Indentured Servants – The Fairness of the System

Indentured Servants

The Fairness of the System

Bartholomew Stovall, was born 1665 and immigrated to Jamestown, Virginia colonies in 1684.  If you have studied this emigrant then you realizes there are gaps in recorded history when you analyze the chronology of his relatively short life. Two of the most significant lapses are the span between the ages of ten and eighteen years. The other lapse is the span from 1684 and 1688 when he was bound by indenture to Dr. Richard Kennon.

Certainly everyone would like to know what happened to Bartholomew after his mother passed away in 1676. Any recorded history between 1676 and 1684 would help to explain who cared for the young boy and what may have encouraged him to barter himself into servitude and sail to America.

Personally, I’ve always been more interested in the period that he served his contract to Kennon. There is nothing recorded that tells of his character and habits during servitude. There is nothing to suggest that he was a runaway or that he was charged with indiscretions that would have extended his contract. I feel certain that he was a model servant, but the documents don’t exist to proves my theory.Oct9bookcover

Before I penned our novel, “Bartholomew Stovall – The English Immigrant” I did a great deal of study on Indentures. Invariably I got side-tracked and begin a study on the fairness of this system and analyzed the cause and effect of punishments.

To my amazement there are volumes written on this subject and some of it goes into such detail that I may regret attempting to bore readers. I did, however, document some of my findings and consider it relevant for an article in our Blog. This information is several years old and only skims the surface of a very complex issue. If you choose to read on, let me issue a word of caution. This stuff is not for everyone.

Historians vs Economists

Indentured Servitude was abolished near 200 years ago, but historians and economists are still divided on the fairness of the system. Historians claim that indentures were nothing more than slaves that were treated unfairly in that their masters could use the legal system to keep them as possessions for years beyond their contract termination.








                                                                           Colonial Gathering

                                      The Society That Wanted No Problems

Economist, on the other hand claim that the length of servitude was equal to the cost of the voyage to America, maintenance cost of the servant, and freedom dues given at the expiration of the contract. These same economist go so far as to claim that those who entered servitude usually did better than those who migrated to America and immediately bought land, because a period of servitude allowed them to learn the customs, culture, and language of America.

I doubt that this claim is spot-on if the servant was locating to the New England Colonies. But if their destination was the Central Colonies, this claim holds some validity.

“The System” It Worked—Kind of

If you remove the alleged bad points of Indentured Servitude, everyone agrees that the system worked to perfection. The Virginia Company of London, England crafted the model shortly after John Smith landed in Jamestown in 1607, but the Virginia Company went out of business in 1624.   Their demise did not distract others from maintaining the system as it was still being used more than 200 years later.

It was resoundingly successful attracting labor to America and was created on the premise that the price paid for the servant equals the value of the servant’s contract length. According to economist, it was the perfect system, but historians tended to believe that the system was exploitive when conflicts arose between masters and servants.

The research I did concentrated on two uniquely different issues when a face-off occurred between master and servant. Analysis was done from the side of both historians and economists. The results were predictable, but the conclusion was rather surprising. Read on for the discussion of these issue:


To say that a system was exploitive, we need to do a thorough examination of the crime vOct9womaninchainss punishment. First, let’s take the example of a female servant that became pregnant. The powers to be knew this was a probability and had enacted rules to counter the female indenture’s disobedience. But as time wore on, those rules were reworked until it was near impossible to calculate a master’s fair compensation for lost labor and expenses.

The rules and technicalities involved in dealing with “insubordination” are endless. If readers wish they can view For the sake of this article I’ll paraphrase some of its content.

The colony of Maryland spelled out specific punishments for servants becoming pregnant during their terms of service. As early as 1684, an act concerning those servants that have bastard children provided that a servant unable to prove paternity would be held responsible for costs imposed on her master. If paternity could be established and the father was also a servant, he was held responsible for one-half the costs. If a freeman were the father, he was responsible for the entire cost. A 1692 law subsequently established severe penalties for white servants having mulatto children, reflecting social inhibitions concerning mixed-race relationships.

If a servant were to become pregnant, the court considered lost earnings and medical costs when assigning her extra service. Again, using data regarding slaves, a pregnant slave was usually given light work, or 50-60% of normal activity, once it was known that she was pregnant.

