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Atlantic History Indentured Servitude
by
Michael Guasco

Introduction

Although it most famously appeared during the 17th century as a means for facilitating transatlantic migration and providing labor in England’s early American colonies, indentured servitude has manifested itself in many forms during its long history. Indentured servants were individuals who bargained away their labor for a period of four to seven years in exchange for passage to the New World. In the 17th century, indentured servants made up the mass of English immigrants to the Chesapeake colonies and were central to the development of the tobacco economy. Large numbers of indentured servants could also be found in the English West Indian colonies, but they were replaced by enslaved African laborers by the end of the century as cash-crop agriculture (particularly sugar) and plantation slavery gradually minimized the overall demographic and economic importance of indentured servitude as a labor system. Regardless, indentured servitude continued to be an important institution in the Atlantic world through the 19th century. Debates persist about the general characteristics of early indentured servants, but they were certainly primarily younger English men in search of new opportunities for wealth and advancement that were unavailable to them at home. Some people achieved this goal, but many more either died before their contract expired or were unable to rise above a relatively moderate status in the colonies. In the 17th century, most indentured servants were of English origin and migrated to the Chesapeake and West Indies. Of the 120,000 emigrants to the Chesapeake during this era, roughly 90,000 arrived as bound laborers. Another 50,000 to 75,000 white indentured servants went to the islands, although these numbers included many Irish servants, political prisoners, and convict laborers. A few indentured servants, or engagés, appeared in the French colonies, but the institution was much more common in the British colonies. Indentured servitude did eventually become much more diverse, particularly during the 18th century when increasing numbers of German redemptioners arrived and an increasing percentage of people chose to locate themselves in nonplantation zones, especially Pennsylvania. Perhaps 150,000 non-English migrants arrived as servants during the late colonial period. After the American Revolution, however, the system virtually disappeared in the United States. In the West Indies, however, indentured servitude revived in many places after the abolition of slavery in the 1830s and 1840s. During the 19th century, large numbers of Indian and Chinese migrant laborers were bound into servitude to perform tasks once the responsibility of enslaved Africans. Scholars disagree about whether or not this new system was simply a new form of slavery. Regardless, as late as the first decades of the 20th century, unfree laborers—effectively the descendants of the mass of indentured servants who first appeared nearly four hundred years earlier—could still be found toiling in subjugation in the old plantation zones of North America and the Caribbean.

General Overviews

Indentured servitude is often equally well treated in scholarly articles as it is in book-length studies. Salinger 1997 and Tomlins 2001 are good examples of brief essays that provide readers with a good introduction to the topic. The essays that appear in Emmer 1986 and Menard 2001 are exceptionally useful and provide an overview of the key issues and debates. Galenson 1981 is still the authoritative monograph on the subject and is important for its economic perspective. Smith 1971 is old but still valuable for its narrative treatment and attention to legal matters. More recently, Morgan 2001 is a nice survey that considers indentured servitude in comparison with slavery, although it does not cover the Caribbean. Allen 1994–1997 and Jordan and Walsh 2008 are good examples of more polemical studies inclined to emphasize the degree to which indentured servitude was often just another system of slavery.

  • Allen, Theodore W. The Invention of the White Race. 2 vols. London: Verso, 1994–1997.

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    Good resource for the study of bound white laborers, with an emphasis on the slavelike status and oppressive social conditions that affected indentured servants. Somewhat polemical.

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  • Emmer, P. C., ed. Colonialism and Migration: Indentured Labour Before and After Slavery. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff, 1986.

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    Twelve essays dealing with the sweeping history of servant migration and labor, before and after slavery (from the 17th through 20th centuries). Perhaps dated, but a good resource for sweeping treatments of the issue.

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  • Galenson, David W. White Servitude in Colonial America: An Economic Analysis. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

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    The most thorough economic and demographic analysis of indentured servitude. Emphasis is upon indentured servitude as a system with readily identifiable English origins.

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  • Jordan, Don, and Michael Walsh. White Cargo: The Forgotten History of Britain’s White Slaves in America. New York: New York University Press, 2008.

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    Although not written by historians and somewhat strident in tone, this overview can be a useful resource if read in conjunction with more analytical and thoroughly contextualized works.

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  • Menard, Russell R. Migrants, Servants, and Slaves: Unfree Labor in Colonial British America. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2001.

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    Author is among the most important quantitative scholars concerned with labor and migration. This work contains eleven previously published essays that appeared between 1973 and 1995. Concerned almost solely with British North America.

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  • Morgan, Kenneth. Slavery and Servitude in Colonial North America: A Short History. New York: New York University Press, 2001.

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    First half of the book appropriately devotes as much attention to indentured servitude and other forms of bound labor as racial slavery in British North America. Good bibliographic essay.

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  • Salinger, Sharon. “Labor, Markets, and Opportunity: Indentured Servitude in Early America.” Labor History 38 (1997): 311–338.

    DOI: 10.1080/00236649712331387118Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A very useful survey of the main conclusions scholars have reached concerning the patterns and characteristics of indentured servitude, as well as a consideration of the lingering disagreements.

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  • Smith, Abbot Emerson. Colonists in Bondage: White Servitude and Convict Labor in America, 1607–1776. New York: W. W. Norton, 1971.

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    An unflattering portrait of servants themselves but still a useful overview of the acquisition of servants and the roles they played in the colonies. First published in 1947 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press). Equally detailed treatment of the convict labor system.

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  • Tomlins, Christopher. “Reconsidering Indentured Servitude: European Migration and the Early American Labor Force, 1600–1775.” Labor History 42.1 (2001): 5–43.

