Lesson Plan: Overview

Early Colonial Labor Force: Indentured Servants and Slaves

Grade Level: 8th

1744 Indenture of Michael Gyger

Academic Standards

Standard 8-1:The student will demonstrate an understanding of the settlement of South Carolina and the United States by Native Americans, Europeans, and Africans.

8-1.3 Summarize the history of European settlement in Carolina from the first attempts to settle at San Miguel de Gualdape, Charlesfort, San Felipe, and Albemarle Point to the time of South Carolina’s establishment as an economically important British colony, including the diverse origins of the settlers, the early government, the importance of the plantation system and slavery, and the impact of the natural environment on the development of the colony.

8-1.4 Explain the growth of the African American population during the colonial period and the significance of African Americans in the developing culture (e.g., Gullah) and economy of South Carolina, including the origins of African American slaves, the growth of the slave trade, the impact of population imbalance between African and European Americans, and the Stono Rebellion and subsequent laws to control the slave population.

8-1.6 Explain how South Carolinians used natural, human, and political resources to gain economic prosperity, including trade with Barbados, rice planting, Eliza Lucas Pinckney and indigo planting, the slave trade, and the practice of mercantilism.

Historical Background Notes

Early colonial history in American begins with the settlement of the English in Virginia.  Life was tough for the early Virginia colonists due to high death rates.  This, in turn, led to labor shortages in the colony.  Many Englishmen who wished to come to Virginia, and later other colonies, could not afford the cost of their passage to America.  They often became indentured servants, signing a contract to work from 3 – 7 years for those who had paid their passage to the colonies (Stuckey and Salvucci 2000, 65).  “Membership in this group was not demeaning; after all, servitude was a temporary status” (Divine 2002, 86).  Once their indenture contract had been fulfilled they were released from servitude, free to start a life and business of their own in the colony.  Most indentured servants came to America willingly and with some hope for a future of their own making.           

The institution of slavery began to evolve in Colonial Virginia.  The first Africans brought by the Dutch in 1619 were not all enslaved.  Some probably had the status of indentured servants, as indentured servitude was the form of non-free labor most often used by the English of this period (Botsch 1994, 10).  Over a period of fifty years or more, the Africans in Virginia slowly lost this status and move from temporary servitude to servitude for life; slavery (Botsch 1994, 10).  Prejudice and greed may have contributed to the creation of slavery in the early colonies.  Greed appears to be the foremost reason, because of the desire for cheap labor to clear land for tobacco in Virginia, and rice in South Carolina.  Freeing servants who worked for an agreed time was expensive, so whites tried to find ways to keep Africans as servants for life.  For the first several decades, slave prices were high, but as they dropped many farmers and planters preferred slaves over indentured servants who were set free at the end of their contract (Stuckey and Salvucci 2000, 65).  Slaves could be purchased once and were “owned” for their entire life.  By the late 1600’s, the English wrote enslavement into law.  As the colonial period progressed, the ownership of slaves determined the amount of social prestige and influence one would have among whites.  The large planters were the dominant class and non-slaveholders were of lower social rank (Divine 2002, 415). 

Most slaves brought to the English colonies were from the west coast of Africa.  They were often men and women taken captive during wars among various peoples, or tribes, in Africa (Divine 2002, 16).  They did not come willingly and often had no hope for the future in a strange land.  Even those born in America, as children of slaves, had little hope for a free life.  Many slaves were brought to South Carolina because of their skill as rice workers.  In the 1700’s rice was the most important crop in South Carolina.  This Carolina Gold made the white planters wealthy.  The institution of slavery was important to early planters because of the Africans’ knowledge of growing rice, their resistance to the deadly diseases of malaria and yellow fever carried by mosquitoes in the low-lying rice fields, and their ability to tolerate the heat and hard work better than the Europeans.

Today, our society recognizes that slavery is illegal, immoral and horrific. However, during colonial times slaves were valuable property and often the main tools of production for a booming economy in various regions of Colonial America (Divine 2002, 418).


  Primary Sources
  Rutledge, Benjamin H.  Indenture of Michael Gyger to Culcheth Golightly. Benjamin H. Rutledge family papers 1675-1867.  Call #1097.00.  South Carolina Historical Society. Charleston, South Carolina.
  Guthrie. Bill of Sale for one boy named Limrick.  Slave Bill of Sale. S213003, Volume-002E, page 00271, Date: 1740/03/7. South Carolina Department of Archives and History. Columbia, South Carolina. 
  Secondary Sources
  Botsch, Carol Sears, et.al.  African Americans and the Palmetto State.  Columbia, SC:  South Carolina State Department of Education, 1994.  Available online at: South Carolina State Department of Education.
  Divine, Robert A., T.H. Breen, George M. Fredrickson, R. Hal Williams, and Randy Roberts.  The American Story.  New York: Longman, 2002.
  Stuckey, Sterling, and Linda Kerrigan Salvucci.  Call to Freedom.  Austin: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 2000. 

