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American Beginnings: 1492-1690
Topic: ContactTopic: ExplorationTopic: SettlementTopic: PermanenceTopic: Power
Topic: Permanence
Toolbox Overview: American Beginnings: 1492-1690
Resource Menu: Permanence
Text 1. Prosperity
Text 2. Cities & Towns
Text 3. English Colonies I: New England Colonies
Text 4. English Colonies II: Middle Atlantic Colonies
Text 5. English Colonies III: Chesapeake/Southern Colonies
Text 6. Servitude (Chesapeake Colonies)

Reading Guide
Indenture contract, 1684
Indenture contract, 1684
Servitude (Chesapeake Colonies)
- Maryland: A former servant's praise of servitude, 1663
- Virginia: A former servant's "sorrowful account" of servitude, ca. 1680 (narrative #2)
- Virginia: A servant uprising, 1640 (PDF)
- Indenture Contracts:

Maryland, 1683
Virginia, 1684 (pdf also available)

Until the late 1600s, the labor supply for the Chesapeake plantations was indentured servants, not enslaved Africans. Of the 120,000 emigrants to the Chesapeake colonies in the 1600s, 90,000 were indentured servants. Escaping the poverty of England, they contracted to work for four to seven years before being freed with enough clothes and tools—and in some cases free land—to establish their own homesteads. Their experiences varied, of course, depending on their master, their work, their health, and their temperament. Many died before they could attain freedom. Here we read two opposing views of servitude by former servants in the Chesapeake colonies, followed by the punishments ordered by a Virginia court after a servant uprising in 1640.
  • IN PRAISE OF SERVITUDE. Probably due to political strife in England rather than poverty, George Alsop worked as an indentured servant in Maryland from 1648 to 1652. After returning to England due to illness, he wrote A Character of the Province of Mary-Land. He devotes a full chapter to the defense of servitude against those who "prick up their ears and bray against it." Servitude, he insists from experience, "checks in the giddy and wild-headed youth" of England, offering them a chance to escape a doomed undisciplined life for the opportunity to thrive in America.
    [George Alsop, A Character of the Province of Maryland, 1666)

  • A "SORROWFUL ACCOUNT" OF SERVITUDE. Admitting he was one of the "giddy and wild-headed youth" that Alsop deplored, James Revels wrote a four-part poem relating his fourteen-year indenture in Virginia, which he earned as a sentence for thievery. In simple rhyming couplets he describes his early life of crime, his arrival in Virginia, and his hard labor on a tobacco plantation before being bought by a more considerate master. "My countrymen," he concludes, "take warning e'er too late / Lest you shou'd share my unhappy fate." (The poem is meant to be sung to the tune of "Death and the Lady": link below in Supplemental Sites). Truth be told, while Revels and Alsop relate different experiences of servitude, they join in extolling its reformative power. Little is known about Revels, and no published edition of the poem exists before 1767, yet scholars generally agree that "The Poor Unhappy Transported Felon's Sorrowful Account" is a document of the 1600s.
    [James Revel, "The Poor Unhappy Transported Felon's Sorrowful Account of His fourteen Years Transportation at Virginia in America," poem, ca. 1680, publ. 1767]

  • A SERVANT UPRISING. In 1640 six white servants and a black slave were punished for stealing arms and a boat to escape down the Elizabeth River to a nearby Dutch plantation. From this brief court decision that reviews the uprising and lists the men's punishments, we can infer the men's reasons for escaping and the planters' fear of future rebellions. We can also make inferences about the relationship between servitude and slavery and about Virginia's attitude toward blacks in 1640.
    [Decisions of the General Court of Virginia, 1640]
By the late 1660s Virginia could no longer depend on English indentured servants for forced labor, and its transition to a slave-based economy began. From only 150 black slaves in 1640, Virginia had nearly 3,000 slaves forty years later, a transition we will consider in the next topic, POWER. In viewing the two indenture documents, note the contract agreements, the signatures, and the template form. (18 pages.)

Discussion questions
  1. From these selections, how would you characterize the experience of indentured servitude?
  2. How do the authors' background and servant experience influence their opinion of servitude? Consider class, reason for their servitude, and status on return to England.
  3. What relationship between planters and indentured servants do you infer from these selections?
  4. What relationship between indentured servants and enslaved Africans do you infer from these selections?
  5. Compare these selections with the accounts of free colonists in this section (such as the Mexico City tradesmen, the Barbados planter, the Pennsylvania official, and the Connecticut farmer). Compare their visions of prosperity, stability, and permanence.
  6. What role did the institution of servitude play in the colonies' transition to permanence?
  7. In the indenture contracts, who is contracting with whom for what? Who does and does not sign the contract? What does the template form signify about the institution of servitude?

Topic Framing Questions
  •  What factors contributed to the permanent presence of Europe in North America by the mid 1600s?
  •  How did Europeans adjust their cultures and institutions to create permanent societies in North America?
  •  What roles did commerce, religion, geographic setting, population diversity, and cultural perspectives play in developing a stable colony?
  •  What did "North America" signify to Europe in the mid 1600s?

George Alsop:  3
James Revel:
(much white space)
Servant uprising:  1
Indenture contracts:  2
18 pages
Supplemental Sites
Indentured Servant, overview from Wikipedia

Virginia Laws related to Indentured Servants, from Virtual Jamestown

From Indentured Servitude to Racial Slavery, from PBS

"Death and the Lady," folk tune to which Revels's poem is to be sung, from The Comtemplator, Lesley Nelson-Burns' Folk Music Site

*PDF file - You will need software on your computer that allows you to read and print Portable Document Format (PDF) files, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you do not have this software, you may download it FREE from Adobe's Web site.

   Alsop:History Matters, from George Mason University and the City University of New York (CUNY)
   Revels:Virginia Center for Digital History, University of Virginia
   Uprising:National Humanities Center

Image: Indenture contract of John Getchall/Gatchall, 19, of Uphatch, Summersett, England, for six-year indenture in Virginia; date of indenture, 3 June 1684. Virginia Center for Digital History, University of Virginia. Permission pending.

Toolbox: American Beginnings: 1492-1690
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Revised: August 2006