Icon Understanding Maryland Records: Indentured Servants

Understanding Maryland Records
Indentured Servants

Indentured servants were persons obliged by contract to work for a stated number of years. During the early settlement of Maryland, many newcomers were indentured servants who wanted to immigrate to the colony, but could not pay for passage. Those people could agree to exchange time in service for the cost of the voyage. The servant might have accompanied his master to Maryland, or signed papers with a sea captain who then sold the contract after landing in the colony. One form of indenture obliged the master to provide transportation, food, clothing, and lodging for the servant during the term of servitude. On completion of the servant's term, the master may have promised to furnish clothing, a year's provision of corn, and the right to 50 acres of land. The usual length of service was 4 to 5 years, but in the case of a valuable skilled worker, such as a blacksmith or cooper, the time could be shortened to induce the person to sign.

In 1717, the British Parliament adopted a policy of transportation, which banished convicts to the American colonies, usually for 7 years, and this allowed them to be bought and sold as indentured servants during their sentences. These indentured servants were subject to the master's discipline and could be sold to other masters. Neither men nor women could marry until they completed or purchased their service contracts.

A person could be placed in servitude by the action of a county court. In 1773, for example, a Frederick County female servant was adjudged for bastardy, having a child "begot by a Negro." The child had been born free because that was the status of the mother. The white mother was sold for 7 years of servitude and her mulatto daughter, 11 months old, was sold as a servant to serve until age of 31 years.

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