Why were indentured servants called indentured servants?

Before the term “indenture” came about, medieval Europeans used legal documents called chirographs. Sometime before the year 1000, legal transactions involving multiple parties were recorded on a sheet of velum. Details of the transaction were recorded twice on the sheet and then the sheet was cut in half with each piece going to the parties involved in the transaction. Sometimes the cut was made along a word making it easier to verify the authenticity of the document. The below document from 1201 is an example of a chirograph cut along a word.

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Acquittance of debt by Jacob ben Moses and Margaret to Peter of Edgefield. The British Library Online Manuscript Collection, Harley Ch 43 A 54, 1201-1203.

Later, instead of cutting a straight line along a word, people started to make indented or irregular edges on this legal documents so they could be more easily matched for authentication. This is where the term “indentured” comes from. The following is an example of an indenture from 1235.

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Latin deed of lease off lands in the manor of Newland by Radulph de la Newland to Hugh of London for three years. The British Library Manuscripts Online, Lansdowne Ch 30, 1235.

Eventually, the word “indenture” became a general word to describe a document handling a debt or a purchase obligation.

During the colonization of the Americas, laborers sold themselves for a designated period of time. The obligations of the buying and selling of this labor were memorialized in legal documents called indentures, and the sellers of the labor became known as indentured servants. Below is an example of an indentured servant contract from 1766. Note the continuation of the indented page at the top

Indentured Servant Contract
Indenture contract from 1766, Patrick Larkin sold his labor to Thomas Blood, from the University of Texas as Dallas website.

Indentured servants were called indentured servants because of the tradition of using indented paperwork for legal handling of debt and purchase obligations.

Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, indented paper was not just reserved for the paperwork of indentured servants. The following is an indenture from 1619 where King James I appointed Robert Johnson and William Easington as his agents to oversee his alum works.

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E 214/1029, 12 Dec 1619, The National Archives, Kew

The indented paper below is an inventory of the goods from Edward Wilson’s apothecary shop that was taken upon Wilson’s death in 1661.

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PROB 4/3542, The National Archives, Kew.

So, indentures were a type of legal document. Indentured servants were workers who sold their labor, and the details of that sale were recorded on indented legal documents.

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