Thursday, March 8, 2012


I do not think you can successfully research your family without asking "why". Not why am I doing this; rather, why did my ancestor do that! In the fourth episode of Who Do You Think You Are, Reba McEntire asked many questions that began with why. For one, Reba wanted to know why her 6 times grandfather, George Brasfield, was sent to America in 1698 by his father when he was only 9 years old. The answer -- he was an indentured servant. Many of the people who came to Colonial America (mainly Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia) in the 17th century were indentured servants. Knowing the "why's" of this group could be an extremely important tool for researching our colonial ancestors.

An indentured servant was a person who agreed to exchange free labor for the opportunity to travel to America. In the early 1600's,  colonists who were able to afford the passage to America in search of a new life soon found out that they needed help in order to clear and maintain their newly acquired land. At the same time many Europeans were suffering due to the bad economic times and could only dream of a new life in the New World. Therefore, in order to be able to realize their dreams many of these people decided to become indentured servants.

Most of the indentured servants were from England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland and Germany. Mainly they were single men under the age of 21 who basically provided the workforce the Colonies needed so desperately in the 1600's. However this group also included many women and many more children than any of us of would like to think about. It was not an easy life and many were lucky to survive the trip across the ocean and the years of their servitude.

There are many stories about how these men, women, and children came to be indentured. For many, it was voluntary; for others, not so much. Many children, like George Brasfield - Reba's ancestor, were sent to America by parents who no longer could afford to take care of them and wanted to give them the chance of a better life. Others were the victims of "assisted" immigration. They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time! And, some countries used it as a method to "thin out" rogues, scoundrels, and criminals. But, for all, it was their ticket to the New World.

Every indentured servant had a contract that guaranteed his or her freedom at the end of their indenture. In exchange for a free trip to America plus lodging, food, clothing and sometimes training, the servant agreed to work for a specified number of years. The length of indentured servitude ranged from 3-7 years, with 5 years being the average. At the end of this time, the person received freedom dues. Some knew who their benefactors would be and even traveled to America with their new masters. Others were bound over to ship captains who in turn sold their contracts when they arrived in the colonies. Note that the contracts were sold, not the people; and this, in many cases, was the only difference between indentures and slaves. 

Life as an indentured servant varied. Some were very fortunate and became part of the family group they worked for. Others faithfully served their time of indenture, eventually realizing their dream of owning land and became the ancestors of many present-day American families. Unfortunately, many were treated poorly by unscrupulous masters. In general, indentured servants  were not allowed to marry or have children until their contracts were up. Their time of servitude could be increased for violating these laws or trying to run away. When their contracts were finally fulfilled, most indentured servants received their freedom dues -- a modest parcel of land plus a gun, food, clothing and other supplies along with their freedom. However, as land became scarce along the coastal areas of the colonies, many were encouraged or forced to move westward. 

 As it turned out Reba McEntire's ancestor went on to own land and establish the Brassfield family in America. At the beginning of her search, Reba asked, "Why am I like I am." I think she got the answer!

Indentured servants were the backbone, the core, of America in the 1600's. They were the rugged, hard working, strong willed individuals who made up a major portion of the workforce who created this nation. These early settlers were some of the first people to move west into the wilderness. If you have ancestors who came to the colonies in the 17th century, it is possible they came here as indentured servants. I have ancestors in Maryland and Virginia that could possibly fall into this category. A quick search of the Virtual Jamestown website has revealed the surnames I am looking for, but only time will tell if they are a match. 

Don't forget to watch. Friday, March 9, 2012. Who Do You Think You Are. 8/7central. Jerome Bettis, former Pittsburgh Steeler, walks in the footsteps of his ancestors.

1 comment:

  1. I just found your blog through Geneabloggers. Welcome to Geneabloggers.

    Regards, Jim
    Hidden Genealogy Nuggets