far from the environment they left. They were probably anchored as close to the shore as possible, so the ship did not rock about as it had for four months at sea. While they sat anchored in Jamestown everyone had the opportunity to peek out of port windows surveying the edge of the continent. Most assuredly the first thing they noticed was the trees. Giant pines were packed close together in a display of greenery they were not accustomed, but each man, woman and child feared what may be waiting and watching, hidden behind the wooden giants.
If you read the novel, Bartholomew Stovall – The English Immigrant, it tells that Bartholomew was among a group of thirty or so men and women who were requisitioned by Dr. Richard Kennon from Conjures Neck, Va. That was historic fiction, but in reality, there is nothing in the manifest Bartholomew signed which designates him to a specific location. That being said, he probably stood side by side with other headrights and was inspected by plantation owners. These wealthy Tidewater farmers would barter with the ship’s captain until they agreed on a price, usually £30 for a well framed healthy young man.
At any rate, Bartholomew Stovall was chosen to serve Dr. Richard and Elizabeth Kennon, on a sprawling plantation which bordered the Appomattox River approximately sixty miles from Jamestown.
Most likely Richard Kennon’s requisitions left the Booth by longboat and made their way to the western shore of Jamestown Bay. I’m sure Bartholomew let his fingers drop into the water and sampled its brackish taste; wondering how a settlement as large as Jamestown could survive without a fresh water supply.
When the boats pulled to waters end, he stepped to the sandy shore and soon spotted giant boulders that littered the area. Little did Bartholomew know that he would become an expert at removing these massive stones from the earth while he cleared and leveled tobacco fields.
The trip from Jamestown Bay to the Kennon Plantation must have been a harrowing experience for the entire group of English slaves. They had heard the stories of savage Indian who would attack them and remove their scalps before they were killed. Fresh on their minds were tales of snakes larger than a man’s leg, and evil masters and field bosses that would lash you with barbed roping for the slightest indiscretion. They were huddled into wagons or forced to march through poorly marked trails from dusk until dawn.
But much to their surprise, not one person suffered ill fate during the trek to their destination. It was a three day trip, but rations were plentiful; much better than they had been given during the passage. Women and children rode in wagons and men shared turns riding, while those who walked were ‘encouraged’ instead of flogged for slowing the pace. Those servants with a fair amount of intelligence soon realized that they were a commodity and would be treated fairly, so long as they respected the rules.
The Indentures Life – Better Than Expected
After a few weeks, all indentures forgot about the savage Indians lurking behind trees. Word spread quickly that the enemy they feared had been driven deep into the wilderness. The fright of a moccasin, or any snake for that matter, was soon dismissed due to the frequency of sightings. Sons and daughters lost memory of mothers and fathers. Their focus became a will to survive the indenture contract they had chosen of their own accord.
It was not a perilous life the indenture lived. Depending on the plantation, there was privacy, to a certain degree. Social groups and clans developed within the masses and there were celebrations and religious festivities if they chose to participate. Most plantation owners encouraged a controlled socialization as long as production quotas were met and everyone remained obedient.
But alas, there were those few who became bored, insulted or insubordinate. Those who lacked control were singled out and made examples of by way of public floggings and isolation in cages on full display for all to observe.
Some chose to run, seeking their freedom, much like when they left their homeland. Most often theirs was a terrible plight. In addition to the corporal punishment, one month was added to their contract for each day they went missing. Most would seek refuge in the swamps, which meant certain death due to the hostile environment. More experienced indentures realized that there was simply nowhere to run. Artist would draw up a likeness of runaway and post it in strategic spots around the area. Once they were caught they were expected to pay for the advertising cost and the reward offered via additional time served.
But the same held true for both male and female servants. If an unmarried female became pregnant her child belonged to the plantation and five years was added to her contract. If she could identify the father, and he was an indenture, he received the same allotment of five years added.
The range of an indentures contract was from four to seven years. The slightest indiscretion resulted in additional time served. It was rare that a slave was released on the final date of his original contract.
It is ironic that in some cases an indenture would choose to stay on with the plantation instead of being set free once their obligations were met. In those cases the servant was free to leave whenever they desired, and would receive food and lodging as long as they performed their duties.
But an intelligent man like Bartholomew Stovall soon realized that the obedient servant received more gratuities when they completed their contract. It is not known when Bartholomew was released from his obligation, but soon after he was scheduled to be free, land grants were found that listed his name, all being in and around Henrico County.
No documents have been uncovered that details Bartholomew’s period of servitude to Richard Kennon. In addition, no records have been uncovered that specify what compensation Bartholomew received after his contract ended. As stated earlier, there was evidence that he was involved with multiple land transactions as well as minor legal matters that were all resolved.
The most significant facts about Bartholomew is that he raised a large family, lived a prosperous life, and amassed a large farm on a major waterway which was bought and paid for by the time he passed in 1723.
Given all the known facts about him, I would conclude that despite the adversity Bartholomew had to overcome, literally from his birth, he was probably a man of superior intelligence who applied himself with a single focus to achieve.
It is said that one in ten indentures survived and one in one hundred accomplished as much as Bartholomew Stovall. He was, indeed, an exception to the rule.