This half-time work load usually began in the third month and lasted until the eighth month. During the last month of pregnancy the slaves work was reduced to nearly nil. For the next year it can also be assumed that the woman would continue to work only at 50% of her usual work load because she had to breast feed and nurture the baby.

Women slaves were unable to perform labor for about four weeks following childbirth, followed by another year of light work because they had to breast feed about four times per day. The total amount of earnings from the pregnant woman is then subtracted from normal earnings of a woman servant, thus showing earnings lost due to pregnancy. The total cost of the pregnancy, then, would include lost earnings and medical costs. Taking all of this into consideration, the court would order her to serve an additional 280 days to 320 days when calculating the lost productivity.

Oct9womanbeatingIn addition to extra time, pregnant servants were sometimes punished by whippings. On average, the servant received 12 lashes in addition to her extra service, but the number of lashes ordered by the court ranged from zero to 30. In the case where 30 lashes were ordered, the servant was a third offender.

It is important to note that between 1755 and 1778 corporal punishment was phased out.   The courts may have modified their views to reflect changing times, or differing social morals. As real wages rose in Britain, better contract terms were needed in order to attract servants to America. Perhaps as a result, corporal punishment was phased out. Although this was not reflected in legislation or in the terms of indentures, the customs of the land may have adapted to changing economic conditions and social values.

The information I reviewed went so far as to draw a parallel between a single lash to a servant to the lost days of service, and then computed that value to a monetary unit and then into the amount of tobacco it yielded. I will not go into that much detail in this article.

I’m attempting to emphases that the courts went so far as to micromanage the effects of a single lash administered using corporal punishment. It was a cruel form of reprimand but it’s fair to note that some thought was put into lashing instead of it being treated as a simple retribution for insubordination. The instances of this punishment have been studied and it was concluded that punishment by public whipping appears quite harsh.

The significance of this is that whippings were extreme punishments used both to embarrass the servant as well as to deter other female servants from becoming pregnant during their term of servitude.


 A Pennsylvania law passed prior to 1682 concerning runaway servants stated that, “Servants shall be Adjudged by the Court to double the time of such their absence by future Service over and above other Damage and Cost and that anyone aiding the runaway shall forfeit twenty pounds to the Master…and be fined five pounds to the Court…Also, anyone harboring or concealing a runaway shall forfeit ten shillings for every Days entertainment or Concealment.Oct9Runaway

In 1683, Pennsylvania enacted a new law providing for a penalty of five days for every day absent, after the expiration of servitude. Further, the servant must compensate for the damages, costs, and charges, to be determined by the County Courts.

Laws in early Maryland prescribed punishments considerably more severe than those in Pennsylvania. In 1638, for example, several lashes

were the punishment for running away. In the following year, the punishment was extended to hanging the runaway. By 1641 the law was changed such that death would be the punishment unless the servant requested that their service be extended after the expiration of the contract. The service could be extended up to twice the time absent, not to exceed seven years.

In 1650, time was doubled and the servant was responsible for damages and costs incurred by the master during the servant’s absence. In 1666 the law was again altered providing that a servant would serve 10 days extra for every one day of absence.


Transported convicts, both men and women, were sold to plantation owners as another form of labOct9Convictor. One-fourth of the British immigrants to the colonies were convicts. Most of these convicts were male, young, unskilled and poor. The usual crime was grand larceny. Generally the only people exiled were those that judges felt could be rehabilitated. Convicts performed the same type of work as indentured servants but were less trusted. Their length of service was usually longer than that of the indentured servants. Like indentured servants and slaves, convicts frequently ran away. Political prisoners also were shipped to the colonies. Most of these were convicted following religious persecutions.


The results of the study I examined support the Economic Historian in their belief that the 16th- and 17th-century system of Indentured Servitude was efficient and effective in increasing the labor supply in America.

Examination of the individual court cases involving servant crimes also shows that indentured servants were not exploited or mistreated once they arrived.

Admittedly there was some mistreatment , but when considering the system in its entirety, the good outweighs the bad. The evidence, however slight, does not suggest that the indenture system was biased toward masters. Contrary to what we have been led to believe, servants were not abused in large numbers.


               More often than not, a system that worked for the good of all.












About bartholomewstovall

Author of Bartholomew Stovall. A novel about the immigrant who came to America in 1684.
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