Jamestown Interpretive Essays

Leaving England: The Social Background of Indentured Servants in the Seventeenth Century

James Horn
John D. Rockefeller Jr. Librar
The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

(Images From Adapting to a New World: English Society in the Seventeenth Century Chesapeake by James Horn. Copyright © 1994 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. www.uncpress.unc.edu)

During the seventeenth century, emergent societies of the English Atlantic were transformed by large-scale migrations of hundreds of thousands of white settlers. Most ended up in colonies that produced the major staples of colonial trade, tobacco and sugar: approximately 210,000 went to the Caribbean, 130,000 to the Chesapeake (Virginia and Maryland), 24,000 to the Middle Colonies, and 21,000 to New England.

Figure 1: Destinations and Annual Totals of Servants Emigrating from Bristol to America, 1654-1680.

The peak period of English emigration occurred within a single generation, from 1630 to 1660, but the rapid growth of the tobacco industry created a continual demand for cheap labor in Virginia and Maryland. In the 1630s and 1640s, white immigration averaged about 8,000-9,000 per decade, surged to 16,000-20,000 per decade from 1650 to 1680, before falling back to 13,000-14,000 in the 1680s and 1690s. Servitude was a defining characteristic of settler society in the Chesapeake. A far larger proportion of the population was committed to contractual labor than in England, and indentured servants (not enslaved Africans) would comprise the main source of labor in the tobacco fields during the entire century. (1)

Early Virginia was an immigrant society, highly sensitive to the social composition of new arrivals and closely attuned to the sweeping changes taking place in England. This is not the place to examine such changes in detail, but a number had a direct bearing on English colonizing projects and on the experience of servants before embarking for America. Of major significance, since so much stemmed from it, was the doubling of England's population from 2.3 to 4.8 million in little more than a century between 1520 and 1630. This huge increase had serious and far-reaching consequences. Rising prices and declining real wages led to a disastrous drop in the living standards of the poorer sections of society, while sporadic harvest failures and food shortages brought widespread misery throughout many parts of southern and central England. Poverty was reflected by the rapid rise in the numbers of poor in town and country alike, the spreading slums of cities, spiraling mortality rates, the massive increase in vagrancy, and the steady tramp of the young and out of work from one part of the country to another in search of subsistence. By the early seventeenth century, the third world of the poor had risen dramatically in some regions, particularly in woodlands and forests, manufacturing districts, and the country's burgeoning towns, cities, and ports, where as much as half the population lived on or below the poverty line. (2)
For many poor, taking ship to the plantations was a spectacular form of subsistence migration, necessitated by the difficulties of earning a living and the lack of any immediate prospect of conditions getting better. Across the century, about three-quarters of all English settlers arrived in Virginia as indentured servants and served usually four to five years in return for the cost of their passage, board, lodging, and various freedom dues. They came from a wide variety of regions and communities: London and its environs, southern and central England, the West Country and, in fewer numbers, from northern counties.

Figure 2: Origins of Servants Emigrating from Bristol to the Chesapeake, 1654-1686

Figure 3: Origins of Servants Emigrating from London to the Chesapeake, 1682-1686

Figure 4: Origins of Bristol Servants to the Chesapeake, by Number and Community, 1654-1686

Many were from urban backgrounds and had lived in small market towns, manufacturing centers, provincial capitals, ports, and cities most of their lives or had moved from the countryside a few months or years before taking ship. Those from rural communities came mainly from populous wood pasture districts, forests and fens, and marginal areas. Together they represented a broad spectrum of the young and single, from the destitute and desperate to the lower-middle classes.

