Indentured Servant Richard Frethorne Laments His Condition in Virginia Introduction

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Indentured Servant Richard Frethorne Laments His Condition in Virginia

Like many young men hoping for new opportunities in the colonies, Richard Frethorne agreed to work as indentured servant in Virginia in the 1620s. Indentured servants were people, often poor, who worked for up to seven years in exchange for the cost of their passage from England to the colonies, as well as clothing, room and board during their term of service. In the seventeenth century indentured servants—not slaves from sub-Saharan Africa—formed the primary labor force in the southern colonies, where the work on plantations could be physically grueling. At any given time, up to seventy-five percent of the entire white population was indentured, and it is estimated that approximately one-half to two-thirds of all the European colonists to the Chesapeake region arrived as indentured servants during the seventeenth century. Like slaves, their contracts could be sold; unlike slaves, indentured servants would be free at the end of their term of service, many hoping to acquire the land that was often promised to them. In his 1623 letter to his parents in England, Frethorne describes the appalling, near inhuman conditions under which these peoples served and existed. With an extremely high death rate at times topping 60 percent, many did not live to see their dream of becoming independent yeoman farmers.

Loving and kind father and mother, my most humble duty remembered to you hoping in God of your good health, as I my self am at the making hereof, this is to let you understand that I your Child am in a most heavy Case by reason of the nature of the Country is such that it Causeth much sickness, as the scurvy and the bloody flux [dysentery], and divers other diseases, which maketh the body very poor, and Weak, and when we are sick there is nothing to Comfort us; for since I came out of the ship, I never ate any thing but peas and loblollie (that is water gruel) as for deer or venison I never saw any since I came into this land, there is indeed some fowl, but We are not allowed to go and get it, but must Work hard both early and late for a mess of water gruel, and a mouthful of bread, and beef, a mouthful of bread for a penny loaf must serve for 4 men which is most pitiful if you did know as much as I, when people cry out day, and night, Oh that they were in England without their limbs and would not care to lose any limb to be in England again, yea though they beg from door to door, for we live in fear of the Enemy every hour, yet we have had a Combat with them on the Sunday before Shrovetide, and we took two alive, and make slaves of them… . [W]e are fain to get other men to plant with us, and yet we are but 32 to fight against 3000 if they should Come, and the nighest help that We have is ten miles of us, and when the rogues overcame this place last, they slew 80 persons. How then shall we doe for we lie even in their teeth, they may easily take us but that God is merciful, and can save with few as well as with many; as he showed to Gilead and like Gilead's soldiers if they lapped water, we drink water which is but Weak, and I have nothing to Comfort me, nor there is nothing to be gotten here but sickness, and death, except that one had money to lay out in some things for profit; But I have nothing at all, no not a shirt to my backe, but two Rags nor no Clothes, but one poor suit, nor but one pair of shoes, but one pair of stockings, but one Cap, but two bands, my Cloak is stolen by one of my own fellows… . I am not half a quarter so strong as I was in England, and all is for want of victuals, for I do protest unto you, that I have eaten more in a day at home than I have allowed me here for a Week. You have given more than my day's allowance to a beggar at the door… . [I]f you love me you will redeem me suddenly, for which I do entreat and beg, and if you cannot get the merchants to redeem me for some little money then for God's sake get a gathering or entreat some good folks to lay out some little sum of money, in meal, and Cheese and butter, and beef, any eating meat will yield great profit, … and look whatsoever you send me be it never so much, look what I make of it. I will deal truly with you. I will send it over, and beg the profit to redeem me, and if I die before it Come I have entreated Goodman Jackson to send you the worth of it, who hath promised he will. If you send you must direct your letter to Goodman Jackson, at James Town, a Gunsmith… . Good Father do not forget me, but have mercy and pity my miserable Case. I know if you did but see me you would weep to see me, for I have but one suit, but it is a strange one, it is very well guarded, wherefore for God's sake pity me. I pray you to remember my love to all my friends, and kindred, I hope all my Brothers and sisters are in good health, and as for my part I have set down my resolution that certainly Will be, that is, that the Answer of this letter will be life or death to me, there good Father send as soon as you can, and if you send me any thing let this be the mark.


Martin's Hundred

Source Citation:

"Indentured Servant Richard Frethorne Laments His Condition in Virginia." The Records of the Virginia Company of London, III. Ed. Susan Myra Kingsbury. Vol. III. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1933. 550-551. CourseReader. Detroit: Gale, 2010.


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