Indentured Servitude

DEFINITION of 'Indentured Servitude'

The condition of European immigrants moved to the American colonies who worked for landowners and were considered property. In exchange for up to seven years of indentured servitude, these immigrants' travel, room, board and freedom dues were paid for by their master. Some indentured servants also received salaries for their work.

BREAKING DOWN 'Indentured Servitude'

Indentured servitude was developed by the Virginia Company in the early 1600s to supply cheap labor to early American settlers who needed help caring for their large land plots. Somewhere between one-half and two-thirds of European immigrants to America worked as indentured servants to afford the trip overseas. Both adults and children worked as indentured servants.

Indentured servitude was not the same as slavery, but indentured servants could be sold or inherited during their contract term. They performed work such as bricklaying, plastering, blacksmithing, cooking, gardening and housekeeping.

An indentured servant’s work contract could be extended for bad behavior such as getting pregnant, even if she got pregnant from her master, or running away. Whipping was another common punishment. Indentured servants were prohibited from getting married or having children until they earned their freedom. Many indentured servants died from hard work or disease, and many others ran away. Those who completed their contracts not only earned their freedom, they also commonly received many acres of land and enough food, livestock, tools and clothing to begin their new lives.

Indentured servitude declined in popularity when the enslavement of black Africans became commonplace. Slave labor, unlike indentured servant labor, was free.