Most people know about the practice of Indentured Servitude in the British North American colonies - that workers would receive "free" passage to the Colonies in exchange for working for the sponsoring employer for a certain period of time, typically seven years.

We also know that generally, indentured servants, as a result of their contract, could not simply "quit" their job, but had to keep going until contract expiry. How did it work from the other side? Were indentured servants immune to layoffs and firing? If an employer really and truly wanted to get rid of an indentured servant before their contract was expired, what happened?

  • Was the employer required to keep the servant on until the expiration of their contract?
  • Was the servant free to go, with no strings attached?
  • Was the servant given a bill for the remaining portion of their passage (e.g. if they were fired after serving 3.5 years of a 7 year indenture, they would owe half their initial fare)?
  • Was the employer obligated to sell the worker's contract or remaining contract time to another employer?

Yes, I realize that the culture of work was different back then, with jobs often easier to get, with more employer-provided training and more tolerance of some level misbehavior on the job, so the modern, Dilbert-type fear of looming layoffs and arbitrary firings was not as significant (e.g. the Encyclopedia Virginia (sponsored by the Library of Virginia, a state agency) observes that "indentured servitude became, during most of the seventeenth century, the primary means by which Virginia planters filled their nearly inexhaustible need for labor"), but certainly there were businesses that shut down or downsized back then too, so it would be interesting to know what happened to their indentured servants. Was there a standard practice is such cases?

The Encyclopedia Virginia article mentioned above goes into some detail on how hard a typical indentured servant's job actually was and some potential ways that servants attempted to escape, but that still doesn't really answer the question other than to imply that "job security" was not typically on the top of the priority list for indentured servants or wannabe indentured servants. It does make one wonder, though, what servants could do if they found themselves indentured in a job they really liked or that was very easy for them, and wanted to avoid being sold to another employer, reassigned to a different job, or thrown out into the general job market, and that question is really just my original question in different words.

Although the cite I mentioned is for Virginia, I'm really interested in Colonial America in general if it does not make the question too broad. Considering the dearth of evidence for this sort of thing, I'm guessing that asking just about Virginia would in fact be too localized. Alternately, an answer specific to one jurisdiction is fine, e.g. if you have an answer that specifically refers to New Jersey law or Best Practices, I would consider that a good answer.

Yes, probably many actual indentured servants mumbled "Being an indentured servant sucks - the work is hard, the pay is low, and you can't quit", but were there conditions under which one might say, "Being an indentured servant is great! The work is sort of hard, and the pay really is kind of low, but I enjoy what I do and I'm immune to layoffs!"?

  • 4
    Interesting question Robert (with many more questions in the Body)... do you have some sources you have already consulted which could be added to your Question? Also, is there one particular aspect of the multiple sub-questions you raised of more interest to you than the others? Or are the sub-questions just listed as examples of the thought process in constructing the Question?
    – Kerry L
    Commented Nov 6, 2018 at 19:55
  • 2
    @KerryL the sub-questions are not independent questions, but just part of my thought process. More or less, the question is "If I was an indentured servant in Colonial America, was I more or less guaranteed a job for as long as my indenture lasted as long as I showed up on time, had a minimal competency in my job, didn't engage in too much outrageous misconduct, etc., or was I constantly at risk of being thrown onto the street?"
    – Robert Columbia
    Commented Nov 6, 2018 at 20:06
  • 3
    @kerry, for example, an answer might look like, "Well, technically an employer had the right to fire an indentured servant at any time, but laws in most colonies (cite) specifically provided that the employer was required to eat the rest of the cost of the servant's passage in the case of early termination, so ordinary poor performance on the job or redundancy was rarely enough to make it worthwhile to fire an indentured servant, so in practice they had pretty good job security." Also, I will add a cite to my question.
    – Robert Columbia
    Commented Nov 6, 2018 at 20:12
  • Ok, got it, thanks for the clarification. Not sure if I can find or contribute a helpful answer but at the least I will be interested in following this to see what turns up.
    – Kerry L
    Commented Nov 6, 2018 at 20:27
  • 4
    @RobertColumbia: bear in mind that an indenture could be sold; some indentures were purchased at dock-side by speculators, who planned to resell them. At other times the ultimate employer would be forced to sell the indenture due to unforeseen events. OTOH, the indenture for apprenticeship was often non-transferable, and could be enforced against the master. You would need to at specific times and places. I have several ancestors who were said to have been indentured to pay for passage. Another case is transportation of convicts, who were then indentured. Commented Nov 6, 2018 at 20:27

