The Plymouth Colony Archive Project


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Servants and Masters
in the Plymouth Colony


© 1998-2000 Copyright and All Rights Reserved
by Jillian Galle

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Contents

I.     Introduction
II.    Plymouth Colony Laws Regarding Servants
III.   Entering Servitude IV.    Changes in Indenture Agreements
V.     Charges Brought Against Servants
VI.    Charges Brought Against Masters
VII.   Charges Brought Against Non-Masters
VIII.  Exiting Servitude
IX.    Life After Service
X.     Conclusions
XI.    Appendix I: Plymouth Laws
XII.   Appendix II: Plymouth Court Records
XIII.  Appendix III: Descriptive Statistics
XIV.   References Cited




I. Introduction

The success of Plymouth Colony depended on hard work and cheap labor. For the Colonists in Plymouth, cheap labor came in the form of indentured servants. Twenty of the 104 Pilgrims to arrive on the Mayflower were servants (Stratton 1986: 179). Within the first year of the settlement twelve of these servants had died. In addition to the servants who died, almost half of the non-indentured population perished during the first year in Massachusetts. By the spring of 1621, the surviving Colonists were faced with the daunting task of designing and building a stable, long-lasting Colony.

As the Pilgrims began crafting the Colony, they were faced with a severe labor shortage. Colonists turned to England, Scotland and Ireland where they actively recruited new members and hired-on servants. The men, women and children hired as servants often had their passage to America paid by their future master. Many of these people looked forward to the promise of food, clothing, and shelter in exchange for their labor. Male servants may have looked to the end of their indenture when they would receive land and a monetary reward for their service. Most servants were impoverished and the end of a successful indenture could represent the opportunity for prosperity. Some male servants saw the end of their indenture as a chance to become freemen who could participate in local government. In order to achieve these goals, servants had to provide their masters with constant labor for a specified period of time.

This paper looks at the body of Plymouth law that related to servants and Native American slaves. The laws and the Court cases recorded in the Plymouth Court Records demonstrate that the governing of servants was a complicated and often contradictory task. The difficulty in governing servants lay in the fact that they would eventually join Plymouth Colony as free citizens. Since servants were upwardly mobile, Plymouth Colonists had an interest in making them law-abiding and God-worshiping citizens that would contribute to the Colony when freed from their indenture. For criminal actions servants received treatment similar to freemen. Servants could be branded, whipped, fined, and killed for their criminal actions. However, in cases invovling the moral and social behavior of servants, the Court often convicted the non-servants invovled in the case with corrupting or misleading the servants. Thus, servants were placed in the same category as women and Native Americans, persons that needed to be morally guided since they did not necessarily understand the difference between moral right and wrong.

This paper attempts to understand the varied perspectives on the regulation and treatment of servants in Plymouth Colony. This paper will first outline the laws governing both servants and masters. It then explores the extent to which cases from the Plymouth Court Records conform to Plymouth law. As it investigates a series of topics ranging from entering and exiting servitude to cases brought against servants and masters, the paradox in the treatment of servants will be examined. Before proceeding it should be mentioned here that the cases discussed do not represnt the total number of servants and service arrangements that existed in Plymouth. Rather, the cases mentioned are only evidence of disputes that were brought to the Court's attention.

II. Plymouth Colony Laws Regarding Servants and Slaves

A period of servitude began with the creation of an indenture agreement between master and servant. These agreements ranged from simple pacts that outlined the time to be served to more elaborate documents which specified the length of service, the trades to be learned, the goods to be provided a servant, and the land and monetary rewards to be had at the end of service. The standard form of the indenture agreement was not regulated by Plymouth law. Colonists were most likely following European contract forms. One law that was later struck from the record attempted to regulate the length of an indenture. On November 15, 1636 the Court declared that all "contracts for servants of any tyme shalbe recorded before the Gouernor or some one of the Assistants . . . . And that none shall hire a servant under half a yeare" (PCR 11: 27). There is no indication about why this law was struck from the record. This law may have been unnecessary since masters and servants may have desired longer terms that would be more beneficial to both parties.

Another law that stated that masters could not shorten the length of service they had agreed to with their servant. It stated that any Plymouth inhabitant that brought a servant from England was responsible for that servant his or her entire indenture. The law read that even if a servant fell "diseased, lame, or impotent by the way or after they come here, they shalbe mayntayned and provided for by their said masters during the terme of their service and covenants, although their said masters release them out of their service afterwards to be releeued by the towneship where he is" (PCR 11: 40). This paternalisitc law solidified the master's responsibilities to the servant. It created an atmosphere in which the servant became an adjunct part of his master's family. In addition, the Colony made sure that it did not become responsible for abandoned servants. Thus a master was responsible for treating and caring for a servant until the end of their indenture, even if the servant became an invalid. Despite the law's attempt to prevent servants from becoming a town's welfare case, we will see that there were a few cases in which the Court required a town to take care of sick or mistreated servants. These cases may very well have set the stage for future welfare systems in the Colonies.

A servant's behavior and their release from service were of greater concern to the General Court. Between 1630 and 1650 several laws were passed that regulated the social and moral behavior of servants. For example, in 1636 servants and children were prevented from taking drink or spending time in "Victualling house[s]" (PCR 11:113). Punishment for such a deed would fall, however, on the owner of the Victual House, not the servant. The Court Records stated that "if any such can be proued it bee esteemed a misdemeanor punishable in thee said Victualler and to bee Inquired into" (ibid.). This is the first law to specifically lump servants and children into the same category. Children and "mayde servants" were also required to obtain their parent's, guardian's, or master's permission prior to marriage (ibid.: 29). If permission to marry was unreasonably withheld, a servant could petition her case before the Magistrates. The law stated that "if a motion of marriage be duly made to the master and through any sinister end or couetous desire hee will not consent therevnto Then the clause to be made known vnto the Majistrates" (ibid.). What is particularly striking is that from the beginning, Plymouth law recognized the potential for sexual exploitation within a master-servant relationship.

