From Genealogy Gems: News from the Fort Wayne Library
No. 62, April 30, 2009
Notices for Indentured Servants
by Melissa Shimkus
Many of our ancestors could not afford the fare to America, so they indentured themselves to others, who paid transportation costs. Contracts to work off that expense generally lasted for four to seven years and can be found among courthouse records. Some servants decided they did not want to complete their contract and abandoned their service. The holder of the contract, the owner, would post advertisements in the provincial newspaper notifying the public in hopes of having the servant returned. The Genealogy Center owns several books that include these notices of runaway indentured servants.
“Eighteenth-Century White Slaves: Fugitive Notices” by Daniel Meaders (call number 929.11 Ei4) features runaway indentured servants mentioned in “The Pennsylvania Gazette” from 1729-1760. Originally, the book was to be the first in a four volume series on newspaper notices of runaway servants in the colonies, but the other volumes have yet to be published. Notices are arranged in order by date. Separate alphabetical indexes of the owners and of the servants provide the date of the advertisement.
“Runaways of Colonial New Jersey” by Richard B. Marrin (call number 974.9 M34ru) is another source. The advertisements reproduced in this volume cover 1720-1781 and include indentured servants, slaves, military deserters, and escaped prisoners from the following newspapers: “The Pennsylvania Journal,” “The Pennsylvania Gazette," “The New York Gazette,” “The New York Post,” “The New York Weekly Journal,” and “The Boston Newsletter.” An alphabetical index directs the researcher to the page within the volume.
Advertisements typically supplied the owner’s name, residence, reward amount, servant’s name, age, trade, nationality, physical description including scars, and details on the clothing worn by the runaway. Matthew Burrass, an Englishman, ran from Lancaster, Pennsylvania in 1742. In the advertisement, his owner stated that Matthew claimed to be a brickmaker, but was really a baker. Also, Matthew took his wife with him when he left. Thomas Griffiths, another Englishman, left Burlington, New Jersey in 1774. His description indicated that he previously owned a tavern in London called the Sign of the King’s Arms on Leaden Hall Street and also rented a farm near Bristol.
When researching colonial times, newspapers can offer a wealth of information. The advertisements vividly illustrate the history of indentured servitude in colonial America, as well as provide useful genealogical information on possible ancestors.
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Steve Myers & Curt Witcher, co-editors