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My family has been on the American continent for over 350 years. On my mother’s side, they had settled in Connecticut before 1650, probably moving there from Massachusetts, though we don’t know much for certain. On my father’s side, the male line is better documented: the first Cawood (named after the city in Yorkshire, England) arrived in Maryland as an indentured servant in 1660.

Little is taught about indentured servitude in American history classes, but the majority of European immigrants to North America in the 17th century came as indentured servants.

Europe was a mess in the 17th century, largely owing to the Catholic-Protestant schism. The French Wars of Religion (1562-98) led to the deaths of 2-4 million people. The Thirty Years War (1618-48) reduced the population in the Germanic states by somewhere between 25 to 40%, and eventually involved Denmark, Sweden and France as well as the principalities of the former Holy Roman Empire. (It also set off a fashion for witch-hunting and witch-burning.) The English Civil War (1642-51) completely destroyed the economy of the mostly Catholic north of England, which sent my own ancestor’s family down to Bristol to try to eke out a living, and eventually into servitude.

Meanwhile, in the colonies of Virginia and Maryland, there had been rapid expansion of the tobacco industry, and a corresponding need for cheap labor. African slavery had been brought to America with the first Spanish ships, and was firmly entrenched in the Caribbean and Latin American in the 17th century, but was a novelty in the North American English colonies in the first half of the 1600s. In fact, there were no laws differentiating slaves from indentured servants until 1641 (thanks, Massachusetts), and Africans in the earliest years of the colonies were sometimes freed after a period of service like European indentured servants were.

Impoverished Europeans, following the age-old traditions of serfdom, sold themselves into temporary bondage in order to pay passage to the New World. For those with skills, the term was typically 4-7 years, at the end of which the master was to provide tools, sometimes extra clothes, and land with which to start an independent life. Unskilled laborers, having less negotiating power, often had longer terms and generally less favorable post-indenture provisions.

There were obvious economic incentives for masters to prevent their servants from reaching the end of their indenture. Indentures could be extended as punishment for a range of crimes–including, for female servants, becoming pregnant. Mortality in the colonies was high for everybody, but in some counties, clergymen documented mortality rates of indentured servants in their final years of servitude approaching 90%: masters would begin withholding blankets, medicine and food. Oh, and forcibly impregnating their female servants.

Two things happened in the latter half of the 17th century: one is that European economies–after the plague year of 1660–began getting back on their feet, leading to a fall-off in voluntary indenture. The second is that Catholic Charles II, upon his restoration to the English throne in 1660, set up the Royal African Company as a monopoly on English trade with West Africa, creating a new incentive to import African slaves in place of European servants.

So: by the 1670’s, we have a fair number of former indentured servants who have been moving inland to acquire land for themselves, setting off new conflicts with the Native Americans whose lands they were acquiring. And we have large, established planters along the Atlantic coast getting concerned about the growing imbalance between themselves and their labor, leading them to create a number of new laws explicitly defining the non-rights of slaves in order to eliminate shared interests between slaves and indentured servants. As the Virginia governor noted, “six parts of Seven at least are Poore, Indebted, Discontented and Armed.” There is a longer article on the hardening of race-based slavery after 1660 here, which is a very good read.

In Virginia, the governor had a policy of accommodation with the Natives–not exactly out the goodness of his heart, however. On the one hand, friction between Natives and poor new inland planters kept the planters too busy to stir up trouble in the more settled areas; and on the other, he happened to personally have a very profitable fur trade with the Natives.

In July 1676, an inland planter and former indentured servant named Nathaniel Bacon organized a revolt against the Governor, which got support from landless whites as well as indentured servants of various races. He got this broad support because he defined the “commons” of Virginia to include all bondspeople, and demanded return of voting rights to freedmen without land. He also demanded (and got) a contingent of soldiers and a commission to go deal with the “Indian problem” on the frontier, but in other concerns, the rebels continued to see the government dragging its feet.

On July 30, 1676, Bacon and his followers issued a “Declaration of the People of Virginia”, which enumerates the failings of the governor, not least being his actions “without and even against the consent of the people”. In form, it looks remarkably similar to the Declaration of Independence penned 100 years later by Virginian Thomas Jefferson:

1. For having, upon specious pretenses of public works, raised great unjust taxes upon the commonalty for the advancement of private favorites and other sinister ends, but no visible effects in any measure adequate; for not having, during this long time of his government, in any measure advanced this hopeful colony either by fortifications, towns, or trade.

2. For having abused and rendered contemptible the magistrates of justice by advancing to places of judicature scandalous and ignorant favorites.

3. For having wronged his Majesty’s prerogative and interest by assuming monopoly of the beaver trade and for having in it unjust gain betrayed and sold his Majesty’s country and the lives of his loyal subjects to the barbarous heathen….

The complete text of this first Declaration is here.

Frederick Douglass, asked to speak on Independence Day, 1852, had his own take on the principles embedded in both Declarations, which is also worth reading.

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