1 Answer 1


Indentured servants were subject to a contract, which was generally on-sellable. ( http://www.virginiamemory.com/blogs/out_of_the_box/2013/09/11/buying-and-selling-servants/comment-page-1/ )

With sunk costs of more than £20 in 18th century money masters would be reluctant to deed or peppercorn an indenture; particularly where the servant could be sold on to a right brutal bastard who’d sweat the labour.

Historian Lerone Bennett, Jr. notes that "Masters given to flogging often did not care whether their victims were black or white." (Wikipedia “Indentured servitude” citing Calendar of State Papers: Colonial series. Great Britain. Public Record Office. 1893. p. 36)

And if you’re unwilling to accept a peppercorn you can always murder them ( https://jenjdanna.com/blog/2012/1/10/forensic-case-files-murder-of-a-colonial-servant.html )

The exception is of course apprenticeship or pseudo-apprenticeship indenture, where the master is effectively inviting someone into their family. Families, of course, can be brutally abusive and exploitative, but this is the area where early freedom and remployment as free labour is likely.

The majority of indentured servants took advantage of the labour shortage to seek better conditions as free labour than as plantation labour.

“What servants could do if they found themselves indentured in a job they really liked or that was very easy for them?” Marry him. Only in small and intimate farms, unlikely to purchase indentures due to cost and unable to compete with plantations, would an indenture show similar characteristics to an apprenticeship indenture. Redemptioners are an example of the failure of this: the family can’t afford to purchase their passage and freedom.

Finally, the following anachronisms in your question are unuseful:

  • employer: you mean master. Subordination was much harder and often corporal.

  • business: corporations as we know them were a 19th century phenomena.

  • downsizing / layoffs: Absentee landlords or plantation owners could go bankrupt, but not through the business cycle we’re aware of. Agricultural economic cycles were slower: leases were often 20 years or more. Moreover plantations were present in an expanding market. Bankruptcy was generally a result of dissolute conduct and the labour contracts would be sold on with the real property in liquidation. More simply, labour was so short, capital (land) under-utilised, and profits so large that indentured labour would be worked to the hilt. We sack workers in our societies because of a lack of effective demand: using capital becomes unprofitable. The effective demand for tobacco was not exhausted in the 18th century. “I enjoy what I do and I'm immune to layoffs!” Given that labour discipline was customary for free labour, and corporal for indentured labour, “layoffs” are incomprehensible. The low organic composition of capital combined with an inexhaustible demand for plantation products meant that proto-capital would have an inexhaustible demand for labour: beggaring yourself in order to threaten someone with freedom doesn’t make sense. The use of physical violence to control labour meant that discipline by unemployment was unnecessary. And if you love your labourer enough to free them for a peppercorn, they’re up the duff or your family already.

  • with more employer-provided training: training doesn’t exist until the 19th century. You’re thinking of instruction in trade for apprentices. And they’re not the standard unskilled agricultural labourer.

  • and more tolerance of some level misbehavior on the job: it is hard to differentiate worked and unworked hours for personally owned servants. They were always on the job. The length of the working day is restricted largely by light, not labour unrest. Correspondingly the tolerance for misbehaviour is to do with different forms of labour discipline. You and I are threatened with the sack. He and she were threatened with beating and starvation.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.