Now there are two words you don’t often see together – “white slavery.” But it’s true. Our Colonial past is dotted with this little-told chapter about immigrants that came to America under less than ideal circumstances. Here’s a quick primer on the experience your ancestors may have had in coming to America.
Generally speaking there were two types of forced or unpaid labor in Colonial America – the indentured servant and the convict.
The Indentured Servant
The concept of the indentured servant came from a long tradition of apprenticeship in England. It was very common for young men to work – unpaid – for a term of seven years for a tradesman (cobbler, cooper, blacksmith, baker) in exchange for the opportunity to learn his craft. The young man would live with the tradesman – often in the loft or a barn – and at the end of the term, he was free to start his own business or work as a skilled journeyman. It was a perfectly respectable and time honored tradition.
From this stemmed the practice of indenture. As employment was often hard to find for many reasons and America loomed large on the horizon, young men and women would self-indenture with either someone in America or a ship captain headed to the Colonies. In exchange for free passage to America the indentured servant would work for the farmer or tradesman in America for seven years or be sold off by the ship captain to a farmer or tradesman for whom he’d work seven years unpaid.
Another indenture scenario played out, too. It was even less seemly. Where there is an opportunity for profit, you will always find opportunists and 17th & 18th Century England was no different. Some men took the opportunity to “sell” the “good life” in America to young, unsuspecting boys, who where in turn sold to farmers or craftsmen in America. Alternatively, some young boys were “spirited” or kidnapped and pressed into indenture having been sold for a tidy sum.
The Convict or Felon
If you can imagine the times of Charles Dicken’s England, where the urban streets were slums and the poor lived in squalor conditions, you get a pretty good picture of why many turned to petty theft and prostitution for survival. Remember Jean Valjean, the hero in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables? He went to jail for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family. The same circumstances were true in England.
As a result the King had a problem: overflowing jails. While in hindsight there were many options available to him to resolve the problem, his choice at the time was to have “transported” (that was the official sentence) persons convicted for crimes less than highway robbery, murder, witchcraft, and the like. In other words, all petty thieves and prostitutes were sent to America for a period of time, usually seven years, as their sentence. There were estimated 50-60,000 persons transported to America from the jails of English cities. They did hard labor often in the plantations of Maryland and Virginia where there was a need for cheep labor. Those transported were as young as twelve. If a woman became pregnant she had to do extra time for the child. It wasn’t pretty.
As you might imagine the records for this experience aren’t terribly plentiful. #1. Most of the immigrants were illiterate and didn’t leave journals, diaries or other records. #2. It wasn’t a time in the lives of most people that they would choose to remember and want to document. That said, there are a few nuggets of extant records that open a window to this world.
- The Proceedings of the Old Bailey is an absolutely amazing website and database with the actual transcripts of the court proceedings in England from 1674 to 1913. If your ancestor was convicted – for anything – there would be a court record and you can find it here. Remember the sentence for being sent to America is “transported.” You’ll see it often in these records.
- There are references to servitude and bondage (convicts) in church, court, probate, newspaper (runaway ads), immigration, emigration, deeds, and even a few journals. I have a selected bibliography from my class on this same subject. You can find it under bibliographies and download it from here .
- I’ve created a small collection of references found on Hathi Trust (online book library) on this subject. You can find it here. (If you find a book that is “limited search” search for your ancestor’s name (all spelling variations), and be sure to click “find in a library” to obtain the book in hard copy.