By the late 1640s, laws were passed that punished servants for stealing and for playing cards. A servant caught stealing from his master was to "make double restitution either by payment or servitude . . . for the first default, and for the second default of the labourer to make double restitution, and either fynd sureties for his good behauior or be whipt" (ibid.: 47-48). In 1656 a law was passed that outlawed the playing of cards and dice. If a servant was caught playing cards or dice once, they were disciplined by a parent or a master. If they were caught playing such games a second time, they were publicly whipped (ibid.: 66).

A series of laws controlled a servant's release from indenture. In 1636 a law was passed that required a servant coming out of his indenture to have Armes [and] municion before they could set up a household by themselves (ibid.: 17). The General Court passed a law in 1639 that prevented servants from exiting their indenture before they had served their required time (ibid.: 33). The only way a servant could leave his master was to buy out his time and prove that he had been "a housekeeper or master of a famyly or meetes fitt to bee so" (ibid.:18). In passing these laws the Court expressed concern about the ability of servants to run their own households. The time of indenture was seen as a time in which a servant resided with a father figure that could guide and instruct him in the ways of the Colony.

Servants fit enough to occupy their own piece of land were only allowed to have five acres of land when released from their indenture (ibid.). If an indenture agreement promised land in return for service, the land provided was to come from the portion of land which the servant's master owned. Initially Plymouth made it clear that the government could not be expected to provide land for servants (ibid.: 18). As we will see, this law was ignored in several cases recorded in the Plymouth Court Records.

Several laws enacted by the Court dealt specifically with the Native Americans around Plymouth. By 1651 there must have been a series of problems concerning Native American ownership and use of firearms. In that year the Court outlawed the provisioning of Native Americans with weapons unless "they bee Indians that have been servants for diuers yeares and are in a good measure ciuilised and approued of by the Gouernor and assistants" (ibid.: 58). After King Phillips War new laws required all captured males over the age 14 to be sold as slaves outside of Plymouth Colony. Once again Indians who had been servants to the Colonists for many years were exempted from this law (ibid.:242). They were allowed to remain in the Colony. However, by 1676, Native American servants were no longer permitted to "vse guns for fowling or other exercyse" (ibid.) If a Native American servant was found with a gun, the master of that servant was required to forfiet all his weapons for the use of the Colony (ibid.). This clause declares that a Native American servant would not be the one responsible for having a gun. As with drinking and playing cards, the responsibility for the servant's actions fell to the master.

A 1682 law indicates that the Plymouth Colony was having problems with Native American servants who ran back to their villages. The law stated that any Native American servant who ran away were to "be whipt; and sent home by the Constable to his or her master whoe shall pay said Constable for his service therin according as the Majestrate or ouerseer whoe sent such servant home shall Judge meet" (ibid.:255).

Throughout the period of the Plymouth Colony, no laws were enacted that dealt specifically with African slaves or African servants. One law passed in 1655 required all Scotch and Irish immigrants to carry firearms and to participate in military training. Scotch and Irish servants, who were on month-to-month contracts, were not allowed to bear arms. The law reads: "all such Scotes and Irishmen as are in any Township of this Gouerment shall bear Armes and traine as other except such as are seruants from month to month" (ibid.: 106). This may be due to the instability and transience of month-to-month servants.

A summary of Plymouth law reveals that only a few laws related specifically to the governing of servants and slaves. The majority of laws on record dealt with the allocation of lands for former servants, the control of servants' behavior, and the manner in which servants were released from their indentures. As will be seen in the following section, laws regarding offenses such a murder, sexual misconduct, and alcohol abuse were applied similarly to freemen and servants. In addition, servants also received the same forms of welfare and charity that were given to non-servant residents such as the women and children of Plymouth Colony.

Before moving on to next section, I want to quickly discuss the use of the term "freedom or freedome" as it appears in the Court records. At the beginning of every Court session there was a group of men who were admitted as Freemen. These men were being admitted to the Colony as voting citizens. They were not being released from their indentures. Obtaining the status of freemen was thus the same as obtaining one's "freedome."

III. Entering Servitude

As we have seen, Plymouth Colony had no written laws governing the components of an indenture agreement. Rather, Plymouth Colony had common laws for contracts and written laws for criminal actions. Plymouth Court Records demonstrate that there were standard procedures for entering into an indenture. Although not established in written law, the Court Records show that when either a servant or master failed to meet an obligation of their indenture, they were brought before the Court. It is therefore essential to study the Court Records in terms of what they say about the obligations of both the master and the servant.

I have identified four different types of indenture agreements: apprentice, servant, slave, and guardian agreements. These agreements will be discussed in this order. The fourth type of agreement will only be discussed briefly. Most guardian agreements do not mention service yet the manner in which they are arranged reflects apprentice and servant indenture agreements.

A. Apprentices

The Oxford English Dictionary defines apprentices as "one who is bound by legal agreement to serve an employer in the exercise of some handicraft, art, trade, or profession for a certain number of years. . . in which the employer is reciprocally bound to instruct him" (Electronic Text Center: UVA). There are six recorded apprentice agreements in the Plymouth Court Records that fit this description. All of the apprentices were males. Five out of six of the recorded indentures were made during 1633 and 1634 (see Chart 1 below). For the most part, apprentice agreements were quite similar to servant agreements. They established how long the apprentice would serve his master and what the master was to provide for the servant. A survey of the apprentice agreements from the Plymouth Records indicates that apprentices received more material goods upon their release from their indenture than servants did. When the goods received are considered in light of the often lucrative occupation learned, it becomes apparent that apprentices had the best indenture agreements.

A wide variety of trades were taught through apprentice agreements at Plymouth. Trades to be learned by an apprentice ranged from carpentry and tailoring to joinery and "nayling." William Mendloue entered into a seven year indenture agreement during which he was taught carpentry. After his seven years he received two suits of cloths (PCR 1: 15). Sam Jenny became an apprentice to Kanelm Wynslow for four years, during which Jenny would learn the "joyner occupation" (ibid.: 24).



