College of Sobriety: Servitude in Plymouth Colony
“… it is a common and ordained Fate, that there must be Servants as well as Masters, and that good Servitudes are those Colledges of Sobriety that checks in the giddy and wild-headed youth from his profuse and uneven course of life, by a limited constrainment as well as it otherwise agrees with the moderate and discreet Servant: ….” So wrote George Alsop in his 1666 treatise, A Character of the Province of Maryland, in a defence of colonial servitude. With this he was largely preaching to the converted, as a sizable portion of the English population in the early modern period (1500-1700) had experienced some form of servitude. Peter Laslett estimated that, “A quarter or a third of all families in the country contained servants in Stuart times, ….” Alan Macfarlane’s studies indicate that between a quarter and a half of the population were servants at one time or another.” The majority of these were “life-cycle servants,” those who entered service in their early teens, worked for the next ten years or so; ultimately leaving service and marrying. Service for them was a voluntary act which bettered their condition. As servants they acquired new skills, made valuable social and business contacts, and amassed the savings needed to set up a household of their own. Others were placed in service by government and church officials as a part of the system of poor relief.
While “servant” was the all-encompassing term used in the seventeenth century, there were four main types of long-term hired workers: servants in husbandry, domestic servants, parish apprentices and craft apprentices. Servants in all four categories lived in with the family and labored for future recompense, but there were characteristics which distinguished one from another. The two major differences between servants and apprentices were the financial arrangements and expected length of service. For servants, whether those in husbandry or domestic employment, the two parties negotiated a yearly contract, with wages often a combination of money, goods such as new clothing, and possibly even perquisites such as the free pasturing of livestock. In apprenticeship contracts, whether craft or parish, it was the master who received payment, and service was expected to last a minimum of seven years. Both of these systems were transferred to the English settlements and contributed to colonial servitude as it developed in the seventeenth century.
Virginia colonists created the system of indentured servitude adopted by the first Plymouth colonists. Labor was in scarce supply, but planters needed assurance that the high costs of transporting and maintaining workers, £5 to £6 for ship passage and another £5 for equipage, would be repaid. The details of service – term length, wages, inclusion of apparel, and transportation arrangements – were all negotiable. Early contracts gave terms of three, four or five years. Eventually the terms lengthened to seven years, the standard in the later colonial period. While many of the first agreements were purely verbal, eventually they were drawn up in the form of indentures, as was done commonly with apprenticeships. This gave rise to the term “indentured (or indented) servant,” although they were also referred to generally as “bond-servants.” This indenture contract for Berkeley Hundred made on 7 September 1619, sets out the standard conditions:
By 1620, when the merchant investors and agents for the colonists were making the final arrangements, the system of indentured servitude was well established in Virginia. A letter dated 10 June 1620, from Samuel Fuller, Edward Winslow, William Bradford, and Isaac Allerton to John Carver and Robert Cushman regarding the agreement with the investors, indicates that the settlers expected servants to be among the passengers:
Despite the complaint, just over one-third of the twenty-four families aboard the Mayflower included at least one servant, well within the normal range of yeoman households. All four types of servants were represented, although servants in husbandry were most prevalent. The four More children, products of an adulterous union, abandoned by their mother and rejected by her husband, were treated much as parish apprentices, being “put to,” that is assigned, to three of the prominent men.
John Hooke is the only known example of a craft apprentice aboard the Mayflower. An indenture made in Leiden on 7 January 1619 between Isaac Allerton and Alice, widow of John Hooke, and Henry Gallant, her husband, specified that John was to be taught and trained in the trade of making clothes as well as to be brought up in the fear of God and taught to read and write. At the age of twelve, John was to serve Allerton for twelve years. Had he lived, John would have ended his indenture at the age of twenty-four, the standard age at which craft apprenticeships were finished.
The rest emigrated as general servants, presumably for whatever work was necessary, but primarily for husbandry. Following the customs of the Virginia Colony, they likely contracted for four-year indentures, food, clothing, and lodging provided. Most of them died in the first winter. Of the seven who survived, five were listed in the Division of Cattle dated 22 May 1627, thereby acquiring shares in the livestock, and were able to participate in the granting of land the following year.
