Indentured Servants – Settling Early America


In the early years, Britain’s American Colonies were an extension of the British labor markets of the time.

In the time after the colonies were established, but before large-scale immigration to America, the American colonies were largely peopled with indentured servants. The indenture contracts under which they served generally paid for their passage to America and lasted for a term of years generally ending with a lump sum payment in money or goods. Such contracts were a very common labor practice in Britain, and their advent in America was simply an extension of British labor practices at home.

Like the West Indies, but not as severe the unfamiliar climate caused many deaths, and over time such indenture became somewhat unpopular, but continued until natural disasters such as plague, and the great London fire lightened emigration pressures. Labor needs in the colonies continued, and were met in several ways. Export of convicts, and impressment of the impoverished provided a continuing trickle of labor for the colonies. By the time those indentured servants who had survived had served their contracts the cheapness of land often made them settle in America and start farms or other forms of primitive industry which increased the demand for labor.

Although the prevailing attitude was basically against slavery the need for labor forced the issue, and the existence of African slavery in the Caribbean with a developed trade backed by the Crown under the Royal Africa Company led many in the colonies to embrace this alien system. By around 1700 almost half of the American population consisted of African slaves, although more came after the demise of the Royal Africa Company then before.

All in all, indentured servitude is a very important part of the early American story, and although far more complex than this brief coverage, explains a lot about the development of a reproducing, growing population in America. The depletion of the supply of indentured servants can be seen as a major cause for the initial growth of slavery. The huge supply of cheap agricultural land combined with the shortage of labor and the fact that there were American crops that could not be grown in Europe such as tobacco forced the labor issue, and the system of slavery that would be such a problem for America’s future.

This is not intended as an oversimplification, but should be taken into account by any historical examination of the period. In many ways this can be looked upon as an unfortunate development, but the labor needs were met, and unlike the Caribbbean where mortality generally outpaced birthrates, a permanent and growing black population was developed in North America.