    DOI: 10.1080/00236560123269Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Revises downward earlier estimates for the total number of indentured servants in the American colonies and argues that the institution may not have been as important as many other scholars have argued.

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Surveys and Edited Collections

The subject of indentured servitude is often treated by scholars in relation to other labor systems. The separate chapters in Bush 2000 provide readers with a good comparative framework for thinking about indentured servitude. Indentured servitude is well treated, but often briefly, in Egerton, et al. 2007, Canny 1996, and Engerman and Gallman1998. Taylor 2001 is good example of how indentured servitude can be integrated into an early American history textbook, and its inclusion of New France is instructive. Jones 1998, also a textbook, is somewhat different, since it places indentured servitude in a larger narrative concerned with US labor history. Labor demands are equally central to Dunn 1984, although the author does not stray past the late 18th century. McCusker and Menard 1991 situates indentured servitude in the context of larger economic and demographic trends, while the essays that appear in Eltis 2002 are primarily concerned with the theme of migration.

  • Bush, M. L. Servitude in Modern Times. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2000.

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    A chapter-by-chapter treatment of the different forms of bondage that have been characteristic features of the early modern and modern world. Separate chapters treat indentured servitude, penal servitude, and white servitude in the Americas.

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  • Canny, Nicholas, ed. The Oxford History of the British Empire. Vol. 1, The Origins of Empire. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

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    Frequent passing references to servants and indentured servitude, although not as many as might be expected. Essays by James Horn on the Chesapeake and Hilary McD. Beckles on the Caribbean are the most useful pieces. Volume 2 of the series (The Eighteenth Century, edited by P. J. Marshall, 1999), is less useful but does contain another essay by Horn.

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  • Dunn, Richard S. “Servants and Slaves: The Recruitment and Employment of Labor.” In Colonial British America: Essays in the New History of the Early Modern Era. Edited by Jack P. Greene and J. R. Pole, 157–194. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984.

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    A solid overview and somewhat useful consideration of the historiographical debates of the day. Indentured servitude in the West Indies is as much under study here as its manifestation on the mainland. Particularly interested in the question of the transition from servants to slaves as the primary labor force.

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  • Egerton, Douglas R., Alison Games, Jane G. Landers, Kris Lane, and Donald R. Wright. The Atlantic World: A History, 1400–1888. Wheeling, IL: Harlan Davidson, 2007.

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    Chapter 5, “Labor, Migration, and Settlement: Europeans and Indians, 1500–1800,” provides a useful, comparative contextual overview.

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  • Eltis, David, ed. Coerced and Free Migration: Global Perspectives. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002.

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    Strong collection of essays that demonstrate the full scope and scale of migration from the early colonial period through the early 20th century. Essays by Engerman, Wokeck, Northrup, Look Lai, and Forster highlight the multinational character of both transatlantic migration and servitude.

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  • Engerman, Stanley L., and Robert E. Gallman, eds. The Cambridge Economic History of the United States. Vol. 1, The Colonial Era. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

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    The chapter on emigration patters over the long 18th century by James Horn provides a good, brief summary treatment of the subject.

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  • Jones, Jacqueline. American Work: Four Centuries of Black and White Labor. New York: W. W. Norton, 1998.

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    The five chapters of Part 1, “Insubordinates: Servants and Slaves in a Militarized Age,” provide a good overview of the life of servants and the problem of labor in early America.

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  • McCusker, John J., and Russell R. Menard. The Economy of British America, 1607–1789. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.

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    A foundational work for students, first published in 1985, of early America and still an influential text on early economic matters. Indentured servitude is treated in depth in a number of places throughout the book.

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  • Taylor, Alan. American Colonies. New York: Viking, 2001.

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    Indentured servants considered in several contexts throughout British and French North America. Good resources for a preliminary comparative consideration of the topic across time and space.

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Bibliographies and Encyclopedias

There are few reference sources devoted solely to the subject of indentured servitude, but the issue predictably appears in works concerned with labor, immigration, and slavery. General surveys of the colonial period, such as Cooke 1993 and Vickers 2003, are reliable reference sources and good for their breadth of coverage (Cooke more so than Vickers, though). More focused works have different strengths. Daniels 2001 places indentured servitude in the context of immigration history, while Arnesen 2007 conceptualizes the subject primarily as a labor issue. Some of the most intriguing works, such as Dresher and Engerman 1998 and H-Slavery, are those that work from the perspective of plantation slavery and therefore deal with forced migration, involuntary servitude, and the question of harshness. The Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition is an outstanding resource for general information and for identifying primary sources.

Journals

Articles on indentured servitude often appear in journals concerned with economic history. The Journal of Economic History and the Journal of Interdisciplinary History are good resources for technical, often quantitative studies. Discrete articles concerned with labor, servitude, and immigration routinely appear in the William and Mary Quarterly, Slavery and Abolition, and Labor History. Itinerario is good on the Dutch and has published some useful essays on indentured servitude in the 19th-century West Indies. The Journal of American History will publish the occasional article on these subjects but is more valuable for its ongoing catalog of recent scholarship.

Document Collections

Document collections concerning the history of indentured servitude are particularly rich in Chesapeake material. Billings 2007 and Crandall Shifflett’s Virtual Jamestown website cover some of the same material, but together they constitute the best resource for the 17th-century Chesapeake. Costa is the place to start for 18th-century records of runaway slaves in Virginia. Games and Rothman 2008 contains a few good excerpted pieces, but a richer collection is available online at History Matters. Kupperman, et al. 2000 is an exceedingly rich collection of letters (often abstracted, but many verbatim) written by imperial officials throughout the British Empire. British criminal cases tried in London can be found on the Old Bailey Online website. The Immigrant Servants Database is primarily useful as a gateway resource to other websites, some of which can be used to develop useful statistical evidence.

