Until the late 18th century, indentured servitude was very common in British North America. It was often a way for poor Europeans to emigrate to the American colonies: they signed an indenture in return for a passage. After their indenture expired, the immigrants were free to work for themselves or another employer.
In some cases, the indenture was made with a ship’s master, who on-sold the indenture to an employer in the colonies. Most indentured servants worked as farm laborers or domestic servants, although some were apprenticed to craftsmen.
The terms of an indenture were not always enforced by American courts, although runaways were usually sought out and returned to their employer.
Most labor contracts made were in increments of five years with the opportunity to extend another five years. Many contracts also provided a free passage home after the dictated labor was completed. However, there were generally no policies and contracts regulating control over employers once the labor hours were completed, which led to frequent abuse and ill-treatment.
Our 18th Century newspaper collections include the Pennsylvania Gazette and the South Carolina Gazette. Both newspapers carried many advertisements for the sale of indenture contracts and the recovery of runaway servants.
Indentures for Sale
August 19, 1762: To be SOLD, AN Irish Woman Servant, who has three Years and three Months to serve. Enquire at the New Printing Office. (The Pennsylvania Gazette)
October 29, 1766: TO be disposed of, two Irish Servant Boys times, the one having Six, the other Seven Years to serve, and are suitable either for Town or Country Business. The above Servants Times are disposed of for no Fault, but only for want of Employment. For further Particulars, enquire of William Parr, Esq; or of the Subscriber, living at the Corner of Walnut and Third streets. (The Pennsylvania Gazette)
August 10, 1738: Just arrived from DUBLIN, In the Snow JOLLY BACCHUS, Peter Cullen, Commander: A PARCEL of likely ENGLISH and IRISH SERVANTS, Tradesmen, viz. Shoemakers, Taylors, Weavers, Black and White Smiths, Carpenters, Husband- men and sundry other Tradesmen: Also a Parcel of likely Servant Women, fit for either Town or Country Work; whose Times are to be disposed of, by THOMAS WALKER, Butcher, or SAMUEL WALKER, or JOHN BEAUMONT, or the said Master on Board the aid Snow, now lying off against Market-Street Wharffe, where all due Attendance will be given. Philadelphia, August 3, 1738. (The Pennsylvania Gazette)
May 25, 1734: To be Sold by Ribton Hutchinson on the Bay extraordinary good Butter in Firkins, Herrings, Cheese, Irish Potatoes, Mens and Womens Servants, Irish Linnens of several sorts, and good Barbados Rum in Hogsheads, Terces and Barrils. (The South Carolina Gazette)
May 13, 1766: To be sold, for no Fault, an Irish indented Servant Maid, who is an excellent Sempstress, and has upwards of four Years to serve., Enquire of CHARLES CROUCH. at his Printing-Office, in Elliott-street. (The South Carolina Gazette)