The English Colonial records of North America and the Caribbean have unfamiliar terms referencing the European population. Confusion arises because we have no context for the lives of the population in the 1600s and 1700s.
This was a world where people were graded economically. Racism was based on social status, not skin color. The economy of colony and wealth building was graded from the few at the top to those in bondage at the bottom. Under this system, slaves (servants, apprentices) could be African, European, Native American or from the Indian Sub-Continent (called East India Indians).
Four Categories of Whites in Colonial North America
There were four main categories for the incoming Europeans, and will be found in court, land, and church registers. However, it is not always clear what is inferred. Just be aware that terminology changes by locality and time period.
- White Freeman Who Owned Property: Is defined as a white male over 21 who owned real or personal property of a particular value. He was endorsed by a majority of other Freemen in the community. He had the right to vote and pay taxes.
- White Freeman: A free male over 21, not bound, was considered a White Freeman. In the Southern colonies it was freed slaves or anyone who voted or paid taxes.
- White Apprentices: A broad term applied to bondage, such as indentured servant, redemptioner, free-willer, and apprentices. Terms such as apprentice and servant, obscured what the terms of bondage may have really meant.
- White Slave: This is a person who was bound to a master. Chattel slavery, which was for a lifetime, grew out of the indentured servant system. Slaves could be prisoners, religious or political dissidents, orphans or social outcasts. In the English colonies, African slavery would replace European slavery.
Whites could move up from one grade to the next one. For example, an indentured servant or slave can become a freeman and eventually a landed freeman owning slaves.
This was their world and their values. If you judge them by our standards, you may miss what a particular record is trying to convey.
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