Indentured Servitude: A Colonial Market for Labor

Lesson Overview

The purpose of this activity is to demonstrate to students, using the context of colonial markets for indentured servants, that prices emerge from the choices made by individual people.

Video Demonstration:

Content Standards addressed:

History Standards (from National Standards for History by the National Center for History in the Schools)

Era 2:  Colonization and Settlement (1585 – 1763)

Standard 1: Why the Americas attracted Europeans, why they brought enslaved Africans to their colonies, and how Europeans struggled for control of North America and the Caribbean.

1A:  The student understands how diverse immigrants affected the formation of European colonies.

Therefore, the student is able to:  Explain why so many European indentured servants risked the hardships of bound labor overseas.

Standard 3:   How the values and institutions of European economic life took root in the colonies, and how slavery reshaped European and African life in the Americas.

 3A:  The student understands colonial economic life and labor systems in the Americas.

Therefore, the student is able to:  Identify the major economic regions in the Americas and explain how labor systems shaped them.

 3B:  The student understands economic life and the development of labor systems in the English colonies.

Therefore, the student is able to:  Compare the characteristics of free labor, indentured servitude, and chattel slavery.

Economics Standards (from Voluntary National Content Standards in Economics)

Economics Standard 7:  Markets exist when buyers and sellers interact.  This interaction determines market prices and thereby allocates scarce goods and services.

  • Shortages of a product usually result in price increases in a market economy; surpluses usually result in price decreases.

Economics Standard 8:  Prices send signals and provide incentives to buyers and sellers. When supply or demand changes, market prices adjust, affecting incentives.

  • Changes in supply or demand cause relative prices to change; in turn, buyers and sellers adjust their purchase and sales decisions.

Teacher Background:

It would be hard to overstate the importance of indentured servitude in populating the American colonies and insuring that the successful nation that emerged from the colonial period looked to England, rather than to France or Spain, for its heritage.  By 1775, more than 500,000 Europeans – mainly English, Scotch, Irish, and Germans – had crossed the Atlantic, and over 350,000 of them came as indentured servants.  The indenture contract helped to populate the colonies by allowing the prospective emigrant to exchange his labor for Atlantic passage.  The price of passage –  from £9 -£11 in the early 17th century – was more than the average Englishman earned in a year.  Thus, despite the fact that conditions in England made the colonies alluring, to say that the price of the transatlantic voyage was prohibitive for the laboring classes is the most extreme form of understatement.  In very real terms, then, indenturing bridged the ocean for the labor necessary to begin the building the American economy.

Gary Walton and Hugh Rockoff describe the indenture system in the History of the American Economy:

The indenture contract was a device that enabled people to pay for their passage to America by selling their labor to someone in the New World for a specified period of time.  These contracts were written in a variety of forms, but law and custom made them similar.  Generally speaking, prospective immigrants would sign articles of indenture binding them to a period of service that varied from three to seven years, although four years was probably the most common term.  Typically, an indenturer signed with a shipowner or a recruiting agent in England.  As soon as the servant was delivered alive at an American port, the contract was sold to a planter or merchant.  These contracts typically sold for £10 to £11 in the eighteenth century, nearly double the cost of passage.  Indentured servants, thus bound, performed any work their “employers” demanded in exchange for room, board, and certain “freedom dues” of money or land that were received at the end of the period of indenture. . .The first indentures were sent to Jamestown and sold by the Virginia Company:  about 100 children in their early teens in 1618, a like number of young women in 1619 for marital purposes, and a young group of workers in 1620.  Soon thereafter private agents scoured the ports, taverns, and countryside to sign on workers as indentures.  The indentured servants were drawn from a wide spectrum of European society, from the ranks of farmers and unskilled workers, artisans, domestic servants, and others.  Most came without specialized skills, but they came to America voluntarily because the likelihood of rising to the status of landowner was very low in Britain or on the Continent.  They were also willing to sign indentures because their opportunity cost – the next best use of their time, was typically very low – room and board and low wages as a rural English farm worker, a “servant in husbandry.”  Children born in English cottages usually went to work at the age of 10, moving among families and farms until good fortune (often inheritance or gifts) allowed them to marry.  For many, a period of bondage for the trip to America seemed worth the risk. (28-30)

The process of negotiating for indentures was a form of labor market, but confusion arises if we forget that what is being sold in this market is the passage to America.  Labor is the currency of exchange, or, in other words, the price that is being paid for the passage.  Thus, the average length of the indenture – the 4 years mentioned in most textbooks – is best understood as a sort of “market clearing price,” paid in labor, for passage to America.

