Colonizing the Children:

Indian Youngsters in Servitude in Early Rhode Island

Ruth Wallis Herndon and Ella Wilcox Sekatau

This essay describes how Indian children in early Rhode Island were colonized through the practice of “pauper apprenticeship,” whereby Anglo-American officials took legal orphans and also children described as “poor,” “bastard,” and “suffering” away from their parents and bound them to more prosperous masters until the children reached adulthood. On the surface, this kind of indentured servitude remedied perceived problems or poverty, bastardy, desertion, and death by raising supposedly vulnerable children in households that Anglo-American authorities considered more “respectable.” But at a deeper level, this coerced servitude, rooted in English poor law, effectively secured the labor of particular youngsters to serve the needs of the community in general and larger property owners in particular. The system also enabled local officials and “respectable” inhabitants to impose their ideal of family organization on others by removing children from “improper” situations and placing them in “proper” households, where they would be maintained during their youth and trained for adulthood in ways deemed appropriate for their race, sex, and class.

“Pauper apprenticeship” was a system akin to but distinct from three other types of bound labor: gradual emancipation apprenticeships (by which children born to slaves in Rhode Island after March 1, 1784, remained under the control of their mothers’ masters until adulthood); private apprenticeships (by which many middling sort parents voluntarily placed their children with neighbors or relatives for skills training); and immigrant indentures (by which many European adults obtained passage to North America). In contrast to these other forms of bound labor, pauper apprenticeship was arranged by Anglo-American officials responsible for the poor of the community, and the whole system rested on these officials’ perceptions of “disorder” in the families within their jurisdiction. These perceptions are revealed most clearly in the paper contracts (indentures) that describe the children’s family situations and stipulate the terms of the master-servant relationships into which they were thrust.

Pauper apprenticeship contracts reveal a prejudicial attitude on the part of Anglo-American officials towards those described as other than white, and for this reason it is necessary to evaluate the records in the light of oral tradition generated by the people most affected by the system. Ruth Herndon’s analysis rests on a study of 1,200 indentures written into the Rhode Island town records between 1660 and 1860. The statistics reported below are drawn from a core subset of this body of evidence—some 759 contracts from the period 1750—1800, when pauper apprenticeship was at its height.1 Ella Sekatau’s analysis rests on the oral tradition of the Narragansett tribe, for which she is ethnohistorian, genealogist, medicine woman, and language teacher. From earliest childhood, she was trained in Narragansett customs and history stretching back over centuries to the time prior to contact with European settlers. Throughout her life, she has been an observer, listener, and keeper of confidences for the people of her tribe. Now in her seventies, she embodies Narragansett oral tradition.

The archival record and oral tradition, examined together, indicate that in early Rhode Island, pauper apprenticeship immobilized Indian and African American children—especially girls—at what authorities deemed to be their appropriate “station” in life. Children of color were highly overrepresented in pauper apprenticeship, constituting some 25 percent of these young laborers at a time when all people of color probably constituted around 10 percent of the region’s general population.2 Further, Indian and African American boys were often bound out for longer terms than Anglo-American boys, while simultaneously receiving lesser training and eventual payment. Indian and African American girls were particularly disadvantaged—bound out at younger ages than boys, for longer terms than Anglo-American girls, and for fewer benefits in education, training, and payment than all other bound children. Narragansett oral tradition corroborates these statistics by showing that many Anglo-American farmers, shopkeepers, and other householders profited from the system by enjoying long years of practically free menial labor performed by Indian youngsters.

In the larger context or colonialism, pauper apprenticeship functioned as a primary means of English dominance over the Narragansett and other native people who remained behind the frontier of contact. This form of bondage enabled Anglo-Americans to enslave Indians without calling it “slavery.” Indian adults resisted enslavement, which they considered an insult and a violation of the sacred gender division of community labor; oral tradition informs us that many native people refused to labor, despite flogging, or fled bondage, seeding migrations of Narragansett to the north and west.3 Indian children, however, were more easily ensnared and indoctrinated. By sliding these youngsters into servitude at an early age, one generation after another, Anglo-Americans effectively maintained colonial race and gender hierarchies and continuously reinforced the colonized status of Indian people.

This essay pays special attention to children specifically designated as “Indian” or “mustee” in the documentary record, but also takes into account children designated as “black,” “mulatto,” “Negro,” or “colored.” As used by eighteenth- and nineteenth-century town officials as a whole, racial labels do not always accurately reveal the ancestry of people of color, but they do reveal record-keepers’ attempts to create a divide between “white” and “other.” Racial designations were employed ambiguously throughout the 1700s and 1800s, effectively conflating Native American and African into one undifferentiated other-than-white group in the Anglo-American records.4 In 1757, for example, the Providence clerk described a child named Santee as “Indian” in one copy of the boy’s indenture and “molatto” in another copy.5 A Portsmouth clerk described an eight-year-old child as “molatto” in the text of her indenture but as “Indian” in a marginal reference, and a Westerly clerk described Jehu Quocco as “mustee” but labeled his brother “a black boy.”6 Since officials routinely blurred racial distinctions in this manner, and since some children did have mixed ancestry, this study includes all children who appear in the records as other than “white” in order to discover their distinctive treatment and experience.

