VI. Women as Indentured Servants
During Jamestown’s first twenty years, a majority of the women who traveled there arrived as indentured servants. Indentured servants were people who signed contracts in England to work in Jamestown without wages. For many, signing on as an indentured servant was the only way to emigrate. Once the servant arrived, a colonist already there would reimburse the Virginia Company for the individual’s voyage expenses, and the man or woman worked without pay for four to seven years. During this time, the servant’s master would “provide for and allow . . . all necessary meat, drink, washing, [and] lodging.”(6)
Married couples were rarely indentured, and contract records list each woman who signed on for indentured servitude as either a “single woman,” a “spinster,” or a “widow.” (7) Contract holders were referred to as “master” or “mistress,” while the indentured woman was called a “bondswoman” or “bound woman.” For both men and women, though, the indenture period was strict and highly regulated, with laws protecting each side of the contract. The law specified, for example, the clothing that was due to a servant when his or her term was completed, and servants could go to court if they felt that they were being mistreated. On the other hand, women who became pregnant while indentured could have their terms extended to reimburse the master for the loss of time the servant was unable to work and for the economic burden of her child. Because servants were not allowed to marry, some women used this situation to deliberately become pregnant, hoping that the father of her child would buy out her contract – and often the plan worked as intended.