Genealogy from the perspective of a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon, LDS)

Thursday, January 4, 2018

A Family History Mission:Indentured or Enslaved?

No. 24

Note: You can do a Google search for "A Family History Mission" to see all the previous posts in this ongoing series. You can also search for "James Tanner genealogy" and find them.

One of the sad things about preparing hundreds of documents for digitization is coming across these Indentured Servant Contracts. Here is the cover sheet for the above contract.

I will let you read the entire document so you can see what was done to this nine-year-old girl. Indentured servants were simply slaves for a term of years. In the case of this poor nine-year-old, she would be working for whatever the master decided to give her in the way of food, clothing, and shelter. In return, she learns to do housework for nine long years. Here is a description of Indentured Servitude from the Law Library of Congress:
Before the Civil War, slaves and indentured servants were considered personal property, and they or their descendants could be sold or inherited like any other personalty. Like other property, human chattel was governed largely by laws of individual states. Generally, these laws concerning indentured servants and slaves did not differentiate between the sexes. Some, however, addressed only women. Regardless of their country of origin, many early immigrants were indentured servants, people who sold their labor in exchange for passage to the New World and housing on their arrival. Initially, most laws passed concerned indentured servants, but around the middle of the seventeenth century, colonial laws began to reflect differences between indentured servants and slaves. More important, the laws began to differentiate between races: the association of “servitude for natural life” with people of African descent became common. Re Negro John Punch (1640) was one of the early cases that made a racial distinction among indentured servants.
Here are three more contracts for you to try your skill in reading old handwriting from 1822 in Maryland.  You can click on the images to enlarge them. You can also get some idea of the documents we are working with at the Maryland State Archives.


  1. "Indentured servants were simply slaves for a term of years." Indentured servitude could be a form of involuntary servitude, but these contracts look like they are for apprenticeships. The child would be apprenticed out to learn a trade. The system was undoubtedly abused, but it was the usual way that society trained workers.

    I've also seen an indenture for a man who was in debt in Utah. He contracted to provide a crop for the man who had loaned him the money that he could not repay.

    So, I wouldn't put these into the same category as slavery or involuntary servitude, even in the case of the African American child. Some of the states had a system of gradual emancipation and used contracts similar to this to move people out of slavery, but Maryland used a traditional form of racially-based chattel slavery through 1864.

    1. I am also finding Apprenticeship contracts that are very different from these Indentured Servitude contracts. I don't think that nine year old girl could negotiate a fair and reasonable contract.

    2. When speaking of types of unfree labor, it's important not to conflate all the types of servitude since there were various systems based on the time and place.

      In general, American slavery would be defined as involuntary, permanent, and hereditary. A slave was property, but for a couple of centuries, courts and legislatures wavered over whether enslaved workers should be treated as real or personal property.

      In England, a child's status followed that of his father, but in the American colonies, that created a problem with their system of labor, so in 1662, they adopted a Roman practice, partus sequitur ventrem, so the child's status followed that of his mother. This allowed the American colonies to develop a system in which involuntary servitude was limited to those of African American or Native American descent, and thus the United States brought millions of people into bondage, ensuring a large and politically powerless workforce.

      Indentured servitude had a voluntary component and was limited to a certain term. Of course, sometimes the voluntary component wasn't really voluntary and the term was something like 99 years, but that was generally done in the Midwest where the legislatures weren't specific about the terms of indenture; in states like New York or New Jersey, the indentures were limited to very specific terms having to do with age. Indentured servitude was the system under which many white settlers were brought to this country in its earlier years. Even in cases where there was some involuntary component (prisoners or kidnapping victims) it should not be confused with slavery. I think I've explained before that "white slavery" or "Irish slavery" is an invention of white supremacists who seek to discredit the civil rights movement.

      Another major form of unfree labor included the Asian and Latino workers brought into the country under various types of contracts, and even today there are various forms of unfree labor in this country, but they should not be confused with hereditary slavery.

      Now that I'm looking more closely at the contracts you shared here, they all seem to be signed by the same person, so they are may be court-overseen indentures; in other words, the predecessor to today's foster care system. These may be orphans or children without parents, but society needed to ensure that they became productive members of society. Would that explain the difference between these and the other apprenticeship contracts you're seeing?

      The other issue these contracts raise is child labor. Children in the United States have only been protected from oppressive labor and exploitation since the advances of the Progressive Era, and then more specifically the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.

    3. We all need to remember that involuntary servitude was abolished along with slavery in the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which reads:
      Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
      Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
      I am sure I will have more to say about involuntary servitude because I am seeing more and more indentures.

    4. Since I haven't spent much time researching in Maryland, I finally resorted to Google. (Most of my research has focused on the Carolinas, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Alabama, and each state had its own particular way of regulating servitude and freedom.) The Maryland State Archives has guides to the different types of records in its collections. Here's the page for Early Maryland Records.

      Understanding What You Find In Early Maryland Records

      If someone is researching in a particular state and needs a quick review of its slave laws, look in Google Books or for John C. Hurd's Law of Freedom and Bondage, Vol. 2. Another good resource for anyone researching Southern families that were enslaved or else owned slaves is Thomas Morris's Southern Slavery and the Law.

  2. James, I really enjoy these posts. My ancestors fled Maryland due to religious prosecution in the early 19th century and it has been a brick wall for me finding anything out about them. Thank you, your wife, and all the other couples there for the sacrifices you are making that will help so many people -- that you will likely never meet -- now and in the future. Hope you have a happy and healthy 2018.

  3. Thank You Amy for explaining and clearing the differences up. As a African American Researcher we deal with this Issue all the time. Lines are blurred on Enslaved and Indentured. They are not the same. I appreciate wholeheartedly for that Answer.

    1. You're welcome. :)

      My area of expertise is African American slavery in the American West, and I see certain very common errors in family and community histories: the difference between enslaved vs. indentured as you mentioned, impossible claims about manumission (the freeing or emancipation of the enslaved), misunderstanding the chain of ownership, getting names wrong, not knowing about basic elements of slavery like the practice of hiring out, etc., etc.

      I suggest to anyone who will listen that before they tackle the story of slavery in their family, they need to read several books, at least two general histories of American slavery and two slave narratives. It's a subject that's woefully under-taught and misunderstood.