Bound to Serve: Indentured Servitude in Colonial Virginia, 1624-1776

“That most people get sick is not surprising,” wrote indentured servant Gottlieb Mittelberger in 1750. “Warm food is served only three times a week …. such meals can hardly be eaten on account of being so unclean. The water which is served on the ships is often very black, thick and full of worms …. the biscuit is filled with red worms and spiders nests.”

Worm-filled water and spider-infested biscuits seemed vile enough, yet conditions could and did get worse for some traveling to the New World. Consider the fate of the Virginia Merchant. In 1649 the Virginia Merchant, filled with 350 men, women, and children, battled a two-front war: the elements and famine. The ship lost its mainmast in a storm off the coast of Cape Hatteras and fought tempests for eleven days. Food ran low, and
men and women bartered over the many rats that infested the ship’s hull. The captain put the weakest ashore on an uninhabited island.

As death took its toll upon the sick, “the living fed upon the dead.” Danger from inhumane conditions and danger from the sea made for a horrendous and potentially life-threatening voyage. Thus were the immigrants initiated to the realities of a new life. The voyage was a foretaste of what was to come.”

“A brief history of indentured servitude can illustrate exactly what being indentured meant in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Indentured servitude was by no means a Virginian invention; one must go to the mother country to find its origins. Agricultural servitude was a traditional form of dependent service in England: it was a renewable, annual contract. The master hired servants in order to increase labor potential beyond the bounds of his family. This type of service was highly suited to the early modern English economy, which was agriculture-based.

Although the precedent for contract labor was established in England, indentures to the colony evolved to better suit the New World. Whether in England or in Virginia, the indenture or contract was a vital part of the business transaction between master and servant. The indenture was a legal contract backed by law. The contractual tradition in England was conducive to the tobacco culture of Virginia. During the seventeenth century, the white servant was more significant than the slave in supplying the demand for labor. In 1683 there were twelve thousand of these quasi-slaves in Virginia, composing about one-sixth of the population.

White indentured servants and their masters came to Virginia mainly from England. According to historian Wesley Frank Craven, the servant’s place of origin was an important issue. Because of the predominance of those of English origin in Virginia, Craven suggested that their identification with the traditions of the common law was significant. From the tradition of common law came the statutes governing the life of the indentured servant.”

“It is instructive to compare the laws created specifically for the indentured white with those for a free person clandestinely marrying a servant. A 1661 law stated: “If any person being free shall clandestinely marry with a servant, he shall pay the Master of the servant 1500 lbs of tobacco or a years service plus a year ( extra) from the servant.”38 While it is true that free persons could be forced to serve the offended master for a period of time, the punishments were less severe than those for the indentured servant. The free person would generally be subjected to fines…

Should children be born from a secret marriage or out of wedlock during the mother’s term of indenture in Virginia, the children would be indentured to the parish until age 21 if male and until age 18 if female. Laws requiring the forced servitude of a child of such a union were harsh if one considers that the average term of indenture for those entering voluntarily was four years. In addition to forced servitude for any children, the mother would serve an extra year in indenture and pay the master 1000 lbs of tobacco (half a year’s work was usually equated with 500 lbs of tobacco). The father must give security to the churchwardens for the sum of 20 shillings for the care of the child. Fornication was also illegal.”

Howard, Penny (1999) “Bound to Serve: Indentured Servitude in Colonial Virginia, 1624-1776,” The Corinthian: Vol. 1 , Article 4. Available at: