Was your ancestor an indentured servant?
American actor Angie Harmon, best known for her role in the television series Law and Order, learned that her 5x grandfather, Michael Harmon, originally went to the US as an indentured servant whose labour was sold to the highest bidder in order to pay off his passage. While Michael was actually from Germany, it was also common for early emigrants from Britain to sign indenture contracts with wealthy colonists, trading their future labour for a period of time (typically four to seven years) in return for the price of passage, plus room and board. English courts, following the Transportation Act of 1718, also sent about 60,000 convicts to America to serve out their sentences as indentured servants. Few records survive in England regarding these pre-1776 convicts.
Life for indentured servants was not slavery, but it was still very strict. Laws protected indentured servants up to a point, but those who tried to run away, became pregnant, or broke a law, could find their contracts extended.
However, many who fulfilled their agreement ended up better off than they otherwise would have been as some contracts included guaranteed land, food and clothing upon completion.
If you know to whom an ancestor was indentured, check to see if that individual has any personal papers among the collections of university archives or local historical societies in the US. Court records in the area where they lived may include details of any contract disputes. For more details see: Slavery and Servitude in the Colony of North Carolina ( bit.ly/1GcFn9O); Understanding Maryland Records: Indentured Servants ( bit. ly/1Ipp6AD); and Virtual Jamestown: York County, Va. Indentures, 1684-1730 which can be found at virtualjamestown.org/ yorkindentures.html.
The 5x grandfather of actor Angie Harmon (above) went to the US as an indentured servant