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“We Unfortunate English People Suffer Here”: An English Servant Writes Home

by Elizabeth Sprigs

While some planters in the eighteenth-century Chesapeake began to build spacious mansions and rely on the labor of increasing numbers of white and black dependents, most white southerners lived in far humbler circumstances. In Maryland most small farmers were tenants, renting their land from larger landowners. Landless men and women worked as agricultural tenants, laborers, or domestic servants. Elizabeth Sprigs, a servant in a Maryland household, financed her passage from England in exchange for a term as an indentured servant (a frequent practice in the seventeenth century but more rare by the eighteenth). She wrote to her father in 1756 and complained bitterly of the brutal treatment by her master and the harsh privations of daily life, begging him to send clothing.

Maryland, Sept’r 22’d 1756

Honored Father

My being for ever banished from your sight, will I hope pardon the Boldness I now take of troubling you with these, my long silence has been purely owning to my undutifullness to you, and well knowing I had offended in the highest Degree, put a tie to my tongue and pen, for fear I should be extinct from your good Graces and add a further Trouble to you, but too well knowing your care and tenderness for me so long as I retain’d my Duty to you, induced me once again to endeavor if possible, to kindle up that flame again. O Dear Father, believe what I am going to relate the words of truth and sincerity, and Balance my former bad Conduct my sufferings here, and then I am sure you’ll pity your Destress Daughter, What we unfortunate English People suffer here is beyond the probability of you in England to Conceive, let it suffice that I one of the unhappy Number, am toiling almost Day and Night, and very often in the Horses drudgery, with only this comfort that you Bitch you do not halfe enough, and then tied up and whipp’d to that Degree that you’d not serve an Animal, scarce any thing but Indian Corn and Salt to eat and that even begrudged nay many Negroes are better used, almost naked no shoes nor stockings to wear, and the comfort after slaving during Masters pleasure, what rest we can get is to rap ourselves up in a Blanket and ly upon the Ground, this is the deplorable Condition your poor Betty endures, and now I beg if you have any Bowels of Compassion left show it by sending me some Relief, Clothing is the principal thing wanting, which if you should condiscend to, may easily send them to me by any of the ships bound to Baltimore Town Patapsco River Maryland, and give me leave to conclude in Duty to you and Uncles and Aunts, and Respect to all Friends

Honored Father

Your undutifull and Disobedient Child

Elizabeth Sprigs

Source: Elizabeth Sprigs, “Letter to Mr. John Sprigs in White Cross Street near Cripple Gate, London, September 22, 1756,” in Isabel Calder, ed., Colonial Captivities, Marches, and Journeys (New York: Macmillan Company, 1935), 151–52. Reprinted by permission of the Connecticut Chapter of the National Society of Colonial Dames of America.