Lesson Plans

The workforce of the early colonial period was crucial to the success of the colonies.  Early workers included indentured servants, Indians, and African slaves.  This lesson allows students to examine closely the costs, expectations, and realities of those who were indentured servants and slaves during this early colonial period.  Using an indenture contract and slave bill of sale allows the students an opportunity to compare and contrast the two documents, as well as examine the actual contracts for those who were the colonial work force.  The primary source documents generate more student interest and active participation in the lesson. This lesson may take two to three class periods to complete.
1. Brainstorm/discuss with students what type of work, jobs, and labor would be needed to create a successful, profitable colony.  Ask students what specific kinds of jobs would need to be done and who would provide that type of colonial labor.
2. Using texts, have students read about the early use of indentured servants in Virginia and the introduction of African slaves into the work force.  Discuss the pros and cons of each.  Read and discuss the differences in the type of work an indentured servant or slave might do in South Carolina as compared to work in Virginia.
3. Give students a copy of the indenture of Michael Gyger to Culcheth Golightly and have them examine the indenture and discuss the requirements for both parties bound by that indenture.  (If possible, use an overhead transparency of indenture to assist in the translation and meaning of certain phrases).
4. Next, give students a copy of a slave bill of sale to examine, and discuss the provisions and requirements of that document.
5. Guide students in comparing and contrasting the two documents and their provisions.  This can be done as a whole class activity, a group activity, or individual activity using Thinking Maps (Graphic Organizers).  A Venn diagram or Double Bubble Map works best. 
6. Have students write a journal entry stating which system of labor they would use if they were a planter in the early colonial period.  Ask students to be specific as to why they chose that system, how it would be a positive labor system for them, and what would they receive in return for using this labor force.

Put students in groups of 3 to 4 each and have them discuss the following question based upon their knowledge, examinations of documents, reading, and discussion of the early colonial labor force.  Have them write down their answers as a group and share them with the class.

** QUESTION:  Why do you think that the system of using indentured servants for labor eventually ended in the colonial period, yet the use of slaves continued for many years?

8. Have students create an indenture contract for services to be rendered, or a slave bill of sale for the purchase of one or more slaves.  (This activity can be assigned as a project or special assignment)

Teacher Reflections

When I began to plan this lesson, I wasn’t sure how the students would respond to using documents while learning.  I was concerned because I am working with average to lower level students this year, while in the past I have worked with a team that included two classes of Honors students.  However, I was pleasantly surprised at the outcome.

The students were fairly interested in seeing the documents (Indenture and Slave Bill of Sale), but they had problems understanding these documents and exactly what some parts of the passages meant.  Many students questioned where I got copies of these documents, as they had never seen such items before. 

In the future, I will just focus on one or two sections of the Slave Bill of Sale, instead of the entire document.  This particular one gave many students a hard time when it came to understanding the content of the bill of sale, even with the translation on the back of the page.  The Indenture contract was easier for the students to read and understand, so they responded more to questions and discussion about this document.  Several of my students expressed their amazement that there were such good and fair provisions stated in the Indenture contract.

The overall effectiveness of my lesson was positive.  The students enjoyed forming groups and determining an answer as to why they believe indentured servitude died out while slavery lasted for many years.  Their journal writings, on the choice of labor system they would use, suggested that many students understood why slavery continued to be used long after indentured servitude ended.  However, many put their personal feelings about slavery into their writings, and I was hoping to get them to write it from the point of view of an early colonial planter.  I will have to make my instructions clearer as to what I expect the next time.

The most positive and encouraging part of the lesson for me was the response I received when I asked the students to create an Indenture contract or Slave Bill of Sale.  They worked very had, used the primary source documents for reference, and created some delightful work.  My students really enjoyed this lesson assignment.  I will definitely use this particular part of the lesson in the future.  They were proud to share what they had created, and most did a great job.

In the end, I felt pretty good about teaching this lesson.  There will be some adjustments made the next time I teach it, but I was pleased with the overall effectiveness of the lesson.  The students were able to discuss, compare, write about, and create material about slaves and indentured servants.  Using the primary source documents was an interesting way to present original material from the past and allow students to actually see pieces of history.

Student Assessments

Teachers may grade classroom participation, journal entries, and the assignment to create a slave bill of sale or indentured servant contract as a part of the assessment process.

Examples of Students Work

  Slave Bill of Sale
  Indentured Servant Contract
  Journal Entry


Sue Via
College Park Middle School, South Carolina