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)
August 16, 1750: Run away, on the 12th instant, from Joseph Jackson, of London Grove, Chester county, an Irish servant man, named William Farrell, of middle stature, and brown complexion: Had on when he went away, a striped flannel jacket, a brown sailor’s jacket, a pair of coarse trowsers, striped drawers, a felt hat, and a check shirt, his hair cut off. Likewise ran away with the aforesaid servant, an Irish servant man, named Thomas Collard, belonging to Samuel Ramsay, of Londonderry, in the said county, of a dark complexion, and is pock mark’d: Had on a green double breasted jacket, with clear buttons, and red lining, black breeches, black wig, his other clothes not certainly known. Whoever takes up and secures the said servants, so that their masters may have them again, shall have Six Pounds reward for both, or Three Pounds for either, and reasonable charges, paid by JOSEPH JACKSON, or SAMUEL RAMSAY. (The Pennsylvania Gazette)
March 3, 1747: RUN away the 23d of last month, from William Hartley, of Charlestown, Chester County, an Irish Servant man, named Peter Fowler, about 25 years of age, a thick well set fellow, and has short black hair, and is very much given to drinking; he has been several years in this province, but by running away, and other misdemeanors, is still a servant : Had on when he went away, a brown linsey jacket, with pewter buttons, old cloth breeches, fine check trowsers, and good shoes and stockings, Whoever takes up and secures said servants, so that his master may have him again, shall have Five Pounds, Pennsylvania currency, reward, and reasonable charges, from William Hartley. (The Pennsylvania Gazette)
June 19, 1770: RUN away from the subscribers, on Sunday, the 17th instant, an Irish servant man, named Daniel Downs, about 30 years of age, a thick clumsey fellow; had on, when went away, a brown coloured coat, well worn, mixed linsey jacket, striped linen trowsers, blue and white yarn stockings, old shoes, check shirt, and a felt hat. Went off with him, the same day, from Joannas Glann, an Irish servant lad, about 5 feet 9 inches high, a slim fellow, red complexion; had on, when he went away, a blue broadcloth coat, a striped linen jacket, ozenbrigs shirt and trowsers, shoes and stockings. Whoever takes up said servants, so that their masters may have them again, shall have Twenty Shillings reward, if taken in the province; and if out of it, Forty Shillings, paid by JOANNAS GLANN, WILLIAM QUILLEN. (The Pennsylvania Gazette)
April 17, 1776: EIGHT DOLLARS Reward – RUN away, on the 20th of December, 1775, from the subscriber, living in Mill creek Hundred, New Castle county, an Irish servant woman, named Catherine Finnety, about 22 years of age, a middle sized woman, fair complexion; had on a red and white calicoe gown, a black silk cloak, and a black silk hat. Likewise, from the same person, on the 2d of April, 1776, an Irish servant man, named Joseph Finnety, by trade a Cooper, 5 feet 5 inches high, fair hair, his beard a little sandy; had on a light cloth outside jacket, and a dark brown under jacket, brown velvet breeches; took with him a horse, bridle and saddle, the horse a dark gray, about 14 hands high, 11 years old. Whoever takes up said servants, shall have for the woman Four Dollars, and for the man and horse Eight Dollars, paid by WILLIAM BRACKIN. (The Pennsylvania Gazette)
April 18, 1745: RUN away from the Subscribers, in Amity Township, Philadelphia County … An Irish Servant Man, named Dennis Daley, about 22 Years of Age, has the Brogue on his Tongue, a great Stoppage in his Speech, and very much addicted to Drinking and Swearing; Had on when he went away, a coarse Kersey Coat, black Callimancoe Jacket, new Ozenbrigs Trowsers, and Leather Breeches under them, white Yarn Stockings, and good Shoe, with Hobnails in them. (The Pennsylvania Gazette)
April 17, 1767: ELOPED from Mr. Burn’s schooner, in Charlestown harbor, about a week ago, a tall slim Irish indented servant, name Michael Darby, had on a blue pea jacket and towers, is about 22 years of age, a fair complexion, and lank light colored hair. Whoever will apprehend him, and deliver him to me or to the warden of the work-house, shall be handsomely rewarded. (The South Carolina Gazette)