Arbitrary and ambiguous racial labeling underscores a fluid state of race relations in southeastern New England (as elsewhere in Anglo-America) in the latter part of the eighteenth century.7 Revolutionary fervor resulted in the more frequent voluntary manumission of slaves, and the gradual emancipation legislation of the 1780s promised to direct a steady stream of free young people of color into the general population beginning in the early 1800s. Further, both oral tradition and the documentary record tell us that free Indian people continued to move about the region during this era in order to obtain work and maintain kin connections, drawing the attention of officials whenever the expanding Anglo-American population was inconvenienced by Indian lifeways.8 There was thus a growing awareness of people of color on the part of Anglo-American officials, who worked more energetically than ever to regulate the lives of those they considered not “white.” Indentured servitude, in particular, offered a convenient way to bring children of color under the control of “respectable” people.

In 1730, the Rhode Island colonial legislature passed a law designed to prevent “evil-minded persons” from “draw[ing] Indians into their debt, by selling them goods, at extravagant rates.” This law specifically forbade private indentures that bound Indians “for longer time than is just and reasonable”; it further mandated that all such contracts be approved by two justices of the peace or other public officials.9 When this law was renewed and updated in 1783, the state legislature noted once again that “unjust advantages are frequently taken of the Indians of the Narragansett tribe within this state” by non-Indians, ensnaring them in debt.10 No such law prevented the involuntary servitude of Indian children, however; in fact, Rhode Island law encouraged such practice, by characterizing these youngsters as “poor,” “liable to become chargeable,” or otherwise subject to the dictates of town authorities.

In a typical pauper apprenticeship contract enacted in 1767, South Kingstown officials bound four-year-old “Indian boy” John, “son to Rexom,” to widow Ann Mumford. John was to live with and labor for widow Mumford for a term of twenty years, until “he shall arrive to ye age of twenty four years.” Widow Mumford, by convention, would supply John with all the necessities of life as deemed appropriate for an Indian child, and at the end of his indenture, he was to receive from her “one new suit of apparel throughout, besides his usual clothing from head to foot.”11 In another typical contract, this time from 1784, the Warwick town council ruled that three-year-old Lucy, a “molatto or mustee” daughter of “one Diadami Spywood,” was “likely to become chargeable”—that is, likely to need poor relief. Declaring it to be “for the interest of the Town to bind out the child,” the councilmen offered a cash premium to whomever would take an indenture of her. William Burton of the neighboring town of Cranston came forward and “offered to take said child for nine pounds lawful money and bring it up until it should be eighteen years old,” a fifteen-year contract. During that time, Burton was obligated to “find and provide for said child sufficient meat, drink, washing, lodging and apparel suitable to its station and degree.” He also agreed to “learn said apprentice to read (if capable of learning),” and to give to her, at the end of her contract, “one new suit of decent apparel.”12

The essence of all servitude contracts lay in such mutual obligations between servant and master. In typical fashion, John and Lucy were bound to live with and labor for their master and mistress, obey them, keep the secrets of their business, and refrain from running away or getting married. Masters were always obligated to provide room, board, and clothing, and were sometimes charged with providing basic literacy education and training in a particular skill.

Girls constituted a minority of these child servants. Overall, two-thirds of the indentures were for boys, although girls and boys were nearly at parity in the general population, according to the 1782 census;13 this dichotomy holds for both Indian and non-Indian children bound out in pauper apprenticeship. This does not mean that girls labored any less than boys, only that female labor was less frequently secured in a contract, regulated by outside authority, and recompensed with freedom dues, as meager as they might be. The documentary record is dotted with instances of Indian and African American girls working for Anglo-American masters without an official indenture, and oral tradition informs us that Indian girls took on such menial service as a means to earn a few pennies.

Town leaders usually bound out a child in response to a “complaint” lodged by a “respectable” member of the community concerning perceived poverty or disorder in the child’s family. In many cases of children of color, the complainant was a person in whose household the child had already been living, so that indenture formalized an existing relationship. For example, in 1755 Peter Talman asked the Tiverton council for an indenture of an unnamed “mullatto” girl who had been living with him “several years.”14 Similarly, David Larkin asked the Warwick council for an indenture of eleven-year-old “black boy” George Mew, who had “lived at his house ever since he was about three years of age.”15 These and other requests for indenture were presented in the record as appropriate recompense for the cost of raising the child—Peter Talman wanted “satisfaction” for his “charge & trouble” and David Larkin for his “considerable expence” prior to an official contract. When Peleg Babcock asked the South Kingstown councilmen for a formal indenture of Sip, a fourteen-year-old “mulatto” boy who had been living with him for some unspecified length of time, Babcock received rights to Sip’s labor until he was twenty-one, a handsome profit for his having cared for the boy in his early years.16 Oral tradition asserts that such contracts were less concerned with real payment for the supposed costs of a child’s maintenance than they were an opportunity for masters to co-opt labor as compensation for losses and injuries they had sustained at the hands of other Indians.