Particular reasons that prompted servants to emigrate are obscure, but occasionally there are glimpses. Thomas Constable of London was described simply as "a poor man" when he emigrated in 1618, and in social rank only marginally above the likes of Robert Kinge, John Bromley, and Jane Wenchman, vagrants plucked off the streets of London and transported as servants of the Virginia Company in the same year. On board the Ann, which docked at Jamestown in September 1623, were artisans and laborers-such as Owen Dawson of St. Martins in the Fields, London, a joiner, Edward Rogers of Purbury, Somerset, a carpenter, and William Kelloway, "aged 20," from Portsmouth, a husbandman-sent to repeople the colony after the great Indian uprising eighteen months earlier had reduced the English population by a third. Thomas Jarvis, a tailor from Bishopsgate, London, was given a £1 "towards supplying his wants" by the Drapers Company when he left for Virginia in 1635, and later in the century John Brery of Ottley, Yorkshire, contracted himself for four years, "Being lately disbanded out of millitary service." (3)
After having his entire estate confiscated by Parliamentarian forces during the English Civil War, Nicholas Fussell, a bookseller of London, was "reduced to such necessity that he was forct to send two of his Sons [as] Comon Servants to Virginia." James Collins from Wolvercot, Oxfordshire, moved to the city sometime after his father died, where he was taken up from the streets as "an idle boy" in the summer of 1684. Faced with the choice of being sent to prison for vagrancy or laboring in the plantations, he opted for twelve years service in Virginia. Aboard ship, he might well have met Will Sommersett, formerly of Whitechapel, London, bound for nine years, who had no means of supporting himself after being abandoned by his father. The length of their indentures suggest that both were no more than children when they left England. Loss of one or both parents was common among poor migrants, and parishes routinely rid themselves of the expense and trouble of caring for unwanted children by indenturing them for service overseas. (4)
These examples suggest something of the diversity of social backgrounds that characterized English servants during the seventeenth century. At the very bottom of the social ladder were the poor, young, and unemployed who composed the majority of migrants, but there were also skilled men who were doubtless attracted by the high wages on offer in early Jamestown and elsewhere in Virginia. Other young men and women were perhaps impressed by stories of the profits to be made from tobacco, or were persuaded to leave by the prospect of becoming independent landowners after what they construed as an apprenticeship in tobacco husbandry. Some intended to stay for good, some only for a year or two before returning home or moving elsewhere in the colonies.
Whatever their backgrounds or reasons for leaving England, whether impoverished and desperate or seeking a new life "beyond the seas," all embarked for Virginia in the hope of making their fortune or at least finding a comfortable sufficiency. During the century, the sheer scale of servant emigration from England transformed a struggling outpost on the further reaches of the English-speaking world into a profitable and populous colony, and ensured the survival of Virginia as the first of many "Englands out of England" in America.
Suggested Readings:

Beier, A. L. Masterless Men: The Vagrancy Problem in England, 1560-1640. New York and London: Methuen, 1985.

Canny, Nicholas, ed. Europeans on the Move: Studies on European Migration, 1500-1800. Oxford: Clarendon Press and New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Galenson, David. White Servitude in Colonial America: An Economic Analysis. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

Horn, James. Adapting to a New World: English Society in the Seventeenth-Century Chesapeake. Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press for the Institute of Early American History and Culture, 1994.

Menard, Russell R. "British Migration to the Chesapeake Colonies in the Seventeenth Century." In Lois Green Carr, Philip D. Morgan, and Jean B. Russo, eds., Colonial Chesapeake Society, pp. 99-132. Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press for the Institute of Early American History and Culture, 1994.

End Notes:

1 Henry A. Gemery, "Emigration from the British Isles to the New World: Inferences from Colonial Populations," Research in Economic History, V (1980):179-231; Russell R. Menard, "British Migration to the Chesapeake Colonies in the Seventeenth Century," in Lois Green Carr, Philip D. Morgan, and Jean B. Russo, eds., Colonial Chesapeake Society, (Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press for the Institute of Early American History and Culture, 1988), Table 3, p. 105; Nicholas Canny, ed., Europeans on the Move: Studies on European Migration, 1500-1800, (Oxford: Clarendon Press and New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), pp. 39-75.

2 This and the following paragraph derive from James Horn, Adapting to a New World: English Society in the Seventeenth-Century Chesapeake, (Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press for the Institute of Early American History and Culture, 1994), chapters 1 and 2.

3 H. R. McIlwaine, ed., Minutes of the Council and General Court of Colonial Virginia, (Richmond: Virginia State Library, 1924; reprint, 1979), p. 6; Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Colonial Virginia Records Project (CVRP) no. 879; Robert Hume, Early Child Immigrants to Virginia, 1618-1642. Copied From the Records of Bridwell Royal Hospital, (Baltimore: Magna Carta Book Company, 1986), pp. 1-2; George Sherwood, American Colonists in English Records. A Guide to Direct References in Authentic Records, Passenger Lists Not in "Hotten," &c., &c., &c., (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1961), p. 24; Michael Ghirelli, A List of Emigrants from England to America, 1682-1692. With Introductory Notes by Marion J. Kaminkow, (Baltimore: Magna Carta Book Company, 1968), p. 10.

4 State Papers 29/361 (Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, M-930); Ghirelli, List of Emigrants, pp. 18-19, 76; C. D. P. Nicholson, "Some Early Emigrants to America," Genealogists' Magazine, 13 (1959-1961):12.

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