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 indentured servants from Europe. The Ridgelys purchased indenture contracts for at least 300 servants between 1750 and 1800. Most of these servants had been convicted of crimes in England and Ireland. They traded hard labor and passage for a fresh start in the New World when their contract was over. 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 ore and coal, felling and cutting acres of timber, and hauling fuel, iron ore and finished products to and from the site.

Farming was another facet of the work: servants produced grains to feed workers and sell in the community. 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)

NPS

Indenture contracts were written between British agents and Ridgely indenture purchasers. All indentures were bought for only a limited time. Non-convict 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 ran away, 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, 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 running away or turning toward violence. Despite harsh conditions, many indentured servants 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.

Last updated: July 10, 2020

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