Origins of Colonial Chesapeake Indentured
Servants: American and English Sources
By Nathan W. Murphy, AG
With access to records on both sides of the ocean plus a dose of luck, family historians can trace the
English origins of ancestors who were indentured servants in America and understand their lives.
Indentured servants were not glamorous or famous figures in colonial
America. Nevertheless, family historians are interested in knowing that an ancestor—male or female—
may have been indentured. More important, the designation “indentured servant” signifies that the
individual immigrated—a fact that surviving colonial sources often do not clarify and one that can open
doors to finding the ancestor in European records.
Indentured servants can be found among the forebears of most people with southern colonial ancestry.
Identifying an ancestor as indentured, however, is a challenge. These men and women created few records
while bound and, once they became free, records might not mention their previous status. More daunting
is tracing known indentured servants back to their arrival in America and from there to a European port
of departure and place of birth. Some original records generated specifically about these servants have
been lost, but many sources survive in the United States and Europe that can help researchers identify
these ancestors and understand their lives.
The term indentured servant arose in the context of a system for financing immigration to North America
primarily during the colonial period. Europeans who could not afford passage to America sold themselves
to merchants and seamen in exchange for transportation to the colonies. This arrangement was spelled
out in a contract—called an indenture—in which the emigrant agreed to work without compensation for a
fixed term, typically four or five years. Servants often entered into such contracts freely but sometimes
merchants and ship captains, in a practice called “spiriting,” kidnapped impoverished children and
youths, forcing them into an indenture. Shiploads of these volunteers and victims disembarked in
colonial port towns and along river banks, where ship masters sold them to plantation owners and others
who needed workers. These strangers became the servants’ masters and literally owned them for the
duration of their contracts.
Labor shortages in America’s middle colonies enabled indentured servitude to flourish there for more
than 150 years. Increased African slave imports during the eighteenth century triggered its decline. By the
early 1800s the system had disappeared among Britons coming to the United States.
The origins and destinations of indentured servants varied widely. They embarked from many European
countries, including England, Germany, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. Settlers used them as laborers
primarily in the middle, southern, and West Indian colonies but the custom prevailed in Maryland,
Pennsylvania, and Virginia. Records in the diverse countries of origin and the colonial destinations of
these servants vary greatly. This article will focus on servants from England who were imported to the
Chesapeake Bay colonies of Maryland and Virginia.
Indentured servants resembled other groups of colonial migrants, including African slaves and
transported convicts. Indentured servants, in fact, often were called “white slaves.” All three groups
experienced mistreatment. The groups also differed. Convict servants were the only group whose
emigration and unpaid labor were penalties imposed for criminal behavior. Whether indentured
servants were voluntary or forced laborers, their indentures were temporary, unlike the Africans, who
were enslaved for life. Table 1 compares some characteristics and privileges of indentured servants with
transported convicts and free immigrants.
Social historians, who have laid the groundwork for understanding the lives and migrations of indentured
servants as a whole, have made broad generalizations concerning the birthplaces of those in Maryland and
Virginia. They have had to rely on a narrow sample of servant origins to understand the group. One
historian has stated that “the backgrounds of the vast majority [of Chesapeake colonists] are forever
lost.” This is not necessarily true. Genealogical methods can be used to trace origins of many more
such servants and other colonial settlers of the area and create a better sample from which to understand
the social origins and experiences of Chesapeake colonists.
Most English servants left the country from three major ports—Bristol, Liverpool, and London—with a
minority emigrating from smaller cities, including Bideford, Dartmouth, Exeter, Lyme, Newcastle,
Plymouth, Poole, Portsmouth, Southampton, Weymouth, and Whitehaven. The principal ports had
differing years of heavy emigration. London served as a key point of departure during the entire colonial
period. Bristol rose to prominence during the mid-1600s, followed by Liverpool in the late 1600s to early
1700s. Surviving lists suggest that many indentured servants came into these cities from within a fifty-
to sixty-mile radius. Consequently, a researcher who knows a servant’s port of departure but not the
previous residence might learn the place of origin by studying records from surrounding jurisdictions.
