My wife and I attend a Lipscomb University Seniors Program course on Thursday afternoons, “The American South: Myth or Reality”. Lipscomb offers a number of these Lipscomb Lifelong Learning courses that meet once a week for five weeks. So far I have learned a number of interesting facts, among them are:
- In 1865, only 250,000 of the 6 million individuals living in The South owned a large plantation with slaves. Most of the others were either slaves or subsistence Yeoman farmers
- In 1776 a whopping 80% of everyone living in America was an Indentured Servant or a slave.
When the country was founded, in most states, only white men with real property (land) or sufficient wealth for taxation were permitted to vote. Freed slaves could vote in four states. Unpropertied white men, women, and all other people of color were denied the voting franchise. At the time of the American Civil War, most white men were allowed to vote, whether or not they owned property. Literacy tests, poll taxes, and even religious tests were used in various places, and most white women, people of color, and Native Americans still could not vote.
Farmers, planters, merchants,and shopkeepers in the American colonies found it very difficult to hire free workers, primarily because it was so easy for potential workers to set up their own farms. Consequently, a common solution was to transport a young worker from England or Germany, who would work for several years to pay off the debt of their travel costs. During the indenture period the servants were not paid wages, but were provided with food, accommodation, clothing and training. The indenture document specified how many years the servant would be required to work, after which they would be free. Terms of indenture ranged from one to seven years with typical terms of four or five years. In southern New England, a variant form of indentured servitude, which controlled the labor of Native Americans through an exploitative debt-peonage system, developed in the late 17th century and continued through to the period of the American Revolution.
Not all European servants were sent willingly. Several instances of kidnapping for transportation to the Americas are recorded and this falls more clearly into the bracket of “white slave“. Whilst these white slaves were often indentured in the same way as their willing counterparts it is an important distinction to make. An illustrative example of such a kidnap story is that of Peter Williamson (1730-1799). As historian Richard Hofstadter pointed out, “it remains true that a certain small part of the white colonial population of America was brought by force, and a much larger portion came in response to deceit and misrepresentation on the part of the spirits [recruiting agents].”
Most white immigrants arrived in Colonial America as indentured servants, usually as young men and women from Britain or Germany, under the age of 21. Typically, the father of a teenager would sign the legal papers, and work out an arrangement with a ship captain, who would not charge the father any money. The captain would transport the indentured servants to the American colonies, and sell their legal papers to someone who needed workers. At the end of the indenture, the young person was given a new suit of clothes and was free to leave. Many immediately set out to begin their own farms, while others used their newly acquired skills to pursue a trade.
In the 17th century, nearly two-thirds of settlers to the New World from the British Isles came as indentured servants. Given the high death rate, many servants did not live to the end of their terms. In the 18th and early 19th century, numerous Europeans traveled to the colonies as redemptioners, a form of indenture.
It has been estimated that the redemptioners comprised almost 80% of the total British and continental emigration to America prior to the Revolution. Indentured servants were a separate category from bound apprentices. The latter were American-born children, usually orphans or from an impoverished family who could not care for them. They were under the control of courts and were bound out to work as an apprentice until a certain age. Two famous bound apprentices were Benjamin Franklin who illegally fled his apprenticeship to his brother, and Andrew Johnson, who later became President of the United States.
George Washington used indentured servants; in April 1775, he offered a reward for the return of two runaway white servants.
My Mother experienced being indentured as a small girl at age 11 years. She was the eldest of three children in a small farm family at the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains in the “No-man’s Land” between Poland and Czechoslovakia. The family lived very much like the Mountain People of the Appalachian Mountains, they belonged to a tribe called Lemko’s.
My Mother’s tribe was called Lemko. These were their dance costumes. I have seen similar embroidery in stores in Vienna and Hungary is famous for embroidered clothing.
Mother and father, with children, returned to Europe from the United States after working the Pennsylvania Coal Mines and saving enough money to buy a small farm in the Carpathian hills. The children were born in the United States and thus were U.S. citizens.
Foothills of Carpathian Mountains look much like the Appalachians
Then a major event changed their lives, the father died.
My Mother, the eldest child, was selected to be sold into Indentured Servitude until she was 18 years old. At 18 she returned to the U.S. as a steamship passenger in steerage. All her life she felt she had been abandoned by her mother. The only photo of her mother my mother ever kept was an image of the old lady’s dead body in a wood coffin outside their farm shack.
Many different forms of slavery existed throughout the world and an Indentured Servant was yet another category of slave that existed in the United States.