20 March 2012

Runaways, indentured servants, and apprentices in your family tree?

Boston Post-Boy, 1768
Have you been watching Who Do You Think You Are? Reba McEntire's episode dealt with indentured servitude. Her ancestor probably didn't have the means to support his family after his wife died or the money to buy an apprenticeship for his son to learn a trade. At age 10, the boy left England to become an indentured servant in America. Yes, at age 10! It sounds quite horrible, especially when the show revealed that 50% of indentured servants didn't survive their indenture because of bad conditions, hard work, little food, shabby shelter, poor health, etc. Luckily for Reba, her ancestor survived and even thrived. That indenture changed his life.

What surprised me was that it wasn't always older kids and young adults being indentured, sometimes it was young kids.

On a genealogy email list, a researcher found a 1799 newspaper ad for a runaway “indented boy” with the same name and age as his ancestor, living less than 10 miles from where he was born. It sounded like his ancestor, but unlike Reba's forebear, he was not paying for a ship passage in exchange for an indenture. The researcher had a birth date and place in the States to rule that out. So, it would seem he wasn't an indentured servant. Perhaps he was a bound apprentice instead? That means he was native-born and working under a similar situation, work without pay.

Bonded and indentured servitude in early New England was much more common than slavery. Colonial America needed the workforce that indentures provided, while the indentured servants wanted the opportunities offered in the New World after their contracts were completed.

An indenture was a legal contract, so you may find court records for the start and end of the indenture. Bound apprentices sometimes were orphans or from impoverished families, so they may be recorded in town and/or court records as well. Newspapers posted ads for indentured servants whose contracts were for sale as well as runaways.

If you think an indentured servant or bound apprentice could be part of your family tree, ask yourself these questions:

  • Was your ancestor an immigrant or native-born? 
  • Did the family have money and/or own land? 
  • Did they live on a farm (where work is plentiful!)? 
  • Were there too many kids to support? 
  • Were both parents living? 
  • Did the father have a trade (blacksmith, carpenter, tailor, etc.) to pass on to his sons? 
  • Was your ancestor’s occupation similar to work that indentured servants or apprentices might do?
Knowing the answers may help you pinpoint if that runaway is yours!

No comments:

Post a Comment