In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Indentured Servitude

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Surveys and Edited Collections
  • Bibliographies and Encyclopedias
  • Journals
  • Document Collections
  • Narrative Accounts
  • Origins
  • Migration
  • Regulation and the Law
  • Convict Labor
  • Chesapeake Colonies
  • British West Indies
  • Pennsylvania and Redemptioners
  • Peripheral Regions
  • French Colonies
  • Decline and Transformation
  • Resurgence

Atlantic History Indentured Servitude
Michael Guasco
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 May 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 May 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0113


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.

    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.

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

    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.

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

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

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

    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.

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

    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.

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

    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.

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

    DOI: 10.1080/00236649712331387118

    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.

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

    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.

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

    DOI: 10.1080/00236560123269

    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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