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Indentured Servitude


Indentured servants first arrived in America in the decade following the settlement of Jamestown by the Virginia Company in 1607.

The idea of indentured servitude was born of a need for cheap labor. The earliest settlers soon realized that they had lots of land to care for, but no one to care for it. With passage to the Colonies expensive for all but the wealthy, the Virginia Company developed the system of indentured servitude to attract workers. Indentured servants became vital to the colonial economy.

The timing of the Virginia colony was ideal. The Thirty Year's War had left Europe's economy depressed, and many skilled and unskilled laborers were without work. A new life in the New World offered a glimmer of hope; this explains how one-half to two-thirds of the immigrants who came to the American colonies arrived as indentured servants.

Servants typically worked four to seven years in exchange for passage, room, board, lodging and freedom dues. While the life of an indentured servant was harsh and restrictive, it wasn't slavery. There were laws that protected some of their rights. But their life was not an easy one, and the punishments meted out to people who wronged were harsher than those for non-servants. An indentured servant's contract could be extended as punishment for breaking a law, such as running away, or in the case of female servants, becoming pregnant.

For those that survived the work and received their freedom package, many historians argue that they were better off than those new immigrants who came freely to the country. Their contract may have included at least 25 acres of land, a year's worth of corn, arms, a cow and new clothes. Some servants did rise to become part of the colonial elite, but for the majority of indentured servants that survived the treacherous journey by sea and the harsh conditions of life in the New World, satisfaction was a modest life as a freeman in a burgeoning colonial economy.

In 1619 the first black Africans came to Virginia. With no slave laws in place, they were initially treated as indentured servants, and given the same opportunities for freedom dues as whites. However, slave laws were soon passed – in Massachusetts in 1641 and Virginia in 1661 –and any small freedoms that might have existed for blacks were taken away.

As demands for labor grew, so did the cost of indentured servants. Many landowners also felt threatened by newly freed servants demand for land. The colonial elite realized the problems of indentured servitude. Landowners turned to African slaves as a more profitable and ever-renewable source of labor and the shift from indentured servants to racial slavery had begun.


3 class periods of 45 minutes each

1 class period of 90 minutes to write persuasive essay
National Social Studies Standard:

United States Era 2: Colonization and Settlement (1585-1763)

Standard 1: Why the Americas attracted Europeans, why they brought enslaved Africans to their colonies, and how Europeans struggled for control of North America and the Caribbean. 

Standard 3: How the values and institutions of European economic life took root in the colonies, and how slavery reshaped European and African life in the Americas. 

The study of the colonial era in American history is essential because the foundations for many of the most critical developments in our subsequent national history were established in those years. The long duration of the nation's colonial period--nearly two centuries--requires that teachers establish clear themes. A continental and Caribbean approach best serves a full understanding of this era because North America and the closely linked West Indies were an international theater of colonial development.

One theme involves the intermingling of Native Americans, Europeans, and Africans. Students first need to understand what induced hundreds of thousands of free and indentured immigrants to leave their homelands in many parts of Europe. Why did they risk the hardships of resettlement overseas, and how well did they succeed?

Students must also address two of the most tragic aspects of American history: first, the violent conflicts between Europeans and indigenous peoples, the devastating spread of European diseases among Native Americans, and the gradual dispossession of Indian land; second, the traffic in the African slave trade and the development of a slave labor system in many of the colonies. While coming to grips with these tragic events, students should also recognize that Africans and Native Americans were not simply victims but were intricately involved in the creation of colonial society and a new, hybrid American culture.
CA State Social Studies Standard 5.4.6:

Describe the introduction of slavery into America, the responses of slave families to their condition, the ongoing struggle between proponents and opponents of slavery, and the gradual institutionalization of slavery in the South.

CA State Writing Standards:

1.0 Writing Strategies

Students write clear, coherent, and focused essays. The writing exhibits the students’ awareness of the audience and purpose. Essays contain formal introductions, supporting evidence, and conclusions. Students progress through the stages of the writing process as needed.

2.0 Writing Applications (Genres and Their Characteristics)

Students write narrative, expository, persuasive, and descriptive texts of at least 500 to 700 words in each genre. Student writing demonstrates a command of standard American English and the research, organizational, and drafting strategies outlined in Writing Standard 1.0.

2.4 Write persuasive letters or compositions:

a. State a clear position in support of a proposal.

b. Support a position with relevant evidence.

c. Follow a simple organizational pattern.

d. Address reader concerns.

