School Improvement in Maryland

Historical Investigation — Indentured Servitude

Social Studies Reading Stance Instructional Task

United States History Content Standard

  • Analyze the social and religious composition of early settlers, their motives for migration, and the difficulties they encountered, with particular attention to the early settlements of Maryland. (

Engage the Students

Read the excerpt taken from "Maryland Its Past and Present" by Richard Wilson and Jack Bridner, a secondary source of information.   Print Version

"… Over one-half of all the settlers who came to Maryland before 1700 were indentured servants. Most of these persons came to Maryland from either England or Ireland. They were young - often thirteen or fourteen years old. They wanted to come to Maryland for a better life." (page 57, 1999 edition)
  1. Based on what you know about Colonial America, what were indentured servants?
  2. What were the living conditions like in England and Ireland during the 1600's that would make people want to come to Maryland for a better life?

Narrative: Read the narrative to the class stressing the focus question at the end.   Print Version

Indentured servants were persons obliged by contract to work for a stated number of years. During the early settlement of Maryland, many newcomers were indentured servants who wanted to immigrate to the colony, but could not pay for passage. Those people could agree to exchange time in service for the cost of the voyage. The servant might have accompanied his master to Maryland, or signed papers with a sea captain who then sold the contract after landing in the colony. 1

How good was life for indentured servants living in colonial Maryland? In this activity, you are going to read primary source documents to gather evidence that will help you answer this focus question. You will have a chance to work with a partner to discuss your ideas. Then you will use your prior knowledge and details from the primary sources to summarize what you have learned from this historical investigation.

1 Taken from Maryland State Archives "Indentured Servants," 2000.

Focus Question: How good was life for indentured servants living in colonial Maryland?

Conduct the Investigation

In order to answer the question you will examine several documents independently. Analyze each document and answer the following questions on your "Individual Document Analysis" graphic organizer:

  1. How do I know this is reliable information?
  2. When was this document written? Who wrote it? What was its purpose?
  3. What is the author's point of view about indentured servitude?
  4. How can this document help me answer the focus question?


Now that the documents have been analyzed you will have the opportunity to discuss the documents and the focus question with other students in your group. As you discuss your interpretations of the documents cite evidence for your views and opinions. Multiple interpretations can emerge and may or may not be accepted by all. Write your group responses in the appropriate section on your "Group Document Analysis."

Report the Findings

Once historians have completed their research they present a written summary of their findings. You will do the same. Your written summary should answer the focus question and be supported with details from the primary documents you have read.

Focus Question: How good was life for indentured servants living in colonial Maryland?

Primary Source Documents