Sitemap | Contact Us

Immigrant Servants Database

Overseas Origins

Origins of Colonial Chesapeake Indentured Servants: American and English Sources

By Nathan W. Murphy, AG®

[This article was originally published in the National Genealogical Society Quarterly, Vol. 93, No. 1 (Mar 2005): 5-24, and has been reproduced by permission.]



Geographic Factors

American Sources

English Sources

Focused Projects



With access to records on both sides of the ocean plus a dose of luck, family historians can trace the English origins of ancestors who were indentured servants in America and understand their lives.

Indentured servants were not glamorous or famous figures in colonial

America. Nevertheless, family historians are interested in knowing that an ancestor—male or female—may have been indentured. More important, the designation “indentured servant” signifies that the individual immigrated—a fact that surviving colonial sources often do not clarify and one that can open doors to finding the ancestor in European records.

Indentured servants can be found among the forebears of most people with southern colonial ancestry.[1] Identifying an ancestor as indentured, however, is a challenge. These men and women created few records while bound and, once they became free, records might not mention their previous status. More daunting is tracing known indentured servants back to their arrival in America and from there to a European port of departure and place of birth. Some original records generated specifically about these servants have been lost, but many sources survive in the United States and Europe that can help researchers identify these ancestors and understand their lives.


The term indentured servant arose in the context of a system for financing immigration to North America primarily during the colonial period. Europeans who could not afford passage to America sold themselves to merchants and seamen in exchange for transportation to the colonies.[2] This arrangement was spelled out in a contract—called an indenture—in which the emigrant agreed to work without compensation for a fixed term, typically four or five years.

Servants often entered into such contracts freely but sometimes merchants and ship captains, in a practice called “spiriting,” kidnapped impoverished children and youths, forcing them into an indenture.[3] Shiploads of these volunteers and victims disembarked in colonial port towns and along river banks, where ship masters sold them to plantation owners and others who needed workers. These strangers became the servants’ masters and literally owned them for the duration of their contracts.[4]

Labor shortages in America’s middle colonies enabled indentured servitude to flourish there for more than 150 years. Increased African slave imports during the eighteenth century triggered its decline. By the early 1800s the system had disappeared among Britons coming to the United States.[5]

The origins and destinations of indentured servants varied widely. They embarked from many European countries, including England, Germany, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. Settlers used them as laborers primarily in the middle, southern, and West Indian colonies but the custom prevailed in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. Records in the diverse countries of origin and the colonial destinations of these servants vary greatly. This article will focus on servants from England who were imported to the Chesapeake Bay colonies of Maryland and Virginia.[6]

Indentured servants resembled other groups of colonial migrants, including African slaves and transported convicts. Indentured servants, in fact, often were called “white slaves.”[7] All three groups experienced mistreatment. The groups also differed. Convict servants were the only group whose emigration and unpaid labor were penalties imposed for criminal behavior.[8] Whether indentured servants were voluntary or forced laborers, their indentures were temporary, unlike the Africans, who were enslaved for life. Table 1 compares some characteristics and privileges of indentured servants with transported convicts and free immigrants.

Social historians, who have laid the groundwork for understanding the lives and migrations of indentured servants as a whole, have made broad generalizations concerning the birthplaces of those in Maryland and Virginia.[9] They have had to rely on a narrow sample of servant origins to understand the group. One historian has stated that “the backgrounds of the vast majority [of Chesapeake colonists] are forever lost.”[10] This is not necessarily true. Genealogical methods can be used to trace origins of many more such servants and other colonial settlers of the area and create a better sample from which to understand the social origins and experiences of Chesapeake colonists.

Geographic Factors

Most English servants left the country from three major ports—Bristol, Liverpool, and London—with a minority emigrating from smaller cities, including Bideford, Dartmouth, Exeter, Lyme, Newcastle, Plymouth, Poole, Portsmouth, Southampton, Weymouth, and Whitehaven.[11] The principal ports had differing years of heavy emigration. London served as a key point of departure during the entire colonial period. Bristol rose to prominence during the mid-1600s, followed by Liverpool in the late 1600s to early 1700s.[12]

Surviving lists suggest that many indentured servants came into these cities from within a fifty-to sixty-mile radius (figure 3).[13] Consequently, a researcher who knows a servant’s port of departure but not the previous residence might learn the place of origin by studying records from surrounding jurisdictions.

Previous Residences of Indentured Servants Departing from Bristol, England for the New World, 1654-1686

Figure 1. Sources: Place-name index in Peter Wilson Coldham, The Bristol Registers of Servants Sent to Foreign Plantations (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., 1988), 447-458. Map created using GenMap UK software.

In the Chesapeake’s early days, indentured servants worked close to rivers and the Atlantic coast, often in tobacco cultivation. In contrast, during the 1700s, many planters preferred African slaves for field labor and sold the servants to backcountry landowners. Notorious “soul drivers,” who treated indentured servants cruelly, transported many of them inland.[14]

Personal characteristics and cultural traditions of the English Chesapeake colonists—including speech, person-and place-naming customs, religion, architectural patterns, social graces, and settlement patterns—were similar to many found in southern and western England. Comparative historians have concluded from these parallels that most Chesapeake colonists came from those English regions.[15] In fact, however, the specific roots of the upper classes are better known than those of their servants. In addition, customs characteristic of the upper classes may have trickled down. The precise origins of lower-class indentured servants, which may have affected their contribution to Southern culture, are largely unknown. Historians and genealogists should generate a wider sample of indentured servants’ birthplaces to learn whether they came from the same areas as the aristocrats.

Researchers trying to identify English origins of indentured settlers in colonial Maryland and Virginia face several challenges:

• Because indentured servants rarely traveled in groups of relatives and neighbors, unlike immigrants who paid cash for their passage,[16] tracing associates to identify their origins seldom succeeds.

• Record destruction and the servants’ lower-class status compel researchers to extricate and synthesize fragmented bits of information from a variety of sources.

• Researchers need skills in reading old handwriting and interpreting underused records to understand original sources concerning indentured servants.

Despite the complex undertaking, family historians can locate the English origins of indentured servants if they know what records are available and can find them on both sides of the ocean.

American Sources

Researchers tracing any immigrant should exhaust American sources before searching abroad. Colonial American records may identify an ancestor as an indentured servant or may provide details of that person’s life, including the port of departure or place of origin. The identification may also rest upon indirect evidence. A remark like “paid freedom dues,” for example, denotes previous indentured servant status.

Few statewide indexes name indentured servants. Unless researchers know a county of residence, they will need to undertake painstaking county-by-county searches of a variety of records. American sources identifying indentured servants include church registers, court records, deeds, servant contracts, journals and other personal narratives, land patents, merchant account books, newspapers, passenger lists, and probate records.

Church Registers

Pursuant to ordinances passed in 1660, Virginia suppressed all religions except the Church of England, to which most Virginia colonists belonged.[17] Surviving colonial parish registers from the Chesapeake area—primarily from Virginia— contain baptismal, marriage, and burial entries for thousands of colonists. Transcriptions of most of the records have been published and are indexed in the International Genealogical Index (IGI).[18] Because the IGI omits descriptive data, researchers must consult the register to see if an entry contains an occupational title like “servant” appended to a name.

Extant colonial Anglican parish burial registers often identify indentured servants by status. For example, seventeenth-century burial records for Christ Church Parish, Middlesex County, Virginia, name dozens of them who died in harsh conditions before completing their terms.[19] Colonial laws forbade the servants to marry during their contracted labor terms without permission. Consequently, few of them appear in marriage registers.[20] Marriage restrictions also decrease chances of finding parents identified as indentured in infants’ christening records, except those for illegitimate children resulting from illicit liaisons.

Court Records

Court cases resulting from misdeeds may identify indentured servants who violated the law.[21] Infractions include conceiving a child out of wedlock, which was not uncommon because the servants were not allowed to marry without permission, and assaulting a master. For example, in 1742, Thomas Webster petitioned the Northumberland County Court concerning his servant, Patrick Martial, “seting forth that the sd servant abused him by words & Blows Contrary to Law, Judgment is granted that the sd Webster against the sd Martial, his servant, for one year’s service for his sd offence after his other time of service expired.”[22] Many indentured servants were undoubtedly abused, as were African slaves. Although relatively few cases concerning the abuse appear on court dockets, researchers nevertheless should check for records.

Court records may also document the confiscation or temporary “alienation” of an indentured servant to pay off a master’s debt.[23] For example, according to Kent County, Maryland, court proceedings dated 1655, Henery Carline “(Attorney to Mr. Thomas Hawkines) [did] Assigne ouer [over] all the Right tittle & Intreast of a Certaine seruant [servant] named James Gunsseill, with his John Deare.”[24]


Owners could sell their indentured servants.[25] The recording of such sales in deed books is unusual, but researchers should not overlook the possibility of a deed record documenting the sale of an ancestor who was indentured.

In Maryland, freed servants received fifty-acre “freedom dues.” For example, on 14 November 1673, “Came Thomas Broxam of Dorchester County and proved Right to fifty acres of Land for his time of Service performed in this Province.”[26] The servants often sold this property quickly, which also created a deed record of their former indentured status. One researcher noted that 5,000 servants entered Maryland each decade in the late 1600s and “between 1669 and 1680 a count in the books shows that 1249 servants proved their rights, each to fifty acres of land as freedom due. Of these, 869 immediately, or very soon after the proof, assigned their rights to others.”[27]

Indentured Servant Contracts

Because freed indentured servants probably had little incentive to preserve their contracts, which were loose manuscripts, few servant indentures survive in America.[28] (Many exist in England, however. See the discussion, below, under “English Sources.”) In exceptional cases, clerks in the Chesapeake copied indentures into court records.[29] Unlike Pennsylvania clerks, however, they did not compile the servant contracts in book form.[30]

Journals and Personal Narratives

Most contracted servants arrived in America impoverished and uneducated.[31] Few had the skills to create personal accounts and narratives of their experiences. An exception is John Harrower, an educated Scot who emigrated from England. His journal describes his fall into indentured servitude, the transatlantic passage, mistreatment of fellow servants, on-deck sale of servants in Virginia, “soul drivers,” conditions for obedient servants during the term of indenture, and his attempt to maintain contact with his wife and children in the Shetland Islands.[32] Another man, Richard Frethorne, wrote his parents in England in 1623 and described dismal conditions in Jamestown.[33] Such narratives, although scarce, may be located in archival and historical society collections.

Land Patents

Under a headright system, the British crown awarded land to individuals for bringing others to the colonies. Typically ship captains and merchants received fifty acres for each indentured servant they transported. In Virginia, the colonial land office and county courts issued headright certificates. As a form of currency, a certificate might have changed hands several times until an applicant submitted it with a request for a land patent. Records of certificates issued by the land office no longer exist, but those issued by county courts may be found in surviving county court order books. Often the applicant submitted the certificate several years after the passengers arrived in the Chesapeake, so the date of the land patent does not necessarily indicate a recent arrival.[34]

Indentured servants and other passengers are named in registers that scrupulously document the crown’s land grants to those who transported immigrants.[35] Indexes to these colonial land patents exist for both Maryland and Virginia.[36]

The lists typically provide names only, but researchers may be able to extrapolate additional data. For example, average ages of persons listed in surviving indentured servant contracts indicate that the majority of male servants left England between the ages of fifteen and twenty-four.[37] Extending the typical pattern to those whose ages were not recorded provides their approximate birth years, which may help identify them in English records.

Merchant Account Books

Colonial merchants maintained ledgers recording business transactions. Some of these account books have survived and contain references to indentured servants. For example, an entry in Edward Dixon’s ledger, dated 22 July 1743, reports “paid Mary Welch for her Freedom Dues.”[38] The books themselves may be found in archives, historical societies, and libraries throughout the country. In some cases, microfilm publications are available.[39] Others are indexed and abstracted in periodicals and books.[40]


Figure 2. Runaway Indentured Servant Advertisement. Source: Maryland Gazette, 17 November 1764, MSA SC 2731, Maryland Gazette collection, Maryland State Archives, Annapolis.