Significantly, the archival records often fail to reveal the whole story of how an Indian or African American child came to be lodged in a would-be master’s household; the reader is left with the impression that these youngsters were parentless. In fact, as oral tradition asserts, many of the Indian and African American children who appeared so desirable as pauper apprentices had been living in Anglo-American households because their mothers labored there as servants. A careful piecing together of the documentary record shows this to be the case with Rexom and her son John, mentioned above. In 1746, twenty-one years before John was bound to Widow Mumford, John’s mother Rexom, then three years old, was bound to Mumford’s then-living husband, William. Rexom’s mother was identified as “a mustee woman commonly called and known by the name of Mary Perry who lives at the house of Mr. William Mumford.”17 The family history was this: Mary Perry, servant to William Mumford, gave birth to Rexom, who was indentured to Mumford; a generation later, Rexom, still in service to Mumford’s widow, gave birth to John, who was then indentured to Widow Mumford. Children such as Rexom and John were not neglected or orphaned; their mothers bore and raised them while laboring as servants.

The patriarchal tone of the records disguises both this process by which Indian and African American children came to interest potential masters and the associated process by which all young indentured servants were nurtured and trained. While servants were technically under the official “government” of the master, they were under the daily care and management of women in the master’s household. It is patently unbelievable, for example, that Dr. John Chace of Providence instructed “mulatto child” Betsey Richmond how to perform “common household business,” as her indenture specified; it was most certainly Chace’s wife, other female relatives, or female servants who did the actual “instruction.”18 In some cases, pauper apprenticeship contracts indicate that child servants were going to a master “and wife,” and in some instances the wife was explicitly mentioned as essential to the success of the indenture. If a master’s wife died, for example, young servants—especially female ones—would quickly be taken out of the home where there was no longer a “proper person” to raise them.19

In many cases, an Indian or African American woman serving in an Anglo-American household actually proved to be the “proper person” to raise young Indian and African American servants, to tend to the children’s daily maintenance and practical instruction. Understanding this reality and in a position to know the inner dynamics of households in their neighborhood, Indian mothers sometimes actively selected places for their sons and daughters, putting them where they would best receive the necessities of life and other care. The official records represent these actions as instances of Indian women “leaving” their children, the wording suggestive of abandonment or neglect on the part of the mothers. But when read with a knowledge of oral tradition, these records instead indicate a shrewd and thoughtful oversight on the part of the mothers. For example, in 1757, Indian woman Moll Pero “left” her five-year-old son in Joseph Underwood’s household. Five years later, Underwood appealed to the Jamestown councilmen to give him an indenture of the boy, since the mother “though often called upon still refuses to bind him.” In all likelihood, Pero had found a way to ensure the competent care of her son in a nearby household, probably one in which she labored periodically, without having to sign a formal indenture until absolutely necessary.20

A related family strategy of Indian mothers was to place two siblings together in the care of one master. For example, Dan Weeden asked the Jamestown councilmen to bind to him two Indian children, a four-year-old boy and a fifteen-year-old girl, whose mother, the Indian woman Betty Jack, had “left” them with him “for a maintenance” for the previous six months. Weeden viewed the indenture as “satisfaction” for the “extraordinary trouble” of feeding and clothing the children for six months; in fact, he probably had been well recompensed by the fifteen-year-old girl’s labor during that time. In any case, Betty Jack apparently viewed the indenture as a way of making sure her daughter and son lived together in a household of her own choosing.21 Similarly, “Indian” brothers Cesar and Jemmy (sons of Indian woman Tabitha) and “mustee” siblings Harry and Sarah (children of Indian woman Betty) were placed together in South Kingstown; “Negro” children Simon and Patience (children of Cesar Talbury) were placed together in East Greenwich; and “black” children John and Isabel (children of Rosanna Brown) were placed together in Exeter.22 This recurring pattern corroborates the evidence of oral tradition—that watchful Indian mothers, unable to care for their children independently, deliberately placed them in the best non-Indian household available.

Whether watchful mothers, potential masters, or concerned neighbors instigated the process, the indenture itself was arranged by town leaders, whose right to bind out poor children was derived specifically from Anglo-American poor law, adapted in each colony and state from English precedent.23 Such laws encoded a communitarian understanding of patriarchy, in which town “fathers” preserved order by governing all members of their public “family.” These “fathers” understood hierarchy to be essential to good community order, and they saw themselves as doing the right thing when they took children from situations they deemed “improper” and put them under “proper” authority in other households.

