The practice of indentured servitude in England grew out of older feudal systems and apprenticeship practices that had their roots in the Middle Ages. The Virginia Company of London contracted with the first Virginia settlers for their labor, and, when the Company started trading land for service and tobacco became the first profitable cash crop, Virginia's style of indentured servitude coalesced. By the 1620s, a standard system had been put into place whereby servants negotiated the terms of their indentures with a merchant, ship's captain, or other agent before sailing to Virginia. Their indentures were then sold to planters when the servants arrived in the colony.
The beginning of lifelong servitude or slavery in Virginia is very hard to trace. There is evidence that Africans may have already been in the colony before the first documented appearance of them in John Rolfe's 1619 letter, which mentions, "20. and odd Negroes" arriving in Jamestown. Whether or not a person of African descent was held in slavery was a matter of circumstances unclear to modern historians. The person's status as a Christian or a non-Christian, and whether or not the person had previously been enslaved definitely affected how he or she was treated in the colony. The most important thing to note is that some African Virginians were not held as slaves at the beginning of the colony's history. Although many of the laws restricting African Virginians were passed in the 1660s, slavery did not become codified in Virginia law until 1705.
Phillip Gowen was the son of Mihill Gowen, a free African Virginian, who had once worked for Amye Beazlye, the woman who had freed Phillip in her will. This petition to Governor William Berkeley and the Council of State was probably written for Gowen by a person familiar with the petitioning process; the document makes use of standard structure and language of petitions from that era. Gowen sought relief from his new master, whom he declared was attempting to prolong his servitude. After reviewing the petition, the governor and council ordered that Gowen be freed. This document gives an example of the precarious situation of African Americans in the early colony before slavery was completely institutionalized.
1. What items was Gowen supposed to receive when he attained his freedom?
2. What was the difference between an indentured servant and a slave?
1. What means could Mr. Lucas have possibly used to “force” Phillip Gowen into extending his period of servitude?
2. What was happening in Virginia's economy and society in 1675 that may have affected Phillip Gowen's status as an indentured servant?
3. Research the changes in Virginia's laws and customs in regard to people of African descent. What patterns do you see? What was the significance of these laws? What ultimate effect did they have?
The Colonial Papers Collection at the Library of Virginia consists of loose papers more closely connected by age than by any other single factor. The collection contains records primarily kept by the clerk of the colonial Council, the House of Burgesses, the governor, and other officials, relating to county as well as colonywide government. The Virginia records of the colonial government were, for the most part, destroyed by wars, fires, and early neglect. This collection of loose colonial papers is arranged in chronological order, in fifty-three folders. The collection includes petitions to the governor or House of Burgesses, court records, orders, summonses, patents, accounts, proceedings, returns, grants, proclamations, addresses, certificates, and correspondence.
Billings, Warren M. "The Law of Servants and Slaves in Seventeenth-Century Virginia." Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 99, no. 1 (January 1991): 45–62.
Vaughan, Alden T. "The Origins Debate: Slavery and Racism in Seventeenth-Century Virginia." Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 97, no. 3 (July 1989): 311–354.
Parent, Anthony S., Jr. Foul Means: The Formation of a Slave Society in Virginia, 1660–1740. Chapel Hill and London: Published for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture by the University of North Carolina Press, 2003.