Alongside notices for masters seeking fugitive slaves, colonial newspapers published advertisements for runaway servants. Many identify the servant’s name, age, and birthplace. For example, when John Cyas ran away in Talbot County, Maryland, in 1768, his master reported his occupation, height, complexion, age, English county of origin, and last residence in England as well as the ship in which Cyas had immigrated and the date it landed.[41] See figure 2. Such advertisements often list the county or region of origin to encourage colonists to be alert to strangers speaking a distinguishing dialect. Many eighteenth-century newspapers have survived. Indexes and finding aids facilitate identifying indentured servants in both Maryland and Virginia newspapers.[42]

Passenger Lists

Colonial newspapers, land patents, and labor contracts may disclose the name of a ship on which servants traveled.[43] Such passengers rarely are identified, however, in the few colonial lists that survive on either side of the Atlantic. Some records differentiate indentured servants from convicts. For example, the scribe on the ship Elizabeth & Ann, which sailed from Liverpool, England, to Yorktown, Virginia, in 1716, distinguished between political rebels transported as indentured servants and those not indentured.[44]

Probate Records

Indentured servants may be named in wills because their masters could bequeath them as property. For example, in 1662 “John Neuill [Nevill] of Charles County, Maryland, gentleman,” devised personal property to his son-in-law John Lambert. The property included livestock and “boath the saruants [servants].”[45]

Inventories in both testate and intestate proceedings may name indentured servants and assign them a value.[46] One example is the inventory of “Mr. Thomas Haukins” [Hawkins], of Popplers Island, Kent County, Maryland, dated 1656, which lists three servants: Mary Bally, Thomas Simons, and Henery Wharton. The estate’s appraisers noted the length of time remaining on their contracts and valued each servant differently.[47] The reference to contracts indicates that the three were indentured. Even without such a reference, however, researchers should recognize servants in an inventory as indentured because wage-earning household servants could not have been valued like property.

English Sources

Most indentured servants in the Chesapeake originated as lower-class Britons, a population depicted as “a faceless, depersonalized mass, as mere names.”[48] Nevertheless, genealogists may be able to find the English birthplaces and families of American servants in records that give some context to their lives. Available sources include church registers, indentured servant contracts, manor records, parish chests, probate records, surname sources, tax lists, and urban occupational records.

Church Registers

In theory, researchers should be able to find a christening record for every English immigrant to colonial America, including indentured servants. Typically, the records provide a baptismal or birth date and name the infant’s parents. Researchers must locate the correct parish, however, from among more than eleven thousand Anglican parishes. Uncounted nonconformist congregations (such as Baptist, Presbyterian, and Quaker) also operated in England in the 1600s and 1700s.[49]

Many of the American or British records discussed in this article might identify an indentured servant’s parish of origin, enabling the researcher to find the servant’s christening record with little difficulty. One study, however, suggests that only about half of the servants correctly identified their birthplace.[50] Many named neighboring towns—larger than their actual native villages—when communicating information to registrars.[51] Researchers who do not find the baptismal entry in the indicated parish should search the surrounding countryside.

Other possibilities exist. Genealogists who know the port of embarkation but not the parish may find the servant recorded in the registers of a parish near the port. As mentioned previously, many emigrants originated within sixty miles of the port from which they departed.[52] Alternatively, if a researcher has sufficient identifying information or if a servant’s surname is unusual, a parish of origin may be found in national indexes like Boyd’s Marriage Index,[53] British Isles Vital Records Index,[54] Great Card Index,[55] International Genealogical Index,[56] National Burial Index,[57] and Prerogative Court of Canterbury Wills Index.[58] Countywide marriage indexes produced by English genealogical societies also may help place an indentured servant in an English parish.[59]

Even when the servant’s home parish is known, a researcher may not find the desired church record. The English civil war and interregnum in the mid-1600s wreaked havoc on record keeping. Registration decreased after the war, perhaps because the new government frightened or replaced experienced parish clerks.

Regardless of the cause, many births—including those of future indentured servants—went unrecorded during these turbulent decades. Moreover, even the aforementioned indexes to church records taken together are incomplete for the pertinent time periods. Researchers should search burial and marriage registers as well as the christening records. Negative findings in a burial register can support the identity of presumed ancestors, showing that they neither died in infancy nor remained in the parish longer than expected. Finding a death record might disprove a presumed identity. Uncovering a marriage record, on the other hand, might not necessarily discredit a possible match. Indentured servants sometimes abandoned their English spouses and families to emigrate. Bristol’s mayor in 1662 reported, “Some are husbands that have forsaken their wives, others [are] wives who have abandoned their husbands; some are children and apprentices run away from their parents and masters.”[60] Genealogists, therefore, may find records of spouses and families on both sides of the ocean for one indentured servant.

Indentured Servant Contracts

To stop the involuntary “spiriting” of children and youth into indentured servitude, the British government required clerks in each port to record servant contracts, which they compiled into registers.[61] In addition to the servant’s name, the records might contain any of the following details:

Information in the surviving contracts varies greatly, and few report the servant’s birthplace. Others name the port where the servant had lived temporarily as the prior residence, whether it is accurate or not. For example, Alexander Steward, who sailed to Virginia in 1774 as an indentured servant, identified London as his “former” residence.[62] He had lived there less than four months, however, and his place of origin was the Shetland Islands.[63]

[Update: Grant, Murphy, and Salerno made important discoveries about tracing the origins of indentured servants listed in English indentured servant registers by searching for these individuals' christenings in Church of England parish registers - they were not always born in the places specified in their contracts. Grant found that 8% of the servants from Devon listed in an early Dartmouth passenger list dated 1634 were born where they ultimately resided. Murphy learned that out of 70 servants leaving Devon in the late 1650s, only 33% were born in the parishes identified as their final residences in Bristol contracts. Salerno sought the christenings of 70 servants from Wiltshire who left during the same decade, and found that approximately 50% born where they had last resided. Genealogists must keep these facts in mind; the places listed in these contracts were not birthplaces, rather final places of residence, or else, villages and towns situated nearby their rural parishes of origin. Grant explained these discrepancies as portrayals of the high rates of geographic mobility among laboring-class English youths during the seventeenth century.] 