As in any market, indenture markets had both buyers and sellers.  The buyers were the laborers, trying to use their labor to purchase passage.  The sellers were the ship captains and their agents, accepting labor in the form of a signature on an indenture contract, in return for passage.  Note, too, that the ship captains and agents were the real risk takers.  In order to profit, they had to make sure that the indentured servant arrived in the colonies alive, with enough strength, training, and other desirable qualities to attract the interest of a land owner or merchant willing to purchase the indenture contract.

Like other markets for goods and services, the indenture market was affected by conditions of supply and demand. The promise of free land at the end of the indenture period (most colonies offered 50 acre headright land grants to free men) increased the willingness to emigrate, as agricultural workers saw little opportunity to ever own their own land in England.  Because wages in the colonies were so much higher than in Europe, skilled workers, craftsmen, artisans, and scholars were also attracted to the cities and seaports of colonial America.  Like other markets, the indenture market was dynamic, reacting to changes in society and/or changes in the willingness of individuals to participate.  The characteristics of the laborers and/or of the society into which they were indentured affected the length of indenture – and some of those characteristics changed over time.

  • In the early 17th century, the severe shortage of women in the colonies meant that single females under the age of 18 served an average of 1.5 years less than men of similar age and qualifications.  By the eve of the Revolution, the shortage of women had abated and the average indenture for a single girl under the age of 18 was only a few months less than that of a man.
  • The harsh conditions of the West Indies cane fields were well known to Europeans, and so it is not surprising that indentures there averaged 9 months less than on the continent of North America.  (Eventually the high cost of indentures lead the planters to substitute slavery for indentured labor.)
  • Highly skilled and/or educated workers were able to secure shorter indentures (generally 20% shorter), although the rate varied with the occupation and situation.
  • Indenture was an alternative to the death penalty.  Estimates suggest that as many as 30,000 prisoners agreed to indentures in order to avoid the death penalty or a lengthy imprisonment.  Their indentures tended to be longer than those of free laborers.  Records from 1718 indicate an average indenture of 7 years for minor crimes and 14 years for major crimes.

The success of indenture markets was also dependent on the rule of law.  Both parties had to be confident that the terms of the contract would be carried out and that the courts would uphold their rights in the agreement. Without this security, the practice of indenturing based on voluntary participation, would not have persisted.  Colonial courts routinely and reliably enforced indenture contracts, evidence of the importance of the practice to American colonists. Employers were fined and/or punished for abuse of indentures or failure to deliver on the promises of food, clothing, and “allowances.”  Similarly, employers could depend on the courts to discipline rebellious servants and to punish servants who ran away – often by extending the indenture period.

Finally, it should be recognized that just as market forces were responsible for the genesis of the indenture system, so were they responsible for its demise.  By the end of the 18th century, the indenture market had virtually disappeared.  The reasons for its disappearance can be easily identified:

  • The rise of slavery provided a viable and cheaper alternative to indentures.  While the initial price of a slave was greater than an indenture, the planter could anticipate a much longer work life of the slave.  Planters quickly discovered that the terms of the indenture contract made maintaining an indenture more expensive than maintaining a slave.  Also, the availability of free land and the high productivity of that land encouraged indentures to run away, especially in more rural or “frontier” areas.
  • The cost of passage from Europe to America fell to £6 and improved labor conditions in England and on the Continent resulted in higher wages and greater opportunities for laborers.
  • Over time, the availability of free land in the colonies declined.
  • Colonial population growth eliminated the gender imbalance that had created a market for women.

