It’s hard to picture indentured servants in America doing the heavy agricultural lifting in the place of slaves, but, for a time, this practice was the lay of the land in the New World. Very early on in the nation's history, instead of enslaved Africans working fields, it was indentured servants – transplants from England who exchanged their freedom and labor for passage to the Colonies in the hopes of eventually acquiring their own plots of land, tools, and animals. Back then, having land meant you had a means to support yourself, and, in order to gain some ground of their very own, poor English folk were willing to exchange their freedom for the opportunity, regardless of how they were treated as indentured servants. There was plenty of land to go around in the New World, which meant that those who jumped on the bandwagon quickly enough could have, at least, a shot at a decent life. Of course, what constituted a good life for a freed indentured servant was a far cry from the lifestyles of the colonial elite, the slave and indentured servants' owners who ate the most disgusting, decadent colonial foods you can imagine as just one part of their lavish ways of living. The problem was that sometimes the trouble of obtaining that land meant becoming someone else’s property... at least for a time.
And, of course, unlike slaves, indentured servants could eventually earn their freedom, which is one of the reasons why they became less popular over the years. Many immigrants viewed indentured servitude in Colonial America as a way to establish themselves in a new country, but the arrangement didn’t always work out as planned.
In reality, indentured servitude in England – the forefather of indentured servitude in the United States – has a long history that goes all the way back to the days of medieval serfdom, when the lower, working classes functioned as bounded tenant farmers on the lands of the landed elite. Legislatively, the practice also has a robust history in that country. In 1349, for example, an Ordinance known as the Ordinance of Labourers declared that any man or woman under the age of 60 who wasn't a tradesperson with a particular craft was required to "serve" someone with their labor. The law, which was updated in both 1495 and 1563, essentially attempted to reduce the number of the unemployed and those living in poverty by forcing them into a livelihood. In addition, the law was still in effect when Jamestown was founded, and it would play a role in indentured servitude in the New World, as well.
Indentured servitude made its way to Colonial America in the early 1600s. Why? Because, at the time, the Colonies didn’t have the infrastructure they would eventually have in the 1700s, and they needed to build it. The Virginia Company of London finished construction of Jamestown in 1607, and they really needed people to help get the town (and much of the surrounding area) on its feet. The way to do that was cheap labor – shipping people over who couldn't afford to ship themselves – thus indentured servants came into play.
Boat travel during the early days of the Colonies was neither cheap nor safe. Many people died during the passage over the Atlantic, and those that survived found themselves with hefty travel bills to pay back. For the wealthy, travel wasn’t exactly a problem. But, for those who did incur a debt, the Virginia Company set up a system of indentured servitude that enabled them to pay back whatever they owed by working it off. This travel-for-labor exchange system ended up becoming the foundation of the New World’s economy.
Slaves certainly existed in the early days of the Colonies, but they actually weren’t as widely used as indentured servants... for a time, that is. The reason for this was that the servants came with a great deal of benefits. For each servant a master sponsored to cross the Atlantic, they were given 50 acres of land by the British Government since taking on indentured servants from the homeland helped deal with the overpopulation and poverty problems there. Those benefits greatly exceeded the cost of feeding a servant and paying their way across the sea, so plantation owners embraced the system as a way to substantially increase their land holdings. Not only did they get more land, but they also got someone to work on it for them.