Introduction to US History/Life as an Indentured Servant

Type classification: this is an essay resource.
Subject classification: this is a history resource.
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Work by: Aaqib A. (December 2021)



What was life like for an indentured servant in 17th century America?  

Include in your essay what was expected of them, if they lived to complete their indenture, what might the “master” give them as parting gifts?  Why did the system, which looks great on paper, fail when applied to real-life situations?

See "Chapter 3, Section 3.3 Click/Explore Page re: Indentured Servitude" for assistance



An indentured servant was a person who committed to working for a person for a number of years, usually 5-7 years, in exchange for a passage to America, food and shelter (known as "freedom dues"). These servants usually worked in tobacco plantations, themselves becoming tobacco planters, and came from poor backgrounds. Poor people in England were stunned by the opportunity for a new life and freedom and were ready to surrender to such a risk, albeit the harsh conditions they would be put under. The headright system, where if the indentured servants could pay for their trip to America they would be recompensed with land, was an addition to the list of reasons to travel to the Americas. Indentured servants were expected to commit themselves to whatever task the contractor had for them, which usually entailed harsh and tiring work. They were subjected to the contractor's will, therefore they couldn't marry or go against their contractor. If they were to go against their contractor, their duration of service would be increased by a number of years. The situation was no better for females, who were sexually harassed on the job. If they were pregnant, they would be sold like property by the original contractor so they didn't have to pay for extra expenses.

If they were able to serve successfully their time as an indentured servant, they would be given items to prepare them for the New World. This would be a certain amount of money and some new clothes. Many of the immigrants to America consisted of indentured servants (25,000 indentured servants from 1750-1775 entering Maryland), so the enticements to come to the New World took major effect on the low-class English. Although desirable on paper, the indentured servants system did not succeed in the long-term. This is because the tobacco plantations in America required much more labor than what indentured servants provided. Landowners needed workers who were permanently assigned to the hard work of maintaining the fields, which is why landowners turned to slaves rather than indentured servants for this type of work. In addition, this system was misused by "crimps" who would capture individuals who didn't want to become indentured servants and force them into work, selling them off as indentured servants.

The life of an indentured servant, although short, wasn't exactly ideal. They were at the mercy of their contractors. If they were able to stick through the 5-7 years they had to work, they were awarded gifts to prepare themselves for their future. Although indentured servants seemed like a system that could've worked, it was actually the start of the acceptance of racial slavery. Since the servants were temporary workers, subsequently not enough to fulfill the workload of tobacco plantations, and the indentured system was abused quite often, landlords switched to slaves - who were permanent servants.


  • "From These Beginnings" The European Discovery, Paige Smith, accessed Dec. 19, 2021.
  • "US History" OpenStax Textbooks Chapter 3.3, P. Scott Corbetta, accessed Dec. 19, 2021.