The Africans who came to America and were sold as slaves weren’t the only slaves in the United States. Slavery has gone by many names over the years.
At least half and maybe as many as two-thirds of all the colonist were enslaved. There were 20 servants on The Mayflower.
In a perfect world, a poverty-stricken individual or family in England, Scotland, or Ireland would sign an agreement with the ship’s captain or a future master before embarking on the journey to America. The passage to America would be paid by the master and the indentured servant could expect to receive clothes, food and shelter in return.
But the world isn’t perfect and sometimes the master did not keep his bargain and sometimes the servant would run away.
The only difference between indentured servants and slaves was that the indentured servant was recognized as a individual under the law and after their term of service was up they were given full rights as freemen.
There were several similarities between slaves and indentured servants: indentured servants and slaves could be hired out, sold or auctioned even if they were separated from family. They were examined like horses before being purchased.
The work day was from dawn to sunset. In the evening servants and slaves worked side by side in the mill until midnight or 1 a.m. Servants and slaves did the same work, grew their food together, ate and lived together. Indentured servants were often betrayed and taken advantage of. With such a long work day and very little sleep and no pay, they were physically and financially broke. Some were even worked to death.
Indentured servants could be beaten, whipped or branded. In some colonies, runaways were hung. Punishment consisted of extension of their term of servitude. Indentured servants that ran away had to serve an extra week for every day that they were missing. If missing for a week, they had to serve an extra month. If missing for a month, they had to serve an extra 6 months. They were often charged with the cost of their capture.
John Howland was an indentured servant who sailed on the Mayflower. The Mayflower was cramped with 102 passengers and 30-40 crew members. There was not enough food and the conditions on the Mayflower were unsanitary. The voyage took just over two months.
Illnesses on board these ships included seasickness, dysentery, scurvy, mouth rot, measles, smallpox and fever. Pregnant women and small children seldom survived the journey. Convicted felons were transported below deck and chained to the wall with a padlocked collar on their necks. The master kept the freedom dues of convicted felons.
Mary Morrill, later Mrs. Peter Foulger, was the grandmother of Benjamin Franklin. She came to Massachusetts as an indentured servant of Rev. Hugh Peters. Benjamin Franklin was indentured to his brother, James, from age 12-21. His freedom dues consisted of the clothes he was wearing plus one new suit of clothes.
Peter Williamson was taken to America by force. He was kidnapped at the age of 8, taken to Philadelphia and sold as an indentured servant for 7 years. His master was Hugh Wilson, who had also been kidnapped as a child and sold into white slavery. Wilson had since earned his freedom.
The Scottish term for the practice of stealing children, kidnap, came into the English language after the practice became so notorious that kidnapped boys were herded thru the town of Aberdeen in flocks. They were confined in barns and warehouses and kept by the town marshal. They were sold to “soul drivers” or dealers who sold the boys in lots of 50. They were beaten until they learned hard labor. Officials did nothing to discourage the practice because the Crown was devoted to colonizing America.
Poor Germans migrated to England in 1709. The British government sent some of them to the colonies to provide the British with naval stores: timber, pitch and oakum. They owed the British government for the expense of sending them overseas. After their period of servitude was over each one would receive £5 and every family would receive 40 acres.
In January 1710, more than 3,000 German settlers left in 10 ships. On arrival, they learned that by order of the governor all children were to be apprenticed. By 1750, certain Germans, called Neulanders, who had settled in Pennsylvania were hired to return to Germany and persuade their countrymen to come to America. The Dutch shipping merchants paid these Neulanders a commission. Those being taken to American had to pay by the day for their trip, so the shippers dragged out the journey as much as possible.
The Germans who came to America were kept on board the ship until someone purchased them. Since the ship was no longer responsible for feeding them, servants who could not find a buyer would starve to death. Buyers would negotiate with the emigrants for the length of their service. Children were indentured until the age of 21. Children and their parents could be sold to different buyers in different parts of the country and may not see each other for years or maybe not for the rest of their lives. Children under 5 could not be sold. A person with a sick spouse or a spouse that had died on the voyage would have to serve two indentures–one for himself and one for the spouse. Children of parents who had died at sea were responsible for their own fare and also the fare of their parents.
