Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Tracing an Indentured Servant Ancestor

Indentured servants can be found among the forebears of most people with southern colonial ancestry.[1] Identifying an ancestor as indentured, however, is a challenge. These men and women created few records while bound and, once they became free, records might not mention their previous status. More daunting is tracing known indentured servants back to their arrival in America and from there to a European port of departure and place of birth. Some original records generated specifically about these servants have been lost, but many sources survive in the United States and Europe that can help researchers identify these ancestors and understand their lives.


The term indentured servant arose in the context of a system for financing immigration to North America primarily during the colonial period. Europeans who could not afford passage to America sold themselves to merchants and seamen in exchange for transportation to the colonies.[2] This arrangement was spelled out in a contract—called an indenture—in which the emigrant agreed to work without compensation for a fixed term, typically four or five years.

Servants often entered into such contracts freely but sometimes merchants and ship captains, in a practice called “spiriting,” kidnapped impoverished children and youths, forcing them into an indenture.[3] Shiploads of these volunteers and victims disembarked in colonial port towns and along river banks, where ship masters sold them to plantation owners and others who needed workers. These strangers became the servants’ masters and literally owned them for the duration of their contracts.[4]





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