Indentured Servants

A sketch showing workers in a dock.
Richard Schlecht’s rendering of a scene of activity at a warehouse and dock.

NPS/Harpers Ferry Center

In the colonial period, Annapolis and Baltimore were major ports of entry for forced laborers called indentured servants from Europe. The Ridgelys purchased indenture contracts for at least 300 people between 1750 and 1800. Most of these servants had been convicted of crimes in England and Ireland. For many, their “crime” was being impoverished. Those in poverty were unwanted in England and therefore were convicted of minor crimes such as vagrancy. They traded prison time for hard forced labor and passage the New World, where hopefully, when their contract was over, they could have a fresh start. Yet nothing could make up for the fact that these men and women were an ocean away from home, friends, and family.

Painting depicting what the Northampton ironworks would have looked like.
Depiction of the Hampton ironworks

NPS/Harpers Ferry Center

Indentured servants were not willing laborers and the working conditions at Northampton Furnace was grueling. The indentured labor was critical to the ironmaking process. Tasks included extracting iron ore and coal, mining and burning limestone, felling and cutting acres of timber, making charcoal and hauling fuel, iron ore, and finished products to and from the site.

Farming was another facet of the work: indentured servants produced grains to feed workers and sell in the community. Indentured servants were traded back and forth between forge, furnace, and plantation frequently and with ease.
The front page of a an indentured laborer's contract with the Ridgelys.
Indenture Contract for Captain Charles Ridgely and Convict Laborer Darby Kelly, 1770. (front)


Indenture contracts were written between British agents and Ridgely indenture purchasers. All indentures were under forced labor conditions for a limited time. Non-convict indentured servants served terms of 4 to 6 years, while convicts had to serve at least 7 years. Those working within their contract found living conditions very similar to their enslaved counterparts, such as their less than substantial food and clothing provisions.

Indentured servants at Hampton in the colonial period were all white, and therefore legal persons with legal rights. Many used the court system to argue that they were being held beyond their term. These legal disputes were complicated by the fact that the Ridgelys could change contract terms when servants sought their freedom, which many attempted.

The American Revolution provided opportunities for indentured servants to either escape or join the Continental Army as a way of legally canceling their contracts. British prisoners of war were then added to the ranks of Hampton’s indentured servants in what historian Charles G. Steffens describes as “an ever-changing mosaic of unfree and free laborers.” Throughout the second half of the eighteenth century, local indentured servants, paid laborers, artisans, and enslaved persons all worked side by side with European indentured servants.

After the war, by the 1790s the Ridgelys transitioned to a full reliance on enslaved labor. Great Britain had ended the convict trade, and there was worry that poor working conditions and bad treatment at the ironworks might unite Black and white workers in seeking freedom or turning toward violence. Despite harsh conditions, limited opportunities led many indentured servants to chose to stay at the iron works or farms owned by the Ridgelys once their indenture terms were over, transitioning into new paid roles or tenant farming.


Learn More

  • Indentured Servants at Hampton
    Indentured Servants

    Indentured servants made up a significant portion of the Hampton labor force at one time. Read about their stories on the plantation.

  • Artist depiction of the iron making process.
    Working Conditions

    Accounts of the working conditions of the forced labor iron works.

  • A drawing of people at nighttime on a dirt road
    Freedom Seekers

    Learn all about people that would seek their freedom from Hampton.

  • An artist's depiction of an overseer in the fields watching the enslaved. With a whip behind back.
    Forms of Control

    From physical to mental abuse for the youngest ages to the oldest. Learn about the harsh truths and forms of control.

  • Living historians at the end of their harvest in 2019.
    Post Contract Life

    From leaving Hampton to becoming paid labors, learn about life after contract.

  • African American Woman, Nancy Davis, and little white girl Eliza Ridgely
    Learn about more
    People of Hampton

    Hundreds of people lived, worked, and were enslaved at Hampton coinciding America's development as a nation. Explore more of their stories.

  • c. 1897 image of a tenant farmer woman outside the Enslavement Quarters. NPS
    Revealing the Lives of the Enslaved

    A recent Ethnographic Study uncovered major information on the lives of those enslaved at Hampton and their descendants. Read about it here.

  • A historic picture of a part of the flower gardens called a parterre. A gardener in the middle. NPS
    History & Culture
    History & Culture

    Hampton National Historic Site today preserves the core of what was once a vast commercial, industrial, and agricultural plantation.

Last updated: April 12, 2024

Park footer

Contact Info

Mailing Address:

535 Hampton Lane
Towson, MD 21286


410-962-4290 (option 2)

Contact Us