Surviving contracts and registers name only a small percentage of all indentured servants who went from England to the Chesapeake.[64] Relatively few of the volumes have survived but they represent England’s major ports and a range of years. See table 2. The principal extant lists of indentured servant contracts and a master index have been published.[65] Minor collections, some of which have not been published, may exist among parish-level records in the west of England.[66] Abstracts of fifteen thousand contracts concerning servants leaving from London and Bristol are online.[67] Images of the contracts—for servants going to Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and the Caribbean—are in repositories with Virginia Colonial Records Project microfilms.[68]

Manorial Records

Between twenty-five thousand and sixty-five thousand manors existed in medieval England. Their boundaries did not coincide with those of the eleven thousand contemporary ecclesiastical parishes, and manors created their own records, which begin several centuries before parish registration.[69] The poor, including families of many future American indentured servants, appear in these records as manorial tenants, participants in local squabbles, and scofflaws.

Genealogists must pinpoint a specific location to know which manor’s records to search and must have a working knowledge of scribal abbreviated medieval Latin to interpret them. Most manorial records have not been microfilmed or indexed and must be searched on site. The multi-volume Victoria County History, arranged by county, is a helpful resource for determining the manorial jurisdictions where ancestors might have lived.[70] The Manorial Documents Register identifies repositories that house manorial records.[71]

Parish Chest Records

Aside from parish registers, which provide primarily birth, marriage, and death information, Anglican parish chest records may give glimpses into the lives of lower-class Britons in the 1600s and 1700s. These documents—including apprenticeship indentures, churchwardens’ accounts, settlement papers, removal orders, overseers of the poor accounts, bastardy bonds, and poor rate books—can reveal biographical and genealogical details about a servant’s life before indenture and emigration.[72]

County record offices house most parish chest documents. Microfilms of many manuscripts are available from the Family History Library where they may be catalogued as “Church Records,”“Poorhouses, poor law,”or “Parish Chest Records.” Many English county record offices have generated countywide name indexes to such records, but a nationwide index does not exist. Researchers therefore must know the servant’s county or parish of origin to locate the records.

Probate records

Because servants probably came mainly from lower-class households, their fathers and relatives in England would typically have left fewer wills than better-off folk.[73] At the time indentured servants were emigrating, English probate processes fell under ecclesiastical jurisdiction. Researchers looking for probate records for servants’families must therefore determine the jurisdictions where testators filed their wills.

Surname Sources

Indentured servants’surnames may help to identify their origins. Most surnames in England are uncommon.[74] Many are rare and often are peculiar to a locality from which the name derives. English families, including those of indentured servants, usually resided for generations near the places where their surnames originated and were clustered, especially before the Industrial Revolution.

Several nationwide indexes are helpful in researching indentured servant origins by linking English surnames to locations where they were concentrated in the 1600s and 1700s. Mentioned previously, such resources include the International Genealogical Index,[75] British Isles Vital Records Index,[76] National Burial Index,[77] Prerogative Court of Canterbury Wills Index,[78] Boyd’s Marriage Index,[79] and Great Card Index.[80] Especially valuable for unusual surnames, the compilations provide starting points for research in England. In addition, compendia of Stuart-era location spellings can aid researchers seeking origins connected to specific surnames.[81]

The Protestation returns of 1641–42 are lists of males over age eighteen who swore oaths of allegiance to the King, Parliament, and the Church of England.

They survive for roughly one-third of the English population and, where they have been published and indexed, provide countywide name indexes. The House of Lords Record Office in London possesses the existing returns, and researchers have created a finding aid for published transcriptions.[82]

A commercial computer program enables researchers to manually enter data from the International Genealogical Index to create surname distributions in the 1600s and 1700s.[83] Software can also display distribution maps by county or registration district for all of the surnames found in the 1881 census of England, Scotland, and Wales.[84]

The Guild of One-Name Studies, which defines its objective as locating every occurrence of a specific surname and its variants throughout the world, can also be helpful. Many of its members have generated lists of all known British emigrants who carried their surnames and have begun to trace their families.[85]

Tax Lists

The marriage act tax, collected by the British crown in the middle 1690s to finance King William’s War, serves as a census that names the head of household, spouse, and children in each family in Bristol and most of London. Unfortunately this source does not survive for other cities. The enumeration identifies the specific parish—out of 17 possibilities in Bristol and 110 in greater London—in which a future indentured servant might have lived.[86] The Bristol records for 1696 and the London register for 1695 are indexed.[87] The records are available on microfilm.[88]

English citizens paid lay subsidies—a form of tax—from the Middle Ages to the 1600s. Among the taxpayers listed are people who later would become indentured servants.[89] Researchers can find the majority of subsidies in the exchequer records at the British National Archives, which provides an online guide to published and unpublished lay-subsidy holdings by jurisdiction but not a personal name index.[90]

Families of prospective indentured servants may also be found in records of a hearth tax taken from 1662 through 1689.[91] The lists name householders with hearths and some of the poor who were exempt. An ongoing project is microfilming, indexing, transcribing, and publishing these rolls.[92]

Urban Occupational Records

Most indentured servants had become city residents before emigrating from England. Urban occupational sources during the 1700s, when the demand for specialized labor was high, may name prospective indentured servants, especially among apprentices. Uncompleted apprenticeship terms may signify emigration.[93]

From 1710 to 1811 the British government charged a nationwide tax on apprentices. The resulting records can help pinpoint immigrant origins. A partial index, covering 1710 through 1774, is available on microfilm.[94] In addition, major port cities maintained records of apprentices, some of whom may have emigrated as indentured servants. Boyd’s “Inhabitants of London” (also called

“Citizens of London”) indexes, among others, those learning crafts and trades in the capital during this time.[95] A commercial Web site also provides an index to three hundred thousand London records that typically name apprentices, parents (usually fathers), and masters.[96] The city of Bristol’s records document tradesmen from 1532 forward. Apprenticeship oaths name the father and previous residence of those who came to the city for training.[97] Liverpool also maintained apprenticeship registers.[98]

Focused Projects

Peter W. Coldham and the late P. William Filby are among the immigration experts who have recognized the need to bring colonial immigration records within easy grasp of genealogists. To that end each has compiled more than twenty volumes. Most of Coldham’s books focus on criminal indentured servants, but five list non-convicts.[99] Filby’s Passenger and Immigration Lists Index dwarfs all other immigration projects.[100] Many individuals indexed in his compilation arrived as indentured servants during the colonial period and, as shown in table 2, these volumes index all known published English labor contracts.

