In the development of the New World, indentured servitude was quite common for passage across the Atlantic. Did the increase in slavery in America, especially in Virginia and other similar agricultural states, lead to the end of indentured servitude?


There can be little doubt that indentured servitude decreased as reliance on slave labor increased. However, the dwindling supply of indentured European labor must be considered as at least one of the reasons American planters increasingly turned to an enslaved African labor force. Nonetheless, without the increased availability of enslaved Africans, American planters could not have quit their use of European labor so easily. This makes for such a muddy cause-effect story that historians disagree over why indentured servitude disappeared:

The history of the final disappearance of indentured servitude in the United States remains rather obscure. . . It remains unclear whether indentured servitude dwindled in importance in the last quarter of the eighteenth century and the first quarter of the nineteenth primarily because of a general decline in the rate of immigration to the United States, or whether in the period the share of total immigration made up of servants declined. Nor does there appear to be a consensus on the role of legal changes in reducing the attractiveness of indentured servants to employers, as historians have variously cited English passenger acts and the legislation of American states abolishing imprisonment for debt as [indentured servitude's] "death blow.'

Increasing wealth in England may be most responsible for the decreased flow of indentured servants to the Americas:

Nineteenth-century Englishmen might have found it considerably easier on average to save an amount equivalent to one-half of annual per capita income than their poorer counterparts in England 200 years earlier, and this could well explain why the importance of indentured servitude among English and perhaps other European migrants to America declined so substantially in the long run.

Though there were still scattered cases of indentured servants in America in the 1830s, at that point it was long clear to planters that they could more readily attain African slaves than indentured Europeans.

TLDR: This may be a case where it is better not to think in terms of cause and effect, but in terms of reciprocal causation: As indentured servitude became less attractive to Europeans, slavery became that much more attractive to American planters. As the slave economy developed, it became that much easier for American planters to purchase slaves. At some point around the end of the 18th century, the math was such that planters nearly always purchased a slave over buying the contract of an indentured servant.

Source: Galenson, The Rise and Fall of Indentured Servitude in the Americas.

  • You have neglected to mention the white slavery of indentured labor practiced by North American Professional Sports Leagues up to December 23, 1975: villanovau.com/resources/bls/history-free-agency-pro-sports/… Jul 12 '15 at 4:05
  • @PieterGeerkens: That's not really the same. An indenture is a contract that reflects an obligation to work off a debt incurred--most classically, the debt incurred to purchase transport across the Atlantic. Baseball players (and Hollywood stars, who had similar contracts) weren't indentured. They had simply agreed to long-term (and yes, exploitative) employment contracts.
    – two sheds
    Jul 12 '15 at 14:31
  • You overlook that the position of the owners was that the athletes did owe a debt - the cost of being trained and coached in the minor leagues. That was and remains to date the very premise of the reserve clause used by all North American professional sports leagues; except the period of indenture is now much more limited in duration. Jul 13 '15 at 7:14

This will be a poor answer because I cannot locate my sources. Several years ago the Colonial Williamsburg podcast did a series of episodes on slavery and indentured servitude. One of the inflection points was Bacon's rebellion; after Bacon's rebellion there was a shift away from indentured servitude and towards stricter forms of slavery. Cultural, legal and other norms began to shift; people feared that those in forced servitude would rebel. It was easier to enforce stricter controls on people who looked differently.

Obviously this is only one element in the whole story, but I think Bacon's Rebellion must be mentioned in any complete answer to your question.


It's true that slavery and indentured servitude were somewhat competitive, but it was NOT true that slavery was always preferred to indentured servitude.

One major exception was the establishment of Georgia, by James Oglethorpe. It was founded on the indentured servitude of British prisoners (usually debtors), but Oglethorpe was actually against slavery. So indentured servitude in this case was aimed at the lowest classes of English society.

Ultimately, slavery did not put an end to indentured servitude, because slavery was directed at African-American people, while indentured servitude was directed by Englishmen at fellow Englishmen. Slavery remained in America long after English rule was driven out of the 13 Colonies by the American Revolution, bringing about an end to indentured servitude. As Pieter Geerkins pointed out, indentured servitude arguably did not end in North America until 1975, 110 years after slavery ended.

  • See my comment to Two Sheds answer. Indentured servitude only ended in North America on Dec. 23, 1975. Jul 12 '15 at 4:07
  • @PieterGeerkens: Incorporated your comment into my answer.
    – Tom Au
    Jul 12 '15 at 13:27

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