Susan Forbes Hanson – Sergeant William Williams (1652-1743) & Sarah Williams (1656-1748)
Born in 1652, Sergeant William Williams’ name first appears in a document of 1689 listing him as a member of a committee selected to choose the 4 houses to be fortified in case of Indian attack. While the 3-year long King Philips War had ended in 1678, a sense of unease and danger remained among the settlers of the New England colonies. Indeed, town history has a story of William shooting an Indian (most likely a member of the local Podunk tribe) for stealing hard cider.
The committee members being among the elite of the original settler families indicates how far the Williams family had advanced despite its origins in indenture. In addition, William was on the very important committee that in 1704 invited Rev. Samuel Woodbridge, also the subject of a podcast, to become the first minister on the town’s first Meeting House. Unquestionably, the Williams family was by then firmly established as part of the local gentry.
This can be viewed as a remarkable achievement when one considers that as children of freed indentured servants they were just one generation removed from a system only one step above actual slavery.
The idea of indentured servitude was born of a need for cheap labor. In the middle 1600s the Virginia Company developed the system became vital to the growing colonial economy. By the early 1700s, 1/2 to 2/3 of the immigrants to the American colonies arrived as indentured servants.
At the time, the economy of England and Europe was in a depressed state resulting in many out-of-work skilled and unskilled laborers in need of finding a place with better prospects and who could not afford the expensive passage to a new land.
Usually a man, woman or even child would sign a contract with a sea captain in payment for passage to the colonies. On arrival the captain would in turn sell the contract to someone in need of labor. In the Connecticut River Valley, this was often for the tobacco farms.
Typically indenture was for a period of 4 or 7 years of labor in exchange for the cost of the passage, room, board, lodging, and so-called freedom dues.
While these servants had some protected rights, their lives were not easy, with punishment meted out at the discretion of the owner of their contract, and the period of indenture would be extended if they tried to run away, or, in the case of a female, got pregnant. They often slept in the barns or in uninsulated house attics – in spaces often shared with the slaves. Food was rarely more that meager porridge.
Indenture was not slavery in the sense that the owner of the contract owned the labor, not the body, of the indentured servant. But, sadly, often where there was indenture, slavery, a cheaper system, would soon follow.
Those who survived the work, and weren’t cheated out of it, received a so-called freedom package of around 25 acres of land, a year’s worth of corn, a cow, and new clothes. With only those minimal basics with which to start, a very few, such as with the Williams family, were actually able to achieve a secure place in colonial society.
Other than the dates on her tombstone, we know knowing about Sarah. Nonetheless, she and William lived remarkably long lives: he dying in 1743 at the age of 91 and Sarah in 1748 at the age of 92. They left behind a large, important, multi-generational family to mourn them.