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Working Their Way Over

To poor men or women in Europe from the 1620s until the 1770s, America sounded like a land of opportunity. But the cost of a ship's passage was high, and few could afford to pay their way.


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To poor men or women in Europe from the 1620s until the 1770s, America sounded like a land of opportunity. But the cost of a ship's passage was high, and few could afford to pay their way.

In America at the same time, there were well-off European families who needed servants. Because there were so few Europeans in the colonies, it was hard to find help.

Ship's company agents and private recruiters, impressed emigrants with promises of land and other benefits for several years of servitude. For an immigrant to become an indentured servant to a wealthy family in return for his or her passage solved both problems. An "indenture" was a contract obliging an immigrant to work for a family—without a salary—for a specified number of years in exchange for the cost of ship's passage. Most of these contracts bound an adult indentured servant from 15 to 25 years old, most of whom were male, to four to seven years of service, but teenagers had to work without salary until they turned 21. This practice was related to apprenticeship, in which a youth was assigned to work with a master in a certain trade and, in return, the master taught him the skills of the trade.

Although the average age for ordinary children to become indentured servants 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–according to a list of indentured servants under the guidance of the Guardians of the Poor of the City of Philadelphia in the city's archives.

Undoubtedly, many of these children became like members of the family. Not surprisingly, many ran away. There were many advertisements in local papers which provided 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 by runaway servants. Punishment for runaways was severe–a week's punishment for being absent one day, a month's for week, and a half year for a month.

Gottleib Mittelberger was an indentured servant. He came to Pennsylvania from Germany in 1750. According to his account, the voyage from Cowes, England, took seven weeks. Unfortunate passengers, like Mittelberger, suffered from fumes, vomiting, sea-sickness, fever, dysentery, scurvy, mouth-rot and such, all of which came from sharply salted meat and foul drinking water. Children under seven rarely survived these voyages.

When the ships arrived in America, only those who had either paid for their voyage or had made arrangements for payment were allowed to disembark. All others had to remain on board until the ship's captain held an auction at which each servant would be offered to the highest bidder. The sick naturally fared the worst, for bidders purchased healthy ones first.

Many parents had to sell or trade away their children in order to leave the ship. Since they didn't know to whom their children were going, they often didn't see them for many years after–if ever. Often families were completely separated, being sold to different buyers. And when a husband or wife died at sea, after the ship had made more than half of its voyage, the survivor had to pay or serve not only for himself or herself, but also for the deceased.

When both parents died at sea, their children, especially when they were young and had nothing, had to serve for their parents' passage. When they reached 21, they were given a new suit of clothes, and if so stipulated, a man also got a horse and a woman a cow. In Pennsylvania, servants also got land along with their freedom.

Generally speaking, servants couldn't 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.

Source Information: Everyday Genealogy, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2006.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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