An Indentured Servant Asks Parents for Help (1623)
Indentured servitude was a system of labor in which a person had to work for four to seven years without pay in exchange for passage to the “New World.” Employers in Virginia (often planters) were expected to supply servants' housing, food, and clothing but servants had few legal rights and little chance at upward mobility. By the mid 1600s, indentured servants made up about half of Virginia's population; with the growth of the African slave trade, however, enslaved men and women supplied the labor earlier done by indentured servants. In this 1623 letter, an indentured servant named Richard Frethorne wrote to his parents in England from a plantation in colonial Virginia. He described the dire conditions he faced while working and living in the colony. He was surrounded by death and disease and needed clothing and food.
This is to let you understand that I your child am in a most heavy case by reason of the country, [which] is such that it causeth much sickness, [such] as the scurvy and the bloody flux and diverse other diseases, which maketh the body very poor and weak. And when we are sick there is nothing to comfort us; for since I came out of the ship I never ate anything but peas, and loblollie (that is, water gruel). As for deer or venison I never saw any since I came into this land. There is indeed some fowl, but we are not allowed to go and get it, but must work hard both early and late for a mess of water gruel and a mouthful of bread and beef. A mouthful of bread for a penny loaf must serve for four men which is most pitiful....
And I have nothing to comfort me, nor is there nothing to be gotten here but sickness and death, except [in the event] that one had money to lay out in some things for profit. But I have nothing at all, no, not a shirt to my back but two rags (2), nor clothes but one poor suit, nor but one pair of shoes, but one pair of stockings, but one cap, [and] but two bands [collars]. My cloak is stolen by one of my fellows, and to his dying hour [he] would not tell me what he did with it; but some of my fellows saw him have butter and beef out of a ship, which my cloak, I doubt [not], paid for. So that I have not a penny, nor a penny worth, to help me too either spice or sugar or strong waters, without the which one cannot live here. For as strong beer in England doth fatten and strengthen them, so water here doth wash and weaken these here [and] only keeps [their] life and soul together. But I am not half [of] a quarter so strong as I was in England, and all is for want of victuals; for I do protest unto you that I have eaten more in [one] day at home than I have allowed me here for a week. You have given more than my day's allowance to a beggar at the door...
Good father, do not forget me, but have mercy and pity my miserable case. I know if you did but see me, you would weep to see me; for I have but one suit. (But [though] it is a strange one, it is very well guarded.) Wherefore, for God's sake, pity me. I pray you to remember my love to all my friends and kindred. I hope all my brothers and sisters are in good health, and as for my part I have set down my resolution that certainly will be; that is, that the answer of this letter will be life or death to me. Therefore, good father, send as soon as you can; and if you send me any thing let this be the mark.
MARTIN'S HUNDRED .
Item Type | Diary/Letter
Cite This document | “An Indentured Servant Asks Parents for Help (1623),” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed December 4, 2023, https://shec.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/3112.