Overviews of Several Books on Indentured Servants




[My initial review of this book shows the same Phelps information as above, but grouped by the circuit]

This volume lists the names of those recorded in official documents as having been sentenced or reprieved for transportation to the Americas between 1663 and 1775 by the Assize Courts for the counties of Berkshire, Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Monmouthshire, Oxfordshire, Shropshire, Staffordshire and Worcestershire, which together made up the Oxford Circuit. Some few of the earliest settlers in Virginia have also been included where their names appear in Privy Council Registers of the time of James I.

Those sentenced to transportation by the Courts of Quarter Sessions of the Peace will not be found in this volume save where their names have found their way into State Papers or County Gaolers' lists. Quarter Sessions records are to be found not in London but in County Record Offices.

The documents of the Oxford Circuit, though much ravaged by neglect and decay, are nevertheless remarkably extensive and comprehensive so that it has proved possible for almost the entire period covered to secure from one category of papers the data which has not survived in another. As with previous volumes in this series, the information printed in the following pages is designed as a means of access to fuller trial records and, with a little more effort, to associated documents related to each individual. Some abbreviated examples are given below.

Thomas Ashby (p.1) petitioned is 1743 (SP 36/60/190-191) that the Captain of the transport ship Samuel on which he was embarked for the colonies in 1741 purchased him for his own service. On a subsequent voyage the peti­tioner was captured by a Spanish privateer from which he was later exchanged

with a Spanish prisoner and unavoidably brought back to England before the term of his transportation order had expired."He now lived in fear of discovery.';

Elizabsth Crosbv (p.3.) was the subject of an appeal from Joseph Acres, rector of Newbury, and Joseph Standen, vicar of Speen, in March 1734­36131 /68). They say she was condemned for taking away goods of no great value from the shop of Elizabeth Paradise but that she had previously "behaved herself in so honest and obliging a way to her neighbours and acquaintances as to excite for her and her husband, now almost overcome with grief, a compassionate importunity." A petition which had been made Out on her behalf and signed by many of her friends had, by an unfortunate accident, not been delivered to the Judge at her trial. This appeal fell on deaf ears.

William Orowood (p.8), a bargeman, arranged for appeals to 17e lodged by many residents of Reading and by the bargemaster of Abingdon after he had k been c0nvicted on the evidence of John Vickers of receiving stolen goods. The latter had since made a voluntary confession of his own guilt and had then "absented himself, being suspected of other crimes." The petitioners declared that Orpwood had always supported himself by honest industry and had a wife and five small children dependent upon him. The Circuit Judge, to whom the appeal was referred, submitted a full account of the trial and conceded that witnesses on Orpwood's behalf had given him a good character, though one had sworn that he wanted to arrest Orpwood for debt but had been unable to apprehend him. The Judge concluded that Orpwood was not worthy of mercy.

Notes scattered throughout the Assize records indicate the importance attached to the efficient conduct of the business of transportation as a i`maj°r executive arm of justice. At each session the Court appointed a committee of worthies to superintend the business and to contract with a shipping agent: for the Oxford Circuit those appointed usually included senior ecclesiatics and University dons. Only the rather remote county of Monouth reported any problem, and a note from there recorded in the minutes

further pages not copied]

Also see:

Convict Servants in the American Colonies http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=3614090&place=home03

All Things Considered, July 24, 2004 · The William Brown House, an elegant Georgian brick building built in the 1760s, sits on the banks of the South River in Anne Arundel County, Maryland. Now a museum, the house is the last visible structure of London Town, an 18th century tobacco port and one of the Atlantic trading sites where thousands of convicts from England entered the colonies to begin their indentured servitude.

In 1718, the British Parliament passed the Transportation Act, under which England began sending its imprisoned convicts to be sold as indentured servants in the American colonies. While the law provoked outrage among many colonists -- Benjamin Franklin equated it to packing up North American rattlesnakes and sending them all to England -- the influx of ex-convicts provided cheap and immediate labor for many planters and merchants. After 1718, approximately 60,000 convicts, dubbed "the King's passengers," were sent from England to America. Ninety percent of them stayed in Maryland and Virginia. Although some returned to England once their servitude was over, many remained and began their new lives in the colonies.

Amateur genealogist Carol Carman is a descendant of one convict servant who worked in Annapolis and stayed in Maryland. Arrested in London, England, for stealing a silk handkerchief worth two shillings, Carman's ancestor was transported to the colonies and sentenced to servitude.

NPR's Brian Naylor spoke with Carman and Dr. Gregory Stiverson, President of the Historic Annapolis Foundation, about London Town and the indentured labor of the American colonies.

Colonial America: Land of Opportunity
for white bonded labor?


Bound for America: The Transportation of British Convicts to the Colonies, 1718-1775 (Clarendon Paperbacks) (Paperback)
by A. Roger Ekirch From 1718 to 1775, British courts banished 50,000 convicts to America--the largest body of immigrants, aside from African slaves, ever sent across the Atlantic--in hopes of restoring social peace at home without posing the threat to traditional freedoms raised by the death penalty or a harsh corrective system. Drawing upon archives in Britain and the United States, Bound for America examines the critical role this punishment played in Britain's criminal justice system. It also assesses the nature of the convict trade, the social origins of the transported felons, and the impact such a large criminal influx had on colonial society.


William Pencak, Penn UNIVERSITY-OGONTZ


BOUND FOR AMERICA: THE TRANSPORTATION OF BRIT­ISH CONVICTS TO THE COLONIES, 1718-1775. By A. Roger Ekirch. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. Pp. 277. $45.00.)