Narrative Accounts

Personal narratives written by former indentured servants are less difficult to come by than they once were. A number of particularly useful accounts have been printed, or reprinted, in recent years, although they primarily concern the 18th century and are heavily weighted toward the mid-Atlantic colonies. Many of these accounts were written, it seems, as much to entertain the reading audience as they were to educate or inform. Moraley 2005 is arguably the best modern edition and particularly useful for its focus on the 1730s and 1740s. Harrower 1963 and Eddis 1969 are oft-quoted works but were written quite late in the colonial period. Williamson 1996 is of interest because of the author’s time in captivity with the Indians. The German experience is well documented in Mittelberger 1960 and Klepp, et al. 2006. For the Irish, Miller, et al. 2003 offers an extensive collection of firsthand accounts.

  • Eddis, William. Letters from America. Edited by Aubrey C. Land. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1969.

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    Originally published in 1792, Eddis’s account makes frequent and often unflattering comments about servants and how they were treated in late colonial America.

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  • Harrower, John. The Journal of John Harrower, an Indentured Servant in the Colony of Virginia, 1773–1776. Edited by Edward Miles Riley. Williamsburg, VA: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1963.

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    An unusual indentured servant—he was already in his forties and a schoolmaster when he arrived in the colonies in 1774. The narrative is nonetheless a good day-by-day account of the life of servants in Virginia.

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  • Klepp, Susan E., Farley Grubb, and Anne Pfaelzer De Ortiz, eds. Souls for Sale: Two German Redemptioners Come to Revolutionary America; The Life Stories of John Frederick Whitehead and Johann Carl Büttner. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006.

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    Contains the narrative accounts of John Frederick Whitehead and Johann Carl Büttner, two German youths who sailed to America in 1773. Whitehead’s account is published here for the first time.

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  • Miller, Kerby A., Arnold Schrier, Bruce D. Boling, and David N. Doyle, eds. Irish Immigrants in the Land of Canaan: Letters and Memoirs from Colonial and Revolutionary America, 1675–1815. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

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    Numerous hard-to-come-by narrative excerpts concerned with all facets of the Irish immigrant experience. Frequent reference throughout the sources to indentured servitude.

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  • Mittelberger, Gottlieb. Journey to Pennsylvania. Edited by Oscar Handlin and John Clive. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1960.

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    An often unflattering picture of the plight of indentured servants from the pen of a German schoolmaster who stayed only briefly in America.

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  • Moraley, William. The Infortunate: The Voyage and Adventures of William Moraley, an Indentured Servant. 2d ed. Edited by Susan E. Klepp and Billy G. Smith. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2005.

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    Account of a former indentured servant who arrived in the colonies in 1729 and returned five years later to England. The editors’ introduction to this edition is particularly good. Originally published in 1743 (Newcastle: Newcastle, England).

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  • Williamson, Peter. French and Indian Cruelty; Exemplified in the Life and various vicissitudes of Fortune of Peter Williamson. Bristol, UK: Thoemmes, 1996.

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    Originally published in the 1750s. This is a modern facsimile reprint of a work that went through multiple 18th-century editions. Williamson is as much concerned with Indians as he is the circumstances of his own captivity and bondage.

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Origins

There is some debate about the origins of indentured servitude, although most scholars recognize that the institution was largely invented on the ground during the early-17th-century colonization of the Americas. Kussmaul 1981 is routinely cited for identifying a likely precedent in early modern English labor contracts. Beier 1985, while not explicitly concerned with labor systems, is useful for understanding the social and economic crises that made transatlantic migration desirable. One classic debate concerns the social origins and demographic characteristics of indentured servants, with the opposing perspectives delineated by Campbell 1959 and Galenson 1978. Souden 1978 chimes in on this subject, too, providing insight into how servants were portrayed by their contemporaries. Steinfeld 1991 is more interested in the origins of free labor, but deals extensively with different forms of bound labor over the course of several centuries in pursuit of this goal. Bush 1996 provides readers with a number of examples of comparable systems of bondage.

  • Beier, A. L. Masterless Men: The Vagrancy Problem in England, 1560–1640. New York: Methuen, 1985.

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    A solid demographic and economic consideration of the problems of poverty and crime, including their relationship to mobility, in late Elizabethan and early Stuart England.

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  • Bush, M. L., ed. Serfdom & Slavery: Studies in Legal Bondage. London: Longman, 1996.

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    Collection of essays concerned with a range of issues connected to the history of bound labor systems in Europe. The essay by Stanley Engerman provides a particularly useful comparative framework for thinking about different labor systems.

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  • Campbell, Mildred. “Social Origins of Some Early Americans.” In Seventeenth-Century America: Essays in Colonial History. Edited by James Morton Smith, 63–89. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1959.

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    An early and still important study arguing that most indentured servants were relatively poor individuals who were lured to America by the promise of potential rewards rather than pushed out of England by abject conditions.

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  • Galenson, David W. “‘Middling People’ or ‘Common Sort’?: The Social Origins of Some Early Americans Reexamined.” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 35 (1978): 499–540.

    DOI: 10.2307/1921661Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Challenges Campbell’s argument with evidence to suggest that many indentured servants possessed skills. Indentured servants were not exceptionally poor. Campbell offered a reply the following year in William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 36 (1979): 264–286.

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  • Kussmaul, Ann. Servants in Husbandry in Early Modern England. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

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    Oft-cited source for the argument that indentured servitude was based on the labor-hiring practices in early modern England, particularly those employed in agriculture.

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  • Souden, David. “Rogues, Whores and Vagabonds? Indentured Servant Emigrants to North America, and the Case of Mid-Seventeenth-Century Bristol.” Social History 3 (1978): 23–41.

