Scottish Emigrants, Indentured Servants, and Slaves

The following is from Scottish Emigration to Colonial America, 1607-1785 by David Dobson (p. 29-30). The author is explaining the early political and social conditions that led many to leave Scotland. More well known are the Irish emigrants because of their later large numbers, but the Scottish played a major role in the conflicts and changes at the time.

“Emigration seems to have received a fresh impetus around 1631 for reasons that are unclear. In Scotland, although there was more immediate access to Ireland, some were considering the possibility of New England. A letter from John Kerr in Prestonpans to a correpsondent in London indicates that religious intolerance was a factor: “For there be many . . . that inclyne to that countrie [New England], if so be that the persecution by the prelates continue, I mean not so much of ministers that are abused, as near 60 young men that are of rare gifts who cannot get a lawful entry into the ministry also divese professions of some good means that labor to keep themselves undefyled.” The religious policies of the Stuarts had encouraged, if not enforced, emigration to the plantations. As early as 1619 Archbishop Spotswood had threatened nonconformists, or dissident ministers in the neighborhood of Edinburgh, with loss of their stipend and even banishment to America. The Civil War, which in its aftermath led to the mass deportation of Scottish prisoners of war, attracted American colonists, who gave active support to the king or to Parliament. Cromwell received the active support of a number of New Englanders while the king tended to receive support from Virginia and the West Indies. Among those who returned to fight for Charles I was David Munro of Katewell, who had emigrated from Scotland to Virginia during 1641; he served as an officer in the Scots army that invaded England in support of the king in 1648. He was captured after the Battle of Preston in 1648, transported back to Virginia, and disposed of as an indentured servant. The practice of banishing political, religius, and criminal undesirables had long neen established and American soon became one of their destinations. As early as 1618 the king proposed to banish “notorious lewd livers” on the borders of England and Scotland “to Virginia or other remote colony.” The practice of banishment to the plantations as a punishment was to be fully utilized later in the seventeenth century and throughout the eighteenth century. Among the Edinburgh records there is reference to an attempt by a merchant to recruit emigrants for Virginia: “21 July 1647. Ordaines proclamation be sound of drum to pass throw this brugh and liberties thairof at the desire of David Pebles marchand to invite such sort of persones, men and women, as he can agrie upon guid conditiones to goes with him to Virginia and make ane plantaion thair.” Peebles evidently succeeded in recruiting immigrants for his plantation in Virginia, he is later recorded with his family and sixteen indentured servants settled on an 833-acre land grant at Powell’s Creek south of the James River in Virginia in 1650.”

David Peebles is one of my ancestors.

My father’s maternal grandmother was born a Peebles, and he used to visit her in Mississippi. That family line, after settling in Virginia, would head down to the Deep South and then end up in Texas, which is where my great grandmother was born, as was my grandmother. Some of the Peebles clan were slave owners until the American Civil War. In my direct family line, I was able to find at least one record of 19th century slave ownership, from the 1830 census for Wiley Peebles, the generational halfway point between David Peebles and myself.

It’s interesting to see the description from the passage above. I previously had come across a record showing David Peebles had brought a bunch of people with him as dependents. I figured they were probably slaves, but it turns out that they were indentured servants. I suppose slavery was not yet as common as it would later become, considering slavery as an institution had only been legally formalized about three decades before. Plus, indentured servants were probably cheaper and easier to attain, at least for a person living In Scotland surrounded by landless peasants and other desperate people who wanted to escape to the New World.

The reason for indentured servants, and increasingly later slaves, went beyond just having workers for a plantation. The law was set up at the time such that the more dependents one brought (family members, indentured servants, and slaves) the more acres of land would be granted by the local government. In the early colonial era, prospective plantation owners needed to gather enough dependents in order to get the land needed to make a plantation possible. This is how the rich and powerful ended up with most of the best land in places like Virginia.

Still, that doesn’t disprove that he might have owned slaves as well. In her book An American Heritage Story, Gloria Peoples-Elam offers this enticing detail (Kindle Locations 398-400):

“Another very interesting entry into the journal is the following: “Capt David Peiblis is hereby tolerated and permitted to reteine and keep an Indian according to the rules and prescriptions of the Law in that Case provided.” Apparently, Captain Peebles had an Indian as a slave or a worker.”

He was sometimes referred to as a captain. He led a militia in at least one battle with a Native American tribe, maybe the Mohawks. It is surmised by some that he received an injury during the fight because he stops showing up much in the records. His being “permitted to reteine and keep an Indian” probably doesn’t indicate a relationship of freedom and friendship. Slavery wasn’t an uncommon fate early on for captured Native Americans.

