Indentured Servitude

Students will be analyzing the contract of an indentured servant published in the 1635 account by Jerome Hawley and John Lewger. Students have been learning about reasons for early immigration to the Americas. The indentured servant’s path has yet to be explored. Using the “Exploring Maryland’s Roots” exploration from the Historic St. Mary’s City website, students will follow the path of one indentured servant by making specific decisions that will lead them to a life of servitude. Students will then analyze the contract of an indentured servant, and will fill out a capture sheet describing the motives for someone to become an indentured servant, its benefits, and disadvantages. Students will then come together to determine how the role of the indentured servant was integral to the forming of the St. Mary’s City colony.

Lesson Objective

Students will analyze the contract of an indentured servant and identify reasons for signing, the benefits, disadvantages, and how the indentured servant helped form St. Mary’s City through a capture sheet.



  1. Start by introducing the “Exploring Maryland’s Roots” website. As a group, we will be following the “Journey to a New Life” interactive adventure.
  2. Whole group: The interactive adventure begins in London in 1633. Our character is a young, starving orphan. We will make choices as a group that will lead us down different paths. (the choices made in this lesson are hypothetical, the path to becoming an indentured servant may be different depending on the choices that the students make as a class).
  3. The first option happens in an eating house. You are watching a group of men eating stew, and are eyeing a loaf of bread. No one is watching, and you can easily take the loaf. Should you? We make the decision to take the loaf
  4. You are caught by the men and are taken to the Sherriff, and then to court in front of the Honorable Lord Justice Gaines. You are sentenced to become the indentured servant of Master Cornwaleys, a man traveling to the Americas with the Calverts. Master Cornwaleys explains why he is going to the Americas, and explains your duties “You’ll work in my fields until you’re 21. I will provide all your needs – clothing, tools, and shelter. When your indenture is up, I’ll give you 50 acres of land to have as your own. But till that day, you’ll do as I command. Do you understand?” From this point on, you are asked to sign a document with your name and age. We sign as a 10 year old Jeremiah.
  5. An example of a contract is produced, filled out with our name and age. You are then told that you are meeting the “Ark” on the Island of Wight. It has already left London. You board a small ship to the Cowes on the Island of Wight, and then the Ark. You can then explore the ship and introduce yourself to the passengers aboard. You explore the ship and then feel sea sick. You have the option to go on deck. You decide that you are too sick and stay where you are.
  6. As a group, you can explore the ship. We choose the quickest route to land. Students will go back to this adventure another day to explore the different stories of the passengers and aspects of the ship. You land and start your new life.
  7. Group Questions: How else might someone become an indentured servant? Why were most indentured servants chosen as children? What other ways could you get yourself to Maryland?
  8. Small Groups:Put the copy of the indentured servant contract on the wall with the document camera.
  9. Divide the class into 7 groups of 4, each student with a capture sheet.
  10. The students will then try to read the contract. They will try to decipher words that they don’t know, recording them on the capture sheet.
  11. Possible words that will confuse students: yeere, covenant, custome, doth, grant, apparel, meat
  12. Possible benefits: They are fed and clothed, They are sheltered, They will get 50 acres of land, They will get a free passage to the new land
  13. Possible disadvantages: Hard work, You must obey someone at all times, Poor living conditions, Poor clothing conditions, Several years of your life, Possible Motivations, Poor, Better life in the Americas, No family, No land left in England
  14. Following are questions that the teacher can ask whilst walking around the room:
  15. Sourcing: What time period was this used? What is the purpose of the document?
  16. Close Reading: Why would you want to be an indentured servant/why would you not? What did an indentured servant get? What are you promising?
  17. Contextualizing: Were all indentured servants treated equally?, Who might have owned/possessed this document?, Based on your knowledge, why would you need so sign a contract?
  18. Students will then present their findings to the class in a share-out activity.


Students will be informally assessed by the teacher as she circulates the room. The teacher will be looking for instances of higher order thinking and for insights about the document. The capture sheet will also be collected to be sure that students reflected on the item and thought about its significance.


“Exploring Maryland’s Roots.” Maryland Public Television. (3/7/2013)

Hawley, Jerome, and John Lewger. A Relation of Maryland. 1635.

“Meet John Halfhead.” Maryland State Department of Education and Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture. (3/7/2013).