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1643 - Settlers and Servants

The colonial period in the United States and elsewhere saw the introduction of new labor systems and the adaptation of traditional systems to new environments. European settlers constructed farms, workshops, and stores in the colonies but continuing labor shortages inhibited the development of a mature economy. In order to address labor shortages, colonists and colonial governments enslaved native populations or imported slaves, servants, and indentured servants.

Men and women with little active interest in a new life in America were often induced to make the move to the New World by the skillful persuasion of promoters. William Penn, for example, publicized the opportunities awaiting newcomers to the Pennsylvania colony. Judges and prison authorities offered convicts a chance to migrate to colonies like Georgia instead of serving prison sentences.

But few colonists could finance the cost of passage for themselves and their families to make a start in the new land. In some cases, ships’ captains received large rewards from the sale of service contracts for poor migrants, calledindenturedservants, and every method from extravagant promises to actual kidnapping was used to take on as many passengers as their vessels could hold.

In other cases, the expenses of transportation and maintenance were paid by colonizing agencies like the Virginia or Massachusetts Bay Companies. In return, indentured servants agreed to work for the agencies as contract laborers, usually for four to seven years. Free at the end of this term, they would be given “freedom dues,” sometimes including a small tract of land.

Perhaps half the settlers living in the colonies south of New England came to America under this system. Although most of them fulfilled their obligations faithfully, some ran away from their employers. Nevertheless, many of them were eventually able to secure land and set up homesteads, either in the colonies in which they had originally settled or in neighboring ones. No social stigma was attached to a family that had its beginning in America under this semi-bondage. Every colony had its share of leaders who were former indentured servants.

During this period prior to the industrial era, individual craftspeople, artisans, and their families produced most commodities in a system known as the artisan system of labor. This system of labor was characterized by small-scale production, local markets, and skilled craftsmanship with work centered around the home or the community. Homes often served as the earliest production centers. Artisans generally owned the tools and materials necessary to ply their trade and had a great deal of control over the hours and conditions of their labor. Men, and to a smaller degree, women produced or processed goods on a limited scale as skilled craftsmen, sometimes taking on apprentices or assistants who exchanged their labor for craft training, and room and board. Most craft and artisan production thus was done by independent producers, sometimes aided by family members, apprentices, journeymen, or others.

Early agricultural operations were centered around farm units with little distinction between home and field. Households performed farm work year round, and family members provided the primary source of labor. As the colonies became more established, merchant-farmers developed larger plantations to produce goods on a greater commercial scale. Such operations required a large and inexpensive labor force and often relied upon unfree labor — enslaved workers and indentured servants — as well as tenants, settled yeomen, migrants, women, and children.

Colonial Era work practices, including varieties of enslaved, coerced, and indebted labor as well as artisan or craft-based systems, set the stage for a new economic system beginning in the late eighteenth century and intensifying in the middle of the nineteenth century. While this transition followed regional variations, it is well accepted that an overall change in many aspects of the economy, including the social relationships between labor and capital, were widespread by this time.

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Page last modified: 06-10-2017 19:05:49 ZULU