The story of the Neulanders who came to America with a false sense of hope for wealth is also the story of Jurgis Rudkus, a fictional Lithuanian immigrant, whose story is found in Upton Sinclair’s book, The Jungle. When President Theodore Roosevelt read The Jungle he was so moved by the story that he started an investigation on the meat-packing industry of Chicago. This investigation led to the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act, both of which were signed by Roosevelt on June 30, 1906.
The Ludlow Massacre was a real-life situation very similar to the story of Jurgis Rudkus. The miners worked long hours for low pay. They lived in company owned housing and were paid in script that could only be spent at the company store where the prices were high. Fatality rates were twice the national average. The miners were evicted and left to deal with the harsh Colorado winter without shelter. The National Guard fired into the tent camp on April 20, 1914. The miners fired back. When the fighting ended, sixty-six people lay dead.
In 1718, four year old Matthew Thornton emigrated from Ireland with his parents, James and Elizabeth, and an older brother, James. They were redemptioners who were sold into service in what is now Maine. Matthew was apprenticed to Dr. Grout of Leicester, Massachusetts for the study of medicine. Matthew Thornton was chosen as a delegate to represent New Hampshire in the Continental Congress. On November 4, 1776, he signed his name of the Declaration of Independence.
In July 1747, eighty-eight men in chains arrived in Virginia bound for Maryland. These men were Scottish soldiers taken prisoner at the Battle of Culloden. They were transported to America to serve as indentured servants.
Generally, four to seven years of service would pay the debt of a person’s passage. When a person had worked his period of servitude, he would be given his “freedom dues”. At first when land was plentiful, a servant would get 50 acres of uncleared land. (The deed to the land would be put in the name of the Master to hold for the servant until he finished his years of service.) Later, when most of the land had been settled, they were only given the right to purchase land. Sometimes the freedom dues would be a new suit of clothes or seed and farming tools.
At the end of his indentured servitude, a freed servant had to pay surveyor’s and clerk’s fee for a patent on the land he received as freedom dues. The family would need to find somewhere to live while the land was being cleared and a house was being built. They needed some way to make money until the crop was planted and harvested. The former indentured servants had to buy tools, seed and livestock. Freedom did not come cheap. Many of these people were forced to hire themselves out as wage laborers, to lease land, or to work as sharecroppers. Sharecropper is just another name for slavery. Just like the minimum wage workers of today, they ran the risk of falling into debt and sinking back into servitude. Parents often indentured their children because they could not afford to feed, clothe, and educate them.
Indentured women worked as household servants. They were often owned by financially pinched people who could not afford hired servants or slaves. The best way to get reliable help whose service would not be interrupted by marriage or pregnancy was to indenture a young girl. Household help was required to sleep either in the kitchen or at the foot of the master’s bed. If a strange noise was heard or if a cry of “fire” was heard, the servant was sent to investigate. Domestic servants had little privacy. They were responsible for nursing the sick . Church attendance was at the church of the master’s choice.
Women who did become pregnant had to serve extra, usually an extra year, for the time that they missed work due to pregnancy and labor. The baby was also indentured.
In 1633, the Massachusetts Bay Colony made servitude the legal penalty for crime. In Virginia, boys were apprenticed for 7 years. If the boy did not commit a crime, then he would be a tenant for the next 7 years. If he had committed a crime, he would begin his 7 year term as a bond servant over again. In court, the master’s word would always be taken as the truth.
In the poorer parts of London, men were inveigled away while drunk. As soon as they would sleep it off, they would find themselves chained below deck in a ship where they were kept for a month or more before being shipped to America as indentured servants.
The Mandarin word, shanghai, came into use in the English language to describe the practice of kidnapping children and men to work as slaves on ships. The port of San Francisco was the place where many Chinese who were shanghaied came when brought to America.
Apprenticeship was a way for the poor to get their children educated and to assure that they would be able to learn a trade that would increase their social standing and help them get out of poverty. Even today we find that education and skills are useful tools for getting out of poverty. Skilled crafts were passed down to the next generation by the master-slave relationship of the apprentice. Just like Colonel Sanders secret fried chicken recipe or the Bush’s family bean recipe, secrets of the trade would be passed down orally and the family gained a reputation and exclusivity that was better than obtaining a patent. The master would reveal the secret of his craft to his apprentice. The apprentice would pledge not to reveal the secret.