View Chart 1



A few unusual apprentice agreements demonstrate the varied nature of indenture agreements. In March of 1647, Samuell and Elizabeth Edeth bound their seven year old son Zachary to a Mr. John Browne. The Edeth's chose to bind their son to Browne because of they had "many children & by reason of many wants lying vpon them, so as they are not able to bring them vp as they desire, and out of ye good respect they beare to Mr. John Browne" (PCR 2: 112). Zachary was to remain with Browne until he was twenty-one years old. During that time Browne was to bring Zachary "vp in his imployment of husbandry, or any business he shall see meete for ye good of theire [Edeth's] child" (ibid.). In this case the trade to be learned was not specified. He was simply to learn a good business or trade. After the terms of the indenture were penned, the Edeths expressed further concern for their son by specifying what should happen to Zachery if Mr. and Mrs. Browne were to die before Zachary was twenty-one. Zachary was to go to the Browne's eldest son, and Zachery's time could not be sold or traded. If Zachary was not treated "as such a servant ought to be dealt with, then vpon the complaint of any of ye friends of ye said Zachery, it shalbe lawfull for ye deacons of ye church of Plim aforesaid, wth the Gouernor, yt then shalbe, to take him wholy away & place him wth whom they shall see meete, provided yt no sale or marchandise by made of ye remaine of his time by any" (ibid.). It may be concluded that this indenture agreement was, in many ways, a cross between an apprentice and a guardianship.

Another unusual agreement occurred in August 1639. In this agreement, Richard Higgens entered his servant Samuell Godbertson into an apprenticeship with John Smaley for just one year. For the remaining year and a half of his indenture, Godbertson would learn the trade of tailor from Smaley. An unusual aspect of this agreement is that Richard Higgens remained responsible for providing Godbertson with apparel while Smaley provided Godbertson with meat, drink, and lodging. In addition, no money was exchanged between Higgens and Smaley. This is most unusual since every other exchange of servant and apprentices involved some sort of payment being made to the previous owner by the new owners (PCR 1: 129-130).

Several agreements that used the term "apprentice" failed to mention if a trade was learned. For example, John Smith signed up to serve John Jenny for seven years "after the manner of an appretenise" (PCR 1:16). When Smith left the service of Jenny he was to receive twelve bushels of corn and twenty-five acres of land (ibid.). In addition, Thomas Higgens was also placed with John Jenny for eight year as an apprentice. After the eight years were up, Higgens was to receive "double appell," twelve bushels of corn and twenty acres (ibid.: 21). Other such "apprentice" agreements use both terms "apprentice" and "servant." On June 24, 1639, Mary Moorecock "put herself apprentice w[ith] Richard Sparrow" and "after the manner of an apprentice" would dwell with Sparrow and his wife for nine years (PCR 1:129). However, no trade was mentioned and the agreement later states that Sparrow should find his "said servant" meat, drink, and apparel for the time of her indenture (ibid.) The interchangeable nature of the terms "apprentice" and "servant" continue throughout the Court Records (PCR 2: 38).

The multiple uses of "servant" and "apprentice" creates a conundrum in terms of how one should classify indenture agreements. Many of the Court Records make clear that the agreement itself is called an "indenture" not an "apprentice." It does appear, however, that the term "apprentice" was used to symbolize a generic servant. I am uncomfortable calling those agreements whose terminology used both servant and apprentice, yet failed to specify the type of trade being learned, apprenticeships. For this paper an agreement that used the term "apprentice" is only considered an apprentice agreement if a specific trade was mentioned. Hence, only six true apprentice agreements were recorded by the Court.

B. Servants

The majority of indenture agreements simply involved service. In exchange for food, clothing, lodging, and the occasional boat fare from England, a servant would agree to work for an established time period. When their indenture came to an end, the servant often received a small parcel of land and possibly some food. There were wide disparities in the type of payment received for a term of service. For instance, Will Honywell was to receive twenty-five acres of unmanured land and twelve bushels of corn for his seven years of service while Alice Grinder was to receive only two suits of clothing (PCR 1:16, 20). Mary Moorecock, another servant, was to receive only food, clothing and lodging for her service. Her indenture agreement makes no mention of further payment (PCR 1:129). The same held true for Elizabeth Billington, the third and last woman to be listed in the Plymouth Colony records as entering an indenture agreement. Her new masters, John and Mary Barnes, were only required to find Billington meat, drink, and lodging during her time of service (PCR 2: 38).

The one recorded African servant received the same treatment as female servants. During his service "a negro named Jethro" was to receive "meat, drinke, and apparrell fitting for one in his degree and calling" (PCR 5:216). Upon release from service Jethro was only "provided for in reference to apparrell" (ibid.). This may be because women and Africans were not considered people able to be freemen and heads of housegholds.

White male servants, on the other hand, were the recipients of more lucrative service agreements. They often received both goods and land once their time was finished. Like Will Honywell, both John Beaven and John Smith received twelve bushels of corn and twenty-five acres of unmanured land from their individual masters (PCR 1: 15-16). Others received young cow "calfes" with which to start their own farm (ibid.:32). For his two years of service James Till received six pounds per year as well as "his necessary apparell" (PCR 2: 69). Those who served one year or less were most often paid in cash, tobacco, or corn (PCR 1: 103, 115).

In one Court case servitude was given as a punishment for a crime. In 1663, Moses Crocker and Richard Man were brought before the General Court for breaking into Edward William's house, stealing money and goods, and "laying gunpowder about his hearth soe as it fired" (PCR 4:34). Since neither eleven year old boy could repay Williams for the damage they had done, the Court "ordered them to bee put forth to seruice vntill each of them should attaine the age of twenty and one years" (ibid.). In this case, servitude served a purpose similar to that of a juvenile detention center. The boy's new masters were asked to pay Edward William five pounds a piece in order to help defray his loses. It appears from the indenture agreements that neither boy would receive compensation or a reward for their service when they reached twenty-one years of age.

