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Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
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Difficult Lives

 

The Bondservants' Bargain
 
Hard Evidence of Heavy Toil
 
Proof of
Burden

 
Pleasure of a Pipe
 

The profitable market for Chesapeake-grown tobacco lured settlers for over half a century. Many with limited prospects in England hoped to build better lives in America, where the grinding work of transplanting tobacco seedlings, weeding and tending the plants, and harvesting the leaves, all by hand, created a huge demand for laborers.

 

During the 1600s, from 70 to 85 percent of the colonists came as bondservants. They signed an indenture, or contract, to work for a fixed number of years for masters who paid their passage to America. Most were young men between the ages of 15 and 24, though there were some women and even orphaned or vagrant children.

Lumbar vertebrae of a 55- to 60-year-old female, with a stress fracture from a lifetime of bending at the waist.
 
Indentured contract of Richard Lowther, 1627.  Image courtesy of: Smithsonian Institution

More than a quarter of indentured servants did not survive. Many died of malaria, typhoid fever, and other illnesses soon after arriving. If they made it through this "seasoning time" and completed their contract, they received "freedom dues." Four to seven years of grueling labor earned a new set of clothes and tools, three barrels of corn — and the right to acquire fifty acres of land.

Discover the story of one bondservant.

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