Since last Monday was our annual Labor Day holiday, this seems a good time to reflect on some of the the labor arrangements in the earliest days of what became the United States. Less than half, only 41 of the 102 passengers on the famous 1620 Mayflower voyage, were seeking a place to establish their own first-century style Christian community. These Separatist religious rebels had a vision and a plan, but lacked the funding to sail away to a new future. They sold what possessions they could and then sold themselves into indentured servanthood for a period of seven years.
The rest of the Mayflower passengers were merchants, craftsmen, skilled workers, other indentured servants, plus several orphaned children. The religious refugees referred to them as strangers, and strangers they were to the Separatists at the start of the voyage. The Investors from the Virginia Company had the financial wherewithal to finance the trip. Reluctantly, the Separatists agreed to a contract with them that secured financial backing in exchange for receiving the profits from their labor for a period of seven years. To boost their profits, the stockholders insisted the Separatists accept the strangers into their close-knit community as part of the deal.
Delayed Financial Gratification
Each adult male was granted a share in the joint-stock company. After seven years the accumulated earnings were to be divided among the shareholders. During the seven-year indentured servant period, settlers were to work in common, with each settler contributing everything to a common store and withdrawing from it to meet his needs for himself and his family. One fifth – or about twenty – of the Mayflower passengers came as indentured servants. Most of the others were members of the Established Church of England (Anglican). Ironically, this was the very institution the Separatists had emigrated to Holland to escape a decade earlier .
When the Mayflower crew finally spotted land after two months at sea, they discovered they’d arrived north the jurisdiction of the Virginia Company. Some among the group immediately decided their commitment as indentured servants was null and void. They believed they could now do as they pleased. To avoid chaos and conflicts before they even started establishing their new settlement, they worked out the details of the Mayflower Compact. Every adult male either signed it or had his “X” witnessed on the document before anyone got off the ship.
Those who came as indentured servants owed whatever they could grow, make, hunt or fish to the community and the benefactors back in England. The labor was grueling, as were the living conditions. Half the indentured servants died within the first months in the new location. Another half the non-indentured new arrivals were also in graves by the spring of 1621.
Send More Workers
The remaining few dozen colonists were desperate for help to establish a stable, long-lasting Colony. Several previous attempts to establish English settlements up and down the East Coast had failed. To avoid becoming another failed colony, the settlers sent appeals back to England, Scotland, and Ireland to send more help.
In the ensuing years hundreds of others joined them. For most, their passage was paid by their future masters. Between the arrival of the Mayflower and the Revolutionary War, it is estimated as many as four out of new five immigrants came initially as indentured servants. They came believing they’d get food, clothing, and shelter in exchange for their labor. For people in the British Isles contending with grinding poverty and few prospects for a better future, this was an appealing deal. Men who accepted the offer could anticipate finishing their term of service and then getting their own land and financial compensation for their work. There was also the hope they might participate in local government once they were freemen.
Managing Indentured Servants
Early Plymouth law governed the fate of these indentured servants. When still more labor was needed the Natives were sometimes forced into slavery. Europeans intentionally destroyed Native crops and means of supporting themselves. According to numerous cases recorded in the Plymouth Court Records, governing these indentured servants was complicated.
After their period of indentured work, they would become free citizens of the Plymouth Colony. Colonial officials wanted to ensure they would be law-abiding and God-worshipping citizens who would contribute to the well-being of the Colony after completing their bondage.
The servant’s master was responsible for the servant until the term of the contract was completed, and the length of the contract could not be shortened. Thus, servants typically became adjunct members of their master’s household. This protected the Colony from assuming responsibility for those who, for whatever reasons, could no longer be a productive member of the master’s household. Occasionally the Court ruled the community, not the master, was responsible for a servant who was sick or mistreated. That may have laid a foundation for a future welfare system in the Colonies.
Immigration Issues Are Ancient History
Migration has been part of the human story for as long as there have been humans. Clear back in Genesis, God instructs Abram (Abraham) to pack up all his belongings and head out to a place he’s never been before, in order to receive the blessing God has in store for him. Famine, floods, wars, draughts, persecution – all these factors motivate an individual or a whole population of people to strike out for a new place. People immigrate from and to every continent, sometimes running from trouble, other times migrating toward the hope of a fresh start.
Most immigrants make incredible sacrifices for the chance of finding something better. In the early 1600s, immigrants sold themselves in bondage to get to the New World. It was a price they were willing to pay to establish their own community based on their understanding of what the earliest Christian communities were like. Today immigrants come willing to scrub floors, clear tables, wash dishes, cut lawns, pick crops and work long hours at hard labor for low wages – hoping to create a better world for themselves and their children.
We set aside one Monday a year to pay tribute to the people whose labor literally built this country. For nearly two centuries, the majority of these laborers came as indentured servants.
Thank you for stopping by to read about some of the earliest days of labor in our country’s history. If you got this blog from a friend, you can get your own FREE subscription at HowWiseThen. I’m currently giving away tips for recognizing and coping with dementia in memory and honor of my older brother who passed away recently after struggling with dementia issues for several years.
Coming in 2020: Mayflower Chronicles: The Tale of Two Cultures. In honor of the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower I’ll be launching my new historical fiction account of the very people and events on two continents and among two cultures that have helped shape the modern United States.