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When Poor Apprentice Laborers Were 2 Years Old

Impoverished children were indentured at very young ages

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In 1754, Boston’s overseer of the poor bound out Joseph Clifton, aged two, as an apprentice to Aaron Clinton, a brickmaker in Medford, Mass. Joseph, probably orphaned or abandoned, had no say in the matter.

For the next 19 years, Joseph couldn’t leave his master’s household without permission. He had to gladly obey all of his orders. In return, Clinton would provide room and board and teach Joseph his trade, along with reading, writing and arithmetic. When Joseph turned 21, Clinton would give him two suits, called freedom suits, one for Sunday and one for work.

Joseph wasn’t alone. Surviving records in Massachusetts show that from 1735 to 1805, Boston’s overseers of the poor bound out about 1400 children as apprentices. Rhode Island’s surviving records show 725 poor children were bound out during the second half of the 18th century.


Apprenticeship contract for Sarah Scribner.

For some, like Isaiah Thomas, apprenticeship led to a successful career and a place in history. For others apprenticeship meant a lifetime of poverty and toil. And in the case of Nathaniel Sewell, it meant an early death.

Nathaniel Sewell, Smelly Apprentice

In 1643, a London street kid named Nathaniel Sewell arrived in Newbury, Mass., to work as an apprentice for William Franklin. The child had arrived with a batch of poor children sent to Massachusetts, where colonists had a pressing need for laborers.

It had been 24 years since English authorities shipped the first load of 100 homeless children to Virginia, where they labored as apprentices until they turned 21. The experiment succeeded, at least for the masters, and the next year another hundred kids arrived in Virginia.

Nathaniel Sewell, a smelly child, had the scurvy when he landed in Massachusetts. His master treated his young apprentice harshly. Franklin left him in the cold and wet, corrected him mercilessly and hung him in the chimney as punishment. But Sewell would not bend to Franklin’s will, and so Franklin took him to court in Boston.

On the way, Franklin had to tie the sick boy to his horse because he couldn’t sit up. Nathaniel begged for water, but Franklin refused. Hours after they reached Boston, Nathaniel Sewell died. Franklin was charged with killing his servant, found guilty and hanged for the offense.

The Family Apprentice

The Puritans believed servants, apprentices or employees had a duty to obey the master of the household, but the master also had a duty to them. He had to teach them to read Scripture, follow a trade and be a good person. He was also not supposed to kill them.

The practice of apprenticeship didn’t always work out, as in the case of Nathaniel Sewell. But the Puritans believed in the concept as sound. To their minds, an orderly society rested on the family – a family headed by a male. The single life inspired “sin and iniquity,” the Puritans believed.

In the 17th century, Massachusetts, Plymouth and Connecticut colonies actually passed laws requiring single people to live with a family. If a single person didn’t find an established family, the local authorities would find one for him – or her.

That went for children, too.

Child Labor

From 1692 to the Revolution, Massachusetts took care of hundreds of poor children younger than 10 by binding them out as apprentices to families. (The maritime trades were the one exception to the family apprentice). About three dozen children hadn’t reached the age of five.


Most young girl apprentices spent a lot of time doing this.

In Rhode Island, very young children (who couldn’t be expected to work much) came with a premium paid by the town. Colored children made up 25 percent of all indentures in Rhode Island, where apprenticeships lasted longer.

Overseers of the Poor

In the 17th and 18th centuries, poor families in Puritan New England could expect a knock on the door. The door would open to admit selectmen or overseers of the poor, who would inspect their home. Then they’d decide whether or not to take a child away from the family as a pauper apprentice.

In the case of craft apprentices, like Paul Revere (silversmithing) or Benjamin Franklin (printing), parents had a say in the terms of the agreement. Not so in the case of poor, abandoned, orphaned or illegitimate children.

Puritan town officials even took children from their homes if they thought the parents immoral. Around 1644, for example, they took two children away from Ruben Guppy of Salem and apprenticed them to another family. Guppy had gone to court many times for stealing fences, lying and accusing his wife of a “wanton dalliance.” He’d also said something blasphemous to Puritan ears. God, he believed, found his nail parings as acceptable as a day of Thanksgiving,

Heartfelt Pleas

But town leaders also seized children from their parents because of their poverty. In Northampton, Mass., town officials in 1680 took two sons and one daughter away from Robert Lyman and his wife. They apprenticed the children to other families despite the parents’ heartfelt pleas to the court to keep their children.

It could have been worse for Mr. and Mrs. Lyman. In 1756, Massachusetts passed a law that ordered selectmen to bind out adults as workers for one year if they couldn’t support their children. Three years later, the colony passed another law allowing an unmarried mother to be indentured for five years if the child went on the dole before the age of five. Those two laws only took effect for a few years, and the Legislature did not reenact them.

