Opinion

Apprenticed or indentured?

In your research you may find that an ancestor was an indentured servant or an apprentice. They are not the same. To help understand the differences here is a brief outline of what each meant. 

Apprentices were often younger landless sons. In the earliest days of the colonies the oldest son usually inherited his father’s land. Younger sons had to learn a trade. In wills you’ll often find references to a deceased father leaving money to purchase an apprenticeship for a younger son or sons.  You may also find a provision that the oldest son had to pay for his brothers to be apprenticed.  

An apprentice paid money to train in a trade and agreed to serve his master for a certain number of years while he was acquiring the skills to earn his own living. The master was obliged to feed, clothe and care for his apprentice.  Sometimes the apprentice would remain with his master as a paid employee after the apprenticeship ended. Some masters were cruel and newspapers into the 1800s printed notices of runaway apprentices with name, description and any details laid out along with a reward for finding and returning the runaway.  

It’s easy to imagine that a runaway apprentice most likely was escaping a cruel master who beat or abused him or found he hated the work he was being trained for.  Keep in mind an apprenticeship was a legally binding contract and the apprentice was bound for the number of years specified in the contract. Perhaps the most famous apprentice was Benjamin Franklin who was apprenticed to his brother to learn the printing trade.

An indentured servant was slightly different. Usually these were individuals who were poor and wanted to come to the New World for the opportunities they couldn’t find in England. One of the best known was John Howland who came on the Mayflower indentured to Governor John Carver. Indentured servants had their passage paid and they agreed to serve their master for a period of seven years. The master signed a contract with his indentured servants to feed, clothe and care for them. The servants agreed to do the work assigned to them. At the end of seven years the indentured servant became a free man who was usually given land and sometimes tools or livestock to get him started in life. 

In some cases, the indentured servants didn’t survive due to the climate, endemic diseases, or the severity of the work involved.  This was one reason why African slaves were imported to the south and to the Caribbean islands.  

John Howland survived falling overboard on the Mayflower. He married, served in high office in Plymouth colony, and was respected. His descendants include both Presidents Bush, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Dr. Benjamin Spock, President John Quincy Adams and Humphrey Bogart, among many others. 

While you’re researching you may encounter apprentices or indentured servants in your tree.  There are many resources including wills, deeds, contracts and newspapers to help learn more about their lives.

Columnist Nancy Battick of Dover-Foxcroft has researched genealogy for over 30 years. She is past president of the Maine Genealogical Society, author of several genealogical articles and co-transcribed the Vital Records of Dover-Foxcroft.  Nancy holds an MA in History from UM and lives in DF with her husband, Jack, another avid genealogist. Reader emails are welcome at nbattick@roadrunner.com.

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