Thus a child was indentured when town leaders perceived it to be necessary, and in many cases, they explained their action as the solution to a problem caused by a particular circumstance in the child’s birth family.24 Illegitimate or “bastard” children accounted for roughly one-fifth (18 percent, or 134 cases) of the indentures. Another fifth (19 percent, or 143 cases) were identified as “orphans” because their fathers had died or had abandoned them, although their mothers still lived.25 Another 16 percent (119 cases) were described simply as “poor” without further elaboration, probably indicating illness or disability on the part of one or both parents. Most significantly, one quarter of the children were identified only by racial designation rather than by family circumstances, showing that officials used the terms “Indian,” “mustee,” “mulatto,” “black,” and “Negro” as synonyms for “poor,” or “bastard,” or “orphan.”

This racial explanation for indenture invites scrutiny. The elision of poverty and Indian-ness indicates that communitarian patriarchy was overlaid by a colonialist view of Indians as “savages” who had previously been conquered and subjugated and who now stood in need of oversight by Anglo-Americans. But there is more here. By substituting racial labels for cause of indenture, officials avoided the necessity of explaining a child’s family situation. Where did these “Indian,” “mustee,” “black,” “mulatto,” and “Negro” children come from? Who were their mothers and fathers? As we have shown above, many of these children were born to mothers already in indentured servitude or other forms of bondage; indeed, some of these children were sons and daughters of their masters.

Significantly, clerks avoided using the terms “bastard” and “orphan” to explain indentures of children of color. Young servant Lucy Spywood was not identified as an orphan, even though the record suggests that her mother had died;26 in fact, children of color were never designated as “orphans,” even though many were bound out when one or both parents died. Both oral tradition and archival evidence indicate that children of color were often bound out during disease epidemics, when a parent or grandparent died or was disabled. When Indian man Peter Norton and wife Rose died of smallpox in 1776, their two sons Richmond and Peter were bound out; when former slave Patience Havens died of yellow fever, her granddaughter Sophia was bound out.27 Another frequent cause for indenture was a father’s death in military service. When Indians Samuel Quince and Peter Cobb died “in ye late expedition against Cape Breton,” the Westerly council bound out their children to local residents who asked for indentures of the youngsters.28 When Indian man William Brushet died while serving “as a soldier against his Majesty’s enemies” during the French-Indian war, his two younger siblings were bound out by East Greenwich authorities.29

Nor was Indian boy John (described above) identified as a “bastard,” even though his mother Rexom was not married (according to Anglo-American criteria) when she bore him.30 Violet, a “mustee” child bound out in Warwick, was similarly born to unmarried parents but never referred to as illegitimate or “bastard.”31 In fact, only six indentures (of 759) identify a servant as being both a “bastard” and a child of color. “Bastard” and “orphan” imply a specific legal relation between a child and its father. The absence of these terms may indicate that authorities could not verify the identity of the child’s father, the marital status of the parents, or the existence of an estate, which a child needed to be a legal “orphan” in order to inherit.32 But the absence of the terms also substantiates what oral tradition tells us about these situations—that town authorities knew quite well when the mother’s master was the father of her child, and that respectable Anglo-Americans did not want to sully each other’s reputations by documenting intimate associations with “bastard” children. By keeping such family relationships vague, officials gave themselves room to treat the children as part of the great servant pool, to bind them out as if they were children of unknown fathers.

Whatever the reasons for omitting a cause for indenture in the case of particular children, it is clear that officials generally skipped an explanation because they assumed a right to manage the lives of Indian and African American children. Rhode Island town leaders scrutinized the private lives of people of color—even those who had never been enslaved or who had long since been set free—with an eye to placing them under supervision. Some Indians avoided the intervention of town authorities for a considerable portion of their lives, because they converted to Christianity, or minded their own business and worked hard, or had no children to interest or concern Anglo-Americans. Indeed, many Indians lived out of sight of the Anglo-American community and came to notice only when an epidemic or other catastrophe drove them to a state of need and higher visibility. Rhode Islanders made repeated attempts to remedy their incomplete knowledge of the numbers and circumstances of the Indians living in their communities. Middletown voters, for example, decided that all free “Indians and mulattos” should be under the management of the overseers of the poor; and Providence councilmen similarly ruled that a “list” be compiled of “all transient white people in poor circumstances, as also of the blacks of all descriptions whatever dwelling in this town.”33 Further, a number of towns authorized periodic “round-ups” that brought all people of color before the authorities to be counted, questioned, intimidated, warned out and/or put to labor. The Tiverton council ordered all “black people” who did not “belong” to the town to leave within one month; if they did not, the overseers of the poor would “take them up and put them in a workhouse and keep them to labor.”34 The Providence council advertised at one point for interested persons to take indentures of “a number of black men, women, & children now here and others expected.”35 In this atmosphere of oversight, taking particular Indian children under official management in indenture required little explanation or justification.

By the latter half of the eighteenth century, putting children of color into indentures had become routine in Rhode Island communities. The general terms of these contracts were set by custom, if not by law, leaving only three details to be negotiated by officials and potential masters: the “premium” a master might receive for taking on the indenture; the skill and literacy training he would provide; and the “freedom dues” he would pay the servant at the end of the contract.

