Did most people finishing indentures get their own farms? Is that why they brought in slaves?


Ad Honorem
Jul 2011
Did they bring in slaves because they couldn't get free white farm laborers or tenant farmers?


Forum Staff
Aug 2016
That's my understanding. Many people came to the New World because they wanted to own large landed estates, but there was no land available in Europe or if there was it was very expensive. Land was cheap in the New World. In many cases it was literally free for the taking. The problem was, anyone could own land, and why would someone work as a peasant or tenant farmer on someone else's land when it was so easy to own your own land and be your own boss? Slaves filled the need for a relatively submissive and passive class of agricultural workers.

History Chick

Ad Honorem
Jun 2010
Colorado Springs (PA at heart)
I don't think it was really a case of not being able to get white farm laborers - there were a lot of them, especially in the north where slavery was less common as time went on. Slaves were just cheaper in the long run because they were slaves for life, and so too were their children. They didn't have to pay slaves, didn't lose them to reaching the end of a contract, and they didn't have to provide them with anything at the end of that contract.

There are many reasons that farm laborers or indentured servants did not, or could not go on to own their own farm land. They may not have been educated enough to manage finances, for example, and no, not all indentures were given land at the end of their contract - sometimes it was just new clothing and/or some money, but not necessarily enough to buy land. There's also something to be said about the fact that some people just don't want to be their own boss - too much responsibility. Some people genuinely prefer to just do the labor they're told to do and not have to worry about anything else. Likewise, wherever land truly was that free/cheap, it was usually because it was location in still somewhat unsettled areas, meaning it came with several risks of not being near very populated areas, like attacks from Native Americans. Additionally, free/cheap land was only available for a certain amount of time in certain areas. The whole reason settlement quickly moved further and further west was because free/cheap land was quickly eaten up and no longer available. Not everyone wanted to move west. So there are many reasons why there were plenty of farm laborers, slavery was just cheaper. As slavery increased, indentured servitude decreased, but certainly, farm laborers were still readily available - many of my ancestors were farm laborers.

Bart Dale

Ad Honorem
Dec 2009
Also, in the case of the American South, the climate in many areas was particularly unhealthy, more than in the North. Africans were more resistant to diseases like malaria that were more common in the south, which made African slaves a better bargain than indentured white servants who were more likely to die off.
Oct 2016
farm labor was tough enough on the old fields of Europe
farm labor in the Americas was brutal. much of it consisted of breaking new ground, which meant cutting down trees, removing stumps (still difficult), and trying to plow land often dense with roots. and the weather in the Americas was and is excessive. somebody said 'weather in the temperate zones is among the most intemperate on Earth'. the winters were colder and nastier than in Europe, and the summers were (still are) agonizingly hot and humid.
(one advantage of slave labor as that many of the Africans were better able to deal with the heat.)
so lots of indentured servants ran away before serving their time. thus African slaves, less likely to set out on their own, were brought in.
Sep 2013
Chattanooga, TN
Did they bring in slaves because they couldn't get free white farm laborers or tenant farmers?
Slave traders brought African slaves to America for a few reasons. Yes, slave traders brought African slaves to America partly because there was a shortage of white farm laborers, tenant farmers, and white indentured servants. Furthermore, using African slaves had the advantage of having laborers whose terms of service never expire and who don't have to be paid an income.
Dec 2011
In the British West Indies, many white indentured servants did not survive their period of six-year or eight-year indenture. Many died from the brutal conditions and disease. However, of those who did survive, very few of them went on to become planters, because by the time the eighteenth century rolled around, all the best land was taken up. And when land did become available once peace treaties with the Maroons were signed, only existing planters had the money to purchase the land, build sugar mills, and buy slaves.

Those who survived indenture either became buccaneers or pirates, like Henry Morgan, or they became attorneys or bookkeepers on the estates of existing planters, such as Benjamin McMahon, who wrote a chronicle of his experiences as a bookkeeper on a sugar plantation in Jamaica. Indentured servants were also required to serve in the militia when suppressing slave revolts, or hunting runaway slaves. One such indentured servant was Ebenezer Lamb, the servant of one Job Williams. He excelled himself in the First Maroon War of the 1730s to such an extent that the Jamaican Assembly purchased Lamb's freedom, and put him in charge of militia forces in the fight against the Windward Maroons.

However, the experience of Lamb was a rare one.


Ad Honorem
Jul 2011
In what became the southern US, people finishing their indentures could usually get land for their own farms in hilly or mountainous areas. That may not have been true in the Carribbean, where there was less land available.


Ad Honorem
Jul 2011
IMO it is probabe that McMahon and Henry Morgan, the famous privateer / pirate captain were originally indentured servants, but I don't think that is known. I saw that McMahon went to Spanish America to enlist in the wars of independence, but that could be an Irish tall tale to cover up that he was a convict.

From what I understand McMahon was the overseer / plantation manager / bookkeeper. The overseer was generally literate, but in the Caribean there were assistant overseers called bookkeepers, whose job was of course to boss and whip slaves. These assistant overseers were mostly illiterate and almost all former convict indentured servants. In large plantations in what became the US, slaves known as drivers were used as assistant overseers, presumably because they only wanted to pay one white overseer. I guess the in Jamaica and other islands, because the population was almost all black, they were not comfortable with slaves as assistant overseers. In the US, there were many white yeoman farmers and a large white population, which made it easier to control the slaves.

Most convicts indentured servants were not educated enough to be overseers / plantation managers, but probably a high proportion of overseers in Jamaica and so on were convict indentured servants, as there some convicts from middle or lower middle class backgrounds or with the talent / intelligence to make up for lack of education.
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