Thursday, April 9, 2015

Bound For Maryland or Virginia: Indentured and Convict Servants

By Barbara Farner
Gunston Hall Docents' Association

Labor was always in short supply in Virginia from the earliest days of the Jamestown settlement through and after the Revolution. Various schemes were used to encourage or send people from England to Virginia, glowing advertisements described the land and opportunities, sometimes adults and children were kidnapped, and a reward system, known as head-rights, for those already in the colony was used to entice additional people to cross the ocean. Many would-be Virginians, by their own choice, signed indentures, or contracts, in England, exchanging their freedom for a number of years of servitude. An indenture is a contract binding one person to another, be it an apprentice to a craftsman, a servant to a master, or a paid worker to an employer for a specific amount of time or purpose. In the context of this study, the indenture is between a servant and a master.

In the seventeenth-century, indentured servitude was an unregulated system of labor favoring master, who often found ways to retain the servant in extended bondage. The supply of white indentured servants was restricted by 1698 when the emphasis was placed on importing slaves to provide unskilled labor. After 1718, forced white indentured servitude resumed as a means of emptying British prisons, dealing with political prisoners and depopulating countries such as Scotland and Ireland. By the mid-eighteenth century, however, the trade indentured servants was regulated by the British government. Laws ensuring servants agreeability were enacted for those who chose of their own free will to go to the colonies. The length of service for those convicted of crimes and transported, primarily to Maryland and Virginia, was decreed by the court. Between 1700 and 1775, almost half of the emigrants to America were unencumbered by indentures, while 33% were indentured servants and 17% were transported convicts.

There are very few existing records about George Mason’s indentured servants. By examining Robert Rutland’s Papers of George Mason, we know of, perhaps, seven people who fit into that category. By using the research found in Historian Beth Mitchell’s study of land ownership in Fairfax County in 1760, as well as, county probate and land records we are able to identify, most likely, others who were formerly indentured servants. [See: “Fairfax County, Virginia in 1760: an interpretive Historical Map” prepared by Beth Mitchell, Office of Comprehensive Planning, Fairfax County, VA, 1987] Some who were tenants or leaseholders on Mason property may have arrived in Virginia as indentured servants or convicts. John Mason, in his Recollections, lists the work of slaves on his father’s plantation, mentioning only two white employees when during the Revolution it was necessary to produce cloth. John notes that his father “had in his service a white man, a weaver of the finer stuffs, to weave himself and superintend the black weavers and a white woman to superintend the Negroe spinning women.” Who these two people were and what their status on the plantation was remains a mystery.

By mid-eighteenth century, there were three principal types of indentured servants in the colony of Virginia. Each type is represented in the named group of servants owned by or tenants working for George Mason.

The most prevalent class of servants were the Free-Willers, those men and women who stepped onto the ship in England of their own free well, after signing a contract individually or with a merchant/captain as venture cargo. For those coming as venture cargo, their indenture was first paid for by a merchant/contractor in England. When they landed in America, it was incumbent upon the ship’s captain to make the best price for his cargo of servants, sending money to the merchant and keeping a tidy sum for his expenses and himself. Hundreds of advertisements in the Virginia and Maryland Gazettes of the time announce the arrival of ships carrying servants. Free-Willers generally faced a term of four years, a term computed by skill, cost of maintenance and passage, freedom dues and profit. For particularly skilled servants, a yearly salary was added.

Figure 1 Virginia Gazette, 18 March
1775Dixon & Hunter

George Mason had at least 4 men who came to Virginia of their own free will. The most notable was William Buckland, who signed a contract in England with Thomson Mason in 1755 to serve four years with a yearly salary of £20 per annum. Buckland, a carpenter/joiner by trade used his considerable skills to complete the interior of Gunston Hall.

Two of the Mason family tutors were apparently free-willers. John Davidson, then in Edinburgh, was recommended by Thomas Gordon in England who responded to Mason’s 1770 request for a tutor. Although no records exist, his term was most likely for three to four years. The second tutor, David Constable, a graduate of the College of Aberdeen, lived with the Mason family from 1774-1781. His beginning date, 1774, suggests that Davidson’s term was over. By the time Constable’s term expired, the country was at war. When Constable left Gunston Hall to assume his ill brother’s business in St. Kitts in 1781, Mason wrote to Governor Nelson, asking for passport for him. Mason mentioned the tutor’s expiration of engagement with the family.

The fourth Free-Willer was Thomas Spalding who was bound to serve four years. Arriving in 1754 he listed his occupation as brick maker and bricklayer. As part of his contract he was to receive a salary of £12 sterling. However, he was unable to fulfill these tasks and the Fairfax County Court awarded Mason his service for the full term without pay.

