Wednesday, March 8, 2017


First of all, isn't indenture a funny word? Indenture means a formal contract between two parties for services, but the French root of the word means to notch or dent. So how does this word Indenture have this meaning?

"Such contracts (especially between master craftsmen and apprentices) were written in full identical versions on a sheet of parchment, which was then cut apart in a zigzag, or "notched" line. Each party took one, and the genuineness of a document of indenture could be proved by laying it beside its counterpart."

The subject of indenture has come to attention lately with my recent study of the PHL tax lists. The earlier tax lists (1767, 1769, and 1774) I've studied spell out the names of indentured servants as taxable assets! Don't ask me how this detail seems to have flown right by me in the past. The most shining example is with my ancestor, Georg Sommer. In both the 1767 and 1769 tax list of Lower Dublin, George Summers was taxed for 4 horses, 4 cows, and 10 sheep. Enough said, moving on. But wait! In the preceding entry we find Mary Ashton, who was taxed for 250 acres, a dwelling, several negros, horses, cows, and sheep, and she was also taxed on 25L for Geo. Summers. How can this be?

Georg Sommer arrived in PHL in 1752, so why was he indentured for so long? Typically, the term of service was 5-7 years, at least that's my understanding. But then I remembered Georg brought his family from Germany - a wife and 2 children (at least). So let's say the term was 5 years x 4 = 20 years that Georg was working off the passage. By 1772 he was a free man, and in 1774 tax lists, there was no George Summers in Lower Dublin any more, but there was one in Northern Liberties-East, which is where John Menge had his inn.  So I'm thinking George might have been with his son-in-law's family until he moved to NJ around 1775. I'm guessing the Sommer and Menge families removed to NJ together, for indeed, in 1776, Ernst Menge (also previously indentured, btw) was applying for a tavern license in Oxford, NJ. Interesting, eh?

All of which really changes my idea of my ancestor, Georg Sommer. I always thought he was well off after working for Mr. Kuckh in Freistett, but maybe not so much. It's hard to imagine how hard Georg worked for 20 years to pay off his family's passage AND to save enough to buy that 400 acres in NJ. At least that is the picture I imagine. As many as 50% to 70% of Germans coming to America in the 1700s came as redemptioners, and certainly several accounts exist telling of poor conditions suffered by them both during and after their voyages. But was indenture always miserable?

I think it may also be true that indenture could be a mutually agreeable form of employment, both for widowed landowners like Mary Ashton and for German newcomers who did't have many resources and didn't know the language. According to one source I found, you could continue to be indentured if you wanted to be. Depending on the contract, maybe it wasn't a bad deal. It appears in Georg Sommer's case, he had a place to live with his family, he could come and go and acquire his own things, like his own livestock for which he was taxed and presumably could pay for, while also working on Mary Ashton's 250 acres. Maybe this was America's first temp employment agency in action?

And finally, let me throw in my observations about the tax math pertaining to indentured servants. Mary Ashton was taxed on 25L for George Summers' service, which I assume was the amount she paid for the contract. The tax she owed was 60% of that contract amount, or 15L, annually! So if the contract was for 5 years, she paid a total of 75L tax on top of the 25L contract for Georg Sommer's services. Nevertheless, I bet she didn't need an instruction booklet to fill out 20 pages of cross-eyed forms before handing over her due to the tax collector.

1 comment:

  1. Now that the Freistett Sommer family has been connected to Moncton, I've been wanting to add an interesting tidbit about Mary Ashton, the person who employed my ancestor, Georg Sommer. Mary was originally Mary Fisher who first married Joseph Hall, a brother of John Hall, the latter being one who organized sending settlers to Moncton. We don't know when Joseph Hall died, but Mary remarried to Isaac Ashton in 1749 and he died in 1761. Mary's son, Isaac II, married a daughter of Jeremiah Northrop, Northrop being somebody our Martin Sommer worked for. All very interesting!