A Brigham Young University project is in progress to locate all surviving emigration records created in the British Isles. The initiative, still in its infancy, promises to help family historians find English ancestors, including indentured servants.[101] Similarly, volunteers with the Immigrant Ship Transcriber’s Guild are transcribing all extant immigrant passenger lists to publish online. Some,

which date to the colonial period and cover British vessels, include passengers identified as indentured servants.[102]

[Addition: since the publication of this article, the Immigrant Servants Database has been launched.]

Several authors have published works documenting the English origins of early colonists in Maryland and Virginia. They include numerous references to indentured servants.[103]


Many Chesapeake area colonists were indentured servants born in England. Some voluntarily signed contracts agreeing to work without monetary compensation for a fixed number of years in exchange for transatlantic passage. Others were forced into such agreements. Personal motivations aside, eventually—after their liberation—they began new lives in a new country. Countless survivors worked for hire, married, started families, and acquired personal estates—and became ancestors to millions of Americans. Tracing these laborers’ lives and origins will contribute to identifying more ancestors and understanding the geographic and social origins of many American colonists.

© Nathan W. Murphy, AG; Opal Court, Block B, 13B; 60 Lancaster Road; Leicester, LE1 7HA, UK; [email protected]. Mr. Murphy, who is accredited in English and southern United States research, has received specialized training in tracing immigrant origins and deciphering early modern English and Latin texts. He recently earned a B.A. in Family History and Genealogy from Brigham Young University, where he was a research assistant in the Immigrant Ancestors Project. He attends the English Local History M.A. Programme at the University of Leicester.


