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Life Story: Dennis and Hannah Holland

A cycle of indentured servitude in colonial Maryland

This is the story of a mother and daughter in Maryland who became trapped in a perpetuating cycle of indenture and transgression.

Content Warning: This life story addresses sexual assault.

Cultivation and Harvesting Tobacco

Cultivation and Harvesting Tobacco, 1722. NLM/Science Source.

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Dennis (pronounced Denise) Holland arrived in the Maryland colony in the early 1670s as an indentured servant. This meant she had signed a contract agreeing to work for a master for a set period of time in exchange for passage to the colonies. In colonial Maryland, men outnumbered women two to one. Dennis probably hoped that when her indenture was over, she would marry a farmer. If the farmer was successful, she might even rise up the social ranks, something that was next to impossible in England. Maryland was her chance for a better life.

Life as an indentured servant in Maryland was hard. Indentured servants were at the mercy of their masters, the men and women who owned their labor contracts. Masters set work hours, assigned tasks, and determined how much food and rest a servant got. They were allowed to beat their indentured servants as punishment for poor work or a bad attitude. Masters could also loan their servants out to other colonists, and keep the money for themselves. This was how Dennis, who served Captain William Coleborne, found herself moving to the home of Henry Smith on January 3, 1673.

Henry began pressuring Dennis to have sex within days of her arrival. This wasn’t uncommon— the gender imbalance in Maryland led some men to use their female servants in this way. Dennis resisted, but Henry harassed her until she gave in. Henry kept forcing Dennis to have sex with him whenever he wanted, and pretty soon Dennis began to suspect that she was pregnant.

The Maryland colony had strict punishments for women who had babies when they were unmarried. When Dennis asked Henry what she should do, his first recommendation was that she blame the pregnancy on her master, Captain William Coleborne, because he had the money to support a child. When Dennis refused to do so, probably fearing the legal repercussions of making a false accusation, Henry told her he would convince one of her fellow indentured servants, Henry Skidmore, to take responsibility for the child and marry her once they were both free. Throughout the remainder of her time in his service, Henry continued to force her to have sex whenever he wanted.

It would seem that Henry Smith did his best to pressure Henry Skidmore into taking the blame, but Henry Skidmore did not want to be punished for the crime of fathering a child outside of marriage. When Dennis was in labor on October 8, 1673, he burst into the room and demanded that Dennis confess who the real father was. Dennis broke down in tears and confessed that Henry Smith had raped her and then told her to lie. When asked why she had never told anyone what had happened, Dennis said she “was loath to disgrace him so much.” It seems likely that she meant she was afraid to put her word against his in the court of public opinion. Who would believe the word of an indentured servant over that of a respected member of the community? During this heartbreaking scene, Dennis gave birth to a baby girl she named Hannah.

Who would believe the word of an indentured servant over that of a respected member of the community?

A year after Dennis was first sent to work with Henry Smith, she appeared in court to answer for the charge of bastardy. She gave testimony that cleared Henry Skidmore of any responsibility for the child. Dennis was sentenced to twenty days extra work, and the county clerk was put in charge of making sure she served her time. This was a fairly light sentence for the charge of bastardy, which raises the question: Did the court believe that Dennis was a victim of Henry Smith? If so, they did not pursue it—there is no record of Henry Smith being punished. Dennis was still expected to fulfill her contract to her original employer. She would not be able to support her new baby. To prevent the baby from becoming a burden on the community, Hannah was indentured to a wealthy merchant named John Kirke until she reached the age of 16. At this point, Dennis disappears from the government records, but Hannah’s story was just beginning.

Hannah first appears in the court records when she was 16 years old. She petitioned the court because her first master, John Kirke, had sold her contract to another man who was refusing to honor the end date of Hannah’s court-ordered indenture. The court reviewed its records and set Hannah free. In this moment it seemed Dennis’s daughter might break the cycle of servitude that had begun with her mother.

But only two years later Hannah Holland was back in court. Like her mother before her, she was pregnant, and was charged with the crime of bastardry. The father of Hannah’s baby was the son of a court official, meaning both mother and daughter were victims of the same imbalance of power in colonial Maryland. The court was much more severe with Hannah, describing her state as a “dishonor of Almighty God, scandal & evil example to all the good people of this province.” She was sentenced to receive twenty-one lashes at the public whipping post, where her pain and disgrace would serve to discourage other young women from making the same mistakes. She also had to pay a large fine, or serve as an indentured servant until her fine was paid. And her baby, a little boy she named John, was indentured for thirty years, making him the third generation of the Holland family to be caught up in the indentured system of colonial Maryland.

Vocabulary

  • bastardry: The crime of having a baby without being married.
  • indentured servant: A person under contract to work for another person for a definite period of time without pay, usually in exchange for transport to a new place.
  • petitioned: Asked.
  • testimony: A formal spoken statement given in a court of law.

Pronunciation

  • Dennis Holland: De-NEES

Discussion Questions

  • What social conditions in Maryland led to Dennis’s victimization at the hands of Henry Smith?
  • Why was Dennis punished when Henry Smith was not?
  • Why do you think the Maryland court was so worried about the birth of children outside of marriage?
  • Why do you think Hannah’s sentence was much harsher than Dennis’s sentence?
  • Why is it important to study historical incidences of sexual violence?
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Themes

WORK, LABOR, AND ECONOMY; DOMESTICITY AND FAMILY

New-York Historical Society Curriculum Library Connections

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