The apprentice would usually work for the first few years just doing household chores without learning anything about his master’s craft. Henry Harmon Spalding, an illegitimate child, was 14 months old when he was bound to a wife-beating farmer in New York. At age 17 he was kicked out of the house.
Frederick Douglass, abolitionist, was the son of a white father and a slave mother. At age 8 he was sent to Baltimore to become a house servant. At age 15 his owner died and he became the property of another Maryland planter who hired him out to a small-scale farmer with a reputation for being able to break obstinate slaves. The following year he was hired out to another planter and sent to Baltimore as an apprentice to a Fell’s Point shipbuilder. For 8 months he learned the trade of caulking. Then his owner found him work in another Baltimore shipyard where he brought home wages of $6 to $9 per week. The money was turned over to his master and he was given an allowance.
Our 13th President, Millard Fillmore was apprenticed to Benjamin Hungerford, a cloth maker. Our 17th President was also an apprentice. Andrew Johnson was born into poverty. His father died when Andrew was only 3 years old. His mother remarried but his step-father was just as poor as she was. Andrew and his brother, William, were apprenticed to James Shelby, a tailor, when Andrew was 10 years old. When Andrew was 15 years old, he and William ran away from the tailor shop. An ad was place in the newspaper for their return. “Ten Dollars Reward. Ran away from the subscriber, two apprentice boys, legally bound, named William and Andrew Johnson … [payment] to any person who will deliver said apprentices to me in Raleigh, or I will give the above reward for Andrew Johnson alone.” Since Andrew was under a legally bound contract to work for James Shelby until the age of 21, he could not find work elsewhere and was in danger of being arrested and returned to Shelby to serve out the rest of his contract. Andrew was forbidden to even set up a shop of his own while still under contract to Shelby.
Mark Twain was pulled out of school at the age of 12 when his father died. He was apprenticed to a printer. James Harper of Harper Brothers was an apprentice. Horace Greely was apprenticed from age 15 to 19. William Lloyd Garrison was apprenticed at age 13 to Ephraim W. Allen. He and his mother wrote to each other only sparingly because they could not afford the price of a postage stamp. Fannie Garrison wanted her son to come for a visit before she died. After much pleading on the part of mother and son, Lloyd was finally allowed to go and see his mother but the visit was short and he was back with Allen when his mother died.
Kit Carson was also an apprentice. He found the work as a saddler not to his liking so he ran away.
Apprenticeships were also used as a means of controlling juvenile delinquents. An apprentice might serve his master’s term of duty in the military or could do work as a strikebreaker. Indenture was a way to hold the young people in unskilled factory jobs. They obtained employment but did not receive any education and received no training in any kind of craft.
Slaves were also apprenticed. Some planters preferred to have craftsmen on the property instead of hiring outside labor. A slave with craftsmen skills was more valuable than a field hand. Slaves could serve as an apprentice under the guidance of another slave. Craftsmen who were slaves could be hired out to another plantation. Slaves from Africa brought with them skills in metal working, carpentry, leather work, pottery, weaving, blacksmithing and harness making, just to name a few.
While the African slaves were freed in 1863, children would not be so lucky. The first call for the abolishment of child labor was in 1904. The first child labor law was signed by President Woodrow Wilson in 1916. Two years later the Supreme Court struck down this law. In 1924, Congress recommended an amendment to the constitution dealing with child labor but this legislation was blocked and the bill was dropped. In 1938, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act which placed limits on child labor.
And how did the great depression end child slavery? It’s a story we’ve heard so often, both past and present–the adults were desperate for paying jobs, so desperate that they were willing to work at the same rate of pay as children. We all remember the recent downturn in the economy when people ran out of unemployment benefits and had to take any job they could just to put food on the table. Many people were under-employed as a result.
Sharecropping continued as late as the 1930’s and 1940’s. Indentured servitude was outlawed in the United States in 1917.
For Further Reading
Modern Day Slavery – Part 6
Mississippi flag; photo by Richard Threlkeld on Flickr (noncommercial use permitted with attribution / share alike).
Copyright © 2016
All Rights Reserved with Full Rights Reserved for Original Contributor