As a result of this lesson, students will be able to:

  1. Understand early colonists’ need for land laborers.

  2. Describe the differences between indentured servants and slaves.

  3. Use primary resources to analyze different perspectives of people who chose indentured servitude as a means to travel to the colonies.

  4. Demonstrate understanding of indentured servitude in early colonial times by expressing their opinion about indentured servitude by writing a 5-paragraph persuasive essay.


  • PPT: “Indentured Servitude”

  • “Indentured Servant’s Letter Home—John Frethorne, 1623” (copies for each student)

  • Table groups of 4 or 5 students with various reading levels

  • Poster paper and markers for brainstorming at each table

  • Journals

  • Vocabulary Word Write activity

  • Persuasive essay description/directions, graphic organizer, and grading rubric

  • Optional reading and additional primary resources for students to use:

  1. Night Journeys by Avi

  2. Night Journeys work packet

  3. “Virginia’s Labor Problem”

  4. “Apprenticeship Indentures: 1830-1908: Delaware County, NY”


  1. Use the “Think–Pair–Share” strategy to elicit students’ prior knowledge about slaves or indentured servants. Have students record individual thoughts in Journals.

  2. Share the Power Point “Indentured Servitude” explicitly pointing out the primary sources included. Make sure the difference between slavery and indentured servitude is clarified.

  3. Have students now record in journals the following information:

Definitions of: master, apprentice, indentured servant, and slaves

Answer questions: How would people know if an original contract was original and had NOT been altered? Write one thoughtful sentence showing understanding of why a person would want to be an indentured servant. Write one sentence explaining why a person would regret making the choice to be an indentured servant.

STRATEGY (Days 2 and 3)

  1. Students should complete the “Vocabulary Word Write” to better understand some of the terms that will be used in day 2 and 3 lessons.

  2. Distribute the primary source (or an excerpt from) “Indentured Servant’s Letter Home—John Frethorne, 1623,” and address how the language appears different than how we write today.

  3. Ask students to take a few moments to read it silently, making notes on the side margins. Encourage them to try to interpret as much as possible on their own. Advanced students may use a longer excerpt or the entire document while struggling students may appreciate a shorter excerpt or having the information read to them.

  4. Next, have the students work in pairs or small teams to share thoughts and interpret the letter for about 15 minutes.

  5. Each table will now brainstorm what life was like for an indentured servant on the poster paper. They can use any style of organization to display their thoughts (i.e. web, T-chart, etc.).

  6. Record thoughts in Journals.

Day 3:

  1. Hang the student made posters around the room. Students will now move around the room as table groups and spend 1 – 2 minutes at each poster, looking for items they plan to add to their own poster.

  2. Allow time to update the groups original poster.

  3. Tell the students that while not all indentured servants had a choice to become an indentured servant, some did choose to do so. Ask the students to think about why someone would make this choice.

  4. Have one student from each table share aloud what was discussed. Write the students’ ideas on a poster sheet.

  5. For more advanced students, distribute the other documents provided and allow them to sort the information and develop further opinions about indentured servitude.

  6. Discuss both sides of the issue of indentured servitude with the students, referring to the posters made by the students the previous day and the poster made today. Give the students both points of view clearly.

  7. Take a few moments for students to share at their tables what they think about indentured servitude. Allow time to record their thoughts in their journals.

Day 4: Persuasive Essay

  1. Provide essay prompt, lined paper, and a graphic organizer for persuasive essays. Encourage the students to use what they have learned to support their opinions throughout the essays. Advanced students can write 6 paragraphs and strive to score all 4s on the essay. Struggling students may need more guidance with the graphic organizer prior to writing.

  2. Allow quiet time for students to write. Collect essays.

  3. Students may need more time to complete the essays or extensions.


  1. Write an original poem about indentured servitude using the “I Am . . .” format.

  2. Write a letter in which you pretend to be an indentured servant in the early colonies explaining to a friend what your life is like.

