“this is the deplorable Condition your poor Betty endures”

Though the following letter is dated somewhat earlier than 1765, I found it interesting because it concerns the subject of indentured servants. A young woman, without monetary means, wishing to relocate to the American colonies, could finance her passage by agreeing with the ship’s captain that he could “sell” her on arrival in exchange for a term of service, generally seven years. This arrangement was called an indenture and was supposedly a legal contract with the “employer” providing food, clothing, and shelter. In 1756, Elizabeth Sprigs, a indentured servant in a Maryland household, wrote a letter to her father in London complaining of terrible treatment. Apparently she had left home under unpleasant circumstances but was reduced to begging for some assistance from her family. An indentured servant generally had little recourse if the arrangement proved unsatisfactory. In the South, indentured servants were being replaced by slaves.

Maryland, Sept’r 22’d 1756Honored Father
My being for ever banished from your sight, will I hope pardon the Boldness I now take of troubling you . . . my long silence has been purely owning to my undutifullness to you, and well knowing I had offended in the highest Degree, put a tie to my tongue and pen, for fear I should be extinct from your good Graces and add a further Trouble to you, but too well knowing your care and tenderness for me so long as I retain’d my Duty to you, induced me once again to endeavor if possible, to kindle up that flame again.

O Dear Father, believe what I am going to relate the words of truth and sincerity, and Balance my former bad Conduct my sufferings here, and then I am sure you’ll pity your Destress Daughter, What we unfortunate English People suffer here is beyond the probability of you in England to Conceive, let it suffice that I one of the unhappy Number, am toiling almost Day and Night, and very often in the Horses drudgery . . . and then tied up and whipp’d to that Degree that you’d not serve an Animal, scarce any thing but Indian Corn and Salt to eat and that even begrudged nay many Negroes are better used, almost naked no shoes nor stockings to wear, and the comfort after slaving during Masters pleasure, what rest we can get is to rap ourselves up in a Blanket and ly upon the Ground. [T]his is the deplorable Condition your poor Betty endures, and now I beg if you have any Bowels of Compassion left show it by sending me some Relief, Clothing is the principal thing wanting, which if you should condiscend to, may easily send them to me by any of the ships bound to Baltimore Town Patapsco River Maryland, and give me leave to conclude in Duty to you and Uncles and Aunts, and Respect to all Friends
Honored Father
Your undutifull and Disobedient Child
Elizabeth Sprigs

Source: Elizabeth Sprigs, “Letter to Mr. John Sprigs in White Cross Street near Cripple Gate, London, September 22, 1756,” in Isabel Calder, ed., Colonial Captivities, Marches, and Journeys (New York: Macmillan Company, 1935).

posted July 24th, 2014 by Janet, CATEGORIES: Employment

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