As students participate in the simulation, they will discover that the 4 year length of indenture mentioned in their textbooks was not the result of whim or decree, but an agreed upon “price” that emerged spontaneously from the voluntary interactions of people participating as buyers and sellers in a market.

 Activity Guide


Role cards:

  • Emigrant cards – copy on yellow paper and cut apart.  Note that the number of cards of each type is specified in parentheses.
  • Agent cards – copy on blue paper and cut apart.
    • Teacher Note: This activity works best with classes of about 20-30 students, however, larger groups can be accommodated.  For a class of about 30, prepare the numbers of cards specified at the top of the handout master; make proportional increases for larger classes

Overhead transparencies:

  • Visual #1 –“The Typical Indentured Servant”
  • Visual #2 – “How to Play . . .”
  • Visual #3 – “Indenture Tally”

Student handouts:

  • Individual Record and Score Sheet
  • Indentured Servant Contract
  • Runaway Servant advertisements

Candy (for students to purchase with game points)


  1. Display visual 1 on the overhead (or solicit, through discussion, similar information that students have gleaned from text reading or assigned research).  Ask students to speculate on why the indenture length was about 4 years.  (Accept a variety of answers and list on the board..  Tell students that the activity will test these hypotheses.)
  2. Remind students that indentured servitude was key to the development of colonies plagued by chronic shortages of labor. Explain that they are going to take part in a simulated indenture activity in which they will each play one of two possible roles:
    • An agent trying to recruit indentured servants for colonists wanting labor, or
    • An emigrant, a European considering the possibility of going to the colonies.
  3. Divide the class into 2 equal groups, assigning one group to be agents (blue cards) and the other to be emigrants (yellow cards).  Explain that in each round of the game, they will be given new cards.  In some rounds, they will be emigrants and in some rounds, they will be agents, but the points they earn in both roles will be used to buy candy at the end of the game.  Distribute one agent or emigrant card to each student.
  4. Hand out the rules of the game or display on the overhead.  Review and discuss the rules, and answer any questions students may have about the procedures.
  5. Distribute individual score sheets and explain the scoring procedure.  Make sure that the students understand that the points they accumulate will be translated into money or “profit” at the end of the activity, and that the profits may be used to purchase candy.  Remind them that they can only make one deal during each round and that once they have made a deal, they must leave the market and report the deal to the teacher.  Encourage careful reading of the role cards so that students are aware of opportunities for both gaining and losing points.  Explain the importance of not revealing to other people what the card says.
  6. Teacher Note:  Some students may find the agent role difficult because it involves so many possibilities. Consider staging a demonstration as follows.  Make an overhead transparency of one of the ship captain cards.  Bring 2 students to the front of the room and position them so that they are facing toward the overhead projector.  Hand each a role card with a different worker classification number.  Project the ship captain card on the screen behind the students and take this role yourself.  As you negotiate with the 2 potential immigrants, voice your thinking out loud to the other students in the class, so that they see you take into account the price of passage and the different values of the 2 emigrants.  They may also observe that the emigrants themselves will display different attitudes toward the offers you make as an agent.
  7. Clear the center of the room and designate it the marketplace.  People who are standing are still available to make a deal.  People who have already made a deal should return to their seats.
  8. Run 2 or 3 rounds of the activity, in which students get a new card in each round, but not a new role – that is, agents remain agents and emigrants remain emigrants.  After each round, have students record their individual points. Circulate around the room to make sure that they are scoring correctly.
  9. Call attention to the range of indenture lengths recorded on the overhead tally sheet. Help students to see that the tally sheet is providing them with a great deal of information about the market.
    • Discussion questions:
      • What is the shortest indenture that was secured?
      • What is the longest indenture?
      • What is the most common length of indenture?
  10. After 2 or 3 rounds, you may wish to have students change roles, so that the buyers (agents) and sellers (emigrants) can experience the other side of the market.  Play 2 more rounds.
  11. At the end of the last round, allow students time to tally their points.  Explain that for each point earned as an emigrant and each £ earned as an agent, they have $1 credit in the classroom candy store.  Open the store just before the end of the class period.  Students may “spend” their “profits” by exchanging their score sheets for candy.