The premium was designed to close the gap between the cost of the child’s upkeep and the value of the child’s labor. Some 16 percent of the indentures (116 out of 759) involved some sort of premium, usually offered in cases of very young or slightly disabled Anglo-American children. (The older the child at the time of the indenture, the lower the premium, and most children over the age of six brought no such allotment.) Most masters of Indian and African American children did not receive premiums; instead, authorities compensated them by lengthening the child’s indenture past the typical age of freedom.36 Thus John, son of Rexom, was bound out to age twenty-four instead of the usual twenty-one, highlighting what seems a deliberate strategy to secure the labor of children of color for the extended use of the master, and pointing up the similarity between this kind of indenture and slavery.

Also under negotiation were the skill and literacy training the master was to provide. Training clauses varied with the race and sex of the child, indicating that officials matched the child and the training so as to preserve what seemed to them natural distinctions of class, race, and sex. Girls and children of color were at a distinct disadvantage. In about one-third of the Anglo-American boys’ indentures (124 of 373 cases), literacy clauses were recorded, and they were for “reading, writing and cyphering” in 83 percent of the cases (103 of 124, or 83.1%). Only 13 percent (16 of 124) of the African American and Indian boys’ indentures contained a literacy clause, and those clauses were far less likely to include writing and cyphering.37 About one-fifth of the Anglo-American girls’ contracts (37 of 199) contained literacy clauses; about half of those clauses (17, or 45.9%) required reading only, and about half (18, or 48.6%) required reading and writing only; only one contract included cyphering. Only 14 percent (9 of 63 cases) of the African American and Indian girls’ indentures contained a literacy clause, and two-thirds, of those were for reading only.38

Skills training clauses appear in 22 percent of all indentures (167 out of 759), and once again Anglo-American boys were promised the most benefits and Indian and African American girls the fewest.39 One-third (126 of 374, or 33.7%) of the contracts for Anglo-American boys stipulated skills training and bound the boys to enter a variety of trades. About 9 percent (11 of 124, or 8.8%) of the indentures for Indian and African American boys stipulated training. Although these contracts limited the boys to less lucrative skills, such as coopering and shoemaking, the children usually were trained only in general farming.40 Thirteen percent (26 of 199, or 13.1%) of the contracts for Anglo-American girls stipulated training, as did 6 percent (4 of 63, or 6.3%) of the contracts for Indian and African American girls. When training was specified for Anglo-American girls, it was generally in “housewifery” or “spinning,” though occasionally a girl was to learn to be a “tailoress.”41 Particular training, even in that vague occupation “household business,” was only rarely specified for girls of color. In a few cases, an Indian or African American girl was bound to learn the work of a “spinster” or to do “general housework”; more blunt was the stipulation in the contract of Sophia Havens, daughter of a “black” woman, that obligated her to do the work of a “house servant.”42

Oral tradition informs us that the denial of literacy and skills training to Indian children—girls in particular—was a deliberate strategy to secure the cooperation of these youngsters in their own servitude. Young laborers who were unable to read, write, do basic math, or earn a competent living at a valuable skill or trade were likely to be dependent people. They were unlikely to realize when they were being cheated, unlikely to protest their situations, and unlikely to make demands upon their masters. Thus masters tried to maintain a “class” of people prepared to perform the menial tasks that Anglo-Americans themselves did not want to do. The lesser training of certain children was suggestively codified in the 1798 revision of the Rhode Island poor law, which gave town officials power “to bind out by deed indented or poll, as apprentices to be instructed and employed in any lawful art, trade or mystery, or as servants to be employed in any lawful work or labour, any male or female children.”43 This clause effectively created two classes of indentured children—those being educated in a particular skill and those being employed as “servants.” Given this law’s passage in an era of voluntary manumissions and gradual emancipation, it seems likely that it was designed to create distinctions between Anglo-American children and children of color.44

In reality, oral tradition reveals, most Indian children were learning traditional native skills along with their “white” training; they were not completely cut off from Indian ceremony and celebration, even if they lived in Anglo-American households, and they were frequently coached by older Indian domestic servants and day laborers. Nor were they as ignorant of “white” skills as their masters might have thought. Some became literate despite the master’s neglect of this formal training. Some also developed skill in arithmetic (for which the Narragansett traditionally have an aptitude), figured out the value of their labor, and began to make demands of their masters.

