Hampton’s Indentured Servants and Slaves
in the Colonial Period


Even before the completion of Hampton Mansion in 1790, the Ridgely family’s vast workforce had made the surrounding lands profitable. Colonel Charles Ridgely (1702-1772), the first of the Hampton landowners, made his fortune from his Northampton Furnace and Forge. His vast grounds contained the natural resources for pig iron production, such as wood, limestone and iron ore deposits. The lumber was used to heat the furnace. Heated limestone removed the iron ore’s impurities. After the furnace melted the ore into pig iron, the forge molded the pig iron into bars, which the company exported to England. Like other Maryland planters the family exported their tobacco crop too, although their chief export was iron. Colonel Ridgely's son, Captain Charles Ridgely (1733-1790), commanded the ship, Baltimore Town, which transported these goods to London.1

As Captain Ridgely's operation grew, so did his work force. In the Maryland colony during the late 1700s, the economy was dependent on various types of servants, including apprentices, slaves, convict servants, and indentured servants.2 Iron manufacture was a labor-intensive industry. Enslaved people often performed low-skilled, dirty jobs like digging and hauling materials. Indentured servants often worked at higher-skilled jobs, which included molding the pig iron into bars and maintaining the correct mixture of iron ore, limestone and lumber in the furnace. Indentured and enslaved families frequently worked together, and working conditions were generally awful for all. Food rations were poor and child labor was common.3

Captain Ridgely had no shortage of workers, many of whom were indentured servants eager to live in the American colonies. Historians attribute the success of indentured servitude to a high demand for labor in the colonies, coupled with a high rate of unemployment in England. The high unemployment rate had led to widespread hunger and poverty at a time when England was experiencing increasingly crowded cities and prisons. To alleviate conditions, the colonies became a "dumping ground" of sorts for unwanted English people. But this situation was also beneficial, as England rid itself of "surplus population" and the colonies got much-needed workers. Some indentured servants sold themselves into temporary slavery to pay for their passage, while others bargained with ship captains for their passage, in exchange for future earnings. Some servants came as prisoners, sentenced to the colonies, and were not permitted to return to English society.4

Masters worked their indentured servants very hard, because owners wanted to get the most return for their money before the contracts expired. Evidence indicates that almost half of all indentured servants died before their term of service was complete.5 Coupled with their grueling work schedules, few servants and slaves had adequate clothing and food to help them combat disease. Hampton's indentured servants survived in greater numbers then those in Baltimore City, no doubt due to the relative benefit of country air combined with distance from urban health epidemics.6

The Ridgelys contracted with more than 300 indentured servants between 1750 and 1800, either at the Hampton plantation or the Northampton ironworks. Some were voluntarily indentured, while others were convict servants.7 During the period of their indenture, servants were forbidden to marry, although many managed to choose mates, conduct unofficial marriage ceremonies, and, subsequently, have children. Childbearing, as well as infractions, such as fighting or disobedience, could result in a longer term. If punishments were too harsh, or if masters did not honor the contracts, servants could sue in court.8

Despite the large numbers of indentured servants, Colonial businesses needed a still larger work force.9 The slave trade provided industrious families, like the Ridgleys, with another source of labor: Enslaved people. Most Colonial slaves were Africans or descendants of Africans.10 On plantations, male slaves were often trained in skilled jobs, while the majority of women performed unskilled work.11 Beside field work and domestic service, male slaves were carpenters, cabinetmakers, masons and mechanics. Some skilled slaves were permitted to earn money for themselves.12 The Ridgelys’ Northampton slaves also performed low-skilled, dirty work, such as digging the ore and the limestone necessary to make iron, cutting acres of timber, and hauling fuel, ore and finished products to and from the site. When furnace activity was slow, these men farmed the land.13 More women labored in the master's home than men. Historian Thomas Durant noted, “It may appear that slaves in the big house had an easier lot than those in the field. However, fieldwork had a beginning and ending each day but in the big house, however, slaves were always at the beck and call and under the watchful eye of a master."14

