How can I find out if my ancestor was an indentured servant?

An indentured servant was an an emigrant, typically European, who voluntarily sold their labor in exchange for ship's passage to America; although, in some cases individuals, including children, were strongly coerced or even kidnapped and sold under the indenture system. Contracts of indenture were for a period of 4-7 years, without pay. Those motivated to pay emigrant passage ranged from ship's captains, to merchants and wealthy land owners. Emigrants known as "Redemptioners" were those who negotiated their indenture upon arrival, with little bargaining power. Often referred to as "assisted immigration," indentured servitude figured in the headright system in America: a way of obtaining land in exchange for ship's passage for oneself or another. The term "assisted immigration," meaning passages subsidized or paid for by another person or through an agency, is also used to describe the forced emigration of convicts to America and Australia.

"Social historians estimate that over 75% of Virginia's pre-Revolutionary War settlers financed their voyage through indentured servitude," observes Nathan Murphy in his article, Virtual Jamestown Web Site Helps Genealogists Trace Colonial Immigrant Origins. And, it is said to be so for the better part of the South during Colonial times. Thus, tracing one's ancestry back to the Colonial South might be a first clue to determining if an ancestor was as indentured servant. Indentured servitude effectively ended with the Revolutionary War. Although few passenger lists exist for that period in America, other types of records do exist. Many such records have been compiled and are available online and in print. In addition to the Virtual Jamestown website, previously mentioned, are the excellent works by Peter Wilson Coldham, Bonded Passengers to America, and others.

A expedient way of locating available records is through a LiveRoots.com search, using the keywords "indentured servant," indenture," "assisted emigration," and "immigration," in general. To see all results, be sure to click on "View more matching resources," at the bottom of each results page. In addition, the GenWeekly articles listed below offer information and resources for researching indentured servants and related subjects.

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