Chart 2 shows that the majority of servants had indenture agreements that required them to serve four to ten years. The descriptive statistics listed in Appendix 3 indicate that 13.8% of the servants served five years and 13.8% served seven years. The rest of the servant population served a variety of years ranging from four months to fourteen years.



View Chart 2



C. Slaves

In the Plymouth Court Records there is only one instance of a person being sold into slavery. In 1685 Thomas Wappatucke, an Indian, was found guilty of burglary. Instead of being fined or ordered to sit in the stocks, Wappatucke was sold as a "pertpetuall servant." The Governor of Plymouth was to "make sale of the said Indian and giue a bill of sale for them that buy him, and to proportion ye mony made of him to them that haue receiued damage by him"(PCR 6:152). Strangely enough, this is the last reference to servants and slaves in the Plymouth Court Records.

This is one of several intriguing lines of evidence that indicate the direction that Plymouth Colony was leaning in terms of its policy towards servitude and slavery. Starting in 1642, the number of people entering indenture agreements dropped significantly (see Chart 3, below). This may be because people no longer found it necessary to record indenture agreements with the Court. However, the presence of guardian agreements and litigation between servants and masters remains present in the Court Records into the later period of the Colony. If people continued to be concerned with the details of guardian agreements it would stand to reason that the same concerns would apply to indenture agreements. It seems probable that the number of servants and apprentices were decreasing by the later half of the Colony's life. The drop in indenture agreements combined with laws concerning slavery (1676) may indicate that Colonists were thinking that slavery was a better way of providing the Colony with labor.



View Chart 3



Nine years before the case against Thomas Wappatucke the General Court passed a law that prohibited all male Indians who were over the age of fourteen, and who were captured after 1676, from remaining in the Colony as servants or apprentices. Any Plymouth Colonist who captured a male Indian was required to "dispose of them out of the Collonie by the first of December next on paine of forfeiting every Indian or Indians to the vse of the Collonie" (PCR 11:242). Only Native Americans that were servants prior to 1676 could remain in the Colony. If Native American captives were not sold, they were confiscated by the Colony and either sold for revenue or used as slaves by the Colony. If one believes that the number of servants and apprentices were decreasing by 1642, and the first laws were being passed about slaves in Plymouth Colony, it stands to reason that perceptions of servitude and slavery were changing.

D. Guardianship

Guardian agreements are another type of agreement that I will only briefly mention here. The Court Records demonstrate that by 1660 guardian agreements were more common in the records than service and apprentice agreements. No recorded laws governed these agreements. Guardian agreements were written in a contract form similar to that of a servant's indenture. Often a child would "pick" one or two adults to serve as their guardian until they were adults. A typical guardian agreement reads as follow: "Att this Court, Hannah Hull made choise of Joseph Holley and Nathaniel Fitsrandall to be her guardians, which was approved by the Court" (PCR 5: 52). In this case it is uncertain as to whether or not this child­­s parents are deceased. However, other agreements specifically mention that the child's father or parents were dead (PCR 5: 124). In some instances guardian agreements explicitly stated what goods the chosen guardian was to provide for the child while others asked that the guardians manage the estates inherited by their new wards (PCR 4:39).

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a guardian as "one who has or is by law entitled to the custody of the person or property (or both) of an infant, idiot, or other person legally incapable of managing his own affairs" (Electronic Text Center: UVA). The Plymouth Court Records indicate that this was how Plymouth residents defined guardians. Guardian agreements thus became a type of social welfare for orphaned children or children who can from dysfunctional parents. We may never know the manner in which guardians dealt with their wards. Did the guardian treat them like their own children, or did they treat their wards like servants? Most likely, the treatment of wards was highly varied. One record from 1659 involved a complaint made against John Williams, of Scittuate, for the "hard vsage of a daughter of John Barker, deceased" (PCR 3:160). The child was removed from William's house and given to Thomas Bird until the next Court session could look into the case further. In the meantime, Williams was required to pay a fine. The final sentence of the record was particularly intriguing as it revealed a kin relationship between Williams and the daughter of the deceased John Barker. The record stated that "the said Thomas Bird is to appeer att the next Court to giue in what testimony hee can produce to cleare vp the case betwixt the said John Williams and his kinswoman, the said gerle" (ibid.). Here we see that Williams was probably the guardian of Barker's daughter, and yet he had mistreated her and used her like a servant.

This record concerning the treatment of a ward is on the one extreme. In other cases a ward may have been treated like the guardian's child. A future project might entail looking at the wills of men whom we know were chosen as guardians. Are the children they were assigned to look after listed in their wills? Are they listed as servants? These are just a few questions which might help us to understand the social roles of both the guardian and the child.

Apprentice, servant, and ward all entered into a common law contract with a master or guardian. These indenture agreements were viewed as unbreakable contracts and were enforced by the Plymouth Court. Any changes in indenture agreements -- from the trade of a servant and the withholding of food or clothing to the misdemeanors of a servant -- were brought before the Court. The next several sections will explore the manner with which change and divergence in indenture agreements was dealt.

IV. Changes in Indenture Agreements

Although the sale and trade of servants was common in the Plymouth Court Records, no laws governing the sale or trade of servants exist in Plymouth Colony laws. The Plymouth Colony Records show that thirty-two recorded sales of servants were made between 1633 and 1685. Usually one servant was transferred to a new owner for a certain amount of money. In the majority of transactions the transfer of the indenture agreement was approved by the servant being sold. The first recorded sale of an indenture agreement set the standard for other sales to come. It reads: "Wheras Walter Harris had bound himselfe by indenture to serue Mr John Atwood, of Lond, under the command of Mr. John Done, of New Plymouth, for the space of fiue yeare, the said John Done hath sold all right, title, and claime to the said service unto Henry Howland, by consent of the said Walter, for & in consideracon of fourteen pownd starling. to be paid in sverall paymts . . . ." (PCR 1:12). Most records of indenture trades or sales had the same format.