  3. Research and use a map to show the numbers of indentured servants across the colonies from 1600 – 1800.

  4. Design a newspaper front page with articles relating to both sides of the issue of indentured servitude.

  5. Prepare a time line with captions that highlight major events of indentured servitude.

  6. Read Night Journeys by Avi and prepare a book report.

  7. Compare slavery and indentured servitude using a Venn diagram.


  1. Journals should demonstrate a growth of knowledge about indentured servitude.

  2. Persuasive essays graded using a school district’s rubric.


Indentured Servant’s Letter Home

John Frethorne, 1623

LOVING AND KIND FATHER AND MOTHER: My most humble duty remembered to you, hoping in god of your good health, as I myself am at the making hereof. This is to let you understand that I you child am in a most heavy case by reason of the country, [which] is such that it causeth much sickness, [such] as the scurvy and the bloody flux and diverse 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 anything 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 four men which is most pitiful. [You would be grieved] 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 É and we took two alive and made slaves of them. But it was by policy, for we are in great danger; for our plantation is very weak by reason of the death and sickness of our company. For we came but twenty for the merchants, and they are half dead just; and we look every hour when two more should go. Yet there came some four other men yet to live with us, of which there is but one alive; and our Lieutenant is dead, and his father and his brother. And there was some five or six of the last year's twenty, of which there is but three left, so that we 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 mile of us, and when the rogues overcame this place [the] last [time] they slew 80 persons. How then shall we do, 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 is there nothing to be gotten here but sickness and death, except [in the event] that one had money to lay out in some things for profit. But I have nothing at all--no, not a shirt to my back but two rags, nor clothes but one poor suit, nor but one pair of shoes, but one pair of stockings, but one cap, [and] but two bands [collars]. My cloak is stolen by one of my fellows, and to his dying hour would not tell me what he did with it; but some of my fellows saw him have butter and beef out of a ship, which my cloak, I doubt [not], paid for. So that I have not a penny, nor a penny worth, to help me too either spice or sugar or strong waters, without the which one cannot live here. For as strong beer in England doth fatten and strengthen them, so water here doth wash and weaken these here only keeps life and soul together. But 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 [one] 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; and if Mr. Jackson had not relieved me, I should be in a poor case. But he like a father and she like a loving mother doth still help me.

For when we go to Jamestown (that is 10 miles of us) there lie all the ships that come to land, and there they must deliver their goods. And when we went up to town [we would go], as it may be, on Monday at noon, and come there by night, [and] then load the next day by noon, and go home in the afternoon, and unload, and then away again in the night, and [we would] be up about midnight. Then if it rained or blowed never so hard, we must lie in the boat on the water and have nothing but a little bread. For when we go into the boat we[would] have a loaf allowed to two men, and it is all [we would get] if we stayed there two days, which is hard; and [we] must lie all that while in the boat. But that Goodman Jackson pitied me and made me a cabin to lie in always when I [would] come up, and he would give me some poor jacks [fish] [to take] home with me, which comforted me more than peas or water gruel. Oh, they be very godly folks, and love me very well, and will do anything for me. And he much marvel d that you would send me a servant to the Company; he saith I had been better knocked on the head. And indeed so I find it now, to my great grief and misery; and saith that if 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. Oil and vinegar is very good; but, father, there is great loss in leaking. But for God's sake send beef and cheese and butter, or the more of one sort and none of another. But if you send cheese, it must be very old cheese; and at the cheesemonger's you may buy very good cheese for two-pence farthing or halfpenny, that will be liked very well. But if you send cheese, you must have a care how you pack it in barrels; and you must put cooper's chips between every cheese, or else the heat of the hold will rot them. And look whatsoever you send me, be in never so much, look, what [ever] 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 letters to Goodman Jackson, at Jamestown, a gunsmith. (You must set down his freight, because there be more of his name there.) 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 [though] 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. Therefore, good father, send as soon as you can; and if you send me any thing let this be the mark.
Virginia’s Labor Problem, 1617-1620
The Virginia Company attempted to solve the labor problem in Virginia, in part, by shipping numerous laborers to the colony. Many laborers were sent at Company expense and were to work on Company lands. The Company also encouraged investors in the colony to pay for the travel of other laborers, who would pay off these and other support costs by working as servants for, usually, a period of seven years. According to the documents below, what is the labor problem in Virginia? What are some of the problems involved with each of these so-called solutions? What is Sir George Yeardley's advice to the Company for sending laborers to Virginia?

View the original documents by clicking on the links below. The first and second documents are from The Capital and the Bay. The third document is from the Thomas Jefferson Papers.

