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Women, Work and Family in the Antebellum Mountain South  (Cambridge University Press, 2008)


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Indentured Servitude on Appalachian Frontiers

This is a copyrighted document from the electronic archive for Wilma A. Dunaway, Women, Work and Family in the Antebellum Mountain South (Cambridge University Press, 2008).


By the time of the Revolutionary War, indentured servitude had been a common practice in the United States for 150 years. According to Kenneth Stampp:

Redemptioners paid their passage to America by binding themselves as servants for terms of from two to seven years. In the seventeenth century most of the servants were English; in the eighteenth century most of them were Germans, Swiss, Scots, Scotch-Irish, and Irish. Victims of kidnappers and convicts sentenced to transportation by English courts supplemented this flow of unfree labor. Probably more than half of the immigrants to the thirteen English colonies in North American came as bondsmen.

By 1750, a majority of the white population of the U.S. was native-born, so immigrant indentured laborers "were an increasingly less visible part of the labor force and a very small proportion of the adult female population." By the middle of the eighteenth century, only about one in ten of the country’s new foreign arrivals was a bound laborers. Historically, the slight over-representation of white Appalachian males was caused by the immigration of greater numbers of foreign men to the frontiers. In 1790, the Appalachian counties with the lowest percentage of females were located in Maryland, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Virginia, areas of the U.S. South that received the greatest numbers of foreign immigrants in this period. In this era, Maryland and Virginia received more than 1,000 indentured servants a year, most of them from Germany and Ireland, and three-quarters of them were males. We can also get a limited sense of the extent of indentured servitude by examining frontier newspaper advertisements. Of 602 runaways posted in eight regional newspapers between 1790 and 1810, nearly 6 percent were rewards offered for the return of indentured laborers. Two-fifths of these runaways were immigrants, and more than one-third were females, like the missing "spinner from Ireland" posted in 1801 by an east Tennessee employer. A sixteen-year-old female escaped from her Frederick County, Maryland, employer and was believed to be on the east Tennessee frontier in 1793. The "Public" was "Warned" by Daniel Wythe "Not to Harber [his] indentured servant, Biddy Colbert, emigrant from Ireland."

By 1820, the census reported only 2,580 white foreigners in Southern Appalachia, representing less than three-tenths of one percent of the total population. More than 90 percent of them resided in Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia, the vast majority of them males. Only about half these immigrants would have been indentured, meaning that no more than one of about every 1,000 residents would have been a bonded emigrant laborer in 1819. Even though immigrants accounted for nearly 2 percent of the western Maryland population, there were many more locally-indentured persons in the rest of Southern Appalachia than there were bonded immigrants. Following British laws established during the colonial period, post-Revolutionary public authorities indentured the labor of those who were likely to fall upon the public dole. Appalachian county governments bound out indigent adults and children whose families could no longer care for them. The age, gender, and racial trends are clearly documented in early records of Appalachian poor houses, for women and orphans represented more than two-thirds of the individuals whose labor was auctioned off by county governments. Isaac Miller of Anderson County, Tennessee, advertised in 1819 for the return of Margaret Hutcheson who had been bound to him by the county poor house. Obviously, the seventeen-year-old girl had tried the patience of her master, for he offered only "a reward of 61/4 cents to the person who w[ould] deliver her to [him]," caustically adding, "but I will not thank any person for doing so." When an orphan was bound out by the county poor house, the child was legally tied to the master until the age of eighteen or twenty-one. Because he saw so few white female servants, Toulmin erroneously claimed that "there [we]re no indented servants" in east Kentucky at the turn of the nineteenth century. In east Kentucky, as in other parts of the South, orphans were often bound to tradesmen or farmers until age 21, and indigent adults were typically bound for three to seven years. However, there is no way to document how many laborers were bound out by their own families. When parents indentured their own children, it was for "a usual term of seven years if a girl, or five if a boy." Most scholars have ignored the continuing indenturement of free whites, free blacks, and Indians after 1800, incorrectly claiming that such servitude ended abruptly after slavery was firmly established in the U.S. South. However, there was no neat historical termination of this practice as the numbers of slaves increased. Even though it is highly likely that there were two to three times more bound laborers in the early 1800s, indenturement was a common practice throughout the antebellum period.