Immigrant Servant Experiences
Immigrant Servants Database
Some immigrants who came to Colonial America as servants recorded their experiences (i.e. Annesley, Ashbridge, Büttner, Coad, Du Pont, Frethorne, Green, Harrower, Hellier, Moraley, Pitman, Revel, Sprigs, Springer, von Uchteritz, Whitehead, and Williamson see Bibliography). The descendants of others recollect their ancestors’ ordeals (i.e. Brand, Buckley, Doudna (see Edgerton), Edwards, Kennedy, McAnally, and Scott). In addition, many of their voices may be heard through court depositions.
Many tales survive of ship captains and sailors kidnapping children and youths in British and Irish port towns and forcibly transporting them to America as indentured servants.
- “John Downing testifed that William Downing and Phillip Welch, with several of their countrymen, were taken up and stolen by the ship master or some one whom he hired. The shipmaster, George Dill, was fain to go away and leave his water and much of his provisions behind for fear the country would have taken them from him. Sworn, June 24, 1661, before Daniel Denison. John Downing further made oath that he knew that he and three or four others of his townsmen were taken up by force; that he did not know the two parties in question, but they said in the ship that they were stolen and brought by force.” (Sources: (1) Records and Files of the Quarterly Courts of Essex County, Massachusetts, Vol. II 1656-1662 (Salem, Massachusetts: Essex Institute, 1912), 294-297; (2) Donald Everett Pray, Early Welch Descendants of New England (East Lebanon, Maine: Lionside Business Services, 1996).)
“My highly honored, dear Mother, I cannot allow this occasion pass which I now have, thank God, without making known to you dear Mother, my doings and life at this time. First of all, it is deplorable to be so far away from my mother, brothers, relatives and other family connections, particularly as I cannot get any communications from you for all that I have written to you, except for one letter received in England. I am writing to you to let you know about my coming to this country. When I was in London and had in mind to return to Sweden, my native land, again, where I had gone to school, learned the English language, reading, writing, and become well-versed in the art of arithmetic – as I say, when I was about to return home again, I was kidnapped and against my will taken on board an English ship, and also contrary to my will, was brought to America in the West Indies in Virginia. When I arrived there I was sold like a head of cattle being brought to market, and was thus sold at auction to work, and held in the worse slavery for altogether five years. My work was unbearable; it was extraordinarily severe in the summer in the daytime; in the wintertime my work was for the most part to clear land and to cut down the woods and to prepare the soil for the planting of tobacco and Indian corn. I have – to God be praise, honor, and glory – overcome it all.” (Source: Letter from Carl Christopherson Springer of Christina [Wilmington], Delaware to his Mother in Stockholm, Sweden, 1 June 1693, published in Courtland B. Springer, Ruth L. Springer, American-Swedish Historical Foundation, and Carl Christopherson Springer, Charles Springer of Christina (reprint, American Swedish Historical Foundation Yearbook; n.p.: n.p., 1949).
Many imported servants died during their first year in the Chesapeake Bay’s environment. Contemporaries referred to this period as the time of “seasoning.” Colonial parish registers record the deaths of hundreds of servants who did not survive their labor terms.
- “Deposition of Deborah Edgerly aged about 23 years, 27 May 1667: Said that when she came from her masters, Edmond Kelly and Morgan Dowell, to John Watts, she was sick, being swollen and puffed in the stomach, short winded and “very much distempered all over her body.” She had been this way almost two years. Signed Deborah Egerle.
- “Deposition of Huislain Van Nitsin aged about 34 years, 27 May 1667: Said that when he was working at John Watts’ house last October, the woman servant purchased from Edmond Kelly and Morgan Dowell “stunk so bad with infirmity” that Van Nitsin “was not able to work near her or abide the house.” He heard her say that her master Kelly would not have sold her if she had been healthy. Signed, Huislain Van Nitsen.” (Source: 18 March 1666/67, JoAnn Riley McKey, Accomack County, Virginia Court Order Abstracts, 1666-1670, Vol. II (Bowie, Maryland: Heritage Books, Inc., 1996), 26a-26b, 40-41, quoting Accomack County, Virginia Order Book 2).