    DOI: 10.1080/03071027808567417Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Describes the generally low opinion of servants in English society but also the remarkable ability of this highly mobile population to facilitate their transportation to America.

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  • Steinfeld, Robert J. The Invention of Free Labor: The Employment Relation in English and American Law and Culture, 1350–1870. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.

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    Wide-ranging study of the evolution of free labor with particular attention in the early chapters to different forms of bound labor in early modern England.

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Migration

Indentured servitude was as much a system designed to facilitate the transportation of large numbers of people to the American colonies as it was a labor system. The internal history of migration within the British Isles is an important part of this story and has been studied in Clark and Souden 1988. Canny 1994 is good for thinking about long-distance migration from a number of different European starting points. The British side of the story, particularly as it relates to larger economic matters, is the subject of Sacks 1991. The early history of indentured-servant migration is considered broadly by Menard 1988. Games 1999 makes creative use of the records of one specific year (1635) to craft a remarkable group portrait of early servants. A similarly detailed study of a relatively short period of time, but dealing with the early 1770s, can be found in Bailyn 1986. A more general story—one that emphasizes the positive benefits of indentured servitude—appears in Baseler 1998. Abramitzky and Braggion 2006 is more technical but grounded like many other works in a careful parsing of the statistical evidence. For comparative consideration of the actual transatlantic voyage, see Christopher, et al. 2007.

  • Abramitzky, Ran, and Fabio Braggion. “Migration and Human Capital: Self-Selection of Indentured Servants to the Americas.” Journal of Economic History 66.4 (2006): 882–905.

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    An examination of more than 2,000 servant contracts with an eye toward demonstrating that certain physical, intellectual, and professional characteristics influenced the destination of new servants and the duration of their service.

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  • Bailyn, Bernard. Voyagers to the West: A Passage in the Peopling of America on the Eve of the Revolution. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1986.

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    A massive study of the detailed emigrant registers dating from the three years before the outbreak of war. Exceptionally rich statistical evidence and some interesting images can be found herein.

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  • Baseler, Marilyn C. “Asylum for Mankind”: America, 1607–1800. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998.

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    Study of transatlantic migration that emphasizes the more benign aspects of indentured servitude and the opportunities the system provided for individuals who would have fared worse in Europe.

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  • Canny, Nicholas, ed. Europeans on the Move: Studies on European Migration, 1500–1800. Oxford: Clarendon, 1994.

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    Collection of essays that work together to document the full scope of transatlantic migration. Entries authored by Smout, Landsman, and Devine; Fertig; and Sanchez-Albornoz are particularly useful for their emphasis on migration from Scotland, Germany, and Spain.

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  • Christopher, Emma, Cassandra Pybus, and Marcus Rediker, eds. Many Middle Passages: Forced Migration and the Making of the Modern World. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007.

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    A series of essays that force readers to consider the transportation of slaves, servants, and convicts as comparable tragedies, even if the slave trade was exceptionally terrible. Essays by Nigel Penn and Lawrence Brown concern indentured servitude while Christopher, Pybus, and Claire Anderson treat convict transportation.

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  • Clark, Peter, and David Souden, eds. Migration and Society in Early Modern England. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1988.

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    Collection of essays, several of which appeared in print previously, dealing with migration and English society over the course of several hundred years. A good introduction to the subject.

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  • Games, Alison. Migration and the Origins of the English Atlantic World. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.

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    Careful study based on the 7,500 people recorded in the London port register of 1635. Chapter 3, “Life, Death, and Labor in an Unsettled Land” is particularly useful for indentured servitude.

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  • Menard, Russell R. “British Migration to the Chesapeake Colonies in the Seventeenth Century.” In Colonial Chesapeake Society. Edited by Lois Green Carr, Philip D. Morgan, and Jean B. Russo, 92–132. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.

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    Considers the variety of forces that pushed servants out of England and drew them to the Chesapeake. Good for understanding the pace and pattern of migration over time.

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  • Sacks, David Harris. The Widening Gate: Bristol and the Atlantic Economy, 1450–1700. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.

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    A sophisticated consideration of the relationship between one particularly important locale and the development of the larger transatlantic economy. As Bristol was a key departure point for many emigrants, this is an invaluable study.

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Regulation and the Law

Because indentured servitude was an innovative labor practice (despite whatever precedents scholars may identify in English apprenticeship practices or rural labor contracts), new rules needed to be created to regulate the system. Morris 1946, although dated, is still a useful place to begin. The relationship between servant and slave law in the Chesapeake is considered in Billings 1991. The effort to ameliorate the lives of indentured servants is studied by Grubb 2000, which is primarily concerned with legislative efforts from above, and Daniels 2001, which concentrates on the strategies employed by servants themselves. The illegal abduction, or “spiriting,” of children during the 17th century has attracted some attention. Coldham 1975 and Wareing 2002 are useful places to investigate this problem. Child labor in the colonies, particularly in relationship to systems of bondage, is detailed in Herndon and Murray 2009. For a bird’s-eye view of the subject, the essays in Hay and Craven 2004 situate the topic within the larger British Empire over the course of several hundred years.

  • Billings, Warren M. “The Law of Servants and Slaves in Seventeenth-Century Virginia.” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 99 (1991): 45–62.

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    Sound treatment of the development of the legal system that buttressed both plantation slavery and indentured servitude in their formative stages.

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  • Coldham, Peter Wilson. “The ‘Spriting’ of London Children to Virginia 1648–1685.” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 83 (1975): 280–287.

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    Brief consideration of the practice of kidnapping children in London and sending them to America, which was made illegal in 1645. Considers several criminal proceedings.

