Job Hunting: Apprenticeships and Indentured Servitude

By David A. Fryxell Premium

Among the oldest occupational records you’re likely to find are those for two kinds of employment almost unheard of today: apprenticeships, in which a young person was bound to a master to learn a trade, and indentured servitude, in which a person was committed to working off a debt, such as payment for passage to America. The two often overlap, and in Colonial America the agreement apprenticing a youth was called an indenture. These documents are valuable for genealogy because they had to be signed by the apprentice’s parent or guardian. Most apprentices were teenage boys, and they were obligated to work at their trade until age 21. The term of an apprenticeship can be used to estimate an apprenticed ancestor’s age, by subtracting the term from 21.

Typically, apprentice ship records were made at the local level, but many of these documents have since migrated into state archives and historical societies. If you have English ancestors, you might be able to use apprenticeship records to trace your kin back to the old country; the UK Public Records Office has a helpful guide to these resources at < asp?RequestReference=ri2187>. For early American ancestors, the FHL has collections of apprenticeship documents from Pennsylvania and Virginia. offers a database of more than 8,000 Virginia apprentices from 1623 to 1800.

Indenture records also can overlap with passenger records, as the most common type of indenture was payment for passage to America. State and local archives may hold indenture records, although these can take a bit of digging to find. The Pennsylvania State Archives, for instance, has two boxes labeled “Records of the Proprietary Government, Provincial Council, 1682 1776 — Miscellaneous Papers, 1664-1775,” among which a dedicated researcher could uncover the Oct. 31, 1765, agreement binding one Charles Carroll of Maryland to Richard McCallister.
From the April 2005 Family Tree Magazine