“Deposition of Francis Haddon says that Edward Jenkins, having served Stephen Tarlton 4 years, Stephen Tarlton, before Mr. Carvile, myself and my wife, gave him a full discharge. Tarlton asked him if he was willing to serve me for a year for the care and charge he had with him in his dangerous seasoning and he said he would. Francis Haddon.
- “Jenkins told me he had promised his master a years service for care in his sickness, otherwise he had been dead, and that Dickens and his wife told him he was a fool for giving Tarlton a years service. Jane Hudson.” (Dated 20 June 1666, Source: Benjamin B. Weisiger, York County, Virginia Records 1665-1672 (n.p.: n.p.: 1991), 41.
Sold as Chattel
As was the case with black slaves, masters bought and sold white servants.
- “Edmond Kelly and Morgan Dowell sold John Watts a woman servant that, according to agreement, was supposed to be healthy. Ordered that if Watts could prove that the servant was not according to the bargain at the time of purchase, then Kelly and Dowell would have to ‘perform the said bargain.’
- “Deposition of William Crabtree aged about 30 years, 18 march 1666/67: Crabtree, servant of John Watts, planter, said that Denis Selevent, while at Watts’ house, offered to sell Watts a woman servant, saying that she had been a servant in England. Selevant said she had received three pounds wages and was sound of wind and body except for a boil on her arm. When Watts asked the price, Selevant said two cows, two calves, and 1000 lbs tobacco. Selevant said she could wash, “ring” and milk; she had “winter hoed” 15,000 tobacco hills. It was agreed that Watts would purchase her for the said price. Signed, William (R) Crabtree.” (Source: 18 March 1666/67, JoAnn Riley McKey, Accomack County, Virginia Court Order Abstracts, 1666-1670, Vol. II (Bowie, Maryland: Heritage Books, Inc., 1996), quoting Accomack County, Virginia Order Book 2).
Fortunate servants avoided masters such as Henry Smith of Accomack County, Virginia. Smith, judged by a colonial court “to be one of the most wicked of men,” and “more like a monster than a man,” severely abused his family and servants. He beat two of his men servants to death, kept a maid servant imprisoned on an island for 14 months after her contract expired, and was found guilty of raping his maids. Accomack County, Virginia Court Orders in the late 1660s contain over 25 pages of depositions concerning Smith’s abuses, including the following:
- “At the last court Henry Smith’s wife Joanna and his servants made just complaints against Smith. He beat and abused his wife and her children; cruelly and illegally whipped and beat his servants; neglected his servants’ diet; failed to adequately clothe his wife, her children and the servants; and overworked the servants by night and day. Ordered that Henry Smith speedily provide for his wife and child as per his proposal. It was also ordered that Smith provide clothing, lodging and food for his servants, and that none of them should be taken to Maryland or to Smith’s island without their free consent in court. Ordered that Smith bring the goods belonging to Matrum’s children to a convenient place.
- “Mary Jones, former servant to Henry Smith, had been taken without warning to an island and detained there for 14 months beyond her time, and had suffered many cruelties by “many whippings, laying neck and heels, wanting food and clothing, hard tasked in work, and attempt or act of rape (which last particular is left to future trial).” Smith claimed without proof that Mary Jones was a runaway, had used some yarn and had burned an old tobacco house. Ordered that Mary Jones not receive payment for her 14 months of extra service, but that she be immediately freed and be paid her corn and clothes with Smith paying the costs of the suit.
- “Rachell Moody complained to Col. Scarburgh of frequent beatings, ill keeping and lack of clothing and being treated as a servant by Henry Smith. Rachell alleged that she came for the love of her aunt, the wife of Henry Smith. She said Smith “by several contrivances” persuaded her to swear nothing against him. The testimonies of several persons proved that Rachell came from England, not as a servant, but out of love and kindness for her aunt and children. Her grandmother, who had Rachell’s means, intended to send her clothes every year. When Smith beat and abused Rachell, his first wife would often tell him that she was not a servant. Rachell had received very little or no clothing from Smith and was “at this time almost naked.” It was proved to the court that she was often “beaten to the danger of her life.” Rachell asked to be released from Smith’s tyranny, but was “willing to do anything for her aunt’s children.” Smith was unable to produce proof that she was his servant, only saying that he brought her into the country. The court considered that it was a contract that made a servant; persons arriving were not servants, but they were debtors for their passage. Rachell had served for a number of years, was older than 21 years and received an inheritance of 20 pounds per year in Bristoll. Smith’s motives were suspect, so it was ordered that Smith provide from Bristoll proof of her servitude and payment of her passage by next Christmas; failing that, he was to pay her for her suffering and service. In the meantime Rachell was to be discharged from his service. Col. Scarburgh and Robt. Hutchinson were requested to write a letter about the controversy to the major aldermen at Bristoll, who knowing the “evil life and demeanor of Smith” would be better able to detect the fallacies of Smith’s claim. Smith paid court costs.