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  • Daniels, Christine. “‘Liberty to Complaine’: Servant Petitions in Maryland, 1652–1797.” In The Many Legalities of Early America. Edited by Christopher L. Tomlins and Bruce H. Mann, 219–249. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.

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    Consciously sets aside statutory law to look at customary and case law to consider how servants shaped the institution and practice of indentured servitude. Characterizes indentured servitude as something that was worked out in the negotiations between masters and servants throughout the colonial period.

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  • Grubb, Farley. “The Statutory Regulation of Colonial Servitude: An Incomplete-Contract Approach.” Explorations in Economic History 37.1 (2000): 42–75.

    DOI: 10.1006/exeh.1999.0730Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Study of servant contracts mandating fair treatment and end-of-contract provisions. Argues that the effort to protect servants from exploitation was designed to maintain the system’s reputation and make sure there would be new, willing servants.

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  • Hay, Douglas, and Paul Craven, eds. Masters, Servants, and Magistrates in Britain and the Empire, 1562–1955. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

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    An introduction and fifteen chapters dealing with the larger legal problem of the relationship between masters and servants as both roles were themselves being redefined within the empire, as was labor itself.

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  • Herndon, Ruth Wallis, and John E. Murray, eds. Children Bound to Labor: The Pauper Apprentice System in Early America. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2009.

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    Series of twelve essays united by their shared interest in the plight of children in early America. Particularly useful on the evolution of apprenticeship and the creeping encroachment of bondage in household relationships.

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  • Morris, Richard B. Government and Labor in Early America. New York: Columbia University Press, 1946.

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    Separate sections dealing with free and bound labor. Particularly interested in legal considerations and the role of the government in regulating labor, master-servant relations, and using labor as a form of punishment.

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  • Wareing, John. “Preventive and Punitive Regulation Seventeenth-Century Social Policy: Conflicts of Interest and the Failure to Make ‘Stealing and Transporting Children, and other Persons’ a Felony, 1645–73.” Social History 27.3 (2002): 288–308.

    DOI: 10.1080/03071020210159685Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Characterizes indentured servitude as an inherently exploitative system by emphasizing government efforts to regulate the most abusive aspects of the trade.

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Convict Labor

Forced migrants were increasingly common during the 18th century, when roughly 50,000 convicts arrived in the British colonies. While the subject is considered in most general works, Ekirch 1987 is the best single-volume study of British convicts. Coldham 1992 is also good, though lacking much interest in larger historiographical debates. A useful sense of economic and demographic patterns is well provided by Grubb 2000. British attitudes about forced transportation and the use of convict laborers in the Americas come in for study in Atkinson 1994 and Morgan 1987. Morgan 1985 is a good case study of the Maryland experience in the pre-Revolutionary era.

  • Atkinson, Alan. “The Free-Born Englishman Transported: Convict Rights as a Measure of Eighteenth-Century Empire.” Past and Present 144 (1994): 88–115.

    DOI: 10.1093/past/144.1.88Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Considers social attitudes toward convicts in Britain, North America, and Australia. Particularly interested in how the presence of convicts affected how communities defined themselves within the empire.

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  • Coldham, Peter Wilson. Emigrants in Chains: A Social history of Forced Emigration to the Americas of Felons, Destitute Children, Political and Religious Non-Conformists, Vagabonds, Beggars and Other Undesirables, 1607–1776. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1992.

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    A revised and enlarged treatment of what first appeared as the introduction to Coldham’s nine-volume work, Bonded Passengers to America (1983). Coldham’s numerous genealogical works are more valuable for their source materials than their scholarly interpretations.

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  • Ekirch, A. Roger. Bound for America: The Transportation of British Convicts to the Colonies, 1718–1775. Oxford: Clarendon, 1987.

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    Useful consideration of the use of convict laborers in the colonies as well as important discussion of their social characteristics and relative value compared to other bound servants and slaves.

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  • Grubb, Farley. “The Transatlantic Market for British Convict Labor.” Journal of Economic History 60 (2000): 94–122.

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    Notes that convicts were roughly 25 percent of the British migrants to America in the 18th century and considers how these potential laborers were marketed and used, as well as their effect on the political economy of British North America.

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  • Morgan, Kenneth. “The Organization of the Convict Trade to Maryland: Stevenson, Randolph and Cheston, 1768–1775.” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 42 (1985): 201–227.

    DOI: 10.2307/1920428Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Case study of the most important dealer in convict laborers during this period. Considers the nature of the trade and the characteristics of the convicts.

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  • Morgan, Kenneth. “English and American Attitudes towards Convict Transportation, 1718–1775.” History 72 (1987): 416–431.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-229X.1987.tb01470.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Good for understanding why convict transportation was controversial in its own time, for ideological reasons in Britain and, especially, pragmatic reasons in the colonies.

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Chesapeake Colonies

Indentured servitude was largely invented on the ground during the first decades of English settlement in Virginia. Predictably, then, the Chesapeake has been a central arena for scholarly debates about the nature and significance of indentured servitude and the relationship between this system of bound labor and the development of another, more notorious model—slavery. Horn 1994 provides an excellent consideration of the earliest generation of servants and is particularly interested in migration. Carr, et al. 1991 and Pagan 2003 are fascinating case studies, with the former more interested in economic and demographic matters and the latter concerned with legal issues. The transition to slavery, with different points of emphasis, is central to Breen 1980, Menard 1977, and Morgan 1975. Brown 1996 raises the issue of gender as a component of servant issues.

  • Breen, T. H. Puritans and Adventurers: Change and Persistence in Early America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.

