University of Virginia Library

Search this document 

3834. IMMIGRANTS, Indentured.—

Indentured
servants formed a considerable supply.
These were poor Europeans, who went to
America to settle themselves. If they could pay
their passage, it was well. If not, they must
find means of paying it. They were at liberty,
therefore, to make an agreement with any person
they chose, to serve him such a length of
time as they agreed on, upon condition that he
would repay to the master of the vessel the
expenses of their passage. If, being foreigners,
unable to speak the language, they did not know
how to make a bargain for themselves, the
captain of the vessel contracted for them with
such persons as he could. This contract was
by deed indented, which occasioned them to be
called indented servants. * * * with the
master of the vessel, they could redeem themselves
from his power by paying their passage,
which they frequently effected by hiring themselves
on their arrival. In some States I know
that these people had a right of marrying
themselves without their masters' leave, and I
did suppose they had that right everywhere.
I did not know that in any of the
States they demanded so much as a week for
every day's absence without leave. I suspect
this must have been at a very early period,
while the governments were in the hands of the
first emigrants, who, being mostly laborers,
were narrow-minded and severe. I know that
in Virginia the laws allowed their servitude to
be protracted only two days for every one they
were absent without leave. So mild was this
kind of servitude, that it was very frequent for
foreigners, who carried to America money
enough, not only to pay their passage, but to buy
themselves a farm, it was common I say for
them to indent themselves to a master for three
years, for a certain sum of money with a view
to learn the husbandry of the country. I will
here make a general observation. So desirous
are the poor of Europe to get to America, where
they may better their condition, that being unable
to pay their passage, they will agree to
serve two or three years on their arrival there,
rather than not go.—
To M. de Meunier. Washington ed. ix, 254. Ford ed., iv, 159.
(P. 1786)