"Servants and Slaves in Virginia," an excerpt from The History and Present State of Virginia Reprinted in Major Problems in American Colonial History
Published in 1993
Edited by Karen Ordahl Kupperman
"I can't forbear affirming, that the work of their Servants, and Slaves, is no other than what every common Freeman do's."
One of the first colonies to experience a widespread need for workers was Virginia. By 1612, after five years of extreme hardship, the Jamestown settlers realized they could not get rich from gold and silver (see "The Founding of Jamestown"). They realized that if they wanted to remain in North America they would have to rely on local natural resources (materials supplied by nature, such as minerals and plant life). They also had to turn a profit for the Virginia Company, a group of private investors who financed the venture.
In order to meet these goals they needed to grow products that could be traded for English-made goods. The early colonists therefore began searching for a staple (main) crop they could produce with their own labor and use as the basis of their economy. In 1614 John Rolfe (1585–1622), one of the original Jamestown settlers, experimented with a West Indian type of tobacco and found that he could grow a crop of high enough quality to fetch good prices in England. (Tobacco is a broad-leaf plant that is grown in warm climates. In the seventeenth century it was harvested, dried, and shredded primarily for smoking in pipes. Native Americans had long been usingtobacco in this manner.) Tobacco was in great demand in Europe, and within a few years Virginia was in the midst of a tobacco boom that soon expanded into neighboring Maryland.
The flourishing economy caused another problem: a severe labor shortage. Workers were needed to plant, harvest, and process the tobacco grown on huge plantations in Virginia and Maryland. Soon a similar need for workers existed in the rich farmlands of Pennsylvania and in developing industries in New England and the mid-Atlantic colonies (New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware). Taking advantage of a crisis caused by low wages and overpopulation in England, employers used various strategies to encourage immigrants (people who settle in a foreign country) to take jobs in the colonies. Laborers came by the thousands to work for farmers, planters, bakers, blacksmiths, bricklayers, butchers, chair makers, coopers, masons, plasterers, potters, tailors, weavers, and wheelwrights (people who build and repair wheels).
By the early 1700s laborers comprised the majority of new arrivals in America, and most of them were indentured servants (immigrants who signed a contract to work for a certain length of time; also called bound laborers). For instance, three-quarters of English arrivals in the Chesapeake region (Virginia and Maryland, which border the Chesapeake Bay) came as bound laborers. According to some estimates, one-half to two-thirds of all Europeans who traveled to the colonies were committed to some form of labor contract. As many as fifty thousand convicts served out sentences of seven to fourteen years as indentured servants.
Until the early 1700s most indentured servants were English men and women, who signed a contract to work for an employer for four to seven years. Pennsylvania farmers and Maryland and Virginia plantation owners relied on indentured servants to plant and harvest their crops. Historians suggest the indenture system may have been created specifically to fill labor needs in America, since there was no similar arrangement in England. Indentured servitude may have been a combination of the traditional English practices of apprenticeship (learning a trade while working without pay for a master craftsman) and short-term agricultural employment. The indenture system was advantageous to both the laborer and the employer (also called the master). During the contract period the servant received several benefits, including free passage to America, shelter, food, clothing, and no hard labor on Sunday. Upon completion of a contract, the servant was typically given a suit of clothing or a dress, a few barrels of corn, and as much as sixty acres of land. Many were also awarded extra items called "freedom dues," which were determined according to gender. A man might receive a horse, a gun, or tools, and a woman would be given a cow or a spinning wheel.
In return the employer not only was assured a work force but he could also increase his land holdings. For each servant he brought to the colony he was granted a tract (wide area) of land, which was known as a headright. Perhaps most important for the employer, an indentured servant was an affordable investment. Tobacco planters, for example, needed a large number of workers to increase production on their plantations. One possible source of labor was African slaves, who had been imported from the Caribbean since 1619, but they were too expensive (a slave could cost three times as much as an indentured servant). Planters at first tried to use Native Americans as workers, but the experiment ended in disaster. Native Americans either resisted forced labor or they died of European diseases while in captivity.