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    Chapter entitled “A Changing Labor Force and Race Relations in Virginia, 1660–1710” offers Breen’s important contribution to the debate of the timing and reasons for the shift from indentured servitude to slavery.

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  • Brown, Kathleen M. Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs: Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial Virginia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

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    Particularly good on the relationship between gender and servant regulation. Chapter on Bacon’s Rebellion, with its emphasis on masculinity, is particularly worth reading.

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  • Carr, Lois Green, Russell R. Menard, and Lorena S. Walsh. Robert Cole’s World: Agriculture and Society in Early Maryland. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.

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    The servants are seemingly peripheral characters, but indentured servitude is central to this fascinating study. Includes excellent statistical information and an important biographical appendix.

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  • Horn, James. Adapting to a New World: English Society in the Seventeenth-Century Chesapeake. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994.

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    A careful study of the society most heavily populated by indentured servants. Separate sections address the social origins of English migrants, the world they created in Virginia, and the emergence of social unrest in the colony.

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  • Menard, Russell R. “From Servants to Slaves: The Transformation of the Chesapeake Labor System.” Southern Studies 16 (1977): 355–390.

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    Classic essay that attributes the transition to slave labor in the Chesapeake to the declining availability and rising price of servants from England.

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  • Morgan, Edmund S. American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia. New York: W. W. Norton, 1975.

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    The standard by which all subsequent studies of colonial Virginia are measured. Morgan emphasizes the early importance of indentured servitude in the wake of the tobacco boom of the 1620s and the eventual emergence of slavery after Bacon’s Rebellion in the 1670s.

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  • Pagan, John Ruston. Anne Orthwood’s Bastard: Sex and Law in Early Virginia. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

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    A useful case study based on four related legal cases that occurred during the second half of the 17th century. The author is interested primarily in the innovation of new labor practices and new laws, in contrast to English precedents, particularly on Virginia’s Eastern Shore.

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British West Indies

The plantation revolution in Barbados and other islands laid the groundwork for the exploitative use of bound servants, many of whom were Irish. The raw numbers involved and the situation on different islands, both French and English, is worked out in Dunn 1972. The big picture is also laid out in Blackburn 1997 and Menard 2006. Some works, such as Beckles 1989, have suggested that white indentured servants were treated worse than slaves. Regardless of the validity of such assertions, their rhetorical, as Pestana 2004 demonstrates, contributed to the redefinition of labor practices. Works focusing on the peculiar and often exceptionally harsh history of non-English Britons in the West Indies, such as Akenson 1997 and Sheppard 1978, have emphasized the desperate situation of the Irish.

  • Akenson, Donald Harman. If the Irish Ran the World: Montserrat, 1630–1730. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1997.

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    An engaging narrative history of the Irish on the West Indian island of Montserrat, the English island with the highest percentage of often unwilling Irish immigrants.

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  • Beckles, Hilary McD. White Servitude and Black Slavery in Barbados, 1627–1715. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1989.

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    A useful work that treats indentured servitude as a system of oppression as violent and inhumane as slavery.

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  • Blackburn, Robin. The Making of New World Slavery: From the Baroque to the Modern, 1492–1800. London: Verso, 1997.

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    Sweeping treatment of the rise of slavery, but chapters 6 and 8, on the English and the emergence of plantations, contextualize indentured servitude nicely.

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  • Dunn, Richard S. Sugar and Slaves: The Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 1624–1713. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1972.

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    The best single-volume study of the early English Caribbean world. Treats more than just Barbados and Jamaica and gives detailed consideration to the use and plight of indentured servants in the region.

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  • Menard, Russell R. Sweet Negotiations: Sugar, Slavery, and Plantation Agriculture in Early Barbados. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2006.

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    Chapter 2, “Land and Labor during the Export Boom,” usefully distills much of the literature concerned with the relationship between indentured servitude and the rise of the plantation in the English West Indies. Menard’s other works should also be consulted.

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  • Pestana, Carla Gardina. The English Atlantic in an Age of Revolution, 1640–1661. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004.

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    Especially valuable for its consideration of local and imperial political debates. Indentured servants, particularly their grievances and the challenges posed by former servants, come in for regular consideration.

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  • Sheppard, Jill. The “Redlegs” of Barbados, Their Origins and History. Millwood, NY: KTO, 1977.

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    A brief study of the white indentured servants in Barbados whose identity, it is argued, was tinged with racial implications because of their exposure to the elements (hence “redlegs”). Should be read with a critical eye.

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Pennsylvania and Redemptioners

The Pennsylvania colony and other parts of the Delaware Valley (Delaware, New Jersey, and Maryland) were the center of a new era of servant immigration during the 18th century, particularly the period between 1710 and 1770. The best scholarship on this period has been conducted by Farley Grubb. Grubb 1987 and Grubb 1988 are just two examples of a larger body of work that sheds considerable light, on the basis of rich economic analysis, on the redemptioner system. Several monographs cover the same ground, such as the older study Herrick 1926. More recently, Salinger 1987 has provided researchers with a good study of the relationship between servitude and slavery. Wokeck 1999 is excellent on immigration issues. For a slightly different approach, Waldstreicher 2004 considers Benjamin Franklin’s complicated attitudes toward servitude and slavery.

  • Grubb, Farley. “The Market Structure of Shipping German Immigrants to Colonial America.” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 111 (1987): 27–48.

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    Concerned with arguments about whether the shipment of German emigrants during the mid–18th century (which involved more than 50,000 individuals) was exceptionally dangerous, Grubb looks at how the shipping industry was organized.

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  • Grubb, Farley. “The Auction of Redemptioner Servants, Philadelphia, 1771–1804: An Economic Analysis.” Journal of Economic History 48 (1988): 583–603.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0022050700005842Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Study of more than 4,400 servant contracts used to demonstrate how redemptioners were sold during the last few decades of the 18th century. Very useful for understanding the likely experience of individuals and the details of the actual sale.