Even indentured servitude wasn’t necessarily better. I’ve read before that in the early colonial era, most people didn’t survive to see the end of their indentured service, for the conditions weren’t conducive to health. It might be unsurprising that seeking escape wasn’t limited to slaves (or captive natives). Here is another example from the Peebles’ household, although following David Peeble’s death. In speaking about his wife, who had taken over the responsibilities of the family, Peoples-Elam says that,”She was exempted from tax on “two persons escaped”— indentured servants who had run away” (Kindle Locations 443-444). Those two persons apparently weren’t feeling happy, contented, and optimistic about their situation.

My ancestor, David Peebles, obviously had been a man of means and well-respected in the community, often finding himself in positions of authority. Even before Virginia, he either had great wealth, owned a lot of property to be sold, or had connections to borrow money. When he sought indentured servants for his plantation, that would have required a lot of money to pay for the passage, feeding, and housing of all those people—while also supporting a family. There were many wealthier British emigrants at the time, as the instability and violence during that era gave good reasons for people to flee.

The evidence apparently is even stronger than what I initially realized, at least to the degree that his father’s position implies something about his own position, a fair assumption to make a time when so much was inherited. Peoples-Elam writes that (Kindle Locations 261-268):

“By 1636, the name of David Peebles appears and is listed as “lawful son of Robert Peebles, decd., Burgess of Dundee in 1538.” This was the beginning of the direct ancestry that can be definitely traced back to Scotland.

“As a Burgess of Dundee, Sir Robert was a representative of a burgh or borough, which is a corporate or chartered town in Scotland. He would have been called a Vassal to the Crown. That meant that in times of the feudal system of Scotland this was a person holding lands under the obligation to render military service or its equivalent to his superior. This is shown by the fact that royal charters and Acts of Parliament were addressed or referred to as burgesses. Toward the Crown the burgess had the duties of helping to guard the burgh, of serving with the king’s army when called upon and of paying royal taxation. The latter would not have been the best part of being a burgess but to hold that distinction was necessary.”

A vassal to the Crown is a fairly high position. It would offer many things: wealth, land, authority, power, influence, connections, political franchise, etc. It was the propertied class (just below titled aristocracy) at a time when few had property, as property ownership was determined by the feudal order. As such, his father would have had been part of the upper classes, not part of the far reaches of ruling elite but still with significant position at least at the local level. So, when David Peebles refers to himself as a merchant (marchand), he might have meant something far beyond a mere businessman, trader, craftsmen, or farmer.

Another interesting thing is the specific historical context.

Virginia was settled by a fair number of Royalists, supporters of the Crown. They were often referred to as Cavaliers because of courtly fashion (the term cavalier being related to cavalry and chivalry, from Old French chevalier). The term was used as a general label for courtiers and Royalists, but some of them were Norman-descended aristocracy from southern England (and those that weren’t sought to style themselves as such). David Peebles, however, was Scottish. Some Scottish did fight for the Crown, but I don’t know if this included my ancestor and his kin. Scottish Royalists were typically Highlanders, whereas David Peebles was apparently from the Borders (although it might be noted that the Cavaliers didn’t have a high opinion of any of the Scottish—see Reprobates: The Cavaliers of the English Civil War by John Stubbs; also see Soldiers and Strangers: An Ethnic History of the English Civil War by Mark Stoyle, as reviewed by R.C. RichardsonEnglish chauvinist prejudices were rampant. An English officer in 1639 devoted several lines to a litany of hostile adjectives that describe “the scurvy, filthy, dirty, nasty, lousy, itchy, scabby, shitten, stinking, slovenly, snotty-nosed, villainous, barbarous, beastial, false, lying, roguish, devilish” Scots.). The fact that my ancestor immigrated to Virginia and was easily assimilated into the social order does seem to imply that he likely had some association with the Royalist cause.

In support of this conclusion, I noticed that David Peebles put his notice up for emigrants a month after the king was captured by the New Model Army. He arrived in Virginia the same year King Charles I was executed, which was a year before Cromwell occupied Peebles, Scotland (just south of Edinburgh); that was the year directly following the execution of Charles I. Interestingly, in the American colonies (according to Enclyclopedia Virginia), “by 1650, most Virginia Puritans had left the colony for Maryland or Massachusetts.” So, the Cromwell supporters, Roundheads, were leaving Virginia just as those like David Peebles were arriving. Virginia was first settled by Puritans, but it would become seen as Royalist stronghold, not that it ever played a direct role in the English Civil War, as it remained officially neutral in the colony’s government seeking to encourage free trade with all sides.

I’d point out that Peebles, Scotland was an old royal burgh and resort. The people of the area may have felt particular loyalty to the former Scottish king, James VI, who became the king of England, James I (he would sometimes meet in Peebles in his official role). Many Scottish came into conflict with English rule, but that wasn’t true for all, as ethnic nationalism wasn’t fully formed yet. The Scottish didn’t see themselves as a single people at that time. Britain was a diverse place with no clear separation between Scotland and England. King James I died in 1625 and I’m not sure how the memory of his rule would have influenced loyalties during the English Civil War(s), in terms of the broader War of the Three Kingdoms.