The final element of pauper apprenticeship indentures comprised “freedom dues,” the small payment a servant received when a contract ended and he or she was set free. This payment was always written into an indenture, and it varied widely in value, according to officials’ assessment of a child’s status when the contract was first forged.45 Freedom dues almost always included clothing, which varied according to the servant’s perceived rank: Anglo-American children generally received two outfits, children of color, one. The standard phrase for Indian and African American children was “one new suit of apparel,” without specifications concerning the quality or detail of the outfit. Contextual phrases reveal how that quality differed according to race. Lucy Spywood, mentioned earlier, was to receive “one new suit of decent apparel.”46 A “mulatto child” named only “Phebe” was to receive “one new suit of apparel throughout suitable for such a servant.”47 Isaac Gardner, son of a “black” woman, was to receive simply “a complete suit of clothing.”48 Such clauses left the master to determine what “decent” and “suitable” and “complete” might mean, according to his conscience and the custom of the region. Clearly, some newly-freed young adults walked away miserably clothed. It was so common for masters to try to send away former servants improperly attired for the season that some magistrates took care to specify that “freedom suits” include shoes, stockings, hats, and other apparel necessary for winter.49 While Anglo-American children often received something more than clothing—a little money, livestock, or tools of the trade—as part of their “freedom dues,” Indian and African American children rarely received anything else. It was highly unusual that twelve-year-old John Brown and six-year-old Isabel Brown, “black” children, were promised $10.00 plus interest if they completed their labor contracts without running away.50

The great majority of masters were “respectable” male Anglo-American taxpayers.51 The wealthiest and most politically prominent men, who already had plenty of slaves and servants, occasionally also took indentures of children. More often, however, it was “middling” farmers and craftsmen who took on youngsters as bound servants. Oral tradition reveals that these middling sort masters were more likely than richer men to place severe restrictions on their servants, to make heavier demands upon them in an effort to derive maximum profit from their labors. In consequence, Indian children were more likely to run away from masters of modest means than from the more affluent. Whatever their wealth, most masters were prompted to take on pauper apprenticeship indentures because they were economically profitable. Sometimes Anglo-American boys and girls were bound out because their masters felt a familial obligation, that of a grandfather taking on an orphaned or illegitimate grandchild, or a stepfather taking on the “bastard” child his wife brought to the marriage, for example.52 But this was not the case with Indian and African American children. Missing from the record is any expression of “charity” or “pity” for a poor child of color, which sometimes appears in cases of Anglo-American children; and in no cases did their masters admit to being the father or grandfather of a child of color. Instead, masters of Indian and African American children appeared concerned with economics: keeping their costs to a minimum and controlling the child’s labor for as long as possible. One man, for example, requested that the indenture of his “mustee” servant be rewritten, because the original contract had mistakenly bound the boy only to age twenty, when in fact, he should have been bound to age twenty-four.53 Further, both archival evidence and oral tradition confirm that in South Kingstown, officials targeted children of color for indenture,54 and the names of the masters are those of the large farmers and plantation owners, who bolstered their slave labor force with indentured labor, providing a transition to free labor in an era when public sentiment was turning away from slavery.

Children of all ages became indentured servants, from month-old babies to twenty-year-old young men, but the average age at binding was between six and eight years. At about this age, children usually made the passage into sex-segregated skills training; at six or seven, boys cast off childhood gowns, put on trousers, left their mothers’ oversight, and joined their male relatives for day work in the fields or the workshop. Since the age at which a child was bound reflects this passage, the record suggests that parents exerted some control over the timing of indentures, and sheltered children from official management in their earliest years. It also suggests that masters waited to indent a child formally until they were sure he or she was capable of useful labor.55 Here sex was the significant variable. The mean age at binding was 8.4 years for Anglo-American boys, 8.3 for Indian and African American boys, 7.2 for Indian and African American girls, and 6.2 for Anglo-American girls. These one- and two-year discrepancies suggest that girls were perceived as being ready for independent an productive labor earlier than boys.56

The age at which a servant became free also varied with sex and race. Indentures for Anglo-American children always ended at age 21 for boys and 18 for girls.57 In contrast, indentures for Indian and African American children sometimes lasted until age 21 for girls and 24 for boys, and in South Kingstown, one-third of the indentures for children of color bound males past age 21 and females past age 18.58 “Adulthood,” it seems, was a malleable concept. For Indian and African American children, “freedom” did not correlate to a particular “coming of age,” as it did for Anglo-American children. By delaying the freedom of young adult Indians, Anglo-American masters maintained extended access to their servants’ labor and also, in the case of young men, preserved opportunities to send their servants off to do military duty in their place, a significant consideration in the Revolutionary era.

There is no doubt that this delayed freedom constituted a disadvantage for the servants. By keeping young men and women under contracts that forbade sexual activity and marriage, Anglo-American masters deprived them of the opportunity to follow openly native rites of passage—coming out ceremonies, sexual expression, marriage—when they were at the height of their sexual potency. The servant was frustrated; the servant’s native culture was disrupted; and the master had under his power young people who were increasingly vulnerable to sexual exploitation as they grew to adulthood. Oral tradition tells us that in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Narragansett girls usually began their menstrual cycles in their mid-teens. By keeping these girls in contracts that lasted longer than Anglo-American girls’ contracts, masters effectively prolonged their access to Indian servants until they reached sexual maturity. It is not surprising, then, as oral traditional informs us, that some Indian servants defied the terms of their indentures and married in their own traditional fashion anyway. Masters had little legal recourse, since their servants had not married according to Anglo-American law.