For those either still in service at the breakup of the original company or who were to emigrate in the next decade, conditions of service remained variable. Bradford’s description of the new deal with the London investors indicates that there was no standard contract. “As for servants, they had none but what either their masters should give them out of theirs or their deservings should obtain from the company afterwards.” Court orders referring to individuals coming out of service in the 1630s listed double apparel, one suit for Sundays and one for weekday wear, and twelve bushels of Indian corn as the minimum. The court also granted them twenty-five acres of land as well, at least the males. There were considerably fewer female servants who appeared in the records and few received land. This is consistent with English inheritance practices, which concentrated the land on the male heirs and movable goods on the females.
The Plymouth Colony court records provide numerous examples of those in servitude. The earlier servants were drawn primarily from England, but the flow of immigrants to New England dwindled to a mere trickle with the advent of the English Civil War. Proposals made in 1622 to send groups of poor children from London to New England as servants came to nothing. Potential masters were forced to draw from the local population for their labor, primarily in the form of children although servitude was used as well as an alternative to prison. Later in the century colonists sought to recruit their help from the area Native Peoples, in addition to their neighbors’ children. While the tasks performed by those in service were largely comparable with English servants in husbandry, contracts continued to run for years, generally until the age of twenty-one for boys, and the age of eighteen or marriage for girls. These lengthy terms of service gave rise to the inclusion of the phrase “after the nature of an apprentice” in many contracts.
One significant segment of the colony’s population placed into service were children who had lost a parent, particularly after the remarriage of the survivor. “Putting children out,” arranging for their care within another family, was one method by which the tensions in step families was lessened. The author of one of the most influential Puritan conduct books, William Googe’s Of Domesticall Duties included within “Duties of Husband” a section entitled: “an husbands maintaining his wife against children of a former venter, and servants:”
The evidence is not conclusive. It may be that these particular outplacings received official notice because of the danger the child faced of losing its rightful inheritance to an unscrupulous stepfather.
Parents unable to provide adequately for their children also placed them out. Samuel and Elizabeth Eedy, “having many children & by reason of many wants lying upon them, so as they are not able to bring them up as they desire,” placed several children out in service. Adoption, while uncommon, placed children with couples who had no children of their own. Thomas and Winifred Whitney adopted two children. On 18 January 1643/4, they covenanted with William Hoskin for his six year old daughter, Sarah, “to dwell with them until shee shall accomplish the age of twenty yeares, … using her as their child, and being unto her as father and mother ….” On 30 January 1649, they adopted another child named Jeremiah, the four year old son of John and Bennit Smith. Under this agreement Thomas contracted that Jeremiah “… live and bee with him as his own Child … without annoyance or disturbance from the said John Smith or Bennit his wife.” Fathers on their death beds occasionally included the adoption of a child among their final requests, as did Robert Padduck in 1650 to Capt. Thomas Willet and Lawrence Litchfield to John and Ann Allin in 1658. In the latter case, Judith Litchfield was not willing initially to give up her little boy, Josias. She later consented, only specifying that the child “might call them father and mother and yet owne her for his Naturall mother as long as she should live.”
Government and church officials also placed out children when the parents were unable to raise them in what the court considered to be a proper manner. The system of parish apprenticeship as poor relief existed throughout England. Supported by national legislation, particularly the 1563 Statute of Artificers and the 1601 Act for the Relief of the Poor, the parish officials were empowered to apprentice children to masters as a means of providing for them. Not only did this affect orphans, but also the children “of all such whose parents shall not by the said persons be thought able to keep and maintain their children.” This system of social legislation sought to break the cycle of poverty by removing these children from their environment. “Idleness” was considered the cause of the nation’s woes. A child not raised to be productive, it was believed, was unable to become productive as an adult. Placed in a proper home, disciplined, fed, clothed, taught, and trained in a suitable occupation, the child would become a profitable and law-abiding member of society. The Court of Assistants of Plymouth Colony acted in accordance with these regulations when the situation warranted. The children of Francis and Christian Billington, including her son Benjamin by first husband Francis Eaton, were placed out by the act and order of the court. Unhappy with the court’s actions, the Billingtons “enveagled” their son, Joseph, who repeatedly left his master’s service. The court threatened both his parents and stepbrother, Benjamin, should the behavior continue.
