A nasty piece of North American history has come to light concerning white indentured servants. The program “Who Do You Think You Are?” http://www.nbc.com/who-do-you-think-you-are/ has dealt with several cases. Books such as Don Jordan and Michael Walsh’s White Cargo: The Forgotten History of Britain’s White Slavery in America (2008), document the practice. The Irish were a big piece of this ugly history.
For the genealogist it’s almost impossible to not come across servants in the colonial land, court, wills and tax records. Their lives were linked to their masters. It is believed between 1620 and 1775 some 300,000 or two out of every three immigrants to the English colonies arrived in bondage.
Servants were of little value, bought cheap and disposable. They were worth less than an African slave. Whites sold themselves into slavery in hopes of a better life. Early slavery was economic not racial. That came later.
The indentured servant had a contract usually for 4 to 5 years of work, in exchange for an agreed upon amount of acres. The land was held in trust by the owner who bought the right to the indenture at the auction block. If the servant died before the contract was fulfilled the land went to the owner. If a servant violated the contract, by having children (even by the master), marrying or escaping, extra years were added, and the owner received the land. This system benefited few servants, and provided no reason for the master to keep the slave alive.
Typically an indentured servant was escaping poverty, was 15-24 years old, rarely had family and friends indentured with them, lower class, could not select their master and could not marry for their 4-5 year contract. An online database “Immigrants Servants Database”: http://pricegen.com/immigrantservant/search/simple.php is trying to document up to 100,000 servants. The database currently has 22,441 servants documented. Another source is P. William Filby and Mary K. Meyer’s “Passenger and Immigration List Index” which is now a database on www.ancestry.com Even with databases, do not neglect the county records as a primary source.