APPRENTICES: Craftspeople in Training
Starting a new life in early seventeenth century America was not easy.
Lack of proper food, poor medical care, and severe weather are a few of
the things that killed many settlers. Despite these brutal conditions,
people wanted to move to the young colonies. Not all of them were humble
people who desired religious freedom. Many new arrivals dreamed of owning
businesses, land, and homes. Those who didn't have the money for their
passage to the colonies often signed contracts called indentures. As
they agreed to work for the individuals who paid their passage. It was
similar to taking out a loan -- it had to be repaid by a certain amount of
labor which was stated in the contract.
Children were also commonly indentured. This was done to pay the price
of their passage to the new country, or to pay for their training and
education. Sometimes children were indentured because the parents needed
some cash. Children had no rights, and the parents could contract to have
their child work for a certain number of years to pay off the loan.
When a child was indentured to an artisan for the purpose of being trained
in a craft, he was called an apprentice. Training by apprenticeship was a
very common way for a young person to learn a trade. A strict master was
considered to be a good thing -- he would keep the boy in line and make sure
he learned all he needed to know. A contract would be signed agreeing that
the young person would work for the master for a certain period of time in
order to pay for the value of the training he would receive. The contract
stated what was expected from both the master and the apprentice during the
An apprentice vowed to keep any trade or other secrets his master showed
him. He promised to be loyal to his master. He said he wouldn't lie about
his master or allow others to speak badly about him. He swore he would not
leave his master's service without permission, even for one day. He promised
he wouldn't buy or sell anything that belonged to him or his master without
permission. He pledged he wouldn't gamble or go to taversns, alehouses, or
playhouses (theaters). Finally, the apprentice swore he wouldn't get married
or be guilty of any immoral behavior for as long as he served his master.
The master promised to teach his apprentice the art and mystery of his
craft. He was to ensure that the youth learned to write and do arithmetic,
if capable. At the end of the servitude, the master usually gave the
apprentice a set of tools and any other freedom dues, or terminal gifts, that
had been set forth in the indenture. As long as the young person stayed in
his service, the master was to provide him with food, clothing, and a place
Until the American Revolution, there was little difference between colonial
and English indentures. However, in the colonies, the number of years an
apprentice had to serve did vary.
Original colonial indentures were based on English municipal laws and laws
adhered to by English guilds. Guilds were organizations similar to modern
trade unions. They ensured their members had completed extensive training
and earned the right to be called master craftspeople. Two specific
English laws, the Statute of Artificers of 1563 and the Poor Law of 1601, set
the standards and practices accepted and enforced by guilds and local
The Statute of Artificers was written to provide inexpensive, semiskilled
labor for craftspeople. The Poor Law of 1601 dealt with guardianship and
support of orphans and poor children. Although this second law did not state
that a craftsperson had to train his "pauper apprentice", the majority of
artisans did provide this education for their wards.
These laws had several things in common. Both stated that an apprentice
was bound to a master by a recorded indenture. The servitude period was to
be a minimum of seven years. However, girls could be released from their
indenture by marriage. These laws established that a master was to treat his
apprentice like his own child.
Similar laws were enforced in the colonies. For example, in Virginia, the
Poor Law of 1672 authorized the county court to apprentice poor and
illegitimate children whose parents could not afford to raise them. Officials
believed they were preventing these children from becoming vagabonds,
ruffians, or drunkards. In 1619 this same procedure had been used by the
Virginia Company to bring one hundred orphans from the streets of London to
the colonies, where their indentures were quickly purchased. The venture was
so successful it was often repeated, and not only by the Virginia Company.
By 1621 it was difficult for craftspeople in the sparsely populated colonies
to find apprentices. The great demand for help during the seventeenth century
led to children being trepanned, or kidnapped, in English seacoast towns. In
time, corrupt authorities made a lot of money by participating in the growing
practice of kidnapping of children and adults. Some kidnapped children
transported to the colonies never saw their families again. Trepanning and
the speedy purchase of indentures show how desperate colonial craftspeople
and others were to get apprentices and servants.