Indentured servitude was attractive to immigrants because they had a chance to improve their lives in America. But the road to success was not easy, and they encountered many difficulties. Servants could be subjected to harsh conditions and physical abuse. Tobacco planters were mainly concerned with making a profit, so they required both men and women servants to work long hours at exhausting tasks. Since a master had the right to sell a contract, a servant could be obligated to a different master for the rest of the term. An employer could also extend a contract if a servant ran away or became pregnant. In spite of strict laws, servants were frequently beaten, given an inadequate diet, and provided virtually no medical care. High death rates in some areas meant that many indentured servants—forty percent in Maryland and Virginia—died before they could complete their contracts.
During the height of the tobacco boom, in the 1650s, nearly fifty percent of freed servants started farms on the rapidly expanding Virginia frontier. Some took as long as twelve years to become independent farmers, but they managed to realize their dreams of a better life in the New World (European term for North America and South America) Many also achieved a higher social status because they joined a small group of landowners who had the right to vote and exercise other privileges of citizenship. Nevertheless an equal number of freed servants could not afford to start farms or improve their social condition. Unable to save money during servitude, they could not pay surveyors' fees, register their land, and buy equipment. (Surveyors measure the land.) Most therefore had to continue working as servants. By the mid-1700s even fewer servants could improve their circumstances because less land was available.
Another problem was that males far outnumbered females—in some areas there were six men for each woman. The reason for this was that employers preferred male servants who could do heavy work such as clearing the land, cultivating the soil, and building houses and barns. Women were usu ally household servants, so they were a luxury that could be afforded only by the wealthiest employers. The imbalance between men and women meant that few servants married and had families, especially in the Chesapeake region (Virginia and Maryland). Women sometimes benefitted from this situation, however, since they had a choice of men and therefore had better prospects of getting married. Yet family life was deeply affected by the high death rate—more than two-thirds of all marriages lasted fewer than ten years. Remarriage became quite common, over time producing a new kind of family with half-brothers and half-sisters and step-parents and stepchildren. At the same time, twenty percent of servants' children were orphaned by age twelve and many lived with only one parent. As a result, special courts were established to oversee the care of children without parents, placing them with guardians or in orphanages (group homes).
At the turn of the eighteenth century slaves began outnumbering indentured servants on southern plantations. By this time slaves cost only slightly more than indentured servants, and they could be purchased for life rather for a certain number of years. This change happened because of resourceful marketing; Caribbean slave traders had successfully promoted the benefits of slave labor for producing such staple crops as tobacco in the Chesapeake and rice in Carolina. Although slavery was the main form of labor used in the South, it did not cause the elimination of the indentured servant practice. Planters relied on both white indentured servants and African slaves, who usually worked together. Robert Beverley (1673–1722), a Virginia planter, described this situation in "Servants and Slaves in Virginia," which is part of his book The History and Present State of Virginia.
Things to Remember While Reading "Servants and Slaves in Virginia":
- Beverley was a prominent Virginia plantation owner and government official. Perceiving the need for an accurate history of the colony, he published The History and Present State of Virginia in 1705—nearly a century after the founding of Virginia. The book was such a success that it was reprinted several times, attracting many immigrants to the colony. Keep in mind that Beverley intended "Servants and Slaves in Virginia" as a kind of "advertisement" to recruit indentured servants. Therefore he made an effort to place the duties, laws, and treatment of slaves and servants in a positive light.
- Beverley was careful to note that "Sufficient Distinction" was made between white female servants and black female slaves. White women were "rarely or never put to work in the Ground." That is, they did not perform such tasks as cultivating the soil or planting crops. To discourage mistreatment of women servants, the law required that a planter pay the highest taxes on white women he used for work in the fields, whereas he would pay no taxes on those who did other work such as household tasks. A woman slave, however, commonly worked in the fields, and the planter paid the same amount of tax on a woman slave whether she worked outside or indoors.