 Debriefing:  Teacher Guide

  1. How many of you “made money” – that is, were able to accumulate points by securing contracts?
  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. (Identify some of the lowest scoring emigrants and agents.)  What happened?  Why weren’t you able to accumulate many points?
  4. What did you notice about the general characteristics of the indenture market as we played more rounds?  (The market became more orderly as participants, both agents and emigrants, gathered more information.  Knowing what to expect and what to look for, they made agreements faster and made more agreements.)
  5. Why is there a range of indenture lengths?  (The length of the indenture varied with the value of the laborer and the conditions of the indenture.) 
  6. Consider the “outliers” – the shortest and longest indentures.  How would you explain them?  (The outliers indicate some sort of “special” circumstance, a difference from the majority of the contract situations.  Exceptionally short indentures tended to occur either when the emigrant had special skills or characteristics – like gender – to offer or when the conditions of the indenture were known to be poor – as in the West Indies.  Exceptionally long indentures tended to occur either when the emigrant was less desirable as a worker – convicts, for example – or when the conditions of the indenture were especially favorable – as when a very young boy was indentured to a skilled artisan who agreed to teach him his craft.)
  7. Remind students that they were simulating a market.  What was really for sale in this market?  (The indenture contract represents the price of passage)  Hint:  What is it that the indentured servant is trying to buy, that he doesn’t have the money to pay for?  (passage to the American colonies)  What is the indentured servant using to “pay” for his passage?  (his labor)
  8. 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 contracts possible)
  9. Who are the sellers in this market?  (agents)  Did the sellers want long contracts or short contracts? (long – they tried to increase the price – that is, to sign indentures to the longest contracts possible, so that they could, in turn, sell the contracts for a higher price in the colonies)
    • Teacher Note: When the indenture arrived in the colonies, his indenture was sold to an employer.  If the indenture brought in more money than the price of the worker’s passage, the original owner of the contract – the agent or ship captain – made a profit
  10. If you were a seller – an agent – what factors made you willing to lower the price (shorten the contract)?  (Two important considerations here: the characteristics of the job and the characteristics of the potential servant.  For example, the cane fields of the West Indies were dangerous and unhealthy.  You would offer a shorter indenture to get people to go there.  On the other hand, a job as a silversmith’s helper in Boston would be very desirable, but there were few people qualified to fill the position, so you would be willing to offer a shorter indenture to get someone.)
    • What factors enabled you to raise the price – lengthen the contract?  (If the circumstances were more desirable for the servant – a housemaid to a wealthy merchant, for example, or if the position required so little skill that there were many people who could fill it.)
    • Who were you competing with in the simulation?  (Students’ first reaction may be that they were competing with the emigrants.  Help them to see that this isn’t the case.  Instead, they are competing with other agents who might offer the potential emigrant a better deal.  In reality, they have to cooperate, not compete with the emigrant in order to make a deal.
  11. If you were a buyer – an emigrant – what factors made you willing to pay a higher price (accept a longer contract)?  (If you had no special skills or if you wanted to go to a particular place, you would be more likely to accept a longer contract.  To avoid the cane fields, for example, you might accept 5 years in New England instead of 2 years in Haiti.  If you were young and uneducated, you might accept a 7-year indenture knowing that if you didn’t, someone else would – and, you might get some training and education during those 7 years.)
    • What factors enabled you to pay a lower price (shorten the contract)?  (Having education or a special skill often allowed you to pay a lower price, as did willingness to accept a less desirable or more dangerous situation, like the West Indies cane fields.)
    • Who were you competing with in the simulation?  (Students’ first reaction may be to say that they were competing with the agents.  Help them to see that they were competing with the other emigrants, who could also fill the needs of the agents.  If a student asked for too short a contract, he risked not getting an indenture at all as the agent went to someone else.)
    • Look at the indenture tally.  What happened to the length of indentures over the rounds of the game?  (There was a concentration of indentures – fewer very short indentures and fewer very long indentures.)  Why do you think this happened?  (As people got more information about the market, they were able to make better choices.  Emigrants learned about what the agents wanted and looked for those willing to offer shorter indentures.  Agents learned about the circumstances the potential emigrants faced in England and tried to push for longer indentures.  These opposing forces create a centralizing tendency.