In some cases indentures changed hands because a master died. For example, Robert Baker, who had been apprenticed to the carpenter John Thorpe, was forced to learn a new trade when Thorpe died. Baker turned his time over to William Palmer, a naylor, in exchange for his instruction and two suits of clothing (ibid.:16). Servants who wanted to change masters could often instigate the change. For example, two servants with separate masters decided they wished to dwell with the other's master. John Rouse, the servant of Thomas Prince wished to serve John Barnes while John Barnes' servant, Richard Willis wished to serve Thomas Prince. John Rouse must have been worth more than Richard Willis, however, as Barnes was required to pay Thomas Prince four pounds when the exchange was made (ibid.:30).

Some servants switched masters and had a year or two of service added to their original indenture agreements (ibid.:37). Other servants switched masters and received more payment when their time was served. In John Gardiner's case his new master could not teach him the trade of "joynery" as his original indenture agreement had promised. Because of this Gardiner received an extra six bushels of corn (ibid.; see also PCR 1:119). When Edmund Weston switched masters he received six pounds per annum and fourteen bushels of corn in addition to what other compensations were in his original covenant. There was no stated reason for this "raise" (ibid.:45, see also PCR 1:121-122).

In summary, it appears that either servant or master could instigate a change in their situation. A master could sell the indenture agreement of this servant or apprentice as long as all parties involved agreed to the change. A servant also had the ability to request a change in their master. In other cases servants were removed from their masters by the court due to reasons of neglect. Servants in these cases appear to have quite a bit of free will and they seem to control some aspects of their living situation. Section Six will explore the issue of control within an indenture to a greater extent.

V. Charges Brought Against Servants

In general, those bound by indenture agreements were subject to the same laws and punishments as all Plymouth colonists. As described in Section II, only four laws existed that specifically governed servant's behavior. Servants were not allowed to marry without their master's consent, they could not steal from their masters, they were not allowed to play dice or cards, and they were not allowed to visit a Victual House. As this section will demonstrate, servants and apprentices committed a wide variety of acts from running away and fornication to murder. Twenty four cases brought before the Court involved the misdeeds of servants. About 75% of the servants charged with crimes were punished. Many of the crimes committed were not listed as laws specific to servants. Servants convicted of crimes such as stealing and fornication were punished in a manner consistent with the way non-servants were punished for the same acts.

The first instance in which a servant appeared before the Court was for running away. The runaway servant was found and a private whipping was administered (PCR 1:7). Of the twenty four cases against servants, 41% of them involved a run away servant. Twenty percent of these run away cases involved a servant who has both run away and stolen something (see Chart 4, below, and Appendix 3). The majority of runaways were whipped. One runaway servant was required to serve more time (ibid.:128). Another servant was scheduled to be whipped for running away and stealing but the servant's father paid a series of fines. The convicted servant was released unharmed (PCR 2:30).



View Chart 4



Perhaps the oddest runaway servant case occurred in 1643. Joseph Billington, a young servant, was brought before the Court for frequently running away from John Cooke, his master. It seemed that Billington was always running home to his family. The boy was ordered back to his master and his parents were sentenced to sit in the stocks. They were ordered to sit in the stocks for every day they received their son at their house. In addition, Benjamin Eaton, a man who was living with Joseph Billington's parents would also have to sit in the stocks if he continued to "counsell, entice, or enveagle the said Joseph from his said master" (ibid.:58). We can never know if the boy was running away or just visiting his family. In either case, the child servant was not punished. It was the responsibility of the adults to prevent him from leaving his master.

Six cases involved servants that had stolen food or goods. Punishment for stealing ranged from whippings to fines. The most spectacular heist was pulled off by two servants and their master. In 1679, Thomas Jenkins of Scittuate, and his two servants, Samuell Curtice and Samuell Browne were brought up on charges for stealing and killing "seuerall beasts of horse kind" that had belonged to John Williams (PCR 6:24-25). Williams asked the Court to examine them on the "suspision of felloniously destroying and disposing of the said horse kind" (ibid.). Unfortunately we have no record of the Court's judgment and sentence.

Five servants were brought up on charges of sexual misconduct. One male servant was whipped for running away and for "attempting uncleanes" with a female servant (PCR 1:15). Another male servant, Charles Thurston, was fined for "revelling [and] disguised daunceing." Thurston promised the Court that he would receive security for the fine from his master. If his master could not pay the fine, Thurston was required to serve his master for an extra two years (PCR 2:105). If the fine was not paid, this sentence then effectively kept this dancer under supervision for another two years. Jane Powell, a female servant, was acquitted of the act of fornication by testifying that she was seduced by another servant. The Court case reads: "shee was allured thervnto by him goeing for water one euening, hopeing to haue married him, beeing shee was in a sadd and miserable condition by hard seruice, wanting clothes and liuing discontentedly; and expressing great sorrow for her euell, shee was cleared for the present and ordered to goe home againe" (PCR 3:91). This case is particularly interesting since the seducer, who was an Irish servant, was not brought up on charges. Finally, two male servants were brought up on charges of sodomy. In the words of the Court, they were "found guilty of lude behavior and uncleane carriage one another, by often spending their seede one vpon another" (PCR 1:64). Both servants were severely whipped for their indiscretion.

Five more cases involved unruly behavior by servants. One servant was whipped for his profanity against God (PCR 1:35) while another was whipped for "abuseing his mistress" (PCR 2:73).The third male servant was whipped for profanity while another was whipped for lying and challenging his indenture agreement. A fifth case was brought against a servant for general unruly behavior but no judgment was made against him. Only men were brought up on charges for unruly carriage.

