An Indentured Servant’s Letter to His Parents

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R IC H A R D F R E T HOR N E

An Indentured Servant’s Letter to His Parents

(1623)

The typical migrant to England’s North American colonies in the seventeenth century was an indentured

servant—a young man or woman desperate enough to agree to work for a master for a set amount of time

(usually four to seven years) in return for transportation to North America, food, clothing, lodging, and, in

some cases, money or land at the end of the contract.

Richard Frethorne was one of the thousands of such indentured servants who poured into Virginia in

the seventeenth century. Like the vast majority of these migrants, we know very little about Frethorne

himself. He came to Virginia shortly after the colony experienced a horrific Indian attack in 1622, and he

worked at Martin’s Hundred, a large tobacco plantation located on the James River about ten miles

downriver from Jamestown. The following are excerpts from three letters Frethorne wrote to his parents

in March and April of 1623. Shortly afterward, the young man died.

From Susan Myra Kingsbury, ed., The Records of the Virgina Company of London (Washington, D.C.: US

Government Printing Office, 1935), 4:58–60.

March 20, April 2 and 3, 1623

Loveing and kind father and mother my most humble duty remembred to you hopeing in God

of yor good health . . . this is to let you understand that I yor Child am in a most heavie Case by

reason of the nature of the Country is such that it Causeth much sicknes, as the scurvie and the

bloody flix,1 and divers other diseases, wch2 maketh the bodie very poore, and Weake, and when

wee are sicke there is nothing to Comfort us; for since I came out of the ship, I never ate anie

thing but pease, and loblollie (that is water gruell) as for deare or venison I never saw anie since

I came into this land, ther is indeed some foule, but Wee are not allowed to goe, and get yt, but

must Worke hard both earelie, and late for a messe of water gruell, and a mouthfull of bread,

and beife, a mouthfull of bread for a pennie loafe must serve for 4 men wch is most pitifull if you

did knowe as much as I, when people crie out day, and night, Oh that they were in England

without their lymbes and would not care to loose anie lymbe to bee in England againe, yea

though they beg from doore to doore, for wee live in feare of the Enimy3 everie houer,4 yet wee

have had a Combate with them on the Sunday before Shrovetyde,5 and wee tooke two alive, and

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make slaves of them, but it was by pollicie, for wee are in great danger, for or Plantacon is very

weake, by reason of the dearth, and sicknes, of or Companie, for wee came but Twentie for the

marchaunts, and they are halfe dead Just; and wee looke everie houer. When two more should

goe, yet there came some for other men yet to lyve with us, of which ther is but one alive, and

our Leiftenant is dead, and his father, and his brother, and there was some 5 or 6 of the last

yeares 20 of wch there is but 3 left, so that wee are faine to get other men to plant with us, and

yet wee are but 32 to fight against 3000 if they should Come, and the nighest helpe that Wee

have is ten miles of us, and when the rogues overcame this place last,6 they slew 80 Persons

how then shall wee doe for wee lye even in their teeth, they may easilie take us but that God is

mercifull, and can save with few as well as with many; . . . ther is nothing to be gotten here but

sicknes, and death, except that one had money to lay out in some thinges for profit; But I have

nothing at all, no not a shirt to my backe, but two Ragges nor no Clothes, but one poore suite,

nor but one paire of shooes, but one paire of stockins, but one Capp, but two bands, my Cloke is

stollen by one of my owne fellowes, and to his dying houer would not tell mee what he did with

it but some of my fellows saw him have butter and beife out of a ship, wch my Cloke I doubt7

paid for, so that I have not a penny, nor a a penny Worth to helpe me to either spice, or sugar, or

strong Waters, without the wch one cannot lyve here, for as strong beare in England doth fatten

and strengthen them so water here doth wash and weaken theis here, onelie keepe life and

soule togeather. But I am not halfe a quarter so strong as I was in England, and all is for want of

victualls, for I doe protest unto you, that I have eaten more in day at home then I have allowed

me here for a Weeke. You have given more then my dayes allowance to a beggar at the doore;

and if Mr Jackson8 had not releived me, I should bee in a poore Case, but he like a father and

shee like a loveing mother doth still helpe me.

*  *  *

Goodman Jackson pityed me & made me a Cabbin to lye in alwayes when I come up, and he

would give me some poore Jacks home with me wch Comforted mee more then pease, or water

gruell. Oh they bee verie godlie folkes, and love me verie well, and will doe anie thing for me,

and he much marvailed that you would send me a servaunt to the Companie,9 he saith I had

beene better knockd on the head, and Indeede so I fynd it now to my greate greife and miserie,

and saith, that if you love me you will redeeme me suddenlie, for wch I doe Intreate and begg,

and if you cannot get the marchaunts to redeeme me for some litle money then for Gods sake

get a gathering or intreat some good folks to lay out some little Sum of moneye, in meale, and

Cheese and butter, and beife, anie eating meate will yeald great profit, oile and vyniger is verie

good, but father ther is greate losse in leakinge, but for Gods sake send beife and Cheese and

butter.

*  *  *

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If I die before it Come I have intreated Goodman Jackson to send you the worth of it, who hath

promised he will; If you send you must direct yor letters to Goodman Jackson, at James Towne a

Gunsmith. (you must set downe his frayt) because there bee more of his name there; good father

doe not forget me, but have mercie and pittye my miserable Case. I know if you did but see me

you would weepe to see me, for I have but one suite, but it is a strange one, it is very well

guarded, wherefore for Gods sake pittie me, I pray you to remember my love my love to all my

freinds, and kindred, I hope all my Brothers and Sisters are in good health, and as for my part I

have set downe my resolucon that certainelie Wilbe, that is, that the Answeare of this letter

wilbee life or death to me, therefore good father send as soone as you can, and if you send me

anie thing let this bee the marke.

Richard Frethorne

Martyns Hundred

Study Questions

1. What specifically does Frethorne complain of?

2. What does Frethorne ask of his parents?

3. Although America is often described as the land of opportunity, Frethorne’s story suggests that

such a description is simplistic, to say the least. How would you formulate a description of early

America that would take into account not only opportunity but also frustration, disappointment,

and danger?

4. Describe the tone of Frethorne’s letter. How might it differ from an account written by his

employer? How might Frethorne have written differently to friends at home, or to his sweetheart?