Conditions of Indenture in Alexander’s Time

Page numbers are from Russell Menard’s Economy and Society in Early Colonial Maryland (Garland Publishing, 1985), unless otherwise noted. See Sources for more. 

  • Most indentured servants in 17th c. Maryland were young men and boys. A 22 year-old immigrant would live about 18-23 years (pp 68, 135). As a man already in his early 40’s on arrival, Alexander Magruder was a great exception.
  • Most were probably from “middling” families–yeomen, husbandmen, artisans. They differed from free settlers primarily in being unable to pay their own passage. (pp 68, 71)
  • In later generations, more came from the lower classes.
  • Alexander and others transported as prisoners of war were the exception, not the rule, as were transported criminals.
  • Few had formal education and only about half could write their name. It is possible that some could read who could not write. The colony’s public affairs were conducted orally. Alexander Magruder appears to have been fully literate. (p 58)
  • Servants probably worked 10 to 14 hours a day, six days a week, as specified by English law. (p 69)
  • Servants could be sold, and faced severe punishment for running away (p 69). Historians’ analyses of how many ran away–and where and why–vary.
  • Servants’ rights included adequate food, clothing, and shelter, Sundays off, and the right to protest ill-treatment in the courts. They were subject to corporal punishment. Surviving records indicate few cases of abuse, though some cases that do survive are extreme. (p 69)
  • No actual documents of indentures survive. A model document from the 1635 promotional publication A Relation of Maryland, specifies that the master was to pay the servant’s passage, provide food, lodging, clothing, and other necessities. At the expiration the indenture, he was to provide clothing, food for a year, and 50 acres of land. (Menard p 69, or read the document in Narratives of Early Maryland p 99)
  • By a 1640 act of the Maryland Assembly, at the end of his term a servant was entitled by law to “one good cloth suite of Keirsey or Broadcloth a Shift of white linen one pair of Stockins and Shoes two hoes one axe 3 barrels of Corne and fifty acres of land five whereof at least to be plantable.” (p 70)
  • Masters did not give their servants 50 acres of their own land, but only a “headright” to 50 acres of uncleared, unimproved land–typically valued at a mere 100 pounds of tobacco. To make use of his headright, a man newly “come out of his time” had to locate the 50 acres, pay a surveyor, and then a clerk’s fee to register his ownership (p 70). Headrights could be, and often were, sold. Most who entered indenture never acquired land.
  • The usual term of service was 5 years, but shorter terms could be assigned to someone with artisan skills. Earlier release also could be purchased, and such arrangements sometimes obligated the servant to continue providing some services to his former master. (p 70-71) See my page on Alexander for my beliefs about why he served a much shorter term.
  • In the first generation, only about half of indentured servants survived their indenture. Most who died, died of disease–cholera in summer, pneumonia in winter. The death rate among newly arrived settlers was only a little lower than the catastrophic death rate among Natives.
  • “Seasoning” was the period after arrival, when a settler faced a high likelihood of death. Seasoned men were more valuable as servants, having proved their ability to survive.
  • Edmund S. Morgan has argued that the high mortality rate increased opportunities for those who did survive. Menard finds too little evidence to support this theory. (p 177)
  • In any case, those who did survive indenture could expect to become substantial members of society. Once this early generation secured their places in the food chain, opportunities for later arrivals narrowed.
  • Menard studied 137 indentured servants who arrived in Maryland between 1648 and 1652. Just over half appeared later in the records as free men–though 5 of those died soon after completing their indenture, and another 11 vanished from the records soon after. Of the 56 remaining, most became small, land-holding planters, holding on average between 50 and 400 acres. (p 174)
  • Alexander Magruder is named by Menard as one of just 3 in this group who owned more than 1000 acres when they died. (p 174-75)
  • Around half of those who did not acquire land nevertheless established families and participated in local government. (p 175)

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