“The gateway to Europe are the indentured servants,” observed Nathan Murphy MA, AG, of FamilySearch International. Murphy gave a talk titled, “My Ancestor Came to Colonial America as an Indentured Servant” during the Thursday morning session of the National Genealogical Society Conference held in Richmond, Virginia. “The point is, indentured servants are the immigrants that help trace family back to the old country and extend the pedigree,” explained Murphy. “Identifying immigrants is the first step to tracing origins.” Following are Murphy’s tips for finding and tracing an indentured servant in your own line, with a focus on English ancestry.
Who Were They?
An indentured servant is someone who agreed to serve as a servant for a given amount of time in America in exchange for free passage to the Americas. According to Murphy’s lecture, 3 out of 4 immigrants to colonial America were indentured servants.
From England, the major ports of departure were London, Bristol and Liverpool, with most going to Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Barbados.
According to Murphy, a study of London records concluded that the top 3 reasons for choosing indentured servitude were: 1) fatherless (no inheritance), 2) friendless (no social contacts to obtain work), and 3) released from prison.
Murphy explained not all were voluntary servants. Some were “Redemptioners.” These were more common amongst German colonists. Redemptioners were people who agreed to pay passage upon arrival (perhaps family in America had already paid). If they couldn’t come up with money, they were sold as indentured servants. Others may have been convicts who were exiled from the home country for crimes.
How Do I Find Genealogical Records About Them?
The following table, based on the one presented by Murphy, explains potential sources of family history information.
Indentured Servant Life Event
Possible Record Source
|Infant christening||Parish records|
|Occupational training||Apprenticeship bonds|
|Father’s death||Probate records|
|Migration to a port||Apprenticeships, poor law (parish chest records)|
|Signed indenture||Some indentures registered|
|Atlantic Ocean crossing||Few passenger lists survive|
|Sold in the colonies||Pennsylvania servant registers|
|Runaway, freedom, death||Court records, gazettes (ads), parish registers|
|Importation land grant||Head rights, court records|
|New life in America||Standard colonial sources|
First Steps in Indentured Servant Family Research
Murphy suggests using the following sources when you learn you have an ancestor who was an indentured servant.
For uncommon names, try the Guild of One-Name Studies. Instead of researching a particular lineage, these researches focus on a particular surname and find all persons with that name and related sources listing that name.
Other sources, such as marriage records or burial databases may be available at FamilySearch.org, at Ancestry.co.uk, or at Findmypast.co.uk. These sources may point to a geographic region with high concentrations of a specific name. You can then try narrowing your search to records from that location. Websites, such as FamilySearch.org may have collated potential immigrant arrival sources on one page.
Surname distribution maps at Public Profiler may also point to geographic regions in which to narrow your search.
Some contract records still survive in England, with the largest having been published. Murphy recommended you try Filby’s Passengers and Immigration List Index. Other potential sources are the Immigrant Servants Database and Virtual Jamestown.
Research the Master
American planters originally from England may have returned home to find servants. Start with genealogy record sources in their home town in the mother country.
Search Near Departure Ports
According to Murphy, surveys show that the majority of indentured servants came from within 60 miles of their departure port. If you know the port your ancestor departed from, try a surname search in surrounding jurisdictions.
What’s the Point?
“Tracing these laborers’ lives and origins will contribute to identifying more ancestors and understanding the geographic and social origins of many American colonists,” noted Murphy in the Conference Syllabus. Proudly claim your indentured servant heritage!
Do you have a story in your family about an indentured servant? Share your stories of your heritage on FamilySearch.org.