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Twigs & Trees with Rhonda: A Look at Apprenticeships
by Rhonda R. McClure

January 25, 2001
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Today we go to school to learn a trade or profession. We learn from books and sometimes in a controlled setting with hands on labs. Even those in the medical profession are monitored as they are learning. In the past though, our ancestors learned a different way.

Many of our ancestors learned their profession through the practice of apprenticeship. This is nothing to be embarrassed by, as some of the most famous of people got their start that way. For instance, Benjamin Franklin was apprenticed to his brother James as a printer. Paul Revere was apprenticed to his father to learn silversmithing.

A school of real life.

The Myth

This is one of the myths about apprenticeships. Most people think that the child was apprenticed to a total stranger. Many times fathers would formally take their sons as apprentices. And even if the child did go elsewhere in the community for their education and training, it is important to keep in mind that most of the towns in the early days were small. The people all knew each other.

Generally an apprentice was bound until they were twenty-one. By reading the indenture agreement, that is the binding agreement for the apprenticeship, you can estimate how old the child was at the beginning of the apprenticeship and then from there be able to estimate when he was born. Apprenticeships in New England often began for children who were under ten, so don't be surprised to find long indentures.

Indenture Agreements

These indenture agreements can sometimes be full of useful genealogical information. In addition to the name and age of the child at the time of the indenture, you are often presented with:

  • Names of family members, along with relationships.
  • The reason for the indenture.
  • Possible original residence.

Very often we think of indentures as only applying to those who bound themselves to another to pay for their passage from the old country. While this is certainly one of the reasons a person may be indentured, they were more often indentured to learn a trade. An indenture is merely to bind one individual to another for a set length of time as payment for some service. That service could be paying the passage of an immigrant or it could be the training of that individual in a profession.

In Conclusion

Some apprenticeship records and indentures have been published. Both Connecticut and Virginia have had theirs published by Ancestry, Inc. Additionally you can sometimes find indenture records in manuscript collections, and society holdings as well as in the county clerks office.

Don't think that indentures ceased to exist after the Colonial period of time. In fact through your research you will find where children continued to be indentured to learn a trade on up through the 1800s.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at rhondagen@thegenealogist.com.

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