  1. David Hackett Fischer—citing Wesley Frank Craven, White, Red and Black: The Seventeenth Century Virginian (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1971), 5—reports that more than 75 percent of Virginia’s colonists arrived as indentured servants. See David Hackett Fischer, Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 227.
  2. Abbot Emerson Smith, Colonists in Bondage: White Servitude and Convict Labor in America, 1607–1776 (1947; reprint, Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1998), 3–25.
  3. Clifford Lindsey Alderman, Colonists for Sale: The Story of Indentured Servants in America (New York: Macmillan, 1975), 28–52. Chapter 3 covers children who were “spirited” (kidnapped) and brought to America as indentured servants. Chapter 4 covers the practice of “snatching” poor people in Ireland and Scotland and forcibly exporting them as white slaves. Alderman’s bibliography identifies additional publications on this topic.
  4. Smith, Colonists in Bondage, 221–23.
  5. The following works outline the period of American history when indentured servitude was replaced by free and slave labor: Charlotte Erickson, Leaving England: Essays on British Emigration in the Nineteenth Century (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1994); Aaron S. Fogleman, “From Slaves, Convicts, and Servants to Free Passengers: The Transformation of Immigration in the Era of the American Revolution,” Journal of American History 85 (June 1998): 43–76; David W. Galenson, “The Rise and Fall of Indentured Servitude in the Americas: An Economic Analysis,” Journal of Economic History 44 (March 1984): 1–26; and Henry A. Gemery, “Markets for Migrants: English Indentured Servitude and Emigration in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries,” Colonialism and Migration: Indentured Labour Before and After Slavery, ed. P. C. Emmer (Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1986) 33–54.
  6. For books and collections regarding indentured servants in Pennsylvania, see Daniel Meaders, Eighteenth-Century White Slaves: Fugitive Notices, vol. 1, Pennsylvania, 1729–1760 (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993); Farley Grubb, Runaway Servants, Convicts, and Apprentices Advertised in the Pennsylvania Gazette, 1728–1796 (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1992); Sharon V. Salinger, “To serve well and faithfully,” Labor and Indentured Servants in Pennsylvania, 1682–1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987); and County of Chester., Pa., “Chester County Archives: Indentured Servant and Apprenticeship Records, 1700– 1855 (RG 4100.038).” Also, a fee-based Web site provides an index to a colonial Philadelphia newspaper. See Accessible Archives Inc., “Pennsylvania Gazette 1728–1800.”
  7. Louis Ruchames, “The Sources of Racial Thought in Colonial America,” Journal of Negro History 52 (October 1967): 259–60.
  8. Smith, Colonists in Bondage, 221–23.
  9. James Curtis Ballagh, White Servitude in the Colony of Virginia (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Studies, 1895); David Hackett Fischer and James C. Kelly, Bound Away: Virginia and the Westward Movement (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2000); Eugene Irving McCormac, White Servitude in Maryland, 1634–1820 (1904; reprint, Westminster, Md.: Heritage Books, 2003). For an interactive simulation depicting the process of becoming an indentured servant in London and traveling to the new world, see Thinkport, “Exploring Maryland’s Roots: Classroom Resources.”
  10. James Horn, Adapting to a New World: English Society in the Seventeenth-Century Chesapeake (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994), 26.
  11. Smith, Colonists in Bondage, 307–37. The appendix titled “The Number and Distribution of Indentured Servants” tabulates the numbers and origins of indentured servants. For a list of minor English ports operating during the colonial period, see Peter Wilson Coldham, The Complete Book of Emigrants 1700–1750 (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1992), vii. For the international trade experience of historic Bristol, Hartlepool, Liverpool, London, and Southampton, see National Maritime Museum, Hartlepool Borough Libraries, Liverpool Libraries and Information Services, Bristol City Council, and Southampton Reference Library, Port Cities U.K.
  12. Paul G. E. Clemens, “The Rise of Liverpool, 1665–1750,” Economic History Review, new series, 29 (May 1976): 211–25.
  13. Fischer, Albion’s Seed, 236–40; and Horn, Adapting to a New World, 39–48, 69–76, 80–81, 420–21. Both scholars draw conclusions from the surviving London and Bristol registers.
  14. Bernard Bailyn, Voyagers to the West: A Passage in the Peopling of America on the Eve of the Revolution (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1986), 347; and Smith, Colonists in Bondage, 256–60. Bailyn generated a map showing the trading circuits of soul drivers in the Virginia backcountry who drove servants as far inland as the Bedford County courthouse.
  15. Fischer, Albion’s Seed, 207–418.
  16. Horn, Adapting to a New World, 22–24.
  17. Fischer and Kelly, Bound Away: Virginia and the Westward Movement, 46–47.
  18. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, “International Genealogical Index.”  To learn which parish register baptisms and marriages for Virginia and Maryland are on the IGI, the year ranges, and the batch numbers, see Hugh Wallis, “IGI Batch Numbers—British Isles and North America.”
  19. National Society of the Colonial Dames of America in the State of Virginia, The Parish Register of Christ Church, Middlesex County, Va. from 1653 to 1812 (Richmond: Wm. Ellis Jones, Steam Book and Job Printer, 1897), 7–10, 21–22, 31, 36, 39, 53. Some of those named might have been servants who were paid wages rather than those who were indentured in exchange for transatlantic passage.
  20. Smith, Colonists in Bondage, 270–74.
  21. Ibid., 104, 130, 231, 243–44, 246–47, 257, 261, 268, 386, and 391, reference court cases concerning indentured servants in Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties, Maryland, and Gloucester, Lancaster, Northumberland, Spotsylvania, and Stafford counties, Virginia.
  22. W. Preston Haynie, Records of Indentured Servants and of Certificates of Land: Northumberland County, Virginia, 1650–1795 (Bowie, Md.: Heritage Books, 1996), 285. This page contains a transcription of Northumberland Co. Order Book 1737–43: 244, County Court, Heathsville, Va.
  23. Smith, Colonists in Bondage, 233.
  24. J. Hall Pleasants and Louis Dow Scisco, Proceedings of the County Courts of Kent (1648–1676), Talbot (1662–1674), and Somerset (1665–1668) Counties (Baltimore: Maryland Historical Society, 1937), 68.
  25. Smith, Colonists in Bondage, 233.
  26. Abbot Emerson Smith, “The Indentured Servant and Land Speculation in Seventeenth Century Maryland,” The American Historical Review 40 (April 1935): 469–70.
  27. Ibid.
  28. Smith, Colonists in Bondage, 18, writes in reference to indentured servant term contracts: “For one living the life of a laborer in the plantations it was not always an easy matter to keep possession of these small scraps of paper.” The Virtual Jamestown Web site contains a transcription of the labor contract of Richard Lowther, 1627, found in the Preston Davie papers, Mss1D2856a2, Virginia Historical Society, Richmond. See “Richard Lowther Servant Indenture,” Virtual Jamestown.