- “Ann Cooper further said that Henry Smith promised Rachell Moody’s grandmother at Bristoll that Rachell would be taught to write and sew in Virginia. Signed Ann (AC) Cooper (pp. 100-101) 6 Jan 1668/69. [the case continues for over 25 pages itemizing abuses]
- “Some inhabitants reported that Henry Smith’s servants called Old John and Rich. Webb died from the cruel treatment given them by Smith. Evidence showed that Smith often beat Old John with a whip made from a bull’s penis; Old John’s age prevented him from working like the other servants. He was “so hunger starved for want of food” that he would take bread or hominy, for which he was beaten. For fear of punishment he would hide or go away. Once he was brought home by Jno. Watts; at that time he had a bruise on his side that his master had given him with a bull’s pizzle. He was most unreasonably whipped that way, and complained that it would be the death of him. About a month later he died in an old tobacco house, having received no care or regard. Evidences indicated that Rich. Webb was also abused by his Master Smith and died. The court referred this information to the governor.” (Source: January-February 1668/69, JoAnn Riley McKey, Accomack County, Virginia Court Order Abstracts, 1666-1670, Vol. II (Bowie, Maryland: Heritage Books, Inc., 1996), 67-75, 93-97, 103-109, quoting Accomack County, Virginia Order Book 2; See also Robert L. Mears, “Henry Smith: The Eastern Shore’s Meanest Man,” and Jill Nock Jeffery, “More Like a Monster Than a Man,” The Case of Henry Smith and the Accomack County Court.”)
At times, labor term conditions were so harsh, some servants viewed suicide as their only means of escape.
- “At a jury of inquiry held over the body of Thomas, an Irishman, servant of Jno. Custis, they, they said Thomas had willfully made himself away, first by cutting his throat with a drawing knife and afterwards by drowning himself in a well where he finished his last breath.” (Dated c1665, Source: E.T. Crowson, Life as Revealed Through Early American Court Records in One of the Original Shires of Virginia (Easley, South Carolina: Southern Historical Press, 1981), 57.)
- “We being summoned before Thomas Beale, Esq., to view the body of William Stenely, servant to Maj. James Goodwin, find he drowned himself wilfully in the creek. Signed: [list of jurors].”(Dated 20 June 1666, Source: Benjamin B. Weisiger, York County, Virginia Records 1665-1672 (n.p.: n.p.: 1991), 50.
A large percentage of indentured servants ran away from their masters prior to completing the contracted term.
- “The items taken by Isack Medcalfe and his confederates [16 servants in total] in an escape attempt equalled the cost of 13,260 lbs tobacco. The items included linen, sails, brandy, white rum, sugar and 11 pair of worsted stockings worth 70 lbs each pair.
- “Deposition of Laurence Gary aged 30 years, 27 December 1670: When Isack Medcalfe first came, he did not like ‘our keeping’ and said ‘he never saw any people kept so in the country before, and if he had so long to serve here as some of us had, he would hang himself before he would serve it.’
- “A little after the assembly at James Towne, ‘we all concluded to take the boat that belonged to the ship.’ John Carter said, ‘I can take the sloop sails out of Bethlem loft.’ Isack said, ‘I can make oars; our carpenter at Pocomock learned me how.’
- “… Thomas Watts would bring a compass ‘to carry them to Venice, and there they would live.'” (Source: JoAnn Riley McKey, Accomack County, Virginia Court Order Abstracts, 1671-1673, Vol. III (Bowie, Maryland: Heritage Books, Inc., 1996), 64-68, quoting Accomack County [Deeds] Orders and Wills [of Upper Northampton], 1671-1673:49, 93-97.)