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!

04 March 2012

FamilySearch Indexing: Pay it forward

FamilySearch Indexing screen for World War I registration card
Recently, the Massachusetts Society of Genealogists (MSOG) announced it had partnered with FamilySearch to index the Boston Passenger Lists 1820-1891. MSOG members and others interested in the project are welcome to volunteer to index these original ship records.

Indexing is easy to do. But instead of me saying that, take a test drive for yourself at FamilySearch Indexing.

When you sign up to become a FamilySearch Indexer, you'll be asked to download the software program to your computer, log in or create an account, then download a batch. Records are downloaded in batches of 1-30, so you won’t be overwhelmed. Each batch should take you less than 30 minutes to complete.

If you choose to be part of the MSOG project (for intermediate indexers), you select Group or Society in the pull-down Local Support Level menu of your profile, then MSOG. That way, you’ll have access to the Boston Passenger List project.

Since I’m a newbie to indexing, I selected the beginner level to find appropriate projects for me. And oh the projects! Although I don’t know anyone who died in Texas 1890-1976, I started with those records because they were listed “highest priority.” After that, I checked out some World War I draft registrations from Connecticut, Volunteers for the War of 1812 (1812-1815), Prince Edward Island baptisms 1721-1885, and the Boston Passenger Lists.

When you download a batch, you’ll notice the screen is divided into three parts: the scanned record on the top half, data entry functions on the bottom left, and help screen (project instructions, field help) on bottom right. Not all information on the record will be indexed, nor will all records within a batch contain the same information. When you’re finished with your batch, you’ll be asked to double-check your data before uploading it.

Many records are handwritten, not typed, depending on the time period. Therefore, you may not be able to decipher everyone’s handwriting (even with the handwriting help screen). Is that E really an L? Is Daniel really a female? (Yes, the record said so.) That's why there are two indexers per record and an arbitrator will compare data that disagree. In one case, I thought “James” was “Samuel” but once the arbitrator flagged the name and I looked at the original record again, clearly I was wrong.

If you have questions about your batch or the project in general, visit the FamilySearch Indexing resource guide pages, which include FAQs, tutorials, and support.

Once a project is complete, the index and images are uploaded to the free and fabulous FamilySearch web site


If you need extra incentive, you can set a personal goal and keep track of how many points you’ve accumulated. You receive at least one point for each record, with more difficult records earning up to 10 points each. Over the weekend I indexed 128 names and accumulated 226 points. Challenge your friends, relatives, and genealogy groups to participate in the FamilySearch Indexing projects. The more volunteers, the faster we'll all have access to these genealogy records.

And who knows? Maybe you'll be lucky and find your ancestor among the Boston Passenger Lists while you're indexing them. That's what I'm hoping for!