Anyway, in its having taken root in Virginia where David Peebles’ plantation was located, Cavalier culture would be held up later on as what defined the American South, even though few Southerners were of Anglo-Norman ancestry. It was an aristocratic value system and social order: strict social hierarchy, privilege of white male landowners, noblesse oblige, and culture of honor. It was an echo of the old chivalric code of feudalism, an image of ancient nobility. It was what the plantation owners modeled themselves after and it became a collective identity among many Southerners in defining the South as a region with a culture that was supposedly unique and coherent, although in reality this was more of an invention. Even the Southern dialect didn’t fully develop until the commingling of Southerners in the Confederate Army. Here is a brief synopsis of the background (from Enclyclopedia Virginia):

“Having initially resisted England’s Commonwealth regime, and having reinstalled a former royal governor of its own accord, Virginia was in an excellent position to plead its loyalty to the king after the Restoration. Indeed, the colony even gained a reputation as a Royalist stronghold—a reputation some Virginians cultivated by exaggerating the number of Royalist officers, or Cavaliers, who migrated to the colony after 1648, and claiming that most Virginians were descended from the English aristocracy. While a number of Royalists—including members of the Washington, Randolph, Carter, and Lee families—sought refuge in Virginia, most remained in England or settled in Europe. And most immigrants to Virginia in the seventeenth century were indentured servants, not English gentry. Regardless, the Cavalier myth—perpetuated by romantic, nostalgic depictions of Virginia plantation life in literature and historical studies—took hold in Virginia and persisted throughout the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. Some scholars view the Lost Cause interpretation of the American Civil War (1861–1865) as an extension of the Cavalier myth.”

I’m sure that many of my ancestors on the Peebles line took the Cavalier identity seriously, especially during and in the decades prior to the Civil War, in which some of them fought.

In Britain, aristocracy took root along with feudalism. With the land enclosures, the desperate and impoverished landless peasants often became indentured servants, sometimes on plantations (the first attempt of the colonization project being the Ulster Plantation in Ireland, where many Scots-Irish ended up, although I’m not sure how much indentured servitude was used at that point). It was essentially a revamped form of feudalism. That then led to slavery which was an even better balance between the new capitalist plutocracy and the old feudalist social order, without any of the Commons stuff to get in the way.

In such a society, minorities and the poor had few rights, freedoms, and protections. Prior to slavery, indentured servants were the lowest of the low in a society where that could mean being beaten, tortured, raped, or worked to death. An indentured servant was literally worth less than a slave, for they were simply disposable labor. The master of an indentured servant couldn’t even make money by selling off the children.

Indentured servitude was useful during that transitional era, as cheap labor but more importantly for social control. Slavery served the same purpose after the ending of indenture, as it was used to maintain not just the color line but also class hierarchy. In its being rooted in feudalism, it offered the sense of an unchanging stable order. What always was would always be, so it seemed to many before it all came to an end. In defending slavery, they were fighting for an entire worldview and way of life.

In Virginia, a Civil War battle happened on a Peebles farm (and, at an earlier time in Virginia, Nat Turner’s rebellion led to the killing of a slave overseer by the name of Peebles). I would note that my Peebles family was in Texas during the Civil War. That was the area where slavery lasted the longest, as it took a while for slaves there to hear of the news that they had been freed. Once that news had arrived, that would have been the end of an era for the Southern lines of the David Peebles descendants in America.

11 thoughts on “Scottish Emigrants, Indentured Servants, and Slaves

  1. How interesting! I, too, am a descendant of David Peebles and his 1st wife, Elspet Mackie (MacKay) from the line that migrated to Texas, with brief stays in Mississippi and La. My ancestors ended up in Colorado and Lavaca Counties, Texas. I would love to compare trees with you.

  2. I enjoyed this, and am bookmarking it for the future. David Peebles was my ancestor, too, and the Peebles name stayed in my family all the way to my grandmother, who was born Edith Peebles in 1904. I’m so glad to see that you weren’t swayed by the notion that David escaped to Virginia to avoid being executed, a myth that so many believe without examining the facts.

    • There was a lot of turmoil going on during the mid-1600s. So many people found themselves in a precarious position. It was a violent time and death was common, but there is no particular reason to assume that our ancestor was specifically being threatened by execution or whatever else. Maybe it was simply a good opportunity with many people willing to accept indentured servitude in exchange for passage, allowing him to gain ownership of land in Virginia.

      About your grandmother, where was she born? The Peebles I’m familiar with all headed further South, but there supposedly was at least one line that moved North. When I lived in South Carolina, I didn’t realize that a plantation of one of my Peebles ancestors was not far from my house. I’ve never been down to Texas, though.