- Beverley was troubled by the fact that in England "Service of this Country" (servitude in America) was rumored to be "strangely cruel, and severe." He was determined to set the record straight, claiming that servants and slaves did not have to work any harder than a freedman (freed servant) or an overseer (supervisor). In fact, he wrote, that slaves in Virginia probably were forced to work less than farmhands and laborers in England.
- Beverley listed twelve Virginia laws that protected servants and required their masters to treat them "as tenderly as possible." In general, the laws gave servants court protection from mistreatment and contract violation, rights to personal property, guarantee of freedom dues, disability rights, and a grant of land.
"Servants and Slaves in Virginia"
Their Servants, they distinguish by the Names of Slaves for Life, and Servants for a time.
Slaves are the Negroes, and their Posterity, following the condition of the Mother, according to the Maxim, partus sequitur ventrem They are call'd Slaves, in respect of the time of their Servitude, because it is for Life.
Servants, are those which serve only for a few years, according to the time of their Indenture, or the Custom of the Country. The Custom of the Country takes place upon such as have no Indentures. The Law in this case is, that if such Servants be under Nineteen years of Age, they must be brought into Court, to have their Age adjudged; and from the Age they are judg'd to be of, they must serve until theyreach four and twenty: But if they be adjudged upwards of Nineteen, they are then only to be Servants for the term of five Years.
The Male-Servants, and Slaves of both Sexes, are imployed together in Tilling and Manuring the Ground, in Sowing and Planting Tobacco, Corn. . . . Some Distinction indeed is made between them in their Cloaths, and Food; but the Work of both, is no other than what the Overseers, the Freemen, and the Planters themselves do.
Sufficient Distinction is also made between the Female-Servants, and Slaves; for a White Woman is rarely or never put to work in the Ground [in the field], if she be good for any thing else: And to Discourage all Planters from using any Women so, their Law imposes the heaviest Taxes upon Female-Servants working in the Ground, while it suffers all other white Women to be absolutely exempted: Whereas on the other hand, it is a common thing to work a Woman Slave out of Doors; nor does the Law make any dis tinction in her Taxes, whether her Work be Abroad [in other places], or at Home.
Because I have heard how strangely cruel, and severe, the Service of this Country [servitude in America] is represented in some parts of England; I can't forbear affirming, that the work of their Servants, and Slaves, is no other than what every common Freeman do's. Neither is any Servant requir'd to do more in a Day, than his Overseer. And I can assure you with a great deal of Truth, that generally their Slaves are not worked near so hard, nor so many Hours in a Day, as the Husbandmen, and Day-Labourers in England. An Overseer is a Man, that having served his time, has acquired the Skill and Character of an experienced Planter, and is therefore intrusted with the Direction of the Servants and Slaves.
But to compleat this account of Servants, I shall give you a short Relation of the care their Laws take, that they be used as tenderly as possible.
By the Laws of their Country
- All Servants whatsoever, have their Complaints heard without Fee, or Reward; but if the Master be found Faulty, the charge of the Complaint is cast upon him, otherwise the business is done ex Officio.
- Any Justice of Peace may receive the Complaint of a Servant, and order every thing relating thereto, till the next County-Court, where it will be finally determin'd.
- All Masters are under the Correction, and Censure of the County-Courts, to provide for their Servants, good and wholsome Diet, Clothing, and Lodging.
- They are always to appear, upon the first Notice given of the Complaint of their Servants, otherwise to forfeit the Service of them, until they do appear.
- All Servants Complaints are to be receiv'd at any time in Court, without Process, and shall not be delay'd for want of Form; but the Merits of the Complaint must be immediately inquir'd into by the Justices; if the Master cause any delay therein, the Court may remove such Servants, if they see Cause, until the Master will come to Tryal.
- If a Master shall at any time disobey an Order of Court, made upon any Complaint of a Servant; the Court is impower'd to remove such Servant forthwith to another Master, who will be kinder; Giving to the former Master the produce only, (after Fees deducted) of what such Servants shall be sold for by Publick Outcry.