The chaotic conditions of wartime brought opportunities for escape to Hampton’s enslaved and indentured workers, especially to men who knew a trade or could join the army. White indentured servants found it easier to flee because they could blend into the free population in ways that African-American slaves could not. In his book, American Slavery, Peter Kolchin commented that the absence of able-bodied white males, and the proximity of enemy forces, produced an abrupt decline in discipline on many farms and plantations, allowing entire families and large groups of people to escape from bondage.15 The British quickly realized that slaves could be valuable allies against their Patriot masters. On November 7, 1775, Virginia’s governor, John Murray, Earl of Dunmore, issued a proclamation offering freedom to slaves who would join the British Army. Approximately 6,000 slaves would accept the offer between 1775 and 1781.16


  1. Dakin, Lynne Hastings. Hampton National Historic Site. Towson, Maryland: E. John Schmitz and Sons, 1986, 4-5.
  2. Waldstreicher, David. Runaway America. New York: New York, Hill and Wang, 2004, 20.
  3. Dakin, Lynne Hastings. Hampton National Historic Site. Towson, Maryland: E. John Schmitz and Sons, 1986, 5, 56.
  4. Salinger, Sharon V., “Labor Markets and Opportunity: Indentured Servitude in Early America,” Labor History 38 (1997): 312.
  5. Kolchin, Peter. American Slavery, 1619-1877. New York, New York: Hill and Wang, 2003, 10.
  6. Lancaster, R. Kent, “Almost Chattel: The Lives of Indentured Servants at Hampton – Northampton, Baltimore County,” Maryland Historical Magazine 95 (Winter 2000): 349.
  7. Lancaster, “Almost Chattel,” 341.
  8. Tomlins, Christopher and Mann, Bruce. The Many Legalities of Early America, Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 2001, 231.
  9. Kolchin, American Slavery, 12.
  10. Ibid., 40.
  11. Durant, Thomas J.Durant, and Knottnerus, J. David, ed., Plantation Society and Race Relations. West Port, Connecticut: Praeger Publishers, 1999, 127.
  12. Ibid., 29.
  13. Lancaster, “Almost Chattel,” 345.
  14. Durant, Plantation Society, 129.
  15. Kolchin, American Slavery, 72
  16. Pybus, Cassandra. “Jefferson’s Faulty Math: The Question of Slave Defections in the American Revolution,” William and Mary Quarterly Vol. 62 (April 2005), 254.

Bibliography


Dakin, Lynne Hastings. Hampton National Historic Site. Towson, Maryland: E. John Schmitz and Sons, 1986.

Durant, Thomas J. and Knottnerus, J. David, ed., Plantation Society and Race Relations. West Port, Connecticut: Praeger Publishers, 1999.

Kolchin, Peter. American Slavery, 1619-1877. New York, New York: Hill and Wang, 2003.

Lancaster, R. Kent, “Almost Chattel: The Lives of Indentured Servants at Hampton – Northampton, Baltimore County,” Maryland Historical Magazine 95 (Winter 2000).

Pybus, Cassandra. “Jefferson’s Faulty Math: The Question of Slave Defections in the American Revolution,” William and Mary Quarterly Vol. 62 (April 2005).

Salinger, Sharon V., “Labor Markets and Opportunity: Indentured Servitude in Early America,” Labor History Volume 38 (1997).

Tomlins, Christopher and Mann, Bruce. The Many Legalities of Early America, Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.

Waldstreicher, David. Runaway America. New York: New York, Hill and Wang, 2004.

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This project was developed through a Teaching American History Grant partnership between Baltimore County Public Schools and the Center for History Education at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), with assistance from Hampton National Historic Site, National Park Service.
Contact Hampton National Historic Site at 410-823-1309 ex. 207 to arrange for class visits. | http://www.nps.gov/hamp/