Needham History Center & Museum

Indentured, Servitude and Otherwise

Indentures get a bad rap. Often they were a form of debt bondage. But for orphans, the indigent, and other people of limited means, they could also be a step up into a more prosperous life.


Here’s good luck to Frederic’s ventures! / Frederic’s out of his indentures.   (Gilbert & Sullivan, The Pirates of Penzance)

Indentures get a bad rap.  ‘Indenture’ is a term rarely used anymore (outside, perhaps, of legal circles). When it is, it is most often used in the context of ‘indentured servitude’ – a form of forced labor, often imposed as a penalty.

Indentured servitude was a form of debt bondage – a civil debt, or a monetary debt.  The parties agree that one will work for the other for a set period of time.  The working party was not paid wages, but was to be provided with adequate clothing, food, and shelter. Despite the lack of payment, this was not the same as enslavement. The debtor did not lose ownership of his body, or the freedom of his children.  The reasons for the indenture were specific, the term of the indenture was limited, and both parties agreed to the arrangement.  True, the working party might not have had much choice in the matter, but the labor was often an alternative to worse punishment (like debtor’s prison).

Detail from the Indenture agreement for Amos Stevens, binding him as apprentice to Bowen Adams of Sherborn, carpenter.
Detail from the Indenture agreement for Amos Stevens, binding him as apprentice to Bowen Adams of Sherborn, carpenter.

A person might also enter into a contract of indentured servitude to cover a debt they could not otherwise pay.  Indenture might be imposed in lieu of a fine or other penalty following a legal judgement. Or it could be a way of paying for passage – it was not uncommon for poorer emigrants to enter into an indenture in return for the cost of their sea voyage.  In the 17th century, indenture was the primary form of servitude in the colonies, especially in the labor-starved colonies of the south. It is estimated that half or more of the settlers in the Colonies’ first century came here under indentures. Indentured servitude declined in the American colonies as the slave trade increased.

Despite its association with servitude, “indenture” simply means a contract between parties.  (The “ident-“ part refers to the layout, since the document often had a large (indented) left margin).  An indenture was not, by definition, inherently sinister.

Apprenticeships, for example, could be used as a form of maintaining the poor.  In 1789, Needham wrote seven indentures for children, contracting them out for service until the age of eighteen, as an alternative to the town’s poor farm. This was both a better deal for the kids, providing a better living situation and training; and for the town, which otherwise would have had to pay for their maintenance out of the taxes.

In 1809, Needham’s Overseers of the Poor entered into an agreement with Ephraim Jackson of Needham, papermaker, for the indenture of young William Rice, whose widowed mother Dorcas was unable to maintain him after his father died the year before.  William, who was ten years old at the time, was indentured to Ephraim Jackson as an apprentice.  Under the contract, Jackson was required to “cause the said William to be well Instructed in the various branches of the art of Manufacturing paper, that he will teach him or Cause him to be taught to read and write and Cypher as far as the rule of three if he be capable of learning –  That he will find and provide for the said William Sufficient meat Drink Clothing lodging and other necessaries Suitable to his station and Degree in life and at all times until the said William shall arrive at the age of twenty one years well and truly maintain and Support the said William in Sickness as in health.  And the said Jackson doth further Covenant with the Overseers that when the said William shall arrive at the age of twenty one years he will procure and give unto him two suits of wearing apparel one Suitable for Lord’s Days and one Suitable for working Days.”

In other words, in return for his labor until the age of twenty-one, William Rice got fed, clothed and housed; medical care; a basic education; instruction in a profitable trade; and clothing for his start in life. Not a bad deal, and one that guaranteed that William would be able to make a living for himself.

In a similar manner, in 1827 Abijah Stevens indentured his 18-year-old son Amos to Bowen Adams of Sherborn to “learn the art, trade or mystery of Carpentry.”  The apprenticeship was to last until June 10, 1830, Amos’ twenty-first birthday – “During all which time, the said Apprentice his said Master well and faithfully shall serve, his secrets keep, his lawful commands duly obey… He shall not waste the goods of his said Master, nor lend them unlawfully to any. At cards, dice or any other unlawful game, he shall not play.  He shall not absent himself, by day or night, from the service of his said Master, without his leave; nor haunt or frequent ale-houses, taverns or gaming-places.  He shall not contract matrimony within the said term; nor shall he commit any acts of vice or immorality which are forbidden by the Laws of the Commonwealth; but in all things and at all times, he shall carry and behave himself towards his said Master, and all others, as a good and faithful Apprentice ought to do, during all the term aforesaid.”  In return, Bowen was obligated to provide Amos with food, clothing, shelter, pocket money, quality professional training, and “three months schooling.” One assumes that Amos had already learned to read and write.

Poor Frederic, whose birthday was on February 29th, was doomed to remain indentured to the Pirate King until the year 1940.  William Rice’s apprenticeship would have lasted about eleven years, and Amos Stevens’ for about three.  Both would enter into adulthood on their twenty-first birthdays with two suits of clothing and a marketable skill – the necessities for a middle class life.  That the skills they learned were valuable – in the monetary sense – is reflected in the concern that the apprentice not divulge his master’s “secrets” to anyone. And once he became a master himself, it was in his own interest to keep them close, and indenture his own apprentices.

Gloria Polizzotti Greis, Executive Director, Needham History Center & Museum