- If a Master should be so cruel, as to use his Servant ill [mistreat his servant], that is faln Sick, or Lame in his Service, and thereby render'd unfit for Labour, he must be remov'd by the Church-Wardens out of the way of such Cruelty, and boarded in some good Planters House, till the time of his Freedom, the charge of which must be laid before the next County-Court, which has power to levy the same from time to time, upon the Goods and Chattels of the Master; After which, the charge of such Boarding is to come upon the Parish in General.
- All hired Servants are intituled to these Priviledges.
- No Master of a Servant, can make a new Bargain for Service, or other Matter with his Servant, without the privity and consent of a Justice of Peace, to prevent the Master's Over-reaching, or scareing such Servant into an unreasonable Complyance.
- The property of all Money and Goods sent over thither to Servants, or carry'd in with them; is reserv'd to themselves, and remain intirely at their disposal.
- Each Servant at his Freedom, receives of his Master fifteen Bushels of Corn, (which is sufficient for a whole year) and two new Suits of Cloaths, both Linnen and Woollen; and then becomes as free in all respects, and as much intituled to the Liberties, and Priviledges of the Country, as any other of the Inhabitants or Natives are.
- Each Servant has then also a Right to take up fifty Acres of Land, where he can find any unpatented: But that is no great Privilege, for any one may have as good a right for a piece of Eight.
This is what the Laws prescribe in favour of Servants, by which you may find, that the Cruelties and Severities imputed to that Country, are an unjust Reflection. For no People more abhor the thoughts of such Usage, than the Virginians, nor take more precaution to prevent it.
What happened next . . .
During the eighteenth century indentured servants continued to be imported into the Chesapeake region, especially from Ireland. Manufacturing activity in the northern colonies also sparked the need of additional skilled workers like coopers, tanners, weavers, shipbuilders, printers, and clerks. In New England this demand was met through the local population, but the middle colonies (New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware) continued to rely on indentured servants. Almost one hundred thousand were imported from the British Isles (England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales) in the period of 1700–75, while another thirty-five thousand came from Germany. About half of all servants went to Pennsylvania, which became the main destination in the eighteenth century.
Did you know . . .
- Immigrant workers frequently arrived in America as redemptioners. These laborers were similar to indentured servants in that they agreed to work for a specific period in return for transatlantic passage. The difference was that redemptioners arranged a contract once they arrived in the colonies rather than agreeing to terms before beginning the trip. They could not leave the ships, however, until they found a colonist who was willing to pay for their voyage in return for labor. Whereas most indentured servants were unmarried men and women from England, redemptioners were usually families from Germany. In some cases an entire family would commit to a labor contract, or parents would obligate a child or children in return for payment of the family's passage to America.
- Most Africans were slaves, but many were also indentured servants. Black indentured servitude was prevalent in all colonies, especially in the North, and servants were even able to gain their freedom. In 1760 there were two thousand freed slaves (two to three percent of the African American population) in Virginia, and in the North about ten percent of the total African American population were freedmen (in Connecticut the figure was over twenty percent).
- Some women servants, blessed with exceptional health, married three or four times. The scarcity of women meant that many female servants did not have to complete their indenture, if an acceptable suitor was prepared to buy out their remaining period of service.
For more information
"Gottlieb Mittelberger, On the Misfortune of Indentured Servants" in Documents Relevant to the United States Before 1700. http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Forum/9061//USA/colonial/be... Available September 30, 1999.
Innes, Stephen, ed. Work and Labor in Early America. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.
Kupperman, Karen Ordahl, ed. Major Problems in American Colonial History. Lexington, Mass.: D. C. Heath, 1993, pp. 98–100.
Middleton, Richard. Colonial America: A History, 1585–1776. Second edition. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers, 1996, pp. 112–13, 147–48, 224–25, 332–34.
Smith, Carter, ed. Daily Life: A Sourcebook on Colonial America. Brookfield, Conn.: Millbrook Press, 1991.