"TO SERVE WELL AND FAITHFULLY": LABOR AND INDENTURED SERVANTS IN PENNSYLVANIA, iG82­. 1800. By Sharon V. Salinger. (New Rochelle, New York: Cam­bridge University Press, 1987, Pp. xiii, 192. $29.95.)

As Edmund S. Morgan noted in American Slavery, American Freedom (New York: Norton, 1975), economic and political opportu­nity for white Americans developed along with and in consequence of new and harsher farms of bondage for blacks. These two largely quantitative studies demonstrate that Morgan's thesis can be modified and extended: freedom for some whites (upper- and middle-class) depended, upon harsher farms of bondage far the majority of eighteenth century white immigrants to British North America, if the experiences of Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania are typical in this respect. A. Roger Ekirch details how Britain only institutionalized penal transpor­tation in 1718 and sent some 50,000 convicts--80 percent to Maryland and Virginia-by the Revolution. Sharon V. Salinger demonstrates the changing nature of indentured servitude. In late seventeenth century Pennsylvania, predominantly English servants worked about four years for masters in a paternalistic setting and had a goad chance to obtain at least a moderate freehold. By the mid-eighteenth century German and

Scotch-Irish servants worked for four to seven years for English masters and once freed frequently became "objects of charity" or were forced to reindenture themselves. Servitude shifted from a mostly rural to an urban institution as Philadelphia merchants and artisans increased their wealth using bound labor and as the gap between the classes widened. Ekirch and Salinger thus criticize the notion of provincial America as a land of opportunity, a land-rich, labor-poor society where servants commanded premium wages and, after their initial bondage, could join society as equals. Instead, they confirm the image stressed in recent work by James Henretta and Gary Nash of a land of increasing inequality as the Revolution approached.

Both Ekirch and Salinger have undertaken prodigious research. If Ekirch has ranged wider-in British as well as Maryland and Virginia sources-Salinger has probed deeper-into the tax, poor relief, and other records of Pennsylvania. Both have combed newspapers for descriptions of runaways and quantified wherever possible. Ekirch's book is somewhat better written: there are fewer lengthy footnotes and several personal vignettes of convicts which grace his text, But both authors do all that could be reasonably expected with the data, given the obvious limitations of human energy.

Ekirch uses both his own research and the superb recent and voluminous literature on crime and society in eighteenth century England to demolish some long-held stereotypes about convict trans­ports. They were not petty thieves but serious larcenists, for the most part. British justice in fact functioned fairly reasonably, notwithstand­ing the barbaric statutes, to make the punishment fit the crime. Persons sentenced to transportation rather than death tended to be non-violent, non-repeat offenders. Judges took into account community opinion and the likelihood someone would continue to be a nuisance. Ekirch also nicely shows the ideology behind transportation: Englishmen institu­tionalized convict servitude abroad because they did not wish to experience visible signs of servitude such as prisons and convict labor at home.

Once the prisoners were out of England, however, concern with justice vanished. The crown contracted with merchants to transport them overseas for a price: some ten percent died on the voyage in the early eighteenth century, in addition to those who perished awaiting shipment. By the 1770s, however, colonial laws against landing diseased convicts and some tolerably humane contractors reduced this rate to two percent. (In the weakest section of her book, Salinger relies on outdated sources and exceptional instances of mortality to argue that about a

quarter of indentured servants, who were generally treated better than convicts, died en route to Pennsylvania.)

Even with large numbers of slaves in the tobacco colonies, Maryland and Virginia proved the best markets for the convicts. They worked as both artisans and field hands. Despite frequent complaints that they were disorderly and rebellious-as were the predominantly young, male servants during the seventeenth century-Ekirch finds little evidence of crime among them. This was neither because work was easy nor because opportunity to rise after servitude was good. Ekirch speculates that small, well-controlled rural communities, absence of tangible goals to steal, and lack of cities to escape to and fence goods accounted for the low crime rate. Convicts did run away in large numbers: many returned to England, where chances of being rediscovered were slim.

Salinger develops a three-stage model to explain the history of indentured servitude in Pennsylvania. The paternal, familial indenture closely linked with apprenticeship developed into a more impersonal, lengthier, cash-for-labor connection over the first century of Pennsylva­nia's history. Salinger's model of the first two stages is interesting yet not thoroughly convincing. She only has a small group of 196 servants for 1681-1687 to serve as a data base for her first stage. Further, an astonishing number of this group died young-over sixty percent before age forty. Does this statistic argue for paternalism or perhaps an unstructured system given the colony's infancy?

' Salinger's description of the decline of indentured servitude is the most interesting and provocative part of her book, which could (and should) be expanded into an account of labor unrest in early national Philadelphia. Indentured servitude decreased because it became more profitable to hire workers temporarily at low wages instead of indentur­ing them for long periods. In consequence, autonomous protests by journeymen and laborers occurred with increasing frequency after the Revolution. Salinger is alert to the irony: the freeing of labor left it free to be exploited. She points out another irony: the anti-slavery movement in Pennsylvania led to a temporary increase in the number of inden­tures-freedom for blacks could mean servitude for whites.

Given the limitations of their data, however, I am basically persuaded by Ekirch's and Salinger's argument. But to make a totally convincing case that America was not a land of opportunity for indentured whites someone, sometime, is going to have to discuss the frontier. Ekirch alludes briefly to hordes of former servants migrating to the backcountry and Carolinas; Salinger does not discuss migration out of Pennsylvania or utilize western Pennsylvania sources. In short, they have shown therewas limited opportunity for former servants in the areas in which they were indentured. It would be unreasonable to ask them to perform for North or South Carolina frontier counties the feats of name-tracing and wealth analysis they have done for the seaboard-assuming the data exist. Nevertheless, until the presence or absence of these people in the west is confirmed, historians will continue to debate the problem of economic mobility in early America.