Indentured Servants, Apprentices, and Convicts: Finding Family Histories at the Library of Congress
One third to half of the European population in Colonial Era America came in as indentured servants, apprentices, or convicts. Those searching for family history stories can find documents to help identify ancestors who immigrated in this way.
Have a question? Need assistance? Use our online form to ask a librarian for help.
Sheree Budge, Reference Librarian, Local History and Genealogy, Researcher and Reference Services
Jurretta Heckscher, Reference Librarian, History and Genealogy, Researcher and Reference Services
Created: May 11, 2020
Last Updated: March 16, 2022
This research guide provides lists of resources and search strategies to help you discover materials related to early American papers of indenture, apprenticeship agreements, and records of transported convicts in the Library of Congress and beyond.
Indentures are agreements between two parties about long-term work. The length of servitude might be a specified number of years or until the servant reached a certain age. Some people indentured themselves in order to gain passage to America or to escape debt and poverty. Others, including convicts, were sold into indenture upon arrival.
Indentures are a type of contract that was torn in two, so each party could have a portion. Fitting the parts together again at the fulfillment of the contract was proof of the authenticity of the papers. Indentures were used for apprenticeship agreements as well as for service agreements.
You might look for indentures in the archives and courthouses of cities and counties where transported persons arrived.
Traditionally, young people have been bound out to a master as an apprentice to learn a trade from him. The master would feed, clothe and instruct the apprentice in the trade, and the apprentice would provide labor and watch out for his master's interests. At the end of his apprenticeship, the young person received clothes, tools, and became a journeyman who could work for himself.
Look for indentures of apprenticeship in city and county courthouses.
Those who were convicted of felonies sometimes escaped a sentence of death when they were sentenced to transportation to the Americas. This solved two problems for the government: it provided a much-needed workforce for the colonies, and it got criminals out of the prisons and off the streets.
England was not the only government that transported criminals to the Americas. Sweden sent political prisoners to New Sweden, now called Delaware; the Dutch sent vagrants and criminals to New York; and the French also transported criminals to New France. England sent vanquished political foes from Scotland and Ireland. The mayors of London and Liverpool regularly gathered up urchins from the streets of their cities to be sent to America and sold into indentured servitude.
Convicts who had been sold into indentured servitude, and who were making good in their new lives, were sometimes politely referred to as "servants" to avoid stigma.
Look for records of trials and sentencing in the court records and archives of the government that convicted and transported these individuals.