Indentured servitude was the institutional arrangement devised to increase labor mobility from Europe (particularly England) to America, and it was the labor system that preceded American slavery. Its emergence in Virginia in the seventeenth century can be seen as a development expedient to the circumstances surrounding the colony. Indentured servitude was practically the only way in which a poor person could get to the colonies and planters could be supplied with cheap labor. Richard Frethorne's document written in 1623, The Experiences of an Indentured Servant, legalized the master-servant relationship, specified the kind of labor to be performed, the length of time to be served, and the dues owed to the servant at the completion of his term.
In Frethorne's letter home to his parents, he draws a revealing picture of the deteriorating relations between the English settlers and the Indians that is consistent with the history of Jamestown in the period between the two attacks on the colony by the Powhatan chief Openchancanough. Both attacks were in retaliation for specific incidents of murder and depredation on the part of the English, but were responses, more generally, to English expansion into native lands and the resulting erosion of native life ways. The writer's candor about his own experience is compelling. He used vivid details to describe his discontent, deprivation, and discomfort. The small specifics of daily life (quantities and kinds of food, items of clothing, catalogs of implements) and the data of survival and death (lists of deceased colonists, trade and barter statistics, numerical estimates of enemy Indians and their military strength, itemized accounts of provisions, and rations records) lend credibility to Frethorne's dilemma and enable students to empathize with his distress.
Richard Frethorne was a young Englishman who came over to the New World in 1623 as an indentured servant and settled in Virginia, near the Jamestown colony. His letter provides an illuminating picture of the hardships of colonization in the early seventeenth century, especially for the class of indentured servants. Combating homesickness, disease, hunger, discomfort, and isolation, Frethorne and his fellow settlers struggled to make a success of their fledgling community. Life in early Virginia was particularly difficult because of the shortage of supplies, the prevalence of disease, and tense relations with the Native Americans. On March 22, 1622, the Powhatan chief Opechancanough organized an attack on English settlements across the colony that killed between three hundred and four hundred people. This attack, ignited by the recent murder of the great warrior Nemattanew by the English, was intended to curb English expansion into native lands. As a result, the English abandoned many outlying settlements and moved closer to or into Jamestown itself, increasing the incidence of disease and death in the overcrowded...