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Saturday, March 21, 2015

Indentured Servitude and Colonial Migration: James Luttrell

It was imperative that the colonial population continually increase. The landed gentry and English investors needed both labor and exploration to increase the value of their colonial investments. The early reputation of the colonies as a brutal and unforgiving environment did not encourage a working class migration.

In an attempt to increase the population of the colonies a system of “headrights” was established. Any adventurer willing to pay his own passage to the colonies was to receive 50 acres of Virginia land. Any person who paid the passage for someone else would receive the grant for that persons 50 acres. (Thus when James Luttrell was transported by Captain Robinson along with 27 others, Captain Robinson received 1350 acres (27X50=1350)).

“Indentured servants were men and women who signed a contract (also known as an indenture or a covenant) by which they agreed to work for a certain number of years in exchange for transportation to Virginia and, once they arrived, food, clothing, and shelter. Adults usually served for four to seven years and children sometimes for much longer, with most working in the colony's tobacco fields. With a long history in England, indentured servitude became, during most of the seventeenth century, the primary means by which Virginia planters filled their nearly inexhaustible need for labor. At first, the Virginia Company of London paid to transport servants across the Atlantic, but with the institution of the headright system in 1618, the company enticed planters and merchants to incur the cost with the promise of land. As a result, servants flooded into the colony, where they were greeted by deadly diseases and often-harsh conditions that killed a majority of newcomers and left the rest to the mercy of sometimes-cruel masters. The General Assembly passed laws regulating contract terms, as well as the behavior and treatment of servants. Besides benefiting masters with long indentures, these laws limited servant rights while still allowing servants to present any complaints in court. By the end of the seventeenth century, the number of new servants in Virginia had dwindled, and the colony's labor needs were largely met by enslaved Africans. …”  Indentured Servants in Colonial Virginia / by Brendan Wolfe and Martha McCartneyIndenturecontractsigned withanXbyHenry Meyerin 1737b

While this system encouraged migration to the colonies it along with a high mortality rate among servants failed to produce the numbers needed to sustain growth in the colonies.

The 27 persons that arrived in Northumberland County, Virginia in 1617 were “transported” there by Captain Laurance Robinson. We do not know where their voyage originated nor do we know the name of the vessel they traveled on. It is save to assume that they migrated from either England or Ireland. What we do know about their voyage is explained by examining the language used to describe their arrival, in particular the word “transported”.

The term “transported” had a specific connotation in 17th century Great Britain. It meant someone was banished, exiled, or deported.

The practice of the English government sending condemned men to serve their sentence in the penal colonies of Australia is well known, but the use of the practice to populate the American Colonies is virtually ignored in American History, even though upwards of 50,000 men were so condemned from 1614 to 1775. The use of the American Colonies to empty the prisons of England ended with Colonial independence. It never reached the numbers and notoriety of the use of criminals to populate Australian penal colonies established to replace the American Colonies.

The fact that an ancestor was a transported indentured person should not be taken as a shameful situation, even if their servitude was a result of a ‘criminal’ offense. These  ‘transported’ individuals may have been considered criminals in their time , but it is important to remember that those crimes could have been political, religious, or by today’s standards, trivial.

“From nearly the first landing on the American shores up until 1776 and the Revolution, the British first through a black market type system, then by a government sanctioned (Transportation Act of 1718) policy systematically emptied the gaols of felons not convicted of what we would now call “high crimes.” Petty theft, prostitution, robbery, arson, and bigamy were offenses that could land you in America the hard way. They filled boats arriving from America with tobacco (imagine the smell) with these convicts destined to serve their sentence in the plantations of Maryland and Virginia. Additionally, and not incidentally, the British also “transported” (that was the official sentence) political prisoners, POWs, and others not committing crimes.”      Convicts Transported to Colonial America | Bibliography

For example:

    • poverty was a crime, as was being in debt
    • one of many ‘myths’ surrounding George Washington was that he was taught to read by a transported convict who had been a schoolmaster
    • one gentleman of high birth was transported for stealing books out of a library (no nickel fines there).
    • bigamy

So, from what we understand of the terminology and history of the time we may conclude that our ancestor, James Luttrell, came from an impoverished background, may have been expelled to the colonies for some transgression, was probably very young* when he arrived, and in spite of these disadvantages raised himself up to be a land owner and tobacco farmer after obtaining his freedom from servitude.

additional source: Indentured Servants In The U.S

*orphans and some boys were put into servitude by their impoverished parents.

volume II

Convict Labor During the Colonial Period

Contributed by Emily Jones Salmon

In 1615, English courts began to send convicts to the colonies as a way of alleviating England's large criminal population. This practice was unpopular in the colonies and by 1697 colonial ports refused to accept convict ships. In response, Parliament passed the Transportation Act of 1718 to create a more systematic way to export convicts. Instead of relying on merchants to make arrangements on their own to ship felons to the colonies, the British government subsidized the shipment of convicts through a network of merchants, giving a contract for the service to one individual at a time. Between 1700 and 1775, approximately 52,200 convicts sailed for the colonies, more than 20,000 of them to Virginia. Most of these convicts landed and were settled along the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers. Although many were unskilled and thus put to work in agriculture, particularly tobacco production, others with skills were sold to tradesmen, shipbuilders, and iron manufacturers, and for other similar occupations. Convict laborers could be purchased for a lower price than indentured white or enslaved African laborers, and because they already existed outside society's rules, they could be more easily exploited. Nevertheless, Virginia tried repeatedly to pass laws to prevent England from sending convicts, though those laws were overturned by the Crown. At the beginning of the American Revolution (1775–1783), colonial ports virtually ceased accepting convict ships. By 1776, when the last boatload of convicts arrived on the James River, many of the convicts had served their seven-to-fourteen-year terms and returned to Great Britain, while others had become honest citizens and blended into Virginia's colonial economy. MORE...

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