    • What is the most common or “average” length of indenture in your simulation?  (Teacher note:  It will probably be in the 4-5 year range, but the important point is that it emerged from their interactions.  No ONE determined or decided the length. It doesn’t matter if the students’ simulation results in a different length than the 4 years often noted in textbooks.  Simply remind them that a process analogous to their game produced the “typical” 4-year-8-month indenture noted on visual #1.  See next question.)
  12. Answer the question that we started with: Textbooks tell us that the average indenture was about 4 years in the early decades of indentured servitude, eventually rising to 7 years.  Why was the indenture this length?  Did someone set it?  Who?  How? (The simplest answer is that contract length was the market clearing price in the indentured servitude labor market.  The market for labor set the length of indentures.  The negotiations between buyers and sellers – emigrants and agents – set the price, just as the negotiations between buyers and sellers in markets today set the prices for gasoline, bread, etc. No ONE set the length of indenture – because EVERYONE set it.  Like markets for things today, people had knowledge of the conditions (through letters from friends and relatives, stories from travelers, etc.) and of the prices others had paid.  There were so many indentured servants that it became a very organized market and people knew what to expect – just as you know what to expect when you go to buy a gallon of milk at the grocery store or convenience shop.)
  13. Read or handout the indenture contract.  What were the obligations of the servant? (to work for the specified period in the specified type of employment)  Of the master? (to provide passage, food and drink, clothing, lodging, washing and other necessities, and allowance – usually meaning land or a specified amount of money – at the end of the indenture)
  14. Using your experience with prices and markets today and your new knowledge of how the labor market for indentures worked, answer the following questions:
    • Make (and justify) a prediction about the relative number of indentures of men and women of similar age and skill during the early years of the colonies.  (In the early colonial decades, indentures for single women averaged about 1.5 years shorter than indentures for men.  Most colonists were male, and it was difficult to find wives.  As population in the colonies grew, the problem of no wives disappeared so that by the later decades of indenture, the length for men and women of similar age and skill was about the same.)
    • Make (and justify) a prediction about the length of indenture as the cost of passage to the colonies declined.  (Falling passage rates reduced the length of indentures.  If an emigrant was able to afford the passage, he was less inclined to bind himself to a master for a long period of years.)
    • Make (and justify) a prediction about the length of indenture as economic conditions for laborers improved in England and Europe? (Improved economic conditions in Europe also caused the average length of indenture to decline.  As more laborers found opportunities at home, fewer were willing to emigrate under conditions of servitude.)
    • 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.  In addition, as the demand for female indentures as wives disappeared, the gender difference in indentures disappeared, so that by 1770, the average indenture length for a female was only a few months shorter than that for a male. )
    • Make (and justify) a prediction about the market for indentured servants in the south.  (Indentures were more expensive to maintain than slaves and were resistant to the gang labor techniques that typified plantation agriculture.  Original indentures in the south and, especially in the West Indies, were shorter than those in other areas, and eventually the indenture practice died out in the south as planters turned to slavery, finding it less costly to train slaves in skilled labor than to use indentures.)
    • If you lived on the frontier, would you be likely to buy an indentured servant?  Why or why not?  (The abundance of free land and the fact that land was so productive that a person could support himself as a farmer meant that the runaway problem was a serious risk that the holders of indentures had to take into account.  Certainly this risk was increased in more rural, “frontier” areas.  Many colonies responded by requiring servants to carry passes when traveling, and judges tended to strictly enforce indentures, lengthening the time of service for runaways.  Given these conditions, you might at least think twice about taking an indentured male to the frontier.  Since women could not claim land and were often indentured only as a first step to becoming wives, taking a woman to the frontier probably didn’t entail the same risks.  Therefore, an astute student answer to this question might be another question: Was the indentured servant female or male? Show students the runaway advertisements and reinforce that people would not have been willing to engage in these contracts had they not been confident that the rule of law would enforce them.)