Even adults entered service if not able to maintain themselves, although not always of their own choice. John Smith “in great extremity” had bound himself as an apprentice to Edward Dowty for ten years. Thomas Higgens, “having lived an extravagant life, was placed with John Jenney for eight years” on 1 January 1633. Adey Webb, presented several times in 1637 and 1638 for leading a disorderly life, was ordered by the bench in June 1638 to procure a master or have one provided for him. The next month, Gov. Thomas Prence himself took Adey Webb “upon tryall.”
Blacks appear infrequently in the records, both as bond-servants and slaves, in the second half of the century. In the latter capacity, they were quite expensive, £24 to £25 apiece. Occasionally, as in the cases of Abraham and Anthony, two of the blacks belonging to William Brenton in 1675, they could hope to be freed. Both men received monetary bequests in Brenton’s will and were to be freed by their next owners in five years, should they “demean themselves dutifully and obediently to whom I shall give them,” and receive an additional five pounds in current country pay. Some of the blacks were possibly purchased by the sale or exchange of Indian captives as early as 1646. A directive by the Commissioners of the United Colonies ordered that those found to be harboring or otherwise aiding offenders, be seized:
And because it will be chargeable keepinge Indians in prisone, and if they should escape, they are like to prove more insolent, and dengerous after, it was thought fitt, upon such seasure, the delinquint or satisfaction be againe demanded, of the Sagamore or plantation of Indians guilty or accessory as before, and if it be denyed, that then the magistrates of the Jurisdccon deliver up the Indians seased to the pty or pties indamaged, either to serve or be shipped out and exchanged for Negroes as the cause will justly beare.
One final source of labor was unique to New England. One consequence of the longer life expectancy and earlier age at marriage of New England colonists was the chance for individuals to know their grandchildren. In his 1677 will, Joseph Rogers Sr. of Eastham gave “one third part of all my upland and meadow at Paomet” to his grandson Benjah Higgens, “on Condition hee live with me untill I die.” John Carver of Marshfield who died intestate in 1679 had eight children of whom “the eldest son is well provided for in that his Grandfather Carver hath settled on him the house and Land wheron his father Lived; and that John the second son whoe hath bine brought up by his Grandfather Foard, is by his will Instated in lands and theby well provided for; ….”
While sons and even grandsons could expect lands as part of their inheritance, servants depended upon the masters and colonial government honoring their indentures. Early contracts most frequently granted twenty-five acres of land. The court lessened that amount to five acres in 1636. The land was to be granted in the towns where the former servants lived or were received as inhabitants, unless impossible. Plymouth itself being settled, most of the newly freed servants received lands in Duxbury, an area then under expansion. This policy caused complaint: in 1638 the church of Duxbury petitioned “to reserve lands not granted to such as they could approve of, since the lands there were disposed in great part too servants and other young men ….” This petition apparently met with no success, as the courts were still granting lands in 1644 in Duxbury to ex-servants. In 1640, however, the court granted twenty-five acre parcels to the ex-servants. If the servants could not be accommodated in their towns, the courts were to assign them lands “in some convenient place.”
“Convenient” to the court officials meant property which they wished to secure under Plymouth Colony jurisdiction. As early as 1633, the servants covenanted to receive lands at the expiration of their terms were to have it at Scituate, “or some other convenient place, where it may be usefull.” Scituate and the later large purchases of land in the Weymouth-Bridgewater area were on the Bay line, land which was useful as a buffer zone between Plymouth Colony and Massachusetts Bay. Plymouth Colony had already fought over its northern and western boundaries, successfully in the case of Rhode Island, less so with the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Gov. Bradford was well aware that land which was occupied was much less likely to be settled by others. Ex-servants and other land-hungry young men were easily sent out to man the colony’s frontiers.
