Indentured Servants in Maryland


ContractIndentured servants are typically defined as poor immigrants from England who, because they could not pay to come to the American colonies, contracted out their labor services for a period usually lasting about seven years in exchange for passage to the New World. Once they arrived, they initially worked for the master who brought them over and then received their freedom and a small plot of land at the end of their term of service. While this scenario undoubtedly played itself out in some cases, the reality for most indentured servants was quite different. First, the idea of an indenture, or a labor contract, was quite common in English tradition and was a part of English law. Second, Maryland’s early legislature created a series of laws addressing a range of issues related to indentured servitude which show that servants were not just poor white men, but children of both genders, as well as Africans. Additionally, indenture contracts were bought and sold, bartered, and litigated. Indentures were both a traditional means of securing work training, similar to an apprenticeship, and were a form of punishment. Lastly, terms of service could be until maturity if a child, seven years as typically described, or any number of years that the master, the family, the courts, or the worker himself deemed appropriate or necessary. The Maryland colonial legislature, recognizing the need to develop a stable economy and labor force, acted numerous times to codify the definitions and boundaries of indentured servant contracts. The series of laws clearly shows that they system was much more than simple seven year terms in exchange for free passage to the colony.

National History Standards

Materials compiled in this document can be used by educators to fulfill the following National History Standards for Grades 5-12:

Era 2: Colonization and Settlement (1585-1763)

Standard 1: Why the Americas attracted Europeans, why they brought enslaved Africans to their colonies, and how Europeans struggled for control of North America and the Caribbean

Standard 1A: The student understands how diverse immigrants affected the formation of European colonies. 
5-12: Explain why so many European indentured servants risked the hardships of bound labor overseas. [Consider multiple perspectives]
5-12: Evaluate the opportunities for European immigrants, free and indentured, in North America and the Caribbean and the difficulties they encountered. [Compare competing historical narratives]

Standard 3:How the values and institutions of European economic life took root in the colonies, and how slavery reshaped European and African life in the America

Standard 3B: The student understands economic life and the development of labor systems in the English colonies. 
7-12: Compare the characteristics of free labor, indentured servitude, and chattel slavery. [Compare and contrast differing labor systems] 
9-12: Explain the shift from indentured servitude to chattel slavery in the southern colonies. [Challenge arguments of historical inevitability] 

Primary Resources

  1. DESCRIPTION: An Act For the Authority of Justices of the Peace
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED:  February 1638
    SOURCE:   Archives of Maryland, Proceedings and Acts of the General Assembly January 1637/8-September 1664 in Archives of Maryland Online
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  2. DESCRIPTION: An Act for all Servants Comeing into the province with Indentures
    SOURCE:  Archives of Maryland, Proceedings and Acts of the General Assembly January 1637/8-September 1664 in Archives of Maryland Online
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  3. DESCRIPTION: An Act Limiting the times of Servants
    SOURCE: Archives of Maryland, Proceedings and Acts of the General Assembly January 1637/8-September 1664 in Archives of Maryland Online
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  4. DESCRIPTION: An Act describing the age of indenture
    SOURCE: Archives of Maryland, An Abridgement of the Laws in Force and Use in Her Majesty’s Plantations 1704 in Archives of Maryland Online
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  5. DESCRIPTION: Indenture Contract of William Buckland (example from Virginia)
    SOURCE:  Virtual Jamestown
    REPOSITORY: Crandall Shifflett

  6. DESCRIPTION: An Acte lymiting Servants tymes
    SOURCE: Articles of Maryland, Proceedings and Acts of the General Assembly 1637/8-September 1664 in Archives of Maryland Online
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  7. DESCRIPTION: Charles County Court Proceedings, 1662-1666
    SOURCE: Archives of Maryland, Proceedings of the County Court of Charles County, 1658-1666in Archives of Maryland Online
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  8. DESCRIPTION: Widow offers her young children as indentured servants
    SOURCE: Archives of Maryland, Proceedings of the County Court of Charles County, 1658-1666in Archives of Maryland Online
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

See also: Daniel Dulany: Indentured Servant to Statesman

Additional Media Resources

Understanding Maryland Records Indentured Servants. From the Maryland State Archives

Registers of Servants Sent to Foreign Plantations, 1654- 1686 Database of contracts from Virtual Jamestown.

“They Live Well in the Time of their Service”: George Alsop Writes of Servants in Maryland, 1663. In History Matters.

Additional Instructional Resources

Historical Investigation – Indentured Servitude. From School Improvement in Maryland.

Indentured Servant. From TeacherVision.

Secondary Resources

Alderman, Clifford Lindsey. Colonists for Sale: the Story of Indentured Servants in America. New York: Macmillan, 1975.

Alsop, George. A Character of the Province of Maryland. Baltimore: Maryland Historical Society, 1880.

Bigham, Barbara. "Colonists in Bondage: Indentured Servants in America.” Early American Life 10 (October 1979): 30-33, 83-4.

Bremner, Robert H., ed. Children and Youth in America: A Documentary History. Volume 1: 1600-1865. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1970.

Fields, Darin E. “George Alsop’s Indentured Servant in A Character of the Province of Maryland.” Maryland Historical Magazine (1990): 221-235.

Galenson, David W. “The Rise and Fall of Indentured Servitude in the Americas: An Economic Analysis.” The Journal of Economic History 44 (March 1984), 43-76.

Jones, Edward F. A Listing of Slaves & Indentured Servants, 1668-1720. Salisbury, MD: Research Center for Delmarva History and Culture, 1997.

Karlin, Wayne. The Wished-For Country. Willimantic, CT: Curbstone Press, 2002

Lancaster, R. Kent. “Almost Chattel: The Lives of Indentured Servants at Hampton-Northampton, Baltimore CountyMaryland Historical Magazine (Fall 1999).

Leonard, R. Bernice. Bound to Serve: the Indentured Children in Talbot County, Maryland, 1794-1920. St. Michaels, MD: R.B. Leonard, 1983.

McCormac, Eugene I. White Servitude in Maryland 1634-1820. Westminster, MD: Willow Bend Books, 2002.

Menard, Russell R. Migrants, Servants and Slaves: Unfree Labor in Colonial British America. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2001.

Menard, Russell R. 1991. "Indentured Servitude." In Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, eds. The Reader' s Companion to American History. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 542– 543.

Morgan, Kenneth. Slavery and Servitude in Colonial North America: A Short History. New York: New York University Press, 2001.

Van Der Zee, John. Bound Over: Indentured Servitude and American Conscience. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985.

Walsh, Lorena S. “Servitude and Opportunity in Charles County, Maryland, 1658-1705.” In Land, Aubrey, Carr, Lois Green & Papenfuse, Edward C. Law, Society, and Politics in Early Maryland. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977.

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Teaching American History in Maryland is a collaborative partnership of the Maryland State Archives and the Center for History Education (CHE), University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC), and the following sponsoring school systems: Anne Arundel County Public Schools, Baltimore City Public School System, Baltimore County Public Schools, and Howard County Public Schools.

Other program partners include the Martha Ross Center for Oral History, Maryland Historical Society, State Library Resource Center/Enoch Pratt Free Library, with assistance from the National Archives and Records Administration and the Library of Congress. The program is funded through grants from the U.S. Department of Education.

This document packet was researched and developed by Bill Vincent.


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