Planters in early 17C Virginia had bountiful amounts of land and a profitable crop in tobacco, but they needed labor to till their fields. They faced resistance from the local Native American people about use of the land, which they had been on for generations. The colonists tried but were unable to enslave the natives, so they recruited poor English adults as servants. These young men and women signed indentures, or contracts, for 4 to 7 year terms of work in exchange for their passage to North America. In general, there were 3 classes of Indentured servants: Willing Migrants who wanted to start a life in the colonies and agreed to sign contracts; Unwilling Migrants who needed to escape religious persecution or were forced to go for other reasons, including kidnapping; and Convicts, Vagabonds, Rogues and Undesirables - these types of Indentured servants chose America, rather than years in prison. A staggering 80% of of the total British and continental emigration to America prior to the American Revolutionary War were Indentured Servants.
Richard Frethorne came to Jamestown colony in 1623 as an indentured servant. In this letter dated March 20, 1623, written just 3 months after his entry into the colony, he described the death and disease all around him. Two thirds of his fellow shipmates had died since their arrival. Richard Frethorne was an indentured servant at Martin's Hundred, Virginia in 1622-1623. He is known because of his letters back to England detailing his miserable conditions in Virginia. Frethorne came to the Chesapeake was from the parish of St. Dunstan-in-the-East in London, where his family received poor relief. In 1622, he was indentured by his local the parish and sent to Virginia as a servant, arriving in December on the ship Abigail. Textual analysis of his letters suggests he may have been as young as 12 years old at the time. Frethorne became one of the indentured servants of William Harwood, the “governor” or leader of Martin’s Hundred. In March and April following his arrival, he wrote several letters to his family and associates back in England, listing the miseries of his life in Virginia and begging them to pay off his indenture or, failing that, to send some food which he could then sell. On March 5, 1623, Frethorne wrote to Mr. Bateman, one of the vestrymen of his home parish back in England, asking for his help. He lists various hardships suffered in Virginia, including lack of sufficient food, lack of adequate clothing, and settlements ravaged by recent Native attacks. He asks Bateman to free him (by paying off the indenture) or to send food, and refers to the biblical story of Joseph and to the books of Jeremiah and Ecclesiasticus. At the end of March and beginning of April, Frethorne wrote to his parents in 3 installments dated March 20, April 2, and April 3. In these letters, he goes into greater and more emotional detail about his lack of food and clothing and about illness and the threat of native attack. He describes others in his situation as expressing the opinion, that being limbless beggars in England would be preferable to their current circumstances. Frethorne's letter has been cited as evidence that the reports in England that the colonies in Virginia that were being run as a model of justice and equity were incorrect. Richard Frethorne died sometime before February 16, 1624 (1623 Old Style), when his name (in this case spelled “Frethram”) appears on a list of the dead at Martin’s Hundred.
LOVING AND KIND FATHER AND MOTHER:
My most humble duty remembered to you, hoping in god of your good health, as I myself am at the making hereof. 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. [You would be grieved] if you did know as much as I [do], when people cry out day and night – Oh! That they were in England without their limbs – and would not care to lose any limb to be in England again, yea, though they beg from door to door. For we live in fear of the enemy every hour, yet we have had a combat with them … and we took two alive and made slaves of them. But it was by policy, for we are in great danger; for our plantation is very weak by reason of the death and sickness of our company. For we came but twenty for the merchants, and they are half dead just; and we look every hour when two more should go. Yet there came some four other men yet to live with us, of which there is but one alive; and our Lieutenant is dead, and [also] his father and his brother. And there was some 5 or 6 of the last year’s 20, of which there is but 3 left, so that we are fain to get other men to plant with us; and yet we are but 32 to fight against 3000 if they should come. And the nighest help that we have is ten mile of us, and when the rogues overcame this place [the] last [time] they slew 80 persons. How then shall we do, for we lie even in their teeth? They may easily take us, but [for the fact] that God is merciful and can save with few as well as with many, as he showed to Gilead. And like Gilead’s soldiers, if they lapped water, we drink water which is but weak.
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; and if Mr. Jackson had not relieved me, I should be in a poor case. But he like a father and she like a loving mother doth still help me.
For when we go to Jamestown (that is 10 miles of us) there lie all the ships that come to land, and there they must deliver their goods. And when we went up to town [we would go], as it may be, on Monday at noon, and come there by night, [and] then load the next day by noon, and go home in the afternoon, and unload, and then away again in the night, and [we would] be up about midnight. Then if it rained or blowed never so hard, we must lie in the boat on the water and have nothing but a little bread. For when we go into the boat we [would] have a loaf allowed to two men, and it is all [we would get] if we stayed there two days, which is hard; and [we] must lie all that while in the boat. But that Goodman Jackson pitied me and made me a cabin to lie in always when I [would] come up, and he would give me some poor jacks [fish] [to take] home with me, which comforted me more than peas or water gruel. Oh, they be very godly folks, and love me very well, and will do anything for me. And he much marvelled that you would send me a servant to the Company; he saith I had been better knocked on the head. And indeed so I find it now, to my great grief and misery; and [I] saith that if you love me you will redeem me suddenly, for which I do entreat and beg. And if you cannot get the merchants to redeem me for some little money, then for God’s sake get a gathering or entreat some good folks to lay out some little sum of money in meal and cheese and butter and beef. Any eating meat will yield great profit. Oil and vinegar is very good; but, father, there is great loss in leaking. But for God’s sake send beef and cheese and butter, or the more of one sort and none of another. But if you send cheese, it must be very old cheese; and at the cheesemonger’s you may buy very food cheese for twopence farthing or halfpenny, that will be liked very well. But if you send cheese, you must have a care how you pack it in barrels; and you must put cooper’s chips between every cheese, or else the heat of the hold will rot them. And look whatsoever you send me – be in never so much–look, what[ever] I make of it, I will deal truly with you. I will send it over and beg the profit to redeem me; and if I die before it come, I have entreated Goodman Jackson to send you the worth of it, who hath promised he will. If you send, you must direct your letters to Goodman Jackson, at Jamestown, a gunsmith. (You must set down his freight, because there be more of his name there.) 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. ROT RICHARD FRETHORNE