There were no child labor laws in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Children worked as soon as they were physically able. If authorities felt
that a child knew what he was doing and could sign or mark an indenture, the
contract was legal, regardless of the child's age. Generally, a child was
apprenticed at fourteen. One unusual case is that of Gabriel Muray of
Yorktown, Virginia. His mother bound him at the age of one to John
Richardson, a carpenter and joiner. The boy's indenture read that he was to
serve until "the full age of twenty-one".
In an ideal situation, when a colonial boy turned fourteen, his parents
found a kind master craftsperson to teach the youth the trade he wanted to
learn. For the next four to seven years, the apprentice worked diligently.
He learned all he could, and he helped his adopted family around the house.
After his servitude, he received his freedom dues of land, an ax and a hoe,
some Indian corn or tobacco, and perhaps some money. He then stayed on with
his master as a paid journeyman. When he earned enough money, he opened his
own business as a master craftsperson. Maybe he even married his ex-master's
daughter and taught his craft to apprentices of his own.
Things didn't usually happen this way, however. The child's feelings were
seldom considered when his parents chose a trade for him. If he were the
oldest son of a craftsperson, he generally learned and then inherited his
father's business. Younger sons were apprenticed to any craftsperson who
needed or wanted them.
The master filled an apprentice's days with work from sunrise until sunset.
The youngster rose early in the morning and completed household chores before
leaving for his master's shop. When it was dark, he returned to his master's
house, did his evening chores, ate, and worked on his reading or arithmetic
before going to bed. On Sundays, if the master was pious, the lucky
apprentice got to spend all day in church. Apprentices who worked outdoors
often got a reprieve if the weather turned bad.
Girls who were apprenticed worked as hard as boys. It would be more
accurate to refer to these young women as indentured servants. They were
seldom taught a trade unless it had to do with some type of domestic work.
They learned to sew, cook, and run a home -- skills that prepared them for
marriage, not careers. Girls who didn't act like "ladies" were sent to the
fields to work. They were fortunate if their masters taught them to write
or do math. Since the lives of most settlers revolved around religion,
girls were taught to read and study the Bible. Yet even those girls not
apprenticed rarely attended school. When a young lady's term of service
was over, she received freedom dues, which usually consisted of Indian corn
or tobacco, perhaps a new set of clothes, and some money. Quite often,
girls would marry before the official end of their bondage.
The lives of apprentices could be very difficult. Long hours filled with
hard work, beatings, and poor food and shelter sometimes led to death. Few
people thought a master was wrong to beat an apprentice, and if the apprentice
ran away, he could be severely punished.
Perhaps a runaway would be forced to wear a "pot hook" when he was captured.
To a colonist, this was a sign of shame. An apprentice who "absented himself
from his master without permission", could receive other punishments. In some
colonies a captured runaway might have been whipped. Or he might have had to
work additional time to repay his master for money spent in trying to recover
him. This might have included money for advertising, paying a reward, the
expenses of the people returning the runaway apprentice, and anything that he
might have stolen when he ran away.
To keep runaways to a minimum, colonial legislators created laws to protect
apprentices and allow them to voice grievances against their masters.
Just as an apprentice was required to stay with his master, a master was
obligated to remain in one place and teach his ward. If he failed to do this,
he was penalized. Unusually cruel masters could be, and were, punished. One
documented case involved a boy who was brought to the colonies from England.
He became very ill with scurvy and was in poor health because, "His master
used him with continual rigor and unmerciful correction." When the boy died
as a result of this treatment, his master was hung. Another incident in New
England involved Judith Weekes. She admitted to causing the death of her
husband's apprentice by cutting off his toes. Not all cases were this severe.
A female servant in Virginia was dunked for disrespect. Her master was also
dunked because he failed to maintain proper authority over her.
If an apprentice's complaints were found to be true, he could be removed
from one master and placed with another. The laws written in the colonies
protected both the apprentice and the master from violations of indenture
obligations. The courts were generally fair to both parties.
Thousands of people came to the colonies as indentured servants. Many took
advantage of their freedom dues and went on to become prosperous citizens.
Their children and grandchildren fought for freedom and helped to create the
United States. Americans should feel great pride as they talk about these
industrious people, for many of them are descendants of indentured servants.
Information from the book
Colonial American Craftspeople
by Bernardine S. Stevens
by Sandra S. Bray