It is important to note that only one out of the twenty-four charges brought against servants involved a female servant (see Chart 5, below). The one woman, Jane Powell, was brought up on charges of fornication and she was acquitted. This may very well indicate that women felt they could not risk their indenture by running away or committing crimes that would get them punished. For example, a runaway woman faced greater social and physical challenges then men. A single unchaperoned woman moving through strange towns drew attention. Unchaperoned women may also have been in greater physical danger than their male counterparts. Single women would have also found it difficult to support themselves. Whatever the reason, there is no record of women attempting to escape servitude.



View Chart 5



In the same vein, women servants may have tried to remain as pious and as dutiful as possible. The majority of female servants received little or no reward for their service. Thus many hoped to marry prior to, or just after, their release from their indenture. If they were known for unruly behavior these women may have been considered as unappropriate partners. If unmarried when their indenture was complete, these women may have had no choice other to enter into another service agreement.

VI. Charges Against Masters, Brought by Servants

This section is particularly interesting as it provides a picture of the extent to which Plymouth colonists valued and protected their servants. Plymouth colonists understood that being a servant was a temporary status. Your servant, or your neighbor's servant, could, at some point, become a freeman with voting rights. They could become your neighbor and they could eventually own the same amount of land as you. It was therefore in the interest of the Colony to protect servants and to make sure they became healthy and productive citizens. No laws were specifically passed to protect servants from physical abuse. A law was passed that allowed servants to contest marriage decisions made by their masters. Aside from this, what we understand about servants' rights comes from the cases brought before the Court.

The Plymouth Court Records provide a picture of the legal rights of a servant. Servants were given the ability bring their masters into Court for crimes such as abuse or for not fulfilling an indenture agreement. If a servant was killed by an abusive master the Colony would bring the master up on charges. There are also a few recorded cases were a friend or family member concerned about the well being of a servant would bring a master up in front of the Court on charges of neglect or abuse. In some of the cases described it is possible to get a sense of Plymouth's early welfare system.

During the course of Plymouth Colony Records, twenty cases were brought against masters. The most common charge was that masters were not attending to the welfare of their servants. Under this broad category the twelve cases of abuse ranged from not providing a servant with enough clothing to manslaughter. Five of these cases simply called the offense "abuse." In 1637 Edith Pitts accused her master, John Emerson, of abuse. After the Court recorded the complaint they stated that they required Pitt's appearance in Court before they could proceed. The case does not appear again in the Plymouth records therefore the outcome of the charge is unknown. (PCR 1: 48-49). In 1640 a master charged with abuse was forced to give his servant up. Ironically, the accused received money during the exchange of the abused servant's indenture agreement PCR 1:140). The former master was, however, required to provide his former servant with clothes.

In another case of abuse filed in 1655, John Hall complained that his son, Samuell, was being kicked and unreasonably struck by his master Francis Baker. The Court allowed John Hall to remove his son from the indenture situation with Francis Baker until the next Court meeting. If Baker lodged a complaint, the Court would hear the full case with both Baker and Hall present. If Baker did not complain, it appears that Hall would have been allowed to keep his son permanently (PCR 3:82). Some master's, however, could be forced to pay a steep fine. This occurred in 1654 when Thomas Hucken was fined four shillings for abusing his servant.

Another form of neglect was the failure of a master to provide a servant with the proper clothing or food. In 1633 the Court told John Thorp that he must provide his servant, Robert Barker, with clothes or he would be required to turn Barker's indenture over to another person (PCR 1: 7). In 1646 Kenelme Winslow was found guilty of withholding clothes from a former female servant. Winslow testified that the girl owed him more service. The father of the young servant, Roger Shaundler, argued otherwise and refused to return his daughter to Winslow for further service. The Court ordered that Winslow was to deliver the clothes immediately. No fine was imposed (PCR 2: 98).

It should be noted that there were no repeat cases of abuse. For example, no master was brought into Court for abusing his servants more than once. It is hard to know what this means. Was taking a master to Court the last resort after a series of reprimands from fellow Colonists? Or did servants bring their masters into Court on the first offense? Also, were the abused servants threatened into submission? This may have occurred in the Edith Pitts case since she did not appear in Court to testify against her master. The fact that twenty cases were brought against masters over a thirty year time span is impressive. It seems to suggest that Plymouth Colonists we at least somewhat vigilant when it came to protecting the servants in the Colony. Two important cases of abuse occurred in the mid-1650s. The first case I will discuss began in 1653 and ended in 1657. On March 7, 1653/1654, a Mrs.Thomas Gilbert appeared before the Court and asked that "her servant, whoe hath receiued som hurt, and is now in Mr Streets family" remain with the Streets until her husband returned from England. The Court allowed her servant to remain with the Streets as long as they could keep him. If Mr. Street refused to "entertain" this servant, the constable of Taunton was obligated to find him another place to live until his mistress was able to accommodate him (PCR 3:46). Sometime after that this servant must have been returned to Mistress Gilbert because he lodged a complaint against the Gilbert's on June 3, 1657.

This servant, who has no name but is listed as a "boy," complained that he was ill used and wanted competent clothing (PCR 3:118). The Court ordered the selectmen of Taunton to notice the boy's condition and to provide him with shoes and stockings before the winter season. The Court noted that a "speedy course" should be taken since the boy's foot was "in danger of perishing" (ibid.). In addition, the Court asked the selectmen to remind the boy servant to give his mistress "doe respect and obedience" (ibid.). This suggests that the servant may have been giving Mistress Gilbert some problems. However, his condition may have warranted his behavior and thus he is simply "reminded" by the Court to behave.

The Gilbert situation was not resolved the following year. On March 2, 1657/1658, the Town of Taunton brought Mistress Gilbert before the Court on charges of neglect. Gilbert had yet to provide Josepth Gray with the proper clothing and shelter. The records stated that Gray was "sometimes since frozen on his feet, and still is lame therof. These are from the Court of the towne of Taunton, to request them, that wheras there is hopes that this spring hee may bee cured, if endeauors hee vsed for that end, that they would please to take some course, either into the Bay or elsewhere, for his cure" (ibid.:132). At the same meeting it was recognized that Mistress Gilbert's husband was still out of the colony and that she could not defray the costs of such a cure. Two months later, the Town of Taunton was ordered by the Court to collectively defray the cost of curing his lame feet (ibid.: 134). This case not only demonstrates a system of welfare that was at work in Plymouth Colony but it also indicates that this system served all the inhabitants of the Colony, regardless of their status.