Redemptioners: Generally Germans or other Europeans, came, sometimes in whole families, and paid part of their passage. Upon arrival at American ports, the outstanding balance of their passage, was reflected in the length of their term of indenture. Usually, these passengers were given two weeks to “redeem their passage,” and if unable to make the payment, were sold to the highest bidder. Families were often separated, with children going to one master and parents to others. The majority of Redemptioners passed through the port of Philadelphia, although many entered the country through Alexandria. British servants did not generally arrive as redemptioners after the early colonial period because British law offered them protection from rogue merchants, captains and masters by being sure their term was set before sailing.

Historian Donald Sweig’s examination of a list of “Servants & Redemptions that has [sic] been Free’d and Redeemed” shows that in 1784 Mason, his son George, and George Washington, among others, purchased Irish servants who arrived in Alexandria. Mason purchased the two sawyers on the list. It was about this time that Hollin Hall, the home of Mason’s son Thomson was being build. Was this the reason Mason wanted skilled sawyers who could optimize timber to provide the boards for the house, as well as repairs for his son George’s house, Lexington? Or did he produce sawn logs on his plantation and needed skilled workers?

Both of Mason’s purchases, Tim[oth]y Hanly and Jerry Connor were sawyers. Conner’s wife was included in his term and cost. Hanly’s indenture for 18 month cost 10 Guineas while Conner and his wife, with a term of 3 years service, were redeemed for 20 Guineas, eight shillings and six pence. At the same sale, George Mason, Jr. purchased Tho[ma]s Tray a labourer for 3 years for ten Guineas. Sawyers were highly specialized wood cutters. They could examine a log and cut it to ensure there would be little waste. Using a pit saw, with one man standing on the top of the log to push the saw, and the other in the pit aiding gravity by pulling the saw down through the wood, boards could be cut straight and as thin as an inch and a half. This skilled work was highly regarded in England as well as the colonies.

Figure 2: Pit saw, Diderot Pictorial
Encyclopedia of Trades and Industry.
 Plate 292.
Figure 3:   photo: B. Farner; example of
pit sawn log, Canal Visitor Center,
Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio.

It is interesting to note that Spalding, the brick maker, Buckland the carpenter/joiner and the sawyers, Hanly and Conner were all indentured during times of building - Spalding when Gunston Hall was being built, Buckland working on the interior of Gunston Hall, and the sawyers when construction of Hollin Hall began. Evidently Mason sought out indentured servants to provide skills that were need at specific times

Mason acquired the remaining two years of service on a redemptioner, originally owned by Col. Fitzhugh of Maryland. This person was an unnamed German coachman. The coachman stayed with Mason on a yearly basis after his indenture expired in 1787, a fairly common arrangement with released servants. However, based on a recommendation that Mason wrote for him, it appears that neither he nor Mason were pleased with each other. The Coachman was paid £15 per year plus clothing. Since he worked as both a coachman and waiter at table, he likely would have been wearing livery or a uniform identifying him as Mason’s servant.

With one exception, we know nothing of what happened to Mason’s named free-will indentured and redemptioned servants once their terms expired. The exception is William Buckland who went on to become an independent contractor building houses and public buildings on the Northern Neck of Virginia and in Annapolis. Historians have noted that when servants were released from their indenture many went on to provide a source of competent labor while developing a class of free men [and women] who proved to be the backbone of the country. Historian John Cantwell posited that “the growth of the economy benefited from a steady supply of imported indentured white servitude.”

Part II will discuss the role of some convict servants and their part in George Mason’s land holdings.

Read More:
Indentured Servants:
Riley, Edward Miles, ed., The Journal of John Harrower, and indentured servant in the Colony of Virginia 1773-1776 (Williamsburg, VA: Colonial Williamsburg, 1963).


Cantwell, John, “Imported Indentured White Servitude in Fairfax and Prince William Counties, 1750-1800" Master Thesis, George Mason University, 1986.
Dunn, Terry K. The Recollections of John Mason. (Marshall, VA: EPM Publications, Inc., 2004)
Foner, Eric and John A. Garraty. Indentured Servitude, The Reader’s Companion to American History
Morgan, Kenneth. Slavery and Servitude in colonial North America, a short history.(New York: New York University Press, 2000).
Rutland, Robert, ed. The Papers of George Mason 1725-1792.(Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1970).
Sweig, Donald. “White Indentured Servitude in Fairfax County: New Evidence is Discovered” in Fairfax Chronicles, Spring 1978; “A list of Servants & Redemptions that has been Free’s &; Redeemed, 1784. Gunston Hall Library and Archives. Research File, Indentured Servants.

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