      I didn’t grow up around extended family. My father knew of some Peebles (I think a great aunt and great uncle) who moved to California and he visited them when he was younger. I don’t know what happened to the Peebles family. My grandmother and great grandmother both were born in Texas where there were many Peebles. I’m sure some of my Peebles family is still down in Texas.

      I find it odd how many of the old generation didn’t keep in contact with their own families. My grandfather on the other side of my family didn’t even know the names of his own paternal grandparents who, unknown to him, lived a short distance away when he was younger. It seems that it was common for the older generations to have moved away and never returned. That seems strange these days when remaining in contact is so easy.

      • My grandmother was born in southern Missouri.

        I am descended from David Peebles through his son, William. My line went from Virginia to South Carolina to Illinois, then to Missouri.

        I would be interested in corresponding with you via email or phone, to compare some notes on David and his children. My email address is, please send a note to me there if you are interested. Thanks!

        • It’s been a while since I looked at any of this. I became interested in genealogy through my mother’s family who I personally know better from childhood visits. But my dad’s family was mostly an unknown to me. And there is a weird disconnect on my dad’s side. My dad barely shows mild interest beyond his immediate family and his own early memories. When I couldn’t get him to help with research, I mostly gave up on doing genealogy on his side of the family. My father knows so little about his own extended family, beyond some vague early memories. I don’t get the sense that his family ever talked about their own family.

          Though my great grandmother was a Peebles, our family has no connection to the Peebles family. Yet my grandmother and great grandmother were born in Texas where there was a large extended Peebles family. Then, when my grandmother was a child, her father simply disappeared. As an adult, she left the South, never to return. After she divorced my grandfather when her kids were still in grade school, she headed to California and left her two sons behind. My grandfather also left town and so my father was forced to finish high school without any parents around. That is probably why he is so disconnected from family.

          I wish I had more of a personal and visceral sense of my paternal lineage. My parents both grew up in Indiana, but there was a big difference in their experience. My father was the first generation to grow up there, as both his parents came from other regions. My mother’s family, on the other hand, had been in the general area of Indiana and Kentuckian for centuries. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve visited the places my mother’s family has lived since the 1800s. It’s part of my own sense of identity. But my dad’s family is mostly a blank spot in my mind. I’ve never even visited any of the states my grandmother grew up in (Texas, Oklahoma, Mississippi). And when my family lived in South Carolina near our ancestral Peeble’s plantation, we didn’t even know anything about the Peebles family.

        • Our respective family lines probably diverged from William Peebles in South Carolina. Your Peebles family headed to the Midwest. And mine, though also having gone West, went across the Deep South. I knew some Peebles ended up in Northern states, but I never met anyone who descended from those lines.

          We could talk, one way or another. Maybe email would probably be easier. I’ll contact you soon. I’m not sure what I could tell you, though. If it helps, I have the PDF of the Peebles genealogy book. It includes the name of my great grandmother. But I don’t know if it covers your part of the family.

          My father got a PDF by scanning an original copy of the book. It was after a return visit to South Carolina when a friend introduced him to a Peebles. It didn’t take them long to realize they were distant relatives. It was a completely random discovery. And this guy for some reason had the book.

    • That was true of the earliest indentured servants, at least in some of the colonies. Many did experience slave-like conditions and had high mortality rates. Then again, the entire colonial population back then, on average had very short lifespans. In places like Virginia, many people died simply from starvation in winter.

      But those conditions changed fairly quickly. A century later in the early 1700s, life in the colonies had improved and mortality rates went down. Also, the conditions for laborers, indentured servants and otherwise, had improved as well. At that point, the life of a slave and the life of an indentured servant had diverged greatly.

      “At first, Virginia plantation owners filled their labor shortage by relying heavily on white indentured servants. Given the very high mortality rates in Virginia, purchasing indentured servants was more cost-effective, since slaves and servants often died within a few years of their arrival. Thus it was only in the second half of the 1600s that, “as life expectancy rose, the slave became a better buy than the servant.””

      Indentured servitude was only similar to slavery for a brief period. And even in the early colonies, indentured servitude was not the same everywhere. Virginia was initially known as a brutal and desperate place. Yet during the same period colonists and indentured servants lived much better in Massachusetts where starvation wasn’t an issue.

      Benjamin Franklin’s maternal grandmother, Mary Morrell Folger, was brought to Massachusetts in 1635 as an indentured servant. And Franklin himself was indentured to his older brother. Some indentured servitude is what today we would call an apprenticeship. That is not the same as the slaves Franklin owned as an adult.

      Context matters a lot. In particular, after Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676, slavery was racialized and white supremacy became the law. Both indentured servitude and slavery became something far different after that. But initially that was limited to Virginia. Massachusetts had separate laws and another kind of economy and culture.

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