Whatever their ages at binding and freedom, children were shunted into a system that kept them at the socio-economic level officials deemed appropriate for their “station,” an ordering that depended heavily on race and sex. One-quarter of the contracts were for children of color, when people of color constituted around ten percent of the general population; two-thirds of the contracts were for boys, when the sex ratio was just about even. These disproportions suggest that boys of color were considered especially suitable subjects for bound labor. Further, the lesser training and fewer benefits received by children of color, and especially girls of color, indicate that indenture functioned to immobilize them as menial laborers.

The indentures tell us what the masters contracted to do, but they cannot tell us the realities of the labor their servants performed. What kind of work did three-year-old Lucy and four-year-old John actually undertake? Oral tradition tells us that bound youngsters assisted older servants at their tasks by stirring pots, washing clothes, scrubbing floors, emptying chamber pots, tending babies, carrying water, gathering kindling, chopping wood, feeding chickens, tending livestock, weeding crops, and mending tools. By the time they were ten or twelve years old, they would be laboring nearly at adult capacity. Nor can the indentures tell us how indentured children were treated within the families they served. Some Anglo-American children, no doubt, were virtually adopted into the family, particularly if they were relatives of the master. In the case of Indian and African American children, as discussed above, oral tradition tells us that older female servants or slaves in the household supervised their day-to-day care, and they were associated with the household as “servants,” not “family,” a condition that is most compellingly evidenced in the matter of surnames. Oral tradition tells us that Anglo-American officials often rewrote Narragansett names to conform to European language patterns, or deliberately applied false names, as a strategy to write Indian family lines out of existence. Pauper apprenticeship offered just such an opportunity to undermine Narragansett culture by renaming children. The indenture of Indian boy John, son of Rexom, is revealing in this regard. His grandmother was clearly named Mary Perry. But his mother, daughter of Mary Perry and servant of William Mumford, became “Rexom Mumford” by the time her son was grown.59 By renaming their servants in this way, masters were not claiming them as heirs or acknowledging their own paternity of their servants’ offspring; rather, the masters were trying to draw their servants forcibly into Anglo-American culture by separating them from their native families through the use of language.

The statistical evidence for this study has concentrated on a cluster of 759 Rhode Island indentures from the period 1750–1800. Both oral tradition and archival evidence make clear, however, that pauper apprenticeship of poor children began well before 1750 and carried on well past 1800. The seventeenth-century record is fragmentary, but the more complete early eighteenth-century record of pauper apprenticeships includes Indian girls Hannah Tuntiahehu (1715), Thankful (1726), and Jenney Wompom (1728).60 Pauper apprenticeship peaked in the late 1700s and then trailed off as state and local institutions assumed the care of poor and orphaned children. But as late as 1868, South Kingstown authorities continued to bind out children of color, as illustrated by the case of Alphonzo Watson, five-year-old “colored” child, who was removed from the town asylum and placed in an indenture that year.61

The human face of pauper apprenticeship can be glimpsed in the Mohegan and Narragansett family of Cummock/Fowler/Champlin, whose story threads through the town records of South Kingstown for the late 1700s and early 1800s.62 Indian woman Mary Fowler Champlin and her children came to officials’ attention when someone complained about them to the South Kingstown council in April 1796. The councilmen ordered the overseer of the poor to provide “suitable necessaries” for the family and then investigated the situation by questioning Mary Fowler Champlin and her mother, Mary Cummock Fowler, who had formed a household together with their children.

The elder Mary was the daughter of Sarah Cummock, “one of the tribe of the Indians in Charlestown.” Mary herself was born in South Kingstown, was bound out at an early age to Caleb Gardner, and “served out all her apprenticeship.” After becoming free, Mary lived for thirty years with “mustee” man James Fowler and “had ten children by him,” but “never was married to him in the manner white people are married in these parts.”

The younger Mary was the daughter of this union between Mary and James Fowler. The younger Mary escaped her mother’s fate of being bound out, but she, like her mother, married a “mustee” man, John Champlin. She testified that she had lived with John Champlin for eleven years “as his wife” and had six children by him, “but never was married to him according to the form used by the white people in these parts.” Both Marys used language that indicated the permanent and exclusive nature of their relationships, but officials neither understood nor honored these Indian marriages. Instead, they treated the children as illegitimate and suitable for indenture.

A year after this investigation, Mary Cummock Fowler—the elder Mary—who was at least in her middle 40s, gave birth to another child, Isaac, whom the town council declared a “bastard,” despite Mary’s testimony about her long-term relationship with her Indian spouse, James Fowler. In 1801, when Isaac was about four years old, the council ordered him bound out in a pauper apprenticeship contract to Jeffrey Watson, a local planter.

