Was your an­ces­tor an in­den­tured ser­vant?

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - FOCUS ON -

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

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