The third and last parcel of servant lands was likewise a buffer zone, this time between Plymouth Colony and Rhode Island. These were the Saconett lands, present-day Little Compton. On 4 June 1661, the Court granted liberty to the ancient servants to deputise someone to purchase land at Saconett on their behalf. The 3 June 1662 court order which appointed Capt. Thomas Willet to that task included a list of qualified ex-servants. These individuals first appeared as servants in the 1630s, and so had been out of service for some years. The Natives; however, appeared unwilling to sell and negotiations stalled. On 8 June 1664, the body of freemen declared it:
theire resolution to maintain theire just rightes, which for many years they have bine posessed of, in all those lands from Cape Codd to Saconett Point, with Pochasett, Causumsett, and the lands about Rehoboth to Patuckett River, and as farr up the said river till wee meet the Massachusetts line, which crosses the said river, and thence to Coahassett as the line runs …. And for that end, it was likewise voated that letters should bee directed from this Generall Court to the Gov and Councell of Road Island, for the asserting of our just rights as aforsaid.
They clearly feared the consequences should Rhode Islanders gain a foothold on the east side of the Saconett River, although Plymouth had yet to purchase the lands. In 1671; however, relations worsened between the English colonists and the Wampanoag and the court voted to send an expedition to the Indians of Saconett to bring in their English arms under threat of force. The Squa Sachem, Awashunkes, met with the Court and concluded Articles of Agreement which included the key passage:
And that wee may the better healp her to keep off such from her lands as may heerafter bringe upon her and us the like trouble, and to regulate such as will not be govned by her, shee hath submitted the disposall of her lands to the authoritie of this govment.
Plymouth’s title to the coveted Saconett lands received yet another setback. A rival claimant to the lands of Saconett appeared in the guise of Awahunkes’ kinsman, Mamanuah. Awashunkes, Mamanuah, and their attornies met in the Plymouth court in July 1673 to settle the dispute. The court decided in Mamanuah’s favor, but also felt that Awashunkes had some claim. They proposed that Awashunkes have some of the disputed land settled upon her by Mamanuah and his brethren and if they could not agree “… this Court doe appoint that some meet prsons by order of this court shall repaire to the place and make settlement of the said lands by certaine and known boundaries to intent that peace may be continued among the said Indians and they may all be accommodated for theire Subsisting and payment of theire debts in an orderly way.”
The lands of Saconett neck were eventually conveyed to the colonists on 1 November 1673 and 9 April 1675. The servants, or in some cases their heirs, finally received the lands allowed to them as ancient servants and freemen which they had been anticipating for fifteen years.
The preceding land transaction is interesting not only for what it conveys about the role of servants in Plymouth Colony, but also for the clash between a property-owning and non-materially based culture. In a common action against debt, the constable was typically instructed “to seize and secure his person” only as a last resort. In the case of Native debtors, their only valuable items as far as the English were concerned were their lands, should they have the disposal of any, and their persons. Individual Indians, generally men, were placed in service as a way of working off debts or fines. In a rather extreme case, William Clarke obtained as his faithful servant Gorge Partrich, an Indian who had been imprisoned for “swearing, assaulting, threatening to kill the said Captaine Williams,” the man he was indebted to. The Indian Hoken, “being insolent in his carryage and an incorrigable theife, that will not be reclaimed, but lyeth sherking and lurking about,” was to be “sold or sent off to Barbadoes, for to satisy his debts and to free the collonie from soe ill a member. Most of the Indians taken captive or surrendering voluntarily during the King Philip’s War and its aftermath were sold off to the West Indies. Those who remained were either considered not to have had a hand in the hostilities or were children under fourteen years of age. Some few, such as Mamanuah, his family, and fourteen men under him, were allowed to remain in the colony provided “not any of them to goe any where of the aforsaid bounds or tracts of land, but by order from some majestrate of this jurisdiction.”
Throughout the seventeenth century, relations between the Plymouth colonists and the Native Peoples changed from one of two sovereign people to that of inhabitant and interloper. The 1621 treaty between Gov. John Carver and Massasoit was an agreement between two groups of equal status. John Robinson in his letter to Gov. Bradford two years later deploring the killings at Wessagusset stated in part “… Besides you being no magistrates over them were to consider not what they deserved, but what you were by necessity constrained to inflict.” Over the course of the following fifty years, as the English population grew and increasingly occupied the land, they began to view the Natives as the interlopers, themselves as the rightful residents. The parallel that the colonists saw with the English vagabonds and rogues was too close to be ignored. Holinshed stated:
… the third [type] consisteth of thriftlesse poore, as the riotour that hath consumed all, the vagabund that will abide no where, but runneth up and downe from place to place (as it were seeking worke and finding none) and finallie the roge and strumpet which are not possible to be divided in sunder, but running to and fro over all the realme, sheefelie keeping the champaine soiles in summer to avoid the scorching heat, and the woodland grounds in winter to eschew the blustering winds.
