GUEST CURATOR: Kathryn J. Severance
What was advertised in a colonial newspaper 250 years ago today?
This advertisement is not for goods or services, but instead a runaway advertisement. William Darlington hoped that someone would find his twenty-six-year-old “Irish Servant Man, Named CONNOR O“ROURK”. He went on to describe the servant’s physical features, which brings up the fact that missing person advertisements from the eighteenth century could not actually feature a photo of the missing person. You can probably understand the limitations that this posed. Today’s society is often very visual, but in the eighteenth century it was common for advertisements to not have any visuals to accompany them.
The Irish man in the advertisement was an indentured servant, whose labor was owned by the man who put out the advertisement. The concept of indentured servitude is that an individual or an individual’s family member agrees, through the signing of a contract, to give a person’s labor (and personal freedoms) over to a “master” for a certain period of time, in which the servant was to provide service, which would help pay off a debt. During the seventeenth century, the Virginia Company was responsible for founding indentured servitude as a means of payment for transportation of those who could not afford to pay for their own way to North America. Colonial indentured servitude and the slave trade were both forms of labor in which individuals could not choose to stop working for their master. This means that they were also not allowed to leave their master’s location, meaning that many indentured servants and slaves who went missing had attempted to escape the limitations of their conditions by running away.
For a lesson designed to introduce middle school students to indentured servitude and slavery, check out this link from Teaching American History in South Carolina.
ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes
Indentured servants are part of my world. Not literally, of course, but to me they are a familiar part of the American colonial experience and the past that has unfolded into the present. I sometimes forget just how foreign the past can be to others who do not spend as much time in the eighteenth century as I do. The differences between then and now manifest themselves in so many different ways, from something as mundane as the long S in eighteenth-century texts (which I no longer notice, but the guest curators brought to my attention earlier this week as a challenge they encountered in just reading advertisements and other parts of the newspaper for this project) to entire systems of economic and social organization that structured everyday life and interaction in the colonies.
Systems of unfree labor – slavery, indentured servitude, apprenticeships – fall into that latter category. They offer potent evidence of change over time. We live and work in a much different world today than our eighteenth-century ancestors. Our memories of that world have faded unevenly. From our readings (from the excellent Slavery and Public History) and discussions about slavery in our Public History course throughout the semester, we have reached the conclusion that most Americans are aware that slavery existed at some point in the American past, but, for the most part, they do not know much about slavery and its impact on slaves and slaveholders or the major political, social, and economic contours of American history.
Anecdotally (based on both everyday conversations and nearly a decade of teaching), it seems that the average person on the street knows even less about other forms of unfree labor, including indentured servitude. (Even the program I am using to compose this passage does not recognize “unfree” as a real word. Scholars of early America use it regularly, once again demonstrating that we sometimes live in a very different world.) As other scholars have noted, all too often people imagine a stark divide between European settlers and enslaved Africans in colonial America, not realizing that many of the “lower sorts” among European colonists were exploited for their labor and (temporarily) belonged to masters. We may not know all of the details of Connor O’Rourk’s story – why he became an indentured servant and why he chose to run away from his master – but, as Kathryn notes, both slaves and indentured servants sought freedom by running away. Many students are surprised to learn that indentured servants existed at all. Their presence certainly complicates the story of the colonial experience.