Virtual Jamestown

Laws on Indentured Servants

August 3, 1619

[Indentured servants were an important part of the labor force in seventeenth-century Virginia. While their role as the primary source of bound labor would become increasingly less significant as the numbers of African slaves grew, there were a num ber of laws enacted throughout the seventeenth century that restricted both masters and servants. One of the first recorded cases of a servant/master dispute was recorded in the first meeting of the elected assembly at Jamestown.]

Captaine William Powell presented a pettition to the generall Assembly against one Thomas Garnett, a servant of his, not onely for extreame neglect of his business to the great loss and prejudice of the said Captaine, and for openly and impudently abus ing his house, in sight both of Master and Mistress, through wantonnes with a woman servant of theirs, a widdowe, but also for falsely accusing him to the Governor both of Drunkennes and Thefte, and besides for bringing all his fellow servants to testifie on his side, wherein they justly failed him. It was thought fitt by the general assembly (the Governour himself giving sentence), that he should stand fower dayes with his eares nayled to the Pillory, viz: Wednesday, Aug. 4thm and so likewise Thursday, fryday, and Satturday next following, and every of those dayes should be publiquely whipped. Tyler, Narratives of Early Virginia, 268.

March 1642-3

[A variety of restrictions on the conduct of servants were passed over the course of the 1600s. In many cases, they were simply treated as children: the masters and mistresses were mandated to take care of them, and the servants were ordered to obey them. The following restrictions reveal some of the more pressing problems related to indentured servants as seen by the members of the House of Burgesses.]

Whereas many great abuses and much detriment have been found to arise both against the law of God and likewise to the service of manye masters of families in the collony occasioned through secret marriages of servants, their masters and mistresses bein g not any ways made privy thereto, as also by committing of fornication, for preventing the like abuses hereafter, Be it enacted and confirmed by this Grand Assembly that what man servant soever hath since January 1640 or hereafter shall secretly marry wi th any mayd or woman servant without the consent of her master or mistress if she be a widow, he or they so offending shall in the first place serve out his or their tyme or tymes with his or their masters or mistresses, and after shall serve his or their master or mistress one compleat year more for such offence committed, And the mayd or woman servant so marrying without consent as aforesaid shall for such her offence double the tyme of service with her master and mistress, And a ffreeman so offending s hall give satisfaction to the master or mistress by doubling the value of the service and pay a ffine of five hundred pounds of tobacco to the parish where such offence shall be comitted…. Hening, I, 252-253.

Whereas complaints are at every quarter court exhibitted against divers persons who entertain and enter into covenants with runaway servants and freemen who have formerly hired themselves to others to the great prejudice if not the vtter vndoeing of di vers porr men, thereby also encourageing servants to runn from their masters and obscure themselves in some remote plantations, Vpon consideration had for the future preventing of the like injurious and vnjust dealings, Be it enacted and confirmed that wh at person or persons soever shall entertain any person as hireling, or sharer or vpon any other conditions for one whole yeare without certificate from the commander or any one commissioner of the place, that he or she is free from any ingagement of servi ce, The person so hireing without such certificate as aforesaid, shall for every night that he or she entertaineth any servant either as hireling or otherwise, fforfeit to the master or mistris of the said servant twenty pounds of tobacco. Hening, I, 253-254.

Whereas there are divers loytering runaways in the collony who very often absent themselves from their masters service, And sometimes in two or three monthes cannot be found, whereby their said masters are at great charge in finding them, And many time s even to the loss of their year’s labour before they be had, Be it therefore enacted and confirmed that all runaways that shall absent themselves from their said masters service shall be lyable to make satisfaction by service at the end of their tymes by indenture double the tyme of service soe neglected, And in some cases more if the comissioners for the place appointed shall find it requisite and convenient. And if such runaways shall be found to transgresse the second time or oftener (if it shall be duely proved against them) that then they shall be branded in the cheek with the letter R. and passe vnder the statute of incorrigible rogues. Hening, I, 254-255.

March 1657-8

[As would often be the case in slave societies in the New World, trade between the servant class and the free members of society was frowned upon, and often restricted by law, as it was in Virginia in 1658.]

Whereas divers ill disposed persons do secretly and covertly trade and truck with other mens’ servants and aprentices which tendeth to the great injurie of masters of ffamilies their servants being thereby induced and invited to purloine and imbezill t he goods of their said masters, Bee it therefore enacted for redresse of the like disorders and abuses hereafter that what person or persons shall buy, sell, trade or truck with any servant, for any comoditie whatsoever without lycence or consent of the m aster of any such servant hee or they so offending against the premises shall suffer one monthes imprisonment without bail or mainprize and also shall forfeite and restore to the master of the said servant fower times the value of the things so bought, so ld, trucked or traded for. Hening, I, 445.

March 1660-1

[After 1660, it was becoming clear that some Africans were being held to serve for life, rather than for a fixed period as were the white servants. The following law implies this to be the case, as well as provides evidence that, in the mid-sevente enth century, whites and blacks would run away together to escape their masters. In one sense, then, one of the primary conflicts of seventeenth-century Virginia was between master and servant, not necessarily between blacks and whites.]

Bee it enacted That in case any English servant shall run away in company with any negroes who are incapable of making satisfation by addition of time, Bee it enacted that the English so running away in company with them shall serve for the time of the said negroes absence as they are to do for their owne by a former act. Hening, II, 26.

[Masters too were limited by law in their dealings with their servants. Masters were ordered to provide them with food, clothing, and shelter, were not allowed to treat them cruelly, and were liable to the courts if they were found to improperly tr eat their servants.]

Whereas the barbarous usage of some servants by cruell masters bring soe much scandall and infamy to the country in generall, that people who would willingly adventure themselves hither, are through feare thereof diverted, and by that meanes the suppli es of particuler men and the well seating of his majesties country very much obstructed, Be it therefore enacted that every master shall provide for his servants compotent dyett, clothing and lodging, and that he shall not exceed the bounds of moderation in correcting them beyond the meritt of their offences; and that it shalbe lawfull for any servant giving notice to their masters (haveing just cause of complaint against them) for harsh and bad usage, or else of want of dyett or convenient necessaries to repaire to the next commissioner to make his or their complaint, and if the said commisioner shall find by just proofes that the said servants cause of complaint is just the said commissioner is hereby required to give order for the warning of such maste r to the next county court where the matter in difference shalbe determined, and the servant have remedy for his grievances. Hening, II, 117-118.

October 1670

[At a certain point, somewhere in the mid-seventeenth century, distinctions between black, or Negro, and white, or Christian, servants were made more clear and defined. The white servants were undoubtedly seen as more important and worthy of protec tion in the eyes of the assembly than were blacks or Indians, whether slave or free.]

Whereas it hath been questioned whither Indians or negroes manumited or otherwise free, could be capable of purchasing christian servants, It is enacted that noe negore or Indian though baptised and enjoyned of their owne ffreedome shall be capable of any such purchase of christians, but yet not debarred from buying any of their owne nation. Hening, II, 280-281.


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