Commentator Thea Marshall pays tribute to those very first dreamers of the great American dream - the indentured servants of the early colonies. They came filled with hope for a better life. Scraps of letters written hundreds of years ago tell how (for some) those dreams turned to bitter nightmares.
An indentured servant was a laborer under contract to an employer for a fixed period of time, typically three to seven years, in exchange for their transportation, food, clothing, lodging and other necessities. Unlike slaves, an indentured servant was required to work only for a limited term specified in a signed contract.
Historians estimate that over half of all (white) emigrants that arrived in the English colonies of North America during the 17th and 18th centuries may have been indentured servants.
Many thousands of indentured servants came to the colonies beginning in the 1600’s, some came voluntarily, some were sent as punishment, and some were simply kidnapped from the docks of cities in Scotland and Germany and London. Their treatment on the long voyage across the ocean was better than the slaves on the awful ships of the middle passage, but not much.
Those indentured servants who came willingly came hopefully, in what they expected would be temporary bondage. A while back I wrote about one such man, Anthony Steptoe, lucky to survive the passage and his indentureship, which in his case was seven years. It was more for others who broke rules or the owner had trouble keeping records. He lived to become the grandfather of the first entrepreneur of the Northern Neck. The fact that so many died on their hopeful voyage or during their servitude, makes his story and others like his, even more remarkable.
What of the passages from across the ocean? -- where they lived in freedom, albeit a kind of desperate freedom born of poverty, to the New World in bondage. I recently came across stories of hopeless youngsters, stories that were told in scraps of letters and notes, written hundreds of years ago. They had said goodbye to their parents, perhaps on those docks in England, believing there must be a better life somewhere. They didn’t find it on the voyage to a new world. This is from a salvaged letter: “The people are packed densely like herrings during the voyage. There is terrible misery, the water is thick and full of worms. When the ships come in sight of land the people weep with joy.” And at journey’s end, well, each would live and work for whichever planter the ship’s captain sold him to and life on land wasn’t much better than the voyage.
This, from one young Richard: “Loving and kind father and mother, this is to let you understand that I am in a most heavy case by reason of the nature of the country, it causes me much sickness. There’s nothing to be gotten here but sickness and death.” Historians tell us this was the very last letter home, begging his parents to send money to buy back his freedom. Well, it was the last time he was ever heard from. Poor Richard was just one of thousands of indentured servants who never finished their contracts before dying of disease or overwork. Over time, new immigrants built up immunities to the diseases that killed many of those who came first. They lived longer, some thrived like Mr. Steptoe and his descendants. For many more of those very first immigrants, it was a bitter nightmare, but all of them -- those who lived and thrived and those who simply died -- all were among the extraordinary dreamers, the very first dreamers of our great American dream.
This is Thea Marshall.