Back in the 1600’s, the more land you amassed the greater the power you have in America. With all that land somebody had to clear, cultivate, and harvest all that terrain but it wasn’t going to be the owners of the property. That’s when farmers realized that they have a win-win situation on their hands due to the headright system. The headright system was a legal grant of land to settlers. If a person paid for their trip to Virginia then they would automatically get 50 acres of land (Jordan 23). If a farmer imported workers known as indentured servants, they would simultaneously receive land and labor. Farmers are doing all of this to make a great amount of profit. The headright system corresponded with indentured servants because an indentured servant had their passage to America paid off while they pay it off with labor for seven years. Indentured servants thought life in the Americas would be better than the lives they had in England so they sold themselves in order to come to the Americas. The farmers who paid for the voyage of the indentured servants thought “good management would make the process self-perpetuating” (Norton 46B). The population of the Chesapeake was made up of seventy five to eighty five percent indentured servants. The lives of the indentured servants though were a great challenge to them. Indentured servants “worked six days a week, ten to fourteen hours a day, in a climate much warmer than England’s (Norton 47). Indentured servants faced much harder challenges in the Americas.
The situation for indentured servants in Chesapeake was characterized more by continuity because when the workers arrived from England they carried across with them English thinking and ways of life. The indentured servants were the people who were on the bottom of the economic hierarchy in England and also became the bottom of the economic hierarchy in the Chesapeake. Their new masters didn’t treat them any differently. While under their master’s reign, their owners “could discipline or sell them, and they faced severe penalties for running away” (Norton 47A). A dichotomy between the affluent and underprivileged was still existent. The rich would always be more authoritative and manipulative towards the poor. When the landless laborers were in England they were put to work on farms that produced wool. Now known as indentured servants in the Chesapeake, they were put to work on tobacco farms. Indentured servants were vital in creating a fine economy in the Chesapeake as well as in England. In England, the higher ups in society were in Parliament, which usually created laws that helped the rich but didn’t help the poor. In the Chesapeake, the House of Burgesses, as Virginia’s legislative assembly settlers continued “paying taxes only if their elected representatives authorized it” (Jordan 24). Due to similar characteristics found within everyday life both in England and the Americas, life was simply a continuity for the servants.
Not only was their continuity for the situation of indentured servants but there also was a certain amount of change. When the usual seven years of enslavement to their masters was finished, “their opportunities for advancement were real” (Norton 47A). The indentured servants would be able to receive clothes, tools, livestock, casks of corn and tobacco, and sometimes-even land after their ordeal with their master is over. On the other hand, illnesses such as malaria, dysentery, and typhoid fever could infect them, which severely reduced their lifespan. Due to the illnesses listed above “about 40 percent of male servants did not survive long enough to become freedmen” (Norton 47A). The indentured servants that didn’t experience any illness during their tenure would live thriving lives, in which they can even have a job in their government. Owners that were being cruel and merciless to their servants could be fought in court. During some of these court battles an indentured servant can be placed to another master or even have the right to be released from their indentures. The Chesapeake wasn’t being that great all the time because “Maryland dropped its legal requirements that servants receive land as part of their freedom dues, forcing large number of freed servants to live for years as wage laborers or tenant farmers” (Norton 47A). These changes in America did not however improve the lives of indentured servants greatly as they still were treated as the bottom of the barrel.
In conclusion, the situation for indentured servants in the Chesapeake was characterized by both change and continuity. Change was evident but it wasn’t enough to make a huge impact on the lives of indentured servants. The probability of an indentured servant having land and bringing in their own indentured servant who would make them wealthy was actually very hard. Like the landless laborers were in England, the indentured servants were still consistent in being the hard workers and bottom of the economic hierarchy in the Chesapeake. The indentured servants faced continuity in their lives from England to the Chesapeake where they continued being poor and simply worked endlessly to somehow become self-sufficient/free in the future.
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