"a free-born Englishman, but now a seven years’ slave"
This painting of mid-17th century colonial life shows indentured servants and their masters
Creative Commons AttributionThis painting of mid-17th century colonial life shows indentured servants and their masters - Credit: Keith Rocco; Photo by National Park Service, Harpers Ferry Center

Emigrating to the New World was an expense few could afford upfront. Poorer individuals paid for their passage by indenturing themselves to wealthy men for whom they were bound to work unwaged for several years. In the seventeenth century, nearly two thirds of settlers were in this condition, providing labor for newly-established farmers and planters. Conditions were miserable and tales of suicide and attempted escape pepper the chronicles of the time, while the high death rate meant many slaves expired before they could fulfill their contracts and live freely once more.