  29. Pleasants and Scisco, Procedings of the County Courts of Kent (1648–1676), Talbot (1662–1674), and Somerset (1665–1668), 124, 248, 375, and 622, identify four contracts registered in the court proceedings of colonial Maryland.
  30. Smith, Colonists in Bondage, 225, discusses a Pennsylvania book in which officials registered the terms of indentured servants. See John Gibson and William Fisher, Record of Indentures of Individuals Bound Out as Apprentices, Servants, etc.; and of German and Other Redemptioners in the Office of the Mayor of the City of Philadelphia, October 3, 1771 to October 5, 1773 (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1973).
  31. Farley Grubb, “Fatherless and Friendless: Factors Influencing the Flow of English Emigrant Servants,” Journal of Economic History 52 (March 1992): 85–108.
  32. Edward Miles Riley, The Journal of John Harrower: An Indentured Servant in the Colony of Virginia, 1773–1776 (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1963).
  33. Richard Frethorne, “The Experiences of an Indentured Servant,” Virtual Jamestown.
  34. James W. Petty, “Seventeenth Century Virginia County Court Headright Certificates,” Virginia Genealogist 45 (January–March 2001): 3–22; and 45 (April–June 2001): 112–22.
  35. Patent Series of the Maryland Land Office, Maryland State Archives, Annapolis; microfilms 0,013,063–143, Family History Library (FHL), Salt Lake City, Utah. Also, Smith, Colonists in Bondage, 405, writes, “The twenty-six volumes of Land Books in the Land Office, Hall of Records, covering the period from 1633 to 1680, contain the names of more than 21,000 immigrants, nearly all servants, who were registered during that period for the purpose of obtaining headrights.” Also, Patents 1623–1774, 42 vols., Library of Virginia, Richmond; FHL microfilms 0,029,318–59.
  36. For Maryland, see Gust Skordas, The Early Settlers of Maryland: An Index to Names of Immigrants Compiled from Records of Land Patents, 1633–1680, in the Hall of Records, Annapolis, Maryland (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1968); and Carson Gibb and Gust Skordas, A Supplement to “The Early Settlers of Maryland:” Comprising 8680 Entries Correcting Omissions and Errors in Gust Skordas, “The Early Settlers of Maryland.” (Annapolis: Maryland State Archives, 1997). For Virginia, see Marion Nell Nugent, Denis Hudgins, and Virginia Genealogical Society, Cavaliers and Pioneers: Abstracts of Virginia Land Patents and Grants, 1623– 1776, 7 vols. (Richmond: Virginia Genealogical Society, 1934–99).
  37. Horn, Adapting to a New World,35–37.
  38. Ruth Sparacio and Sam Sparacio, Abstracts of the Account Books of Edward Dixon (Merchant of Port Royal, Virginia), vol. 1, 1743–1747 (McLean, Va.: The Antient Press, 1990), 2.
  39. For example, Records of John Glassford and Company, 1743–1886, Colchester Store, 1758–69; microfilm publication, 71 rolls (Washington: Library of Congress Photoduplication Service, 1984).
  40. Edgar MacDonald, “A Merchant’s Account Book: Hanover County, Virginia, 1743–44,” Magazine of Virginia Genealogy 34 (Summer 1996): 185–87; Richard Slatten, “A Merchant’s Account Book: King and Queen County, Virginia, 1750–1751,” Magazine of Virginia Genealogy 28 (February 1990): 61–64; and Sparacio and Sparacio, Abstracts of the Account Books of Edward Dixon.
  41. Runaway indentured servant advertisement, Maryland Gazette, 17 November 1764, MSA SC 2731, Maryland Gazette collection, Maryland State Archives, Annapolis.
  42. Lester J. Cappon and Virginia F. Duff, Virginia Gazette Index, 1736–1780 (Williamsburg, Va.: Institute of Early American History and Culture, 1950); and The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Past Portal: Colonial Williamsburg’s Portal to American History. Also, Richard J. Cox, “Maryland Runaway Convict Servants,” NGS Quarterly 62 (June 1980): 105–14; 68 (September 1980): 232–33; 68 (December 1980): 299–304; 69 (March 1981): 51–58; 69 (June 1981): 125–32; 69 (September 1981): 205–14; and 69 (December 1981): 293–300. Also, Karen Mauer Green, The Maryland Gazette, 1727–1761: Genealogical and Historical Abstracts (Galveston, Tex.: Frontier Press, 1989).
  43. Doreen M. Hockedy, “Bound for a New World: Emigration of Indentured Servants Via Liverpool to America and the West Indies, 1697–1707,” Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire 144 (1995): 115–35.
  44. Immigrant Ships Transcribers Guild, “Ship Elizabeth and Ann.”
  45. Pleasants and Scisco, Proceedings of the County Courts of Kent (1648–1676), Talbot (1662–1674), and Somerset (1665–1668), 329–30.
  46. Smith, Colonists in Bondage, 233.
  47. Pleasants and Scisco, Proceedings of the County Courts of Kent (1648–1676), Talbot (1662–1674), and Somerset (1665–1668), 101–2.
  48. David Underdown, Revel, Riot and Rebellion: Popular Politics and Culture in England 1603–1660 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), viii.
  49. Mark D. Herber, Ancestral Trails: The Complete Guide to British Genealogy and Family History (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1998), 88.
  50. Anthony Salerno, “The Social Background of Seventeenth-Century Emigration to America,” Journal of British Studies 19 (Autumn 1979): 33.
  51. Anthony Salerno, “The Character of Emigration from Wiltshire to the American Colonies, 1630–1660,” Ph.D. dissertation, University of Virginia, 1977, 45.
  52. Fischer, Albion’s Seed, 236–40; and Horn, Adapting to a New World, 39–48, 69–76, 80–81, 420–21.
  53. English Origins, “Boyd’s Marriage Index, 1538–1940.”
  54. British Isles Vital Records Index, CD-ROM (Salt Lake City, Utah: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2000).
  55. “Great Card Index, ca. 1100–1900,” Society of Genealogists Library, London, U.K.; FHL microfilms 1,938,196–2,220,319 and 2,220,325, items 1–10.
  56. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, “International Genealogical Index.”
  57. National Burial Index for England and Wales, CD-ROM (Bury, U.K.: Federation of Family History Societies, 2004).
  58. The National Archives, “About the Wills,” provides a link to search the Prerogative Court of Canterbury wills index covering the years 1384–1858.
  59. For a listing of available countywide marriage indexes accessible through correspondence with English genealogical societies, see Jeremy Gibson and Elizabeth Hampson, Marriage and Census Indexes for Family Historians (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2001).
  60. Smith, Colonists in Bondage, 82–83.
  61. William Dodgson Bowman, N. Dermott Harding, and R. Hargreaves-Mawdsley, Bristol and America, A Record of the First Settlers in the Colonies of North America 1654–1685: Including the Names with Places of Origin of More Than 10,000 Servants to Foreign Plantations Who Sailed from the Port of Bristol to Virginia, Maryland, and Other Parts of the Atlantic Coast, and Also to the West Indies from 1654 to 1685 (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1970), viii–ix, 15–16; and Smith, Colonists in Bondage, 71–74.
  62. For Steward’s indentured servant contract, see Weekly Emigration Returns, 1773–1774, piece 47/9/54–57, Various Establishments and other Registers, HM Treasury, The National Archives, Kew, U.K.
  63. Riley, The Journal of John Harrower, 17, 168, 177.
  64. Fischer, Albion’s Seed, 227.
