Freedom and Fairness or the Folly of Misfortune
When I penned our novel, “Bartholomew Stovall – The English Immigrant”, a majority of my research concentrated on Indentured Servants and the way of life in early Colonial America. Less is written about the pre-revolutionary war America than those times when our nation’s founding fathers created documents of freedom that encouraged our citizens to take up arms and help build a nation united in a common cause.
One mindset is of the opinion that America obtained its greatness due to a select few who had courage, intelligence, and foresight to motivate the masses and demand a call to arms. Men like Washington, Jefferson, Henry, and Adams are but a few that united the sparsely populated colonies to fight for independence. By the time the overmatched Americans had driven out a well trained and equipped British army, the world looked on in amazement at the fortitude of our young nation.
While those brilliant men did ‘show the way’ for a path to greatness, our success can also be attributed to another segment who fought a war every day, long before the conflict with the British. Those were the men and women who created our first exports, built our infrastructure, and established the first families that were the foundation for a well-ordered society.
During the years between 1650 through 1750 our nation was developing an identity. Sophisticated cities were growing and rootless travelers were converting paths into roadways. Tributaries were being used as much as the rivers that fed them and pioneers were developing land west of the wilderness settlements.
Despite almost impossible odds, some indentured servants begin to prosper. Hard work paved the way for attainment, but it there was a common perception that “luck” played a larger part parlaying opportunity into success.
“Luck” can be interrupted in many forms, but more often than not, it was defined by the temperament of a servant’s master. As an example, allow me paraphrase parts of a short story from The Way Our People Lived by W.E. Woodward.
Henry Randall – Luck or Hard Work?
Henry Randall lived in London, England and sold vegetables from a cart. He had no family to support and never carried more than two or three shillings at a single time. He had heard people speak of Virginia as a new and rich land and decided to go there – but he had no money to pay his passage. A ship’s captain agreed to take him if he agreed to become an indentured servant for seven years. The fare cost ten pounds and the captain was to sell him to a master when the ship reached Virginia.
Henry had the good fortune to be sold to Thomas Whitaker, a planter who was kind and generous. Years before his servitude had expired Randall was given a cow and a litter of pigs by his Master. In course of time the cow had a calf and the pigs increased in number. Randall sold cows’ milk to customers in Williamsburg. When the pigs were grown he slaughtered them, smoked their hams and bacon in Virginia style, and sent this choice meat to England to his master’s agent to be sold for him. With the shipment went more than thirty skins taken from beavers he had caught in Traps.
Henry wrote to the agent in London to take the money coming from the sale and buy with it a number of articles of luxury, such as silk handkerchiefs, perfume, finely carved pipes, mirrors and razors in their cases. These goods came just after he had finished his seven years’ servitude. He sold them to plantation owners and their ladies at three times their cost in London. With this money he bought goods that Indians favored and took them to the frontier, where he traded them for skins. The skins went to London, and a shipment of luxuries came back to Virginia.
Under Virginia law anyone who brought a settler, indentured servant, or a slave into the colony received a “headright” from the colonial government. This head right entitled its owner to fifty acres of land on condition that it is occupied within two years.
Randall went to London and arranged with a shipping agent there to act as a procurer of emigrants. When they reached Virginia he sold them to planters on indentures that ran from five to ten years. When he died in 1700 he possessed three thousand acres of land, of which twelve hundred acres were under cultivation. He was also the owner of a mercantile business and several ships that brought slaves from Africa. Soon after his servitude to Whitaker had expired he married a maid servant who soon gave birth to a son, Henry Randall Jr.
When Henry Randall Sr. passed away his son was one of the most influential farmers in the Tidewater. Randall Jr. was not at all ashamed of his father’s humble origin, but rather proud of his rise from poverty to wealth.
The rise of Randall Jr’s father from the indentured servant class to a position of wealth and authority was not unusual if you mix luck with hard work. Contrary to popular belief the indentured servants were not all criminals, not even a majority of them were. But all were poor. Among the poor adventures there happened to be those who were clever, enterprising and able. To a large degree they must be considered the founders of modern Virginia. In 1665 half the members of the House of Burgesses had come to Virginia as indentured servants.