Indentured Servitude Activity

This activity was modified from: Indentured Servitude: A Colonial Market for Labor developed by Ken Leonard, Gene McCreadie, and Kathy Ratte of the Foundation for Teaching Economics.

Objective: Students will be able to demonstrate their knowledge about the dynamics of the institution of indentured servitude and its importance to Jamestown, Virginia and United States History through use of this activity.

Standards of Learning: This activity addresses the following standards of learning: USI.1, USI.5, CE.2, CE.4, CE.9

Directions for teachers: Below is a brief history of the institution of indentured servitude as practiced at Jamestown and the Virginia colony throughout the 17th-century. The activity materials provided will allow your students to portray either an agent or potential indentured servant so they can gain a better understanding of the institution, its economic aspects, its social aspects, and how it was eventually replaced by the institution of slavery.

Brief History: Indentured Servitude was the market system used during the 17th- and 18th-centuries for legally transporting English people wanting to go to the colonies who could not afford the costs.

What: The indenture contract was a legal written agreement between an emigrant and an agent or ship's captain or a colonial planter/master that paid the emigrant's passage to America, their subsistence while in the colony, and a one-time payment called "freedom dues" at the termination of their indenture. In return, the emigrant repaid their debt incurred with their indenture by agreeing to be at the complete disposal of the holder of their indenture for the years specified in the contract. An indenture contract had the force of law as servants and agents/masters were not allowed to break the terms of the contract.

Who: Throughout the 17th-century, the typical indentured servant going to Virginia:
º was male, between the ages of 15 to 24 (although women and children were also indentured);
º could not read or write;
º was unskilled and poor; and,
º had signed an indenture contract that lasted, on average, 4 to 5 years,but some indentures were for 7 years or longer.

Jamestown was founded in 1607 by the Virginia Company of London, based on a charter granted them by King James I of England. The original settlers "covenanted" or bound themselves to the Virginia Company for a number of years service in the colony in exchange for transportation to and their subsistence in the colony, as well as a share of the expected profits created by the Virginia venture and a grant of land. Subsequent colonists did the same however, as no tangible profits occurred in the early years of the colony, the settlers who survived received a grant of land. The first formal awarding of land to settlers occurred in 1619. By this time, Virginia was experiencing a tobacco boom started by John Rolfe's successful planting and curing of a variety of tobacco he brought to Virginia from Bermuda. Settlers became eager to acquire land to grow the cash crop. By 1629, Virginia exported 1.5 million pounds of tobacco to England earning planters a respectable profit on their investment of time and labor.

Even though the Virginia Company lost its charter in 1624, and Virginia became a royal colony under control of the king of England, Virginia's only profitable product continued to be tobacco. But tobacco production required vast amounts of labor, and Virginia planters needed servants to help grow and harvest this valuable corp. Initially, indentured servitude provided the labor needed by planters to increase their total production of tobacco and their profit margins.

High unemployment, low wages, few opportunities for the poor to improve their economic condition in England, in unison with an economic philosophy practiced by the powerful in England that the poor were surplus population needing to be shipped to the colonies, provided a market for agents and planters to find laborers for Virginia's fields and make money. It is estimated that approximately 80,000 to 85,00 indentured servants were shipped from England to Virginia and Maryland in the 17th-century.

An additional bonus for anyone who paid the passage of an emigrant to Virginia was a headright, 50 acres of free Virginia land per emigrant! It is estimated over 82,000 headrights were awarded in Virginia from 1634-1699. Many Virginia planters got land and labor due to their purchasing of indentured servants' contracts.

Why: Agents or ships' captains recruited emigrants in England to be indentured servants in the colonies. Agents and ships' captains made money by selling indenture contracts to planters or merchants in Virginia who then became masters of their indentured servants utilizing their skills and labor for the length of the contract. For the servants it was a chance to eventually gain their freedom and maybe own land and also make money. The average Englishman had very little chance of owning land in England.

When: Primarily during the 17th-century. Sadly, by the 1660's African slavery became common in Virginia as it provided planters with an alternative work force for labor in the tobacco fields; life-time servitude of a slave versus a few years of service provided by an indentured servant. John Rolfe recorded the first arrival of Africans to Virginia in August 1619, but historians are still debating if these first Africans were treated as indentured servants or slaves. The latest historical research indicates they were treated a slaves with slight opportunities for some people of color to gain their freedom before slavery was institutionalized in Virginia in the 1660's.

How: As in any market, there were buyers and sellers. The buyers were the emigrants, trying to use their labor or skills as collateral to purchase passage to the colonies. The initial sellers were the agents or ships' captain in England who recruited emigrants to transport to the colonies in return for an indenture contract. The contract guaranteed the owner that the servant would work for a set number of years for payment of passage to America (for the purposes of this simulation £10), their subsistence in the colony and their freedom dues. Ordinarily a person would sign an indenture with an agent or ships' captain in England. Once the agent or ships' captain delivered the servant to a colony, such as Virginia, the indenture contract was sold to a local planter or merchant and the servant would "work-off" their debt with their new master based on the number of years agreed to in the indenture contract.

Activity: Let's Play!

