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Indentured Servants in Jamestown: Definition & Overview

Instructor: Amy Lively
This lesson discusses the role of indentured servants in the early years of Jamestown. Learn more about who indentured servants were and why they went to Jamestown, then test your knowledge with a quiz.

Definition

An indentured servant was a person who was contracted to go to the American colonies to work in exchange for payment for the trip, as well as room and board. Contracts, or indentures, were usually valid for between four and seven years. When a contract expired, the servant was freed and typically given land and money called freedom dues. Some might have also been given clothing or food.

Jamestown

The fact that Jamestown did not become a footnote in history and, therefore, had a need for cheap labor at all is entirely because of smuggled tobacco seeds. All previous attempts by America's first permanent European settlement to show a profit for the investors of the Virginia Company had been a complete failure. However, John Rolfe's experimentation with Orinoco tobacco seeds from South America saved Jamestown, even if it did not save the Virginia Company from bankruptcy and Jamestown from becoming a royal colony.

Sweeter than the Native American tobacco, Orinoco tobacco was popular and eventually became an important cash crop. Tobacco grows easily in Virginia, but it is very labor-intensive. Plantation owners found themselves with much work to do but not enough people to do it. They looked to indentured servants to work in the tobacco fields as well as do household chores.

Who Were Indentured Servants?

The first indentured servants to arrive in Jamestown in 1609 were primarily from England. Most of the servants were young and poor. A population boom in England had created food shortages, rising prices, declining wages, and a huge drop in the standard of living in many areas. There was little work to be found and England was anxious to get rid of the vagrants that began to fill its cities. One solution was to exile them to America.

Some of the indentured servants left willingly because they thought America had to be better than England. Some were kidnapped by ship captains looking for more cargo to take to America. Starting in 1619, Africans started to arrive in Jamestown. The Dutch captain of that slave ship traded the Africans for food and they were put to work on tobacco plantations.

Life for Indentured Servants in Jamestown

Many indentured servants never even made it to Jamestown because they did not survive the trip. Ship captains wanted to maximize their profits and packed as many people as they could into their cargo ships. Food was scarce and the supply often ran out before the ship arrived in Jamestown. Drinking water was full of dirt, bugs, and even worms, contributing to the spread of disease.

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