The second unusual case of abuse involved the manslaughter of fourteen year John Walker. Walker was the servant of Robert and Susanna Latham. An extensive coroner's inquest revealed that Walker died of exposure and overwork, and basic lack of food, clothing, and shelter. This case is the only recorded one case of a servant's murder. The coroner's inquest provides an explicit and gruesome account how Walker was killed (PCR 3:71-72). One month after the coroner's inquest was taken, Robert Latham, Walker's master, was "indited for fellonious crewlty . . . by withholding nessesary food and clothing and by exposing his said servant to extremitie of seasons, wherof the said John Walker languished and imeadiately died" (ibid.:73). At that same Court session, Latham was found guilty of manslaughter and he was sentenced to be branded on the hand and to have all his goods confiscated.

This case did not end here, though it does become a bit more difficult to follow. In June of 1655, Susanna Latham, the wife of Robert, was also found guilty for "exercising creuelly towards their late servant, John Walker in not affording him convenient food, rayment, and ladgeing; especially in her husbands absence, in forceing him to bring a logg beyond his strength" (PCR 3:82). However, this charge is struck from the record in 1658 when no one came forth to prosecute Susanna Latham ( ibid.: 143).

As noted earlier, twelve of the cases (36%) brought against masters involved some type of physical abuse. Nine additional cases were brought against masters who breached, or attempted to breach, indenture agreements. In some cases masters who breached indenture agreements were fined more money than in cases of abuse. For example, William Hailstone failed to teach his apprentice Jonathan Briggs the trade of tailor and he was sentenced to pay Briggs fifteen pounds for compensation (PCR 3:51). John Rosse complained to the Court that his master had used him for six years and would not provide compensation. The Court reviewed the case and ordered Rosse to serve one more year before being released from service (ibid.:132). In 1639 Isaak Steedman and John Emerson together extorted an extra year and a half from their jointly held servant. Unfortunately the records do not state the sentence or the amount of compensation paid (PCR 1:118).

A pattern emerges when one looks at who was bringing the charges against masters. Adult male servants brought the majority of cases against their masters. They appear to feel either more comfortable bringing their master's before Court or they may know that they will be better received by the Court. This is another indication that male servants were being given rights that they would claim once released from service. They were not treated like children in these cases. However, cases of neglect or abuse which involved female or young servants were often filed against the master by a parent or a larger governing body such as the City of Taunton. Here, it seems likely that the opinion of a child or a woman would not or could not be heard unless an adult family member or friend voiced their concern to the Court.

VII. Charges brought against Non-Masters

This category of cases further strengthens the argument that servants had rights and responsibilities similar to those of the rest of the Colony. Six cases were brought against men and women who harmed other people's servants or who enticed servants into misbehavior. In 1637 Steephen Hopkins was fined 40 shillings for "suffering servants and others to sit drinking in his house (contrary to he order of this Court) and to play at shouell board" (PCR 1:68). What is interesting about this case is that the law specifically outlaws servants from playing games and visiting Victuall Houses. Yet, in this case, individual servants were not charged for drinking and playing games. It was the man who enticed them to drink and play games who was at fault. The same holds true for John Emerson, who was presented for entertaining other mens' servants at unlawful times (PCR 1: 118). Edward Holman was also charged with taking John Barnes' servant on a boat ride without Barnes' consent. In both cases the men charged became responsible for the servant's behavior. We don't know the outcome of Emerson's case but Holman was charged 10 shillings. In these three cases the servants were certainly viewed a children or at least as a class of people easily lured and tricked into doing things that were illegal. And in reality the Victual House and gaming laws did lump children and servants into the same category. These cases address the laws but do not prosecute the servant for the wrong doing. Rather, they fine the men responsible for luring servants into their house for drink or away from their work. Unfortunately we don't know the ages of the servants involved in these cases. It may be that those involved are young adults not considered old enough to make proper decisions.

The last three cases brought against non-masters involved some type of sexual abuse. One involved a man charged for lascivious and unchaste behavior toward a female servant he had no intention of marrying. Another man was charged with making a motion of marriage to a female servant who had not received permission from her master (PCR 3: 4-5). The final case was brought against a woman for molesting a young female servant and preventing that servant from performing her work (ibid.). The Court Records did not cite the outcomes of these cases.

VIII. Exiting Servitude

Exiting one's indenture was often a simple matter. The cases that were recorded usually involved a problem or an issue with resolving an indenture. In some cases it was as simple as a lost indenture that both parties wanted the Court to verify (PCR 2:51; PCR 4: 77,78). In other cases, masters withheld property from their servants who were leaving their indenture (PCR 1:23, 111). Several cases involved petitions that asked the Court for allocations of property to give to servants who were leaving their indentures (PCR 3:149; PCR 5: 170). For example, the widow Vobes requested a parcel of land so that she could meet the indenture agreement made between her deceased husband and Isacke Allerton. The Court stated that she "could looke out some land for her supply and a compentency wilbee graunted and confeirmed vnto her" (PCR 3:195).

Other cases simply demonstrated that servants were often released from indenture without property. For reasons that can't be discerned from the records, the Court did not prosecute the former master for not allocating parcels of their own property. Rather, the Court decided to provide property for the released servants. In 1661 the Court stated that "Libertie is graunted vnto some whoe were formerly servants, whoe haue land due vnto them by couenant, to nominate some persons to the Court or to some of the majestrates, to bee deputed in theire behalfe to purchase a parcell of land for theire accomodation" (PCR 3:216). The following year a Captain WIllett was appointed by the Court to purchase land from the Indians. This land was to be granted to "such that were servants and others that are ancient freemen" (PCR 4: 18) If the land could not be secured at Saconett Necke, the servants and ancient listed in the records were free to look elsewhere for land. Despite the Court's desire in the 1630s to have masters provide land for their servants, by the 1660s the Court had taken it upon themselves to reimburse many older servants for their time.