In the Chesapeake’s early days, indentured servants worked close to rivers and the Atlantic coast, often in
tobacco cultivation. In contrast, during the 1700s, many planters preferred African slaves for field labor
and sold the servants to backcountry landowners. Notorious “soul drivers,” who treated indentured
servants cruelly, transported many of them inland.
Personal characteristics and cultural traditions of the English Chesapeake colonists—including speech,
person-and place-naming customs, religion, architectural patterns, social graces, and settlement
patterns—were similar to many found in southern and western England. Comparative historians have
concluded from these parallels that most Chesapeake colonists came from those English regions. In
fact, however, the specific roots of the upper classes are better known than those of their servants. In
addition, customs characteristic of the upper classes may have trickled down. The precise origins of lower-
class indentured servants, which may have affected their contribution to Southern culture, are largely
unknown. Historians and genealogists should generate a wider sample of indentured servants’ birthplaces
to learn whether they came from the same areas as the aristocrats.
Researchers trying to identify English origins of indentured settlers in colonial Maryland and Virginia face
• Because indentured servants rarely traveled in groups of relatives and neighbors, unlike immigrants who
paid cash for their passage, tracing associates to identify their origins seldom succeeds.
• Record destruction and the servants’ lower-class status compel researchers to extricate and synthesize
fragmented bits of information from a variety of sources.
• Researchers need skills in reading old handwriting and interpreting underused records to understand
original sources concerning indentured servants.
Despite the complex undertaking, family historians can locate the English origins of indentured servants
if they know what records are available and can find them on both sides of the ocean.
Pursuant to ordinances passed in 1660, Virginia suppressed all religions except the Church of England, to
which most Virginia colonists belonged. Surviving colonial parish registers from the Chesapeake
area—primarily from Virginia— contain baptismal, marriage, and burial entries for thousands of
colonists. Transcriptions of most of the records have been published and are indexed in the International
Genealogical Index (IGI). Because the IGI omits descriptive data, researchers must consult the
register to see if an entry contains an occupational title like “servant” appended to a name.
Extant colonial Anglican parish burial registers often identify indentured servants by status. For example,
seventeenth-century burial records for Christ Church Parish, Middlesex County, Virginia, name dozens of
them who died in harsh conditions before completing their terms. Colonial laws forbade the servants
to marry during their contracted labor terms without permission. Consequently, few of them appear in
marriage registers. Marriage restrictions also decrease chances of finding parents identified as
indentured in infants’ christening records, except those for illegitimate children resulting from illicit
Court cases resulting from misdeeds may identify indentured servants who violated the law.
Infractions include conceiving a child out of wedlock, which was not uncommon because the servants
were not allowed to marry without permission, and assaulting a master. For example, in 1742, Thomas
Webster petitioned the Northumberland County Court concerning his servant, Patrick Martial, “seting
forth that the sd servant abused him by words & Blows Contrary to Law, Judgment is granted that the sd
Webster against the sd Martial, his servant, for one year’s service for his sd offence after his other time of
service expired.” Many indentured servants were undoubtedly abused, as were African slaves.
Although relatively few cases concerning the abuse appear on court dockets, researchers nevertheless
should check for records.
Court records may also document the confiscation or temporary “alienation” of an indentured servant to
pay off a master’s debt. For example, according to Kent County, Maryland, court proceedings dated
1655, Henery Carline “(Attorney to Mr. Thomas Hawkines) [did] Assigne ouer [over] all the Right tittle &
Intreast of a Certaine seruant [servant] named James Gunsseill, with his Indentures...to John Deare.”
Owners could sell their indentured servants. The recording of such sales in deed books is unusual, but
researchers should not overlook the possibility of a deed record documenting the sale of an ancestor who
In Maryland, freed servants received fifty-acre “freedom dues.” For example, on 14 November 1673,
“Came Thomas Broxam of Dorchester County and proved Right to fifty acres of Land for his time of
Service performed in this Province.” The servants often sold this property quickly, which also created
a deed record of their former indentured status. One researcher noted that 5,000 servants entered
Maryland each decade in the late 1600s and “between 1669 and 1680 a count in the books shows that
1249 servants proved their rights, each to fifty acres of land as freedom due. Of these, 869 immediately, or
very soon after the proof, assigned their rights to others.”