Samuel Argall and John Rolf, 1617

To supply us, the Councell and Company with all possible care and diligence, furnished a good ship of some two hundred and fiftie tunne, with two hundred people and the Lord la Ware. They set saile in Aprill, and tooke their course by the westerne Iles [i.e., the West Indies], where the Governour of the Ile of Saint Michael received the Lord la Ware, and honourably feasted him, with all the content hee could give him. Going from thence, they were long troubled with contrary winds, in which time many or them fell very sicke, thirtie died, one of which number was that most honourable Lord Governour the Lord la Ware, whose most noble and generous disposition, is well knowne to his great cost, had beene most forward in this businesse for his Countries good: Yet this tender state of Virginia was not growne to that maturitie, to maintaine such state and pleasure as was fit for such a personage, with so brave and great attendance: for some small number of adventrous Gentlemen to make discoveries, and lie in Garrison, ready upon any occasion to keepe in feare the inconstant Salvages, nothing were more requisite, but to have more to wait & play than worke, or more commanders and officers than industrious labourers was not so necessarie: for in Virginia, a plaine Souldier that can use a Pick-axe and spade, is better than five Knights, although they were Knights that could breake a Lance; for men of great place, not inured to those incounters; when they finde things not sutable, grow many times so discontented, they forget themselves, & oft become so carelesse, that a discontented melancholy brings them to much sorrow, and to others much miserie.

John Rolf, 1618

. . . Now you are to understand, that because there have beene many complaints against the Governors, Captaines, and Officers in Virginia, for buying and selling men and boies [i.e., trading their indentures or service contracts], or to bee set over from one to another for a yeerely rent, was held in England a thing most intolerable, or that the tenants or lawfull servants should be put from their places, or abridged their Covenants, was so odious, that the very report thereof brought a great scandall to the generall action. The Councell in England did send many good and worthy instructions for the amending those abuses, and appointed a hundred men should at the Companies charge be allotted and provided to serve and attend the Governour during the time of his government, which number he was to make good at his departure, and leave to his Successor in like manner, fifty to the Deputy-Governour of the College land, and fifty to the Deputy of the Companies land, fifty to the Treasurer, to the Secretary five and twenty, and more to the Marshall and Cape merchant; which they are also to leave to their successors, and likewise to every particular Officer such a competency, as he might live well in his Office, without oppressing any under their charge, which good law I pray God it be well observed, and then we may truly say in Virginia, we are the most happy people in the world.

Sir George Yeardley to Sir Edwin Sandys, 1620

. . . There lying at this psent vpon my shoulders so great a burthen that I am not able to looke into all pticulars so sodaynly as this Ship will depart, this great nomber of people also ariving Enexpected it hath not a littell pusseled me to pvide for the lodging of them, it being a thing of spetiall consequence and nessesity for theire healths, but herein I must acknowledge your care and zeale for the hasty and speedy erecting this good worke, in the sending so many people for sondry pfitable employments in Each where of I doe here passe my pmise vnto you, and hould my selfe bound to doe my best endever . . . .theire pvision wch came with them out of England being nothing but meale is very harsh for them to feed vpon being new comers, therefore I have for varyety sake and in regard allso the pportion out of England sent with them, will nothing neere hould out . . . Indian-corne allso of my owne I feede them with whereof I thanke the Lorde and praysed be his name, there is enough in the Country for all the people now Arived: theire Allovance I give them exceedeth the pportion thought of in England, because helpes of fflesh and ffish with such great abundance cannott readily be had therefore I Allow them the more of these pvisions. And had they arived at a seasonable tyme of the yeare I would not haue doubted of theire lives and healths, but this season is most vnfitt for people to arive here, and to tell you the very truth I doubt of much sicknes for many of them to the nomber of 100 at least came some very weake and sick some Crasey and taynted a shore, and now this great heate of weather striketh many more but for Lyfe I hope well, yett the Company must be content to have littell service done by new men the ffirst yeare till they be seasoned. . .

. . . but Sir I beseech you be not offended yf I deale playnly respecting the honor and reputation of my ffreinds and suffer me I pray you to advise you that you doe not run into so great matters in speedy and hasty sending so many people over hether and vndertaking so great workes, before you have acquainted me and have trewly bin enformed by me of the state of the Plantation and what may be done here, yf you doe not observe this rule I shall and must fayle in the executing of your piects, what thinke you yt I am able to pforme it being but yesterday to speake of since at my first Coming the Collony was in election of starving left so by Capt Argall . . . but I pray sir give me both tyme to pvide meanes and to build and settell before you lay one Loade, yf you  will but take my advise hence I will enforme you trewly. . .

yf you will but observe the season, and allso to send men of such quallityes and vpon such conditions as I shall in my letters give you notice . . . except the Carpinters come for the Iron workes, there is now not one arived, and never a boate wryght but that silly fellow wch is dead and how doe you thinke I should build without good and skilfull workemen.

View the original documents by clicking on the links above. The first and second documents are from The Capital and the Bay. The third document is from the Thomas Jefferson Papers
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