A while back I did a blog post about Redemptioners, who were Colonial German immigrants to Pennsylvania. They bound themselves into servitude to pay or repay the cost of their transportation to America.
I have since wanted to come back and touch on the subject of indenture in Pennsylvania not related to the Germans.
Pennsylvania Indentured Servants
Indentured servants, as distinguished from Redemptioners, came to America from England. They, like the Redemptioners, could not afford passage to America. So, most willingly bound themselves to a patron, who would pay their passage. Then upon arrival they would serve on average seven years for either the American patron or be sold off to another person – often a tradesman or farmer – to work for them for the designated period.
At the end of the period, the indentured servant would be given their “freedom dues,” which was often 50 acres of land. I’ve read that some even received farm tools and two suits. The idea was that now that they are free, they have the means to support themselves. Nathan W. Murphy, who has done extensive research on indenture, shares that one means to finding indentured servants is to look for persons leasing land. Presumably, it is because they had so little upon release that they could not buy land, and for whatever reasons were not given land in their freedom dues.
Pennsylvania Indentured Servants Records
Generally speaking, there are not a lot of indenture records. As you might imagine, most wouldn’t want to keep a record of this unseemly period. Further, most were illiterate, and a document or contract would have little importance. That said, Pennsylvania seems to have a more robust pool of documentation than found in other states. Again, generally speaking Colonial Pennsylvania was very good at keeping track of immigrants, witness the Oaths of Allegiance.
I started to compile a nice bibliography of records for this post, when I found a very good one with annotations from the compiler on the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission Website (Pennsylvania State Archives). The compiler is Mary F. Schoedel, and the bibliography is dated 2006. She has complied 17 excellent sources leading off with the extensive and pre-eminent work of Peter Wilson Coldham.
Check out her bibliography here.
Historians tell us that between 350,000 and 500,000 indentured servants came to America mostly settling in Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. If your ancestors came to America pre-1800 and settled in one of these three states I would encourage you to look into the possibility of indenture. Who knows what you’ll find!