In two cases female servants were released into the hands of guardians since their parents were deceased. In these cases the young women were able to chose their guardians. Grace Holloway requested that a Major Winslow "aduise her in reference vnto the future way of her liulyhood" (ibid. 136). Her former master, John Phillips, gave Major Winslow the ten pounds due to Grace for her indenture. Winslow was responsible for regulating her use of the money (ibid.).

Priscilla Browne's release from her indenture worked in much the same way. Her father had died by the time she was released and she chose her uncle, John Browne, to be her guardian. Her former master, William Gilson, paid fifteen pounds to her uncle. The Court specifically stated that John Browne was to invest that money in livestock. He was then to give Priscilla half the increase or else to use it as "his owne and to pay her the said [fifteen pounds] when the Court shall judg it meete for her to haue it at her owne disposeing" (PCR 2:89).

In general the Court cases that involved a servant's release from indenture were not contentious. This may indicate that differences between masters and servants were worked out during the indenture. These resolutions may have come in the form of indenture changes or in cases that were brought against master or servant.

IX. Life After Service

Finally, a few cases exist in which men were identified as former servants. These cases can provide us with a glimpse of what some servants chose to do after they were released from their indenture. The first record of a former servant was in 1636. Peter Talbott, a former servant of Edward Dowty was recorded as giving his proportion of land (given to him by his indenture agreement) to a James Skiff in exchange for six bushels of corn (PCR 1:38). A year later the Court granted Peter Talbott five acres and James Skiff ten acres of land for their service by indenture. This is curious as to why these men were receiving more land for their service. We know from an earlier record that Talbott had already received land from Dowty but then he was granted another five acres (ibid.:47) In 1654 James Skiff again appears in the Court records. He is allowed to "find such land as may bee for his vse and comfort and shall conduce to his benefit . . . hee shall bee considered in respect of the residue of the land due vnto him which hee should haue had for his owne and Peter Talbotts seruice" (PCR 3:63-64). What the relationship between Talbott and Skiff was, we can't be sure. Perhaps they were servants together or simply two men who shared a household. What ever the connection, these two former servants were traded and selling their land between themselves and then applying to the Court for more property.

A few other cases give us a glimpse into the lives of some other former servants. In 1638 we see that William Holloway, former servant of William Basset was beaten by Francis Sprague. Both men were fined (PCR 1:74). William Phips sold his land for the sum of 50 shillings (PCR 1:43). A few other former servants also sold their parcels of land. Perhaps this is indicating that these men were returning to England or leaving Plymouth Colony. Future research may want to try to follow former servants through other records such as the Wills and Probate inventories, as well as marriage and death records.

X. Conclusion: Real or Ideal?

Plymouth Colony Law provided guidelines for the basic rights and regulations of servants. The laws that were followed most closely involved the behavior of servants. Servants were punished for stealing and running away. They were also brought into Court for visiting Victual Houses and for gaming. In these instances, however, the servants were not the ones prosecuted for the crime. Rather, the owner of the Victual House or the coordinator of the games were the ones found guilty of the crime.

The fact that Plymouth Colony actually had very few laws governing the criminal actions of servants is striking. This may very well indicate that servants were viewed as people who would one day join the Colony as free men and women. Colonists knew that it was possible that some servants might even gain their "freedom" and voting rights. With this in mind, Colonists may have decided to treat many of the adult servants as if they were Colonists. Servants were treated as freemen when they committed crimes such as murder, theft, and sexual misconduct.

Plymouth laws regarding the distribution of land to servants were followed during the early period of the Colony. However, as the Colony grew it developed a welfare policy that made the towns, and the Colony as a whole, responsible for the condition of servants and the poor. By the later period of the Colony, the Court was purchasing and distributing land to former servants who were not provided with the appropriate amount upon release. In this sense the Colony was giving servants a leg up as they started their lives as free Colonists.

The Colony also enforced its law that required all masters to take care of their servants, despite their servant's physical and mental health. A series of cases directly address the issues of neglect and mistreatment. In these cases the masters were often punished and the servants were often removed from the situation. Although Plymouth had few laws that explicitly protected servants from abuse and indenture fraud, the number of cases brought against masters and others who hurt servants indicates that Plymouth Colonists were watching out for servants' welfare.

Servants in Plymouth Colony are portrayed in a variety of ways in the Plymouth Court Records. In some cases they were treated as sub-adults that were not responsible for their actions in a Victual House or at the gaming table. However, in many other cases one can see that the Colony was allowing servants to practice at being real members of the Colony. Servants were punished for there crimes in the same manner that freemen were punished. They were given the ability to file complaints against their masters or anyone who had harmed them. They could file complaints and initiate changes in their indentures. They could contest their indentures and ask for more land or better compensation for their work. While these rights are not specifically stated in Plymouth Laws, one can see that they are regarded as law by the Court.



References Cited


  • Demos, John
    1970 A Little Commonwealth. New York and London: Oxford University Press.

  • Langdon, George
    1966 Pilgram Colony: A History of New Plymouth, 1620-1692. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

  • PCR, Plymouth Court Records 1968 Records of the Colony of New Plymouth in New England. Ed. by Nathaniel Shurtleff and David Pulsifer. New York: AMS Press. 12 volumes in 6 volumes.

  • Rutman, Darrett 1967 Husbandmen of Plymouth: Farms and Villages of the Old Colony, 1620-1692. Boston: Beacon Press.

  • Stratton, Aubrey 1986 Plymouth Colony: Its History and People, 1620-1691. Salt Lake City Utah: Ancestry Publishing.


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