Indentured Servant Contracts
Because freed indentured servants probably had little incentive to preserve their contracts, which were
loose manuscripts, few servant indentures survive in America. (Many exist in England, however. See
the discussion, below, under “English Sources.”) In exceptional cases, clerks in the Chesapeake copied
indentures into court records. Unlike Pennsylvania clerks, however, they did not compile the servant
contracts in book form.
Journals and Personal Narratives
Most contracted servants arrived in America impoverished and uneducated. Few had the skills to
create personal accounts and narratives of their experiences. An exception is John Harrower, an educated
Scot who emigrated from England. His journal describes his fall into indentured servitude, the
transatlantic passage, mistreatment of fellow servants, on-deck sale of servants in Virginia, “soul drivers,”
conditions for obedient servants during the term of indenture, and his attempt to maintain contact with
his wife and children in the Shetland Islands. Another man, Richard Frethorne, wrote his parents in
England in 1623 and described dismal conditions in Jamestown. Such narratives, although scarce,
may be located in archival and historical society collections.
Under a headright system, the British crown awarded land to individuals for bringing others to the
colonies. Typically ship captains and merchants received fifty acres for each indentured servant they
transported. In Virginia, the colonial land office and county courts issued headright certificates. As a form
of currency, a certificate might have changed hands several times until an applicant submitted it with a
request for a land patent. Records of certificates issued by the land office no longer exist, but those issued
by county courts may be found in surviving county court order books. Often the applicant submitted the
certificate several years after the passengers arrived in the Chesapeake, so the date of the land patent does
not necessarily indicate a recent arrival.
Indentured servants and other passengers are named in registers that scrupulously document the crown’s
land grants to those who transported immigrants. Indexes to these colonial land patents exist for both
Maryland and Virginia.
The lists typically provide names only, but researchers may be able to extrapolate additional data. For
example, average ages of persons listed in surviving indentured servant contracts indicate that the
majority of male servants left England between the ages of fifteen and twenty-four. Extending the
typical pattern to those whose ages were not recorded provides their approximate birth years, which may
help identify them in English records.
Figure 1. Runaway Indentured Servant Advertisement. Source: Maryland Gazette, 17 November 1764, MSA
SC 2731, Maryland Gazette collection, Maryland State Archives, Annapolis.
Alongside notices for masters seeking fugitive slaves, colonial newspapers published advertisements for
runaway servants. Many identify the servant’s name, age, and birthplace. For example, when John Cyas
ran away in Talbot County, Maryland, in 1768, his master reported his occupation, height, complexion,
age, English county of origin, and last residence in England as well as the ship in which Cyas had
immigrated and the date it landed. See figure 1. Such advertisements often list the county or region of
origin to encourage colonists to be alert to strangers speaking a distinguishing dialect. Many eighteenth-
century newspapers have survived. Indexes and finding aids facilitate identifying indentured servants in
both Maryland and Virginia newspapers.
Indentured servants may be named in wills because their masters could bequeath them as property. For
example, in 1662 “John Neuill [Nevill] of Charles County, Maryland, gentleman,” devised personal
property to his son-in-law John Lambert. The property included livestock and “both the servants
Inventories in both testate and intestate proceedings may name indentured servants and assign them a
value. One example is the inventory of “Mr. Thomas Haukins” [Hawkins], of Popplers Island, Kent
County, Maryland, dated 1656, which lists three servants: Mary Bally, Thomas Simons, and Henery
Wharton. The estate’s appraisers noted the length of time remaining on their contracts and valued each
servant differently. The reference to contracts indicates that the three were indentured. Even without
such a reference, however, researchers should recognize servants in an inventory as indentured because
wage-earning household servants could not have been valued like property.
Many Chesapeake area colonists were indentured servants born in England. Some voluntarily signed
contracts agreeing to work without monetary compensation for a fixed number of years in exchange for
transatlantic passage. Others were forced into such agreements. Personal motivations aside, eventually—
after their liberation—they began new lives in a new country. Countless survivors worked for hire,
married, started families, and acquired personal estates—and became ancestors to millions of Americans.
Tracing these laborers’ lives and origins will contribute to identifying more ancestors and understanding
the geographic and social origins of many American colonists.