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Indentured  Servants

Edmund "Old Silverhead" Knowles (1685 - 1762) is the ancestor for a significant number of present day Knowles and Noles families all over the U.S.   Edmund's ancestors from Lancashire, England are no doubt responsible for the vast majority of present day Knowles families in the Lancashire area of England.  Some of the other Knowles Progenitors in the U.S. may also be descendents of the ancestors of "Old Silverhead".  Genetic (DNA) and genealogical research is in progress to determine these relationships.

"Old Silverhead" immigrated to the American Colonies (Virginia) in 1700 from Bolton, Lancashire, England as an indentured Servant.  On November 19, 1700, Edmund Knowles at the age of 15 years boarded the ship "Elizabeth and Judith" at Liverpool, England to travel to the new World.  Edmund sailed as an indentured servant for Mr. Jonathan Leivsay. 

Although Edmund's ship apparently arrived in Virginia in the new world, the first records listing Edmund Knowles are in Somerset County, Maryland in 1724 on a list of taxpayers.  Edmund apparently worked off his servitude and migrated up the Atlantic coast from Virginia to Maryland and settled in what's present day Delaware.

A short discussion of servitude is below, based on an article in the March 2005 issue of the "History Magazine", by Beverly Smith Vorpahl.   Refer to the "History Magazine" article for descriptions of what life was like for those people who, like Edmund Knowles, became indentured servants in the American Colonies.

The indentured servant system was an outgrowth of England's centuries-old apprenticeship programs.  The indentured servant was a way for a person to escape poverty in England in return for passage to America and in some cases, a few acres of land.   In exchange, the emigrant would become an indentured servant for a few years after their arrival in the new world.  

An unemployed man or woman could 'sell' themselves for four to seven years in return for passage, room and board, clothing and perhaps a small wage for the period of their indenture.  Masters and servants would typically exchange contracts stating the time the person was to work for the benefits, plus 'freedom dues' at the end of the servitude.  Sometimes the indenture worked as contracted, but many times, it turned into a bad experience for the servant.

Service was a way of life in 16th and 17th century England when most families, except for the poor, would hire someone to do their menial work in exchange for food, lodging, clothing, etc.  This system worked pretty well until the supply of potential servants exceeded the demand in the early years of the 17th century. 

England's population doubled between 1520 and 1630 to more than four million at a time when the economy was not doing well.  Prices rose and wages declined, leading to a decline in the standard of living.  At the same time, the practice of amalgamating small fields into large ones to produce larger crops of wheat.  As a result, many farmer-tenants became landless.

Across the Atlantic, Maryland and Virginia's financial systems were founded on large farms and plantations that grew tobacco.  In the Carolinas, the economy was based on plantations that grew rice, indigo, coffee, cotton and sugar.  The southern Colonies needed cheap labor.  Therefore, many poor and landless Englanders became indentured servants and hoped for a better life in the new world.

People who became servants subjugated themselves to the will of their masters, who could and did sell them or give them away, and say 'yea' or 'nay' to marriage requests.  At the end of their bondage, servants were to receive freedom dues, often in the form of land and the opportunity to become an independent farmer or laborer.

The first Africans in America were indentured servants, not slaves.  Many Africans started arriving in New England circa 1638;  they worked seven to ten years before being set free.

Indentured servants may not have been slaves, but they were only a step above.  As proof that they were not slaves, they proudly noted they were Christian and white and therefore protected against arbitrary and unnatural cruelties as well as having the freedom to take their master to court, which they did in many cases.

For the most part, slavery replaced the practice of indentured servitude in the latter part of the 17th century.  Owning slaves was more profitable since they had no contract of service and there were no freedom dues to pay.  Indentured servitude was finally abolished in the U.S. in 1865 along with slavery when Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment.





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Date of last edit:   Tuesday, February 08, 2005
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