Few Were Able To Pay Their Way

Relatively few colonists could finance the cost of passage for themselves and their families and of making a start in the new land. For those who could not, the expenses of transportation and maintenance were paid by colonizing agencies like the Virginia Company and the Massachusetts Bay Company. In return, the settlers agreed to work for the agencies as contract laborers. Many who came to the New World under this arrangement soon discovered that, since they were expected to remain servants or tenants, they were no better off than if they had stayed at home.

In time, the system proved a handicap to successful colonization, and a new way was found to attract settlers to America. Companies, proprietors, and individual families entered into negotiable contracts with prospective settlers who, in exchange for passage and maintenance, bound themselves to labor for the contract-holder for a limited time-usually from four to seven years. Free at the end of this term, such settlers would be given "freedom dues," sometimes including a small tract of land.

It has been estimated that half the settlers living in the colonies south of New England came to America under this system, as "indentured servants." Although most of them fulfilled their obligations faithfully, some ran away from their employers. Nevertheless, many of these too were able to secure land and set up homesteads, either in the colonies in which they had originally settled or in neighboring ones.

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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.

Most of the settlers who came to America in the 17th century were English, but there was a sprinkling of Dutch, Swedes, and Germans in the middle region, a few French Huguenots in South Carolina and elsewhere, and a scattering of Spaniards, Italians- and Portuguese. Still, non-English settlers represented barely 10 per cent of the total.