What Is Indentured Servitude?

Indentured servitude refers to a labor contract where someone is required to work for a landowner or another individual, typically for a period of five to seven years, in exchange for an expensive passage out of Europe.

Many European immigrants who moved to the American colonies in the 1600s worked under indentured servitude. This system endured throughout much of the 1700s.

Landowners essentially considered indentured servants personal property and made these individuals work difficult jobs before their contracts expired, and they won their freedom.

Understanding Indentured Servitude

Indentured servitude first got its start in the U.S. in Virginia in the early 1600s, not long after the settlement of Jamestown. Many early American settlers needed cheap labor to help run their farms and take care of their large land parcels. A good number of these landowners agreed to fund the expensive passage of European immigrants to Virginia in exchange for their indentured servitude.

Other parts of the world also adopted similar work contracts around the same time. For example, many from Europe became indentured servants in the Caribbean to work on sugar plantations.

While many landowners preferred healthy men, many women and children also became indentured servants.

Notably, immigrants entered contracts that bound them to indentured servitude of their own free will, as opposed to slaves, which did not have a choice in the matter.

One specific similarity between slavery and indentured servitude, however, is that indentured servants could be sold, lent out or inherited, at least during the duration of their contract terms. As a result, some indentured servants performed little work for the landowners who paid for their passage across the Atlantic.

While some indentured servants served as cooks, gardeners, housekeepers, field workers or general laborers, others learned specific trades such as blacksmithing, plastering, and bricklaying, which they later leveraged into careers.

Some indentured servants who completed their contracts also received land, livestock, tools, and other necessities to make a fresh start after their contract. However, not all lived to pay off their indentured servitude, either perishing from diseases or work-related accidents. Some also ran away before completing their terms.

Rules for Indentured Servitude

Today, indentured servitude is banned in almost all countries. The 13th Amendment to the Constitution passed following the Civil War made indentured servitude illegal in the U.S.

During its heyday, however, the system allowed landowners to provide only food and shelter for indentured servants, as opposed to wages. While some landowners provided basic medical care, this typically wasn’t stipulated in a labor contract.

Indentured servants typically enjoyed few personal freedoms. Also, some contracts allowed landowners to extend the work period for indentured servants accused of improper behavior, such as becoming pregnant or running away.