Genealogy Q&A: Tracing an Indentured Servant Ancestor

By Maureen A. Taylor Premium

Q. My ancestor Patience Breeden was an indentured servant of John Oldham in Virginia. She gave birth to a son, Bryan, about 1701. Court records state that Patience would be indentured an additional year, and Oldham would keep Bryan until he was 21. I suspect that Oldham was Bryan’s father. How can I find out for sure, and learn whatever happened to Patience?

A. An indentured servant entered into a contract for a specific number of years, in exchange for his or her passage to America. This custom persisted into the 19th century, providing newcomers with food, shelter and clothing, in exchange for work and training in new trades. If the immigrant didn’t meet the terms of the agreement, though (often it was more like slave labor with minimal freedom), he risked fines, imprisonment, physical punishment or additional years of indenture. Indenture contracts generally give the name of the servant, his or her parents and the master; the location and length of indenture; and, in some cases, immigration information.

Records of indenture can be hard to locate because they’re held in a variety of places: Some, such as the ones you found, are part of court records; others are in collections of the master’s personal papers. Published indexes of indenture papers, such as these books and those on the Virtual Jamestown website (which covers late 17th- and early 18th-century indenture contracts from English registers in London, Middlesex and Bristol), can help researchers find these records. Genealogical firm Price and Associates also has an indentured servant database. Additionally, old newspapers may carry wanted notices for runaway servants.

 Patience’s court records mention her child because her pregnancy extended her term of indenture. Establishing paternity may be difficult or impossible unless you can find a document, such as an additional indenture contract for Bryan, in which Oldham claims to be his father. Since Patience gave birth out of wedlock, you could look for a bastardy or fornication case against her.

I would start by checking local and state archives, such as the Library of Virginia, for John Oldham’s papers, then searching court records in hope that the documentation exists. It may not, though, so be prepared for disappointment.

Get beyond-the-basics advice for researching your Virginia ancestors in our Oct. 24 webinar, Virginia Genealogy: Beyond the Basics.