  65. Peter Wilson Coldham, The Bristol Registers of Servants Sent to Foreign Plantations, 1654–1686 (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1988); The Complete Book of Emigrants, 1661–1699 (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1990); The Complete Book of Emigrants 1700–1750 (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1992); The Complete Book of Emigrants, 1751–1776 (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1993); and Emigrants from England to the American Colonies, 1773-1776 (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1988). Also, Elizabeth French, List of Emigrants to America from Liverpool, 1697-1707 (1913; reprint, Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1969); and P. William Filby, Passenger and Immigration Lists Index (Detroit: Gale Research, 1981–2004).
  66. Peter Wilson Coldham, e-mail message to author, 20 September 2004.
  67. Virtual Jamestown.
  68. “Quarter Sessions Records: Servants Indentures,” microfilms 567–69, and “Servants to Foreign Plantations,” microfilms 768 and 898, Virginia Colonial Record Project, Library of Virginia, Richmond. See John T. Kneebone et al., A Key to Survey Reports and Microfilm of the Virginia Colonial Records Project (Richmond: Virginia State Library and Archives, 1990), 2: 543–44, 620.
  69. Herber, Ancestral Trails, 497.
  70. The contents of forty-five volumes of this series currently appear on the Internet. See Institute of Historical Research and the History of Parliament Trust, British History Online.
  71. The National Archives, “Manorial Documents Register.” The entire index has not yet been digitized but the card index may be searched at the National Archives in Kew, Surrey. Once a researcher establishes a specific place of origin, it will lead to many sources for tracing English ancestors.
  72. Herber, Ancestral Trails, 285–301. W. E. Tate, The Parish Chest: A Study of the Records of Parochial Administration in England (Chichester: Phillimore, 1983), 84–119, 188–241.
  73. Salerno, “The Character of Emigration from Wiltshire,”56, reports finding the will of an indentured servant’s wealthy father in Wiltshire.
  74. Bryan Sykes and Catherine Irven, “Surnames and the Y Chromosome,”American Journal of Human Genetics 66 (March 2000): 1417–19.
  75. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, “International Genealogical Index.”
  76. British Isles Vital Records Index.
  77. National Burial Index for England and Wales.
  78. The National Archives, “About the Wills,” provides a link to search the Prerogative Court of Canterbury wills index.
  79. English Origins, “Boyd’s Marriage Index, 1538–1940.”
  80. “Great Card Index, ca. 1100–1900,”Society of Genealogists Library, London, England; FHL microfilms 1,938,196–2,220,319 and 2,220,325, items 1–10.
  81. [Survey of English place-names], 75 vols. (Nottingham, U.K.: English Place-name Society, 1924–98). For individual titles and authors, see English Place-Name Society, “List of Publications.”
  82. Herber, Ancestral Trails, 411; and J. S. W. Gibson and Alan Dell, The Protestation Returns 1641–2 and Other Contemporary Listings: Collections in Aid of Distressed Protestants in Ireland; Subsidies; Poll Tax; Assessment or Grant; Vow and Covenant; Solemn League and Covenant (Birmingham, U.K.: Federation of Family History Societies, 1995).
  83. Steven Archer, Genmap UK, computer software (Dartford, Kent, U.K.: Archer Software, 2002).
  84. Steven Archer, Surname Atlas (Dartford, Kent, U.K.: Archer Software, 2003).
  85. Guild of One-Name Studies.
  86. The 110 London parishes include thirteen outside the city’s walls. The assessments from seventeen London parishes are missing. See David Victor Glass, London Inhabitants Within the Walls, 1695 (Leicester: London Record Society, 1966), xlii. For an attempt to replace the missing data, see “A Supplement to the London Inhabitants List of 1695 Compiled by Staff at Guildhall Library,” Guildhall Studies in London History 2 (April and October 1976).
  87. Elizabeth Ralph and Mary E. Williams, The Inhabitants of Bristol in 1696 (Bristol: Bristol Record Society, 1968); and Glass, London Inhabitants within the Walls, 1695.
  88. For Bristol, see “William and Mary, Tax on Marriages, Births and Burials, and Bachelors and Widowers for War on France and Other Reasons, 1696–1706...,” in Poll Tax and Aid to the Crown, 1662–1834, Record Office, Bristol, England; FHL microfilm 1,749,357, items 8–11. For London, see Assessment Taxes upon Births, Marriages and Burials in Accordance with An Act of Parliament for the Various Parishes, City of London Record Office; FHL microfilms 0,574,646–51.
  89. Salerno, “The Character of Emigration from Wiltshire,” 45, reports finding several indentured servants in Wiltshire subsidies.
  90. The National Archives, “E 179 Database: Records Relating to Lay and Clerical Taxation.”
  91. Ibid. A guide to the extant hearth tax rolls are included in this online resource.
  92. Roehampton University, The Hearth Tax Project.
  93. E. H. Bates Harbin, Quarter Sessions Records for the County of Somerset, vol. 3, Commonwealth 1646–1660 (London: Harrison, 1912), lvii, 358. An apprentice was brought before the Quarter Sessions in 1658 because he and another young man attempted to emigrate to America as indentured servants before completing their apprenticeship terms. After arriving in Bristol, one of the young men changed his mind and returned home, while the other emigrated.
  94. Inland Revenue Office, Apprenticeship Books of Great Britain: Town Registers, October 1711–January 1811 and Country Registers, May 1710–September 1808, and Indexes to Apprentices, 1710–1774 and Indexes to Masters, 1710–1762, London Public Record Office; FHL microfilms 0,477,624–37 (indexes) and 0,824,633–84 (registers).
  95. Percival Boyd, comp., “Pedigrees with Index of London Citizens, abt. 1600–1800,” manuscript, The Society of Genealogists, London; FHL microfilms 0,094,515–645.
  96. British Origins, London Apprenticeship Abstracts 1442–1850.
  97. Apprenticeship Records, 1532–1988, Record Office, Bristol, U.K.; FHL microfilms 1,565,024;1,565,063; 1,565,064, items 1–3; 1,565,065, items 1–5; 1,565,066; 1,565,102, item 1; 1,597,442, items 2–5; 1,597,443; 1,702,212, item 1; and 1,749,551, items 3–4.
  98. Apprentice Enrollment Books, 1707–1881, Record Office, Liverpool, U.K.; FHL microfilm 1,647,413, items 4–7.
  99. Coldham, The Bristol Registers of Servants Sent to Foreign Plantations, 1654–1686; The Complete Book of Emigrants, 1661–1699; The Complete Book of Emigrants 1700–1750; The Complete Book of Emigrants, 1751– 1776; and Emigrants from England to the American Colonies, 1773–1776.
  100. Filby, Passenger and Immigration Lists Index. This index is available online. See Gale Research, Passenger and Immigration Lists Index, 1500s–1900s,
  101. Immigrant Ancestors Project, Discover Your Immigrant Ancestors, Center for Family History and Genealogy, Brigham Young University.
  102. Immigrant Ships Transcribers Guild, “Bringing Our Ancestors Home.”
  103. Robert W. Barnes, British Roots of Maryland Families and British Roots of Maryland Families II (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1999–2002); Robert W. Barnes et al., Colonial Families of the Eastern Shore of Maryland (Westminster, Md.: Family Line, 1996–2004); John Frederick Dorman, Adventurers of Purse and Person: Virginia, 1607–1624/5, 3 vols. (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2004–); and Elise Greenup Jourdan, Early Families of Southern Maryland (Westminster, Md.: Family Line Publications, 1992–2004).