Term Paper: White Servitude in Pennsylvania

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Indentured Servants

In 1901, Karl Frederick Geiser wrote the book Redemptioners and Indentured Servants of Pennsylvania, to "in the hope of throwing some new light upon an important phase of our Colonial history upon which comparatively little has been written." One hundred years later, Geiser could easily publish his book again, since most people in the United States do not know about servitude during early America except for the African slaves. Terms such as redemptioners, embarkation, debarkation, and even indentured servants are not detailed often, yet this was -- for good or bad -- a major aspect of Colonial history.

When the Colonists came to the New World and saw that the land would yield profitable returns, they tried a number of different ways to entice immigrants, particularly the poor and laboring class, to make the long and expensive trip to America. However, the burden was too great for most individuals. In the mid 1500s, the owners of the large land companies recognized that in order to increase the number of workers they had to offer free transportation. The English government quickly agreed, since they would have fewer unemployed individuals who "threatened to become criminals" (Geiser, 1901, p. 5). This answered one of the major economic problems of the times.

Historians identify two methods of acquiring trans-Atlantic passage through servitude -- "indenture" and "redemption." Today, the term "indenture" is used as a generic form that describes both these terms. These two methods differ depending on whether the immigrant became a contracted servant at embarkation, for indenture, or at debarkation, for redemption. The former individuals, or indentured immigrants, signed contracts pre-voyage and, once arriving in America, were called "servants... whose times are to be disposed of by the captain..." The latter people, because they did not sign a contract until they arrived in America, were often called "passengers" or "freights" who were "willing to serve a reasonable time for their passage (freight) money." Once they signed the servant, these redemptioners were then also called "servants." Although they went by the same name, it is important to distinguish between the two ways of contract signing, which affected the incidence of contracting risk between shipper and servant and the flexibility of contracting between servant and American master (xxx).

The derivation of the term "indentured" is believed to have come from the Middle-English word "endenture," a written agreement, from Anglo-Norman, from endenter, to indent (from the matching notches on multiple copies of the documents); the contract the intended servants signed was copied twice on the same paper. The paper was then torn in half with the worker and the captain each receiving a copy. The ragged edge of the page would only fit exactly together with the other half of similarly ripped paper (Webster Dictionary,). That was proof that the two pieces of paper were parts of the original contract. In this way, the individuals could not alter any of the original terms, such as the number of years of servitude or the freedom due.

This was believed to be true, at least, for the earliest servants who did not have funds to travel and made arrangements with the captains before setting sail. Later, however, other groups became indentured, redemptioners, who had some of the money necessary to make the trip to the Colonies. They agreed to pay the remainder of what was due for the ticket soon after arrival, since many expected to find relatives or friends who would be willing to pay the balance. If that was not possible, they had to work for several years as indentured servants.

By the time that Pennsylvania began using the system of indentured servants in the 1600s, Governor William Penn was already using a variation of the "pay first" design noted above. In order to have enough people to settle his state, he began offering large tracks of land at nominal prices. Fifty acres of land were offered for every servant brought into the colony. In order to compete against the other colonies, which were offering similar enticements, Pennsylvania published pamphlets in various languages and scattered them throughout England and the continent. These had a major impact on immigration (Geiser, 1901, p. 6)

Most likely, a large number of individuals would have thought twice if they had known how horrible the new situation could be as an indentured servant. They knew very little because it was the 17th century, and America was thousands of miles from their homeland. They wanted to believe, as all immigrants did, that in the New World a person could get a second change in life. Shipping agents also lied to them by describing the colonies in very positive terms. The cost of transporting a person to the colonies has been estimated to be 10 pds. While the sale price of an indentured servant often was 30 pds, or more. Making an average profit of about 66% was well worth the lies that were told and printed in pamphlets circulated in England and Western Europe to get people to sign on as indentured servants (ibid).

The presence of servants in Quaker Pennsylvania was nothing new or unusual. William Penn's egalitarianism never made him decry the institution of servitude, nor did he feel he had to explain why he accepted it. Instead, his view was very typical of his rank. Masters were to "mix kindness with authority" and servants were advised: "If thou wilt be a good servant, thou must be true... diligent, careful, trusty.... Such a servant serves God, in serving his master." The governor was forced to explain himself more concretely when the matter of settling laborers in Pennsylvania later arose, and he promised land to the immigrating servants, 50 acres at the end of his service, plus 50 acres to the master, so-called "head land" (Illick, 1976, p. 114).

One of the schemes to entice German immigrants was by using spirits or "soul catchers" (Jernegan, 1931, p. 50) "Newlanders" or "soul-sellers" were a special class of agents, who traveled and down the Rhine Valley and persuaded peasants to sell their belongings and sail to the colonies. They pretended to be rich merchants from Pennsylvania, adorned in costly clothes with ruffles and wigs. Then they would sign an agreement with a merchant in Holland and for a certain fee for each person persuaded to move. They described this new colonial state as a land flowing with "milk and honey," with "gold and silver easily found on the hills," and where servants could become independent and like noblemen. Frequently, the German peasants sold everything they owned and trusted themselves this soul-seller. Many were forced to become servants by indenture, because the excessive charges imposed for transportation from the Rhine Valley to the port of departure used up their small capital (Jones, 1724, p. 36).

Although sometimes the potential servants were fortunate and the crossing only took a month, many times the voyage to the colonies for these new souls was not any better than that for the slaves. Although the ship's average number of passengers was supposed to be approximately 300, the shipmasters wanted to make extra money and would often crowd double that amount onto a small vessel. There would be only six feet by two feet allotted between decks for each adult person, no privacy, the same clothes for four weeks to four months or more, and often lying flat for several days at a time when the ship was being tossed by terrible storms: No ventilation, many people with contagious diseases and some already dead, lying side by side. This, surely, was not milk, honey and gold! A diary entry by the indentured servant John Harrower (1750) described in detail one of these horrible scenes between-decks during a storm.: "There was some sleeping, some daming, some blasting their leggs and thighs, some their liver, lungs, lights, and eyes, and for to make the scene the odder, some curs'd Father, Mother, Sister, Brother." When food was running out, each person would get three ounces of bread a day. www.questia.com/reader/action/gotoDocId/90830177" Mittelberger (1750), an eyewitness, says that the passengers received spoiled biscuits that were "dirty and full of red worms and spiders' nests." When even that was horrible food was lacking, they ate mice and rats.

Mittelberger (1750) explains that hundreds of people died of hunger and misery. Children from newborn to seven rarely survived. He saw 32 little children thrown into the ocean during one voyage. In fact, conditions were frequently so terrible that several colonies passed laws regulating food, the number of passengers to be carried, and care of the sick. Ports such as the one in Philadelphia were constantly exposed to contagious diseases, and legislation was necessary to set up quarantines, inspect vessels, and building pesthouses (Jernegan, 1931, p. 52).

The Irish began coming to the Americas for a variety of reasons, mostly economic. The continuous bad harvests and then the famines that significantly impacted Ireland in the eighteenth century led to a large exodus of Ulstermen. Particularly… [END OF PREVIEW]

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