Punishment of such included “… to be greevouslie whipped and burned through the gristle of the right eare, with an hot iron of the compase of an inch about, … except some honest person woorth five pounds … or some rich householder … will be bound in recognisance to reteine him in his service for one whole yeare.” When Indians became vagabonds in English eyes, they could be forcibly placed in service, as could their children. The colonists had encouraged Indians to apprentice their children for some time. As early as 1660, Indian parents who apprenticed their children to godly English received a coat yearly as long as the children remained in service. By laws enacted in Plymouth in 1674; however, not only “… such Indians as live Idley and will not take care to pay their Just debts after conviction” but also “… all Younge prsons of the Indians as spend their time Idley” were placed in servitude. Even those who surrendered to the English were not exempt. According to Court orders of July 1676:
It was ordered by the councell of warr, that it shalbe lawfull for any of the majestrates of this jurisdiction to dispose of the children of those Indians that have come in and yeilded themselves to the English, unto such of the English as may use them well, especially theire parents concenting therunto, during the time untill such children shall attaine the age of twenty foure or twenty five yeers, and the men and weemen to be where they are, or sent to the severall townes in some meet proportion of them, where they may have libertie att psent to worke for theire liveings, till some other place be assigned them.
There is a clear parallel with the instructions given to English justices and churchwardens for “setting the poore on worke, putting out apprentices, and relieving their impotent”
First for setting to worke the children of all such, whose parents shall not by (the greater part of) the said Overseers bee thought able to keepe and maintaine their children, which children, they by the assent two such Justices, may also put out to be apprentices, scil. the men children till their age of 24. And the women children till their age of 21.
While most of the adult Indians taken captive in King Philip’s War were sold out of the colony, the children under fourteen were disposed of into service. William Ford Sr.’s inventory taken in October 1676 included “an Indian captive” worth £3. Those families who acquired the boys and girls as servants had full disposal of them “provided that [the children] bee instructed in civility and chtian Religion.” Some English masters, at least, took these responsibilities seriously. Noah Newman, pastor of the Church at Rehoboth required in his will that “Job the Indian, and the Indian girl, be brought up in the waies and feare of God.” The Indian servants were even upon occasion given bequests. Richard Sison of Dartmouth in his will dated 18 October 1683 left “unto my Indian servant Samuell a tow yeer old mare: … The above said mare is to be delivered unto my said Indian servant at ye exspiration of his service ….” As with the English, some Indian apprentices preferred the unsuitable homes of their parents to life among the godly English.
Throughout Plymouth Colony’s existence servitude met a variety of needs. Besides the obvious one of shifting the labor force to complete needed work, servitude provided a training ground where Plymouth youth learned new skills, as it did their English counterparts. The lengthy terms inherent in “serving in the manner of an apprentice” saved those lacking the maturity and skills necessary to prosper in the New World from the likely consequences of their inexperience. Orphans and children of first marriages were put out into new homes, frequently under the oversight of colony officials and other leading citizens. For those who had lived too long “disorderly,” service was a means by which their creditors could recover their debts while providing for the basic needs of the workers. English coming out of service were used by the court to man the borders in danger of settlement from rival colonies. In the mid-century, Indians who committed crimes had been whipped and/or fined, and required to work off their debts. In other words, treated as were their white counterparts. Later colonial officials sought to counteract the “idle” lifestyle of the Native Peoples by applying the same logic as pertained to the English poor – notably rogues and vagabonds. By the mid-1670s any Indian, adult or child, guilty of the crime of living idlely might well be placed into service by the magistrates if not sold to the West Indies to recover the costs of the late war. This college of sobriety was clearly intended to rein in the “profuse and uneven course of life” not only of the English youth, but that of the Natives as well.
Footnotes:. This paper was presented in the Plymouth Colony Colloquium held at Plimoth Plantation by the Colonial Society of Massachusetts in the spring of 1992.
