From the February 1999 Issue --


by Karen Mullian

The institution was not considered inhumane - many of our Quaker ancestors came to Pennsylvania and other colonies as indentured servants to more well-to-do Friends.  Still, it is certainly true that there were probably as many miserable masters of indentured servants as there were miserable slavemasters.  Servant's time was certainly not his or her own during the term of servitude; however, for the most part, those who hired themselves out under such terms knew that, assuming all went well and there was no sickness or pregnancy, then after a specific period of time, and the time varied greatly, they would be free.

Generally speaking, servants could not marry during the term of their indenture.  If a female servant became pregnant, regardless of who the father of the child might be, her term could be extended for the period of time during which she was incapable of working due to pregnancy and any consequences thereof.  If an indentured servant was accused of fathering a child, he could face legal action and if the mother of the child was another servant, the time she might miss on account of her condition could be added to the servant-father's time as well as her own.  Servants (and bound apprentices) were also expected, if learning a trade, to keep all the "mysteries" of the trade secret, a holdover from the medieval trade guilds.

Servants were usually to work for a set number of years at a specific trade, if one was already had, or learning a trade could be part of the bargain.  Women usually were to be trained in the skills of housewifery, far more demanding than anything housewives do today.  I know this, because I have been learning 18th century housewifery skills for the last 8 years.  At the end of the term, the servant would be given his or her freedom dues a suit of clothes, sometimes along with hand-farming implements (grubbing hoe, rakes, etc.), and his or her freedom.

Those servants who came over to work for a specific person in this country were one type of indentured servants.  Early on in the founding of Pennsylvania, indentured servants were granted a tract of land, an incentive established by William Penn to induce young landless individuals to settle his colony.  They were often kinsmen or members of the same community as their masters who would pay their passage, and the time they served as to repay the master for footing the bill of transatlantic travel.

There were also redemptioners, generally Germans and sometimes Scots, whose passage was paid for by the shipmaster and then their contracts were sold to the highest bidder when they landed in a port.  Sometimes whole families came over this way.  The Pennsylvania Gazette is full of ads from people looking for siblings with whom they had come over but as the families were split up and individuals sold to masters from different parts of the colony, they hadn't seen them in years.  Sometimes they never saw one another again.

Although the average age for ordinary children to be bound as an apprentice to learn a trade was 14, poor children could be bound out as early as 18 months to 3 years of age for periods as long as 18-20 years, or until they reached maturity (usually 21 for males, 18 for females), as evidenced by a list of indentured servants who were bound out under the guidance of the Guardians of the Poor of the City of Philadelphia now housed by the Philadelphia City Archives.  Some of the trades to be learned were weaving, shallop fishing, husbandry (farming), housewifery, cordwaining, tobaccanist, shoemaker, joinery (carpentry), tanning, and curriery (sp?). Sometimes all the indenture says is that the child is to learn to read, write and cipher, or to read, sew, knit, and spin, especially in indentures before 1762.

After that time, the expectation changed to specify the freedom dues as well, such as "Farmer, read, write, cipher, 2 complete suits of apparel, one to be new" or "Read, write, cypher to rule of 3, spade, axe, grubbing hoe, and sickle, freedom".  In the case of Anne Callins who was indentured in 1768 for 15 years to William Moore of West Caln, she was to be trained in "housewifery,to be taught to read, write, and cipher, and sew, knit and spin, and to have the customary freedoms".  Elizabeth Baley in 1770 was bound to Mathew Taylor of Edgmont for 15 years and she was to be taught "housewifery, sew, knit, and spin, to read in the Bible, and write a legible Hand".  Gabriel Stevenson was bound for six years in 1770 to Thomas Swain of Ridley who was to provide Gabriel with 12 months of school six months of which were to be in the last year of his term.  In 1779 Thomas Bubridge (possibly Burbridge) was bound to Edward Horne of Darby and was to learn "the trade of a farmer or fuller, read the Bible, write a legible hand, and cipher as far as the Rule of 3, with the customary dues".  Edward Hoope was bound in 1799 for 3 years to John Jones of Radnor, "to be taught the art & mistery of a mariner".

Undoubtedly, many of these children became like members of the family.  Not surprisingly, some probably opted to bolt at the first opportunity.  There were many advertisements in local papers, primarily the Pennsylvania Gazette, the Pennsylvania Evening Post, and the Virginia Gazette.  These advertisements, while necessarily subjective, often provide a detailed description of facial features, hair color, height, and the clothing the person "had on and took with" him or her.  The clothing descriptions alone give a fascinating look at the wide variety of clothing worn (and stolen) by runaway servants.

Further Reading:

Indentured Servants and Transported Convicts

Gottlieb Mittelberger's Journey to Pennsylvania in the Year 1750

Bailyn, Bernard. Voyagers to the West: A Passage in the Peopling of America on the Eve of the Revolution. Knopf, New York, 1987

Salinger, Sharon V. To Serve Well and Faithfully Labor and Indentured Servants in Pennsylvania, 1682-1800, Cambridge University Press, 1987

Smith, Abbot Emerson. Colonists in Bondage: White Servitude and Convict Labor in America, 1607-1776. Gloucester, Mass., Peter Smith, 1965.

Karen Mullian, co- editor of Had On and Took With Her, Runaway Female Servant Advertisements in the Pennsylvania Evening Post, 1774-1784.

This page was last updated on: February 14, 2017

Copyright© 2003 - 2017 by the Albuquerque Genealogical Society. All rights reserved.

Return to the Top    or   the Quarterly Page