Laborers, Rural

Colonial America was overwhelmingly rural. In fact, just before the American Revolution, more than 90 percent of the population could be considered rural.
Rural laborers, whether enslaved, indentured, or free, raised the crops and livestock that drove the economies of many Atlantic colonies. Their
experiences are crucial to understanding what life was like for ordinary people in Britain’s North American mainland colonies. The experience of colonial
rural labor varied according to region, crop, and whether one was free or not.

Chesapeake Region

The earliest white rural laborers were indentured servants in the Chesapeake. In the seventeenth century, most of the labor on tobacco plantations was
performed by indentured servants from England, Scotland, and Ireland. Indentured servants usually traded a period of time four to seven years was a
typical term of indenture for their passage to North America.

The life of indentured servants was materially comparable to that of slaves during the same period both faced harsh labor in a new, often deadly,
disease-ridden environment, and both could be punished by the lash. Slaves, of course, could not generally look forward to freedom or landownership,
though some Africans most famously Anthony Johnson in the Chesapeake did rise through the ranks of colonial society to work their own plantations.
Servants in Virginia lived short, hard lives. Criminals and debtors were sometimes assigned to Virginian masters, but as the seventeenth century
progressed, most were volunteers. All, however, were fleeing increasingly hard times for the landless poor of the British Isles. Of the 120,000 people
who immigrated to the Chesapeake region before 1700, 90,000 were indentured servants. It is not a coincidence that indentured servants seized on the
opportunities presented by Bacon’s Rebellion a revolt of poor frontier farmers against the planter elite nearer the coast although this 1676 fray was not
primarily a class revolt.

Gradually, tobacco planters phased out indentured servitude in favor of slavery. This mirrored an earlier transformation on the sugar island of Barbados.
Slaves had been too expensive for most of the earliest generation of planters, and servants were readily available. As conditions improved in England, the
pool of available laborers willing to undergo the rigors of indentured servitude dried up, and these rural laborers were replaced by African slaves.
As rural laborers, slaves presented some advantages over indentured servants. They served for life, could produce more labor, and because of their racial
and cultural separateness ensured that few poor white Virginians would join them should they rise up.

Slave life in Virginia was closely regulated by the planter class, and, as dark skin came to be associated with servitude, planters regulated the lives of
free people of color as well. Planters severely punished rebelliousness and other infractions, using violence to ensure their slaves produced as much profit
as possible. New laws were also enacted curtailing the meager concessions that slaves had achieved and to keep masters from freeing their slaves. In
the words of one scholar, Virginia had gone from a society with slaves to a slave society.

This slave society supported the labor-intensive production of tobacco, a series of arduous tasks that lasted all year. Tobacco was planted in flats,
transferred to hills, weeded, topped, primed, suckered, cut, cured, and finally packed in barrels for transport. One worker could manage as much as 3
acres of tobacco, which could produce between 1,500 and 2,000 pounds of the valuable crop.
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