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Indentured Servitude

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Joined: 17 Mar 2009
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Location: Liverpool, NY

PostPosted: Sat Mar 08, 2014 12:16 pm    Post subject: Indentured Servitude Reply with quote

On various occasions I have noted that my grandfather Jacob Pape came to the United States as an indentured servant at the age of 15. (See Coming to America, part 2.) Actually, indentured servitude was a common practice in the early days of the U.S. It was an easy way for people of limited means to come to America. If you have ever wondered how the term 'indentured' originated, see the slide below.

Many of the early colonists preferred indentured servants (a.k.a. redemptioners), particularly German farmers, instead of slaves (perhaps for moral reasons although the practice started before slavery became prevalent in America). It is estimated that before 1820 over one half of the Germans in the U.S. were indentured. However, conditions gradually changed during the 1800s. Boat passage became cheaper with many ships being fitted to carry large numbers of immigrants in steerage. (People became the cargo.) While indentured servant contracts continued after the Civil War, they were frowned upon for the same reasons as slavery. Finally, the Immigration Act of February 26, 1885 prohibited the importation of alien contract labor. (Actually, this was a reaction to the flood of Chinese laborers to build the railroads during the latter 1800s.)

In 1884 indenture contracts were still legal. This was during the time that the German First Reich had instituted compulsory military training, which was unpopular with many of the young men. Realizing this situation, farmers in the U.S. began advertising in Germany that they would pay for a person's transportation to America in exchange for him/her working for the contractor for a fixed period of time. It was an appealing way for these young men to escape from Germany. First of all, the details of their voyage where taken care of as well as transportation to their final destination in America. Furthermore, after they arrived, they had a job and lodging.

Four to seven years of service were typical in the colonial times, but by the latter 1800s the length of time became significantly less. (The copy of my grandfather's contract was not saved, so I don't know how long he was required to work for the farmer that paid for his passage or what else was provided to him.) Terms of service were much more favorable at that time to attract the needed labor in the Midwest. Pay was usually only room and board, with a small payment in goods or cash at the completion of the contract.

I'm sure that the farmer in Arkansas for whom my grandfather worked treated him well. At the end of Jacob's term of service, the farmer offered Jacob land if he continued to work on the farm. However, Jacob wanted to leave. He did not like the climate in the area of the rice fields (probably because he suffered a case of malaria). So he chose to move to the state of Washington where the wheat fields were much more appealing to him.

Origin of term 'indentured'.
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