Isaiah Thomas, Success Story

For some poor children like Isaiah Thomas, apprenticeship was the best thing that could happen to them.

Success story Isaiah Thomas

Isaiah Thomas’ father abandoned the family, leaving his wife to support five children. Isaiah went to live with a family in the country between the ages of two and six. At seven, he returned to Boston, where authorities drew up an apprenticeship contract on July 7, 1756, to a printer named Zachariah Fowle.

Until he turned 21, Isaiah had to obey Fowle, keep his secrets, leave him only with permission and avoid gambling, taverns, fornication and matrimony. In return, Fowle had to teach him printing, to cipher, read and write, and to give him two freedom suits when he turned 21.

Freedom suits, by the way, had considerable value. In 1761 a freedom suit was worth about five months’ wages. A few poor apprentices also received freedom dues in the form of cash, land or tools.

Isaiah Thomas ran away from Fowle at age 18, but returned to Boston and started an influential newspaper, The Massachusetts Spy. Thomas took up the patriot cause and emerged as the foremost publisher of his age. He was an ally of John Hancock and Sam Adams and friend of Paul Revere.

During the Siege of Boston, Thomas smuggled his printing press out of town and settled in Worcester. There he published the Bible, almanacs and the History of Printing in America. He also formed the American Antiquarian Society.

From Boston to the Boonies

In 18th-century Boston, children could end up as apprentices far from home and family. Hard economic times had fallen on the town after a series of wars and smallpox epidemics. Impressment of sailors by the British Royal Navy had also scared off shipping.

But settlers spreading out into outlying towns needed plenty of help. They looked to Boston’s poor to get it.

  • In 1745, Edward Holin was apprenticed in Boston at the age of 18 months to Robert Anderson, a housewright in Chester, N.H.
  • Five years later, five-year-old Mary Hermon left Boston to apprentice as a household servant to a trader named Joseph Langeret in Lebanon, Conn.
  • In 1765, seven-year-old Thomas More departed Boston for Pownalborough, Maine, as an apprentice housewright for the next 14 years to James Flagg.

Conversely, Rhode Island’s economy thrived, and the colony’s wharves and workshops needed cheap labor. Perhaps that’s why Rhode Island’s pauper apprentice boys didn’t win their freedom until 24, girls until 21.

Mary Butcher, 7, Apprentice

Few poor boy apprentices came close to Isaiah Thomas’ success. Historian Lawrence Towner found only three apprentices listed as masters of their own trade in 1796 out of 60 boys bound out to tradesmen between 1760 and 1790. They worked as a tailor, a hairdresser and a tobacconist.

The best that could happen to a poor servant girl was marriage to a decent husband. Other than that, she’d spend her life in service or, like Mary Butcher, end up in the poorhouse.

In 1754, Boston authorities bound seven-year-old Mary Butcher as an apprentice servant to Richard Storkney, a yeoman farmer in Stoughton, Mass.


The Idle Servant by Nicholas Maas.

For the next 11 years she had to work for him in exchange for room, board and a rudimentary education.

Storkney, like all masters, had to produce letters testifying to his good character (the Nathaniel Sewall case had apparently proved instructive). Then Mrs. Storkney had to train Mary to spin wool, to keep house and to read. (Girls didn’t need writing or math.) When Mary got her freedom at 18, the Storkneys had to give her two freedom dresses.

Fifty years later she reappeared in the record, poor, single and lame in Canton, Mass. The overseers of the poor wrote, “She is a person whom nature has not been over bountiful in furnishing her mental faculties.” They sent her to the Boston poorhouse, where she presumably died.

End Notes

With thanks to: Markets for Children in Early America: A Political Economy of Pauper Apprenticeship John E. Murray and Ruth Wallis Herndon in The Journal of Economic History, 2002. Graham Millar, The Poor Apprentices of Boston: Indentures of Poor Children Bound Out Apprentice By the ‘Overseers of the Poor of Boston, July 4, 1958. And The Indentures of Boston’s Poor Apprentices: 1734-1805 by Lawrence W. Towner, 1962.

Images: Young Girl at Spinning Wheel By https://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/obf_images/0a/28/c704a981cdb6bf5f30d829506d67.jpgGallery: https://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/image/V0039573.html Wellcome Collection gallery (2018-03-23): https://wellcomecollection.org/works/th7sdqf4 CC-BY-4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36633776. This story was updated in 2023.

1 comment

Poor Family Matrimony January 10, 2020 - 8:50 am

[…] When Poor Apprentice Laborers Were 2 Years Old – The door would open to admit selectmen or overseers of the poor, who would inspect their home. Then they’d decide whether or. […]

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