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  • Herrick, Cheesman A. White Servitude in Pennsylvania: Indentured and Redemption Labor in Colony and Commonwealth. Philadelphia: J. J. McVey, 1926.

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    Classic survey of indentured servitude in the 18th century. Routinely cited by other scholars for its substance rather than its arguments.

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  • Salinger, Sharon V. “To Serve Well and Faithfully: Labor and Indentured Servants in Philadelphia, 1682–1800. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

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    Important study of the relationship between slavery and indentured servitude in early Pennsylvania, as well as a consideration of how servitude evolved over time. Good comparative context.

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  • Waldstreicher, David. Runaway America: Benjamin Franklin, Slavery, and the American Revolution. New York: Hill & Wang, 2004.

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    An unconventional biographical treatment of Franklin that emphasizes his personal experience as a servant and his years as a master in order to argue that Franklin had more complicated ideas about freedom and slavery than is generally appreciated.

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  • Wokeck, Marianne. Trade in Strangers: The Beginnings of Mass Migration to North America. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999.

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    As the title suggests, a history of the emigration of German and Irish settlers, many of whom arrived as servants, in the Americas. Distills much of the work that has appeared in the author’s articles.

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Peripheral Regions

Indentured servitude generally comes in for only limited study outside of the Chesapeake, West Indies, and the mid-Atlantic colonies. In plantation colonies, indentured servitude was not as relevant because the system was in the process of being replaced by slave labor by the time some of the later colonies were settled. Still, as Smith 1961 shows, indentured servants were regionally important. Zipf 2005 demonstrates that the system was adapted in response to regional demands and evolved over time, even into the 20th century. In the northern colonies, indentured servants could be found working in small towns and in the countryside, as Towner 1998 demonstrates. Indians were often indentured, sometimes against their will, as Vikers 1983 and Silverman 2001 document.

  • Silverman, David John. “The Impact of Indentured Servitude on the Society and Culture of Southern New England Indians, 1680–1810.” New England Quarterly 74.4 (2001): 622–666.

    DOI: 10.2307/3185443Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Analyzes the cultural consequences of the systems of forced dependency that ensnared New England Indians during the long 18th century.

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  • Smith, Warren B. White Servitude in Colonial South Carolina. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1961.

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    Against the assumption that there were few indentured servants in this singularly important slave colony, this work identifies a number of important functions served by white indentured servants.

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  • Towner, Lawrence William. A Good Master Well Served: Masters and Servants in Colonial Massachusetts, 1620–1750. New York: Garland, 1998.

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    Towner’s 1954 dissertation. In spite of its age, it is still one of the best comprehensive treatments of the subject.

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  • Vickers, Daniel. “The First Whalemen of Nantucket.” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 40 (1983): 560–583.

    DOI: 10.2307/1921808Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Examination of the emergence of the whaling industry, but also of how Indians were compelled into service as a result of indebtedness during the 18th century.

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  • Zipf, Karin L. Labor of Innocents: Forced Apprenticeship in North Carolina, 1715–1919. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005.

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    While the title would suggest a sweeping scope, this work is primarily concerned with the subject of forced apprenticeship in the fifty years after the Civil War (although the author roots the practice in colonial and antebellum precedents).

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French Colonies

Indentured servants were never as important in the French Atlantic world as in the British, but they similarly shaped both immigration patters and the early labor supply. Pritchard 2004 and Bond 2005 are good places to start and provide important general background information. Most studies concentrate on one particular region, but Huetz de Lemps 1991 treats the subject in a comparative context. The Canadian story, with a focus on later fur trade, is the subject of Podruchny 1999. For indentured servants in the West Indies and Louisiana, McGowan 1977 is useful on the transition from servants to slaves. In French, readers should consult Bessière 2008 for Canada and Debien 1952 for the West Indies. For the 19th-century use of bound East Indian laborers, see Northrup 2000.

  • Bessière, Arnaud. “Le salaire des domestiques au Canada au XVIIe siècle.” Histoire, Économie et Société 27.4 (2008): 33–50.

    DOI: 10.3917/hes.084.0033Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A case study of servants in the Saint Lawrence Valley in Canada, with particular attention to their compensation during the 17th century as an indicator of the nature and duration of servitude.

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  • Bond, Bradley G., ed. French Colonial Louisiana and the Atlantic World. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005.

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    No single essay concerned with indentured servants, but several entries deal with their presence in French colonial society and their contributions to the labor force.

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  • Debien, Gabriel. Les engagés pour les Antilles (1634–1715). Paris: Société de l’Histoire des Colonies Françaises, 1952.

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    French-language study of bound white laborers in the French West Indies and the eventual transition to African slavery.

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  • Huetz de Lemps, Christian. “Indentured Servants Bound for the French Antilles in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries.” In “To Make America”: European Emigration in the Early Modern Period. Edited by Ida Altman and James Horn, 172–203. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.

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    A worthy essay detailing the early history of French indentured servants from an internal comparative perspective (within the essays) and situated in a larger study concerned with broader patterns of migration.

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  • McGowan, James T. “Planters without Slaves: Origins of a New World Labor System.” Southern Studies 16 (1977): 5–26.

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    Like many scholars of his day, McGowan is primarily interested in the transitions question (albeit in the French case)—why servants diminished in importance or were replaced outright by enslaved Africans.

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  • Northrup, David. “Indentured Indians in the French Caribbean, 1854–1920.” Revue Française d’Histoire d’Outre-Mer 87.1 (2000): 245–271.