1. Students are divided into 2 equal groups; one group assigned the role of Agents and the other the role of Emigrants.
º The goal for Agents: Make a profit by securing an indenture that you can sell in Virginia for more than the price of passage (£10).
º The goal for Emigrants: Earn the most points by securing the shortest indenture contract.

FYI: There are 4 categories of Agents with appropriate Agent Role Cards: ship's captain 1 and ship's captain 2; an agent for the West Indies cane fields; and a wealthy planters' agent. Notice the different worker classifications for emigrants. This is important in tallying points for agents. Remind students that agents must pay the £10 passage price--keep this is mind when negotiating with the emigrant.

There are 16 categories of Emigrants. Each Emigrant Role Card contains a description of that person's situation, skills, and their worker classification number and point system for scoring. There are:

3 students with a classification of 1
8 students with a classification of 2
3 students with a classification of 3
2 students with a classification of 4

2. Review with your students the Let's Play --Agent Score Sheet or Emigrant Score Sheet. Each student should have a copy of the sheet that coincides with their role as agent or emigrant.

3. Explain the scoring process. Students will tally their own scores AND report to the teacher.

4. Make copies of each Agent and Emigrant Role Card and distribute an Agent or Emigrant Role Card to each student. You may want to make the Agent Role Cards/Score Sheets a different color than the Emigrant Role Cards/Score Sheets to help avoid confusion. You may want to laminate them for protection and continued use. Because there are only four Agents and only 16 Emigrants, some characters may have to be duplicated.

5. Designate the marketplace area. Play one round of 5 minutes.

6. Call time after 5 minutes and have students report to the teacher their scores.

7. After all scores have been recorded, have students with Emigrant Role Cards form a line and exchange their role cards with the student on their right: Do the same with Agents.

8. Play round 2 as before with each student having a new card, but not a new role.

9. Call time after 5 minutes and have students report to the teacher their scores.

10. After all scores have been recorded, repeat Step 7.

11. Play round 3 and 4 as above.

12. Tally the score cards to determine the Agent with the highest score and the Emigrant with the highest score. Discuss the results with the class using the Debriefing Questions (attached) or your own questions. If time allows, have the students change ROLE cards for another game.

13. NOTE: The names assigned to each of the emigrants are actual people who were servants at Jamestown throughout the 17thcentury. If you and your class visit the historic site, you will be walking in the footsteps of these early Virginia settlers.

Indentured Servitude - Possible Debriefing Questions

1. How many of you "made money"? --that is, as an aget or ship's captain were you able to get an emigrant to agree to an indenture contract that earned you more money than the £10 for passage? How did you accomplish this during your bargaining with the emigrant?

2. Identify some of the highest scoring emigrants and agents. Why do you think you were successful? What was your strategy and what did you try to do?

3. Why do you think some indenture contracts are for more years than other contracts? (The length of the indenture varied with the value of the laborer and the conditions of the indenture and their abilities to bargain with an agent for fewer years to work.)

4. Remind students that they were simulating a market. What was really for sale in this market? Hint: What is it that the indentured servant is trying to buy that he doesn't have the money to pay for? (The indenture contract represents the price of passage to the American colonies) What is the indentured servant using to "pay" for his passage? (His/her labor/skills)

5. Who were the buyers in this market? (Emigrants) Did the buyers want long contracts or short contracts? (Short - they tried to decrease the price; that is to sign the shortest-term contract possible).

6. Who are the sellers in this market? (Agents) Did the sellers want long contracts or short contracts? (Long contracts - they tried to increase the price; that is, to sign indentures to the longest-term contract possible, so that they could, in turn, sell the contracts for a higher price in the colonies).

7. What is the most common or "average" length of indenture in your simulation? (It will probably be in the 4-5 year range, but the important point is that it emerged from the students interactions. No ONE factor or person determined or decided the length).

8. Read the indenture contract of Roger Jones (attached). What were the obligations of the servant? (To work for the specified period of years in the specified type of employment) What were the obligations of the master (employer)? (To provide passage, food and drink, clothing, lodging, and other necessities to his servant, and at the end of the indenture an allowance called freedom dues: usually food and clothing, maybe some tools, and some, not all, got land or a specified amount of money).

The Indenture Contract of Roger Jones
Roger Jones, servant to Mr. William Churchill, comes and acknowledges that he is freely willing to serve his Master Seven Years from his arrival in Virginia, the said Churchill promising that he will employ his said servant in the store and other areas and not employ him in common working in the ground [no tobacco planting]. At the time of his freedom, said Churchill will give to said Jones a new suit, shoes, and hat [but no land].

9. Make and justify a prediction about the market for indentured servants as population grew in the colonies. (As population grew, the demand for indentured servants fell, since it was easier and less costly to obtain laborers in the colonies).

10. Make and justify a prediction about the market for indentured servants in the South. (Eventually the indenture practice died out in the South as planters turned to slavery, finding it more cost effective to keep a person, and maybe their children, in captivity for life rather than short term indentures).

This activity was modified from: Indentured Servitude: A Colonial Market for Labor developed by Ken Leonard, Gene McCreadie, and Kathy Ratte.

Contact Information for the Indentured Servant: A Colonial Market for Labor

Foundation for Teaching Economics
260 Russell Blvd, Suite B
Davis California 95616

Web site:

Heather Carkuff (530) 757-4638


Last updated: July 1, 2017

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