. George Alsop, “A Character of the Province of Maryland, 1666” in Narratives of Early Maryland, 1633-1684 (New York, 1967), 354.
. Peter Laslett, The World We Have Lost Further Explored, (New York, 1984), 13.
. Alan Macfarlane, The Origins of English Individualism, (Oxford, Eng., 1978), 79.
. Abbot Emerson Smith, Colonists in Bondage, (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1947), 14-15.
. William Bradford and Samuel Eliot Morison, ed., Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620-1647 (New York, 1966) [hereafter Bradford’s Hist.], 360.
. Jeremy Dupertuis Bangs, “The Pilgrims and Other English in Leiden Records: Some New Pilgrim Documents” in The New England Historical and Genealogical Register [hereafter NEHGR], 143 : 208.
. Bradford’s Hist., 187.
. Nathaniel B. Shurtleff and David Pulsifer, eds., Records of the Colony of New Plymouth in New England [1620-1691] (Boston, 1855-1861) [hereafter PCR], 1: 12-13, 15-16, 30.
. David Cressy, Coming Over: Migration and Communication Between England and New England in the Seventeenth Century, (Cambridge, Eng., 1987), 50.
. Peter Coldham, The Complete Book of Emigrants, 1607-1660 (Baltimore, 1988), 27.
. William Googe, Of Domesticall Duties (London, 1622), 409-410.
. PCR, 2: 82, 112-113.
. PCR, 2: 67
. PCR, 12: 181-182.
. PCR, 12: 198.
. George Ernest Bowman, “Plymouth Colony Deeds” in Mayflower Descendant, 12 : 134.
. Records of the Town of Plymouth [1636-1783] (Plymouth, Mass., 1889-1903), 1: 12.
. PCR, 2: 38, 58.
. PCR, 1: 23.
. PCR, 1: 21.
. PCR, 1: 68, 87, 91.
. Plymouth Colony Probate [hereafter PCP], III(1): ff. 106-108 (John Dicksey, inv., 1673), III(1): f. 125 (Thomas Willet, inv., 1674).
. PCP, III(1): f. 146 (William Brenton, will).
. PCR, 9: 70-71.
. PCP, III(2): ff. 103-104 (Joseph Rogers Sr., will, 1677[/8])..
. PCP, IV(1): f. 26 (John Carver, dist., 1679).
. Charles Banks, The English Ancestry and Homes of the Pilgrim Fathers (New York, 1929; rep. Baltimore, 1980), 52; PCR, 1: 15-16.
. PCR, 1: 44.
. PCR, 2: 69.
. PCR, 1: 84.
. PCR, 2: 160, 164-165.
. PCR, 1: 44.
. PCR, 1: 23.
. “The Winthrop Papers” in Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society (Boston, 1863), 4 th Ser., 6: 156-157, letter Bradford to Winthrop, 11 Apr. 1638.
. PCR, 3: 216.
. PCR, 4: 18.
. PCR, 4: 62.
. PCR, 5: 73-75.
. PCR, 5: 75.
. Plymouth Colony Deeds, III: 286.
. Plymouth Colony Deeds, VI: 8, 10.
. Plymouth Colony Deeds, VI: 92.
. PCR, 4: 51.
. PCR, 6: 104.
. PCR, 5: 151-152.
. PCR, 5: 215.
. Bradford’s Hist., 375.
. Raphael Holinshed, Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (London, 1807-1808; rep. New York, 1965), 1: 307.
. Ibid., 1: 310.
. PCR, 10: 251.
. PCR, 11: 237.
. PCR, 5: 207.
. Michael Dalton, The Countrey Justice (London, 1618; rep. Amsterdam, 1975), 72.
. PCP, III(2): f. 23 (William Ford, inv., 1676).
. Joseph Willard, “Indian Children Put to Service, 1676” in NEHGR, 8 : 273.
. PCP, III(2): f. 118 (Noah Newman, will, 1678).
. PCP, IV(2): f. 129 (Richard Sison, will, 1683).
. PCR, 11: 237.
[This article was published in The Compact, v. 31. iss. 2 [Summer 2010]: 1, 4-5, 8-9.]
Researched and created by Carolyn Freeman Travers
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