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    A study of nearly 70,000 East Indians who were transported as indentured servants to Guadeloupe and Martinique. Offers some comparison to contemporary developments in the British colonies.

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  • Podruchny, Carolyn. “Unfair Masters and Rascally Servants? Labour Relations among Bourgeois, Clerks and Voyageurs in the Montréal Fur Trade, 1780–1821.” Labour/Le Travail 43 (1999): 43–70.

    DOI: 10.2307/25148937Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Primarily concerned with group consciousness and identity among French fur traders, many of whom were bound servants.

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  • Pritchard, James. In Search of Empire: The French in the Americas, 1670–1730. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

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    Useful survey of the development of French colonies. Some interesting, if only passing, consideration of the place of servants in early French colonial societies.

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Decline and Transformation

Indentured servitude, particularly as it relates to large-scale immigration patters, was rare by the end of the 18th century. Fogleman 1998 largely attributes this development to ideological transformations connected to the American Revolution. Grubb 1994 emphasizes the determinative influence of changing economic conditions. Kahana 2000 considers the legal history of free labor versus indentured and enslaved labor in the new United States.

  • Fogleman, Aaron S. “From Slaves, Convicts, and Servants to Free Passengers: The Transformation of Immigration in the Era of the American Revolution.” Journal of American History 85.1 (1998): 43–76.

    DOI: 10.2307/2568431Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Characterizes unfree labor as more important in the colonial period than scholars usually argue and then offers an explanation for the rarity of new indentured immigrants after the American Revolution—an emerging preference for free labor.

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  • Grubb, Farley. “The End of European Immigrant Servitude in the United States: An Economic Analysis of Market Collapse, 1772–1835.” Journal of Economic History 54 (1994): 794–824.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0022050700015497Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Quantitative study of the ending of indentured-servant immigration in the early 19th century. Argues that the system ended because more efficient methods of financing migration made it obsolete.

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  • Kahana, Jeffrey S. “Master and Servant in the Early Republic, 1780–1830.” Journal of the Early Republic 20.1 (2000): 27–57.

    DOI: 10.2307/3124829Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Legal history of servant laws in the aftermath of the American Revolution. Argues that while indentured servant and slave laws drew heavily on English precedents, most new labor laws were innovative.

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Resurgence

With the gradual abolition of slavery in the Atlantic world during the 19th century, former slave owners created new ways of controlling their laborers. Some works, such as Tinker 1993, have argued that these new systems were another form of slavery. Others, such as Northrup 1995 and Emmer 1997, have characterized the new labor system as largely distinctive. The West Indies have been central to this discussion and are the object of study of Look Lai 1993. Slave owners sometimes maintained control of their former slaves through the new apprenticeship system, as Emmer 1993 shows in the case of Dutch Guiana. Schuler 1980 details the effort to control former slaves through creative labor devices in Jamaica. More importantly, indentured servitude was invented anew in many places, leading to the arrival of large numbers of new bound immigrants. The story of Chinese laborers is studied in Anderson 2009 and Yun 2008.

  • Anderson, Clare. “Convicts and Coolies: Rethinking Indentured Labour in the Nineteenth Century.” Slavery and Abolition 30.1 (2009): 93–109.

    DOI: 10.1080/01440390802673856Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Focuses on the experience of Indian laborers and the connections they drew between indentured servitude and penal labor.

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  • Emmer, Pieter. “Between Slavery and Freedom: The Period of Apprenticeship in Suriname (Dutch Guiana), 1863–1873.” Slavery and Abolition 14.1 (1993): 87–113.

    DOI: 10.1080/01440399308575085Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    As the title indicates, a careful look at the apprenticeship system that replaced legal slavery but nonetheless continued to restrict the lives of freed peoples. Mentions how the arrival of new indentured servants ultimately freed the former slaves from this intermediary step.

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  • Emmer, P. C. “Caribbean Plantations and Indentured Labour, 1640–1917: A Constructive or Destructive Deviation from the Free Labour Market?” Itinerario 21.1 (1997): 73–97.

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    A comparison of indentured servitude as a labor system over time in the Caribbean, but also a criticism of the idea that the 19th-century system was just another form of slavery. A useful, relatively brief conceptual piece.

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  • Look Lai, Walton. Indentured Labor, Caribbean Sugar: Chinese and Indian Migrants to the British West Indies, 1838–1918. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.

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    Useful narrative treatment that gives extended consideration to the problem of bound labor in the West Indies (as opposed to works that treat the subject globally).

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  • Northrup, David. Indentured Labor in the Age of Imperialism, 1834–1922. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

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    A decidedly global and therefore inevitably comparative approach to the subject of modern indentured labor. Treats the manifestation of indentured servitude in this era as distinctive and quite unlike slavery.

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  • Schuler, Monica. “Alas, Alas, Kongo”: A Social History of Indentured African Immigration into Jamaica, 1841–1865. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980.

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    Arguably more interested in questions of cultural persistence and local innovation, this work provides useful insights into the issue of postemancipation labor systems on one important island.

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  • Tinker, Hugh. A New System of Slavery: The Export of Indian Labour Overseas, 1830–1920. 2d ed. London: Oxford University Press, 1993.

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    Influential work, originally published in 1974, that has defined the terms of the debate for subsequent scholars: To what degree were the new labor systems created in the wake of the abolition of slavery just another form of slavery?

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  • Yun, Lisa. The Coolie Speaks: Chinese Indentured Laborers and African Slaves in Cuba. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2008.

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    In-depth treatment of the testimony of thousands of Chinese laborers in Cuba in 1874. Emphasizes the slavelike conditions under which Chinese immigrants lived and worked on the island.

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LAST MODIFIED: 05/25/2011

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780199730414-0113

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