Condition of Many Early Immigrants,
"Indenture" is a term from English Common Law which, in the 17th century, generally meant: "under contract". Indentured servants (or laborers under contract) were commonplace in Colonial Virginia during that period. Historians estimate that:
- About 70% of migrants from England who came between 1630-1660 were indentured servants;
- Most indentured servants were young, 15-25, and single;
- Males servants outnumbered female servants;
- Indentures were typically 4-7 years in duration;
- Trade in indentured servants peaked about 1620-1680, but lasted until the 1770s.
According to the Historians:
Indentured servants were often scorned in their time as beggars and riffraff. In reality they probably represented a broad spectrum of working people from English society. They included the desperately poor (the majority) and the middle class. Most of them were probably farmers or unskilled laborers during the early years.
Tobacco quickly became the principal source of cash in early Virginia and tobacco farming demanded a large and ever expanding work force, a workforce which could not be provided from within the colony. Ergo, English entrepreneurs were encouraged to recruit large numbers of laborers from England to the tobacco plantations. Men, women, and sometimes children signed a contract with a "master" to serve a term of 4 to 7 years. In exchange for their service, indentured servants received their passage paid from England, and food, clothing and shelter once they arrived in the colony.
When the contract had expired, the servant was paid "freedom dues" and allowed to leave the plantation. Freedom dues usually consisted of corn, tools and clothing.
During the time of his/her indenture, a servant was considered his master's personal property and the servant's contract could be bartered, inherited or assigned. While a servant, a person could not marry or have children. A master's permission was needed to leave the plantation, to perform work for someone else, or to receive money for personal use. An "unruly" servant was punished by whipping for improper behavior.
Labor was hard and living conditions were generally harsh for indentured servants. Many servants had difficulty adjusting to the climate and native diseases of southeast (Tidewater) Virginia, and many servants did not live to receive their freedom. Runaway servants, of which there were many, were punished by increasing their time of service if they were captured.
Conditions changed in Virginia, however, and, by 1700, recruitment of tobacco plantation labor from England was no longer as important due to the increasing availability of African slaves for the harsh plantation work. At that point, English artisans and skilled labor became important and the nature of the indentured servant trade from England changed. Later in the 1700s, England transported convicts, both men and women, to Virginia to be sold to plantation owners as another form of labor.