The Cummock/Fowler/Champlin family members disappeared from the South Kingtown records for a generation in the early 1800s; oral tradition tells us that they were then living in Mohegan country in eastern Connecticut. The family reappeared in 1838, when the South Kingstown council bound out as an indentured servant a girl named Lydia Champlin, “daughter of a colored woman, late Mary Champlin, since married to a man whose name is unknown.” Lydia Champlin’s mother may have been Mary Fowler Champlin—the younger Mary—who could have given birth to a child in the early 1820s. It is just as likely, however, that Lydia’s mother was the namesake daughter of Mary Fowler Champlin, and that the girl bound out in 1838 was the granddaughter of Mary Fowler Champlin and the great-granddaughter of Mary Cummock Fowler. Like the names that parents passed on from one generation to another, pauper apprenticeship was visited upon the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of youngsters earmarked by Anglo-Americans for servitude.

Mary Fowler Champlin, by her own testimony, escaped pauper apprenticeship, probably by her mother’s concerted effort to keep at least one child free from this sort of bondage. But she almost certainly labored, like her brothers and sisters, in the service of Anglo-Americans, since few other work options were available to Indians living behind the frontier. And like Mary Champlin, Indian children in the 1800s increasingly labored without contracts in the houses and on the farms of their Anglo-American neighbors. In 1832, the Narragansett tribal council reported to the Rhode Island state legislature that three-fourths of their number resided on the reservation in Charlestown; “the rest are absent; some go out on service.”63 In 1836, the Narragansett tribe petitioned for assistance in beginning a wintertime school for the tribal children, explaining that most of the young men could not attend a summer school, since they were off the reservation during the agricultural season, pursuing a livelihood as laborers on farms in the region.64 After the Rhode Island state legislature peremptorily “detribalized” the Narragansett people in 1880 (in violation of federal law) and took away their reserved land, their Indian-ness was seldom acknowledged by European American authorities. Separated from their land, Indians were increasingly closed out of all labor except lowly work that non-Indians thought appropriate for mentally deficient, uneducated, and uncivilized people.

Pauper apprenticeship flourished in Rhode Island in the eighteenth century, when the Narragansett Indians struggled to maintain their communities against Anglo-American political and economic pressure in the wake of King Phillip’s War. This system of indentured servitude functioned effectively as a means of removing Indian children from their mothers, training them to take their place as menial laborers in a society dominated by Anglo-Americans, and propagating the colonial relationship of “savage” but conquered Indian servant and “civilized” but paternal Anglo-American master. When the system of pauper apprenticeship declined, those in power found other ways to maintain the colonial relationship of servant and master through conventions of “service” shored up by limitations in the education, training, and work opportunities available to Indian children. When Indian children went out to service in the homes and on the estates of their European American neighbors in the 1900s, they were following a colonial pattern introduced in the 1600s and welded into mainstream culture in the 1700s. These youngsters were not learning skilled trades or academic subjects from their more privileged neighbors; they were continuing to provide a labor force for the unpleasant tasks of life.

This was not the whole story, however. Narragansett children, even those in bondage, continued to be taught by their Indian elders. They learned that a “white” education was not essential to preserving traditional ways or even providing adequately for themselves in the present. They learned that Indians could survive outside the social and economic world that non-Indians had created in Rhode Island. Further, many used the menial skills to which their masters set them as a bridge to occupational opportunities and job networks their masters never imagined. Had non-Indians been able to see, they would have observed what oral tradition reveals—the resourcefulness of Indians who combined old and new ways with pride in their tasks, caring for the earth as horticulturalists and farmers, caring for fellow humans as housekeepers, nurses, and midwives, creating human habitations as stonemasons and carpenters. Although Narragansett culture and religion went underground for a time, Narragansett children learned and preserved it while simultaneously making immeasurable contributions to Anglo-American culture through their service as pauper apprentices.

Pauper Apprentices in Rhode Island, 1750–1800

Total indentures = 759, from a sample of 14 Rhode Island towns

Anglo-American Boys Indian and African American Boys Anglo-American Girls Indian and African American Girls

Number of indentures





Percent of all indentures





Average age at binding





Any literacy education

124 (33.2%)

16 (13.0%)

37 (18.5%)

9 (14.3%)

Read, write, cypher

103 (83.1%)

9 (56.3%)

1 (2.7%)

0 (0%)

Read, write

10 (8.1%)

3 (18.8%)

18 (48.6%)

2 (22.2%)

Read only

3 (2.4%)

4 (25.0%)

17 (45.9%)

6 (66.7%)

Any skills training

126 (33.7%)

11 (8.8%)

26 (13.1%)

4 (6.3%)


1. These 759 contracts constitute all the indentures recorded between 1750 and 1800 in the towns of Cumberland, East Greenwich, Exeter, Glocester, Hopkinton, Jamestown, Middletown, New Shoreham, Providence, Richmond, South Kingstown, Tiverton, Warren, and Warwick. These fourteen towns comprised half the colony’s population in 1780 and fairly represent the demographics, economic orientation and geographic characteristics of Rhode Island’s thirty eighteenth-century towns, ranging from sparsely settled agrarian communities (New Shoreham), to “plantation” communities (South Kingstown), to thickly settled commercial towns (Providence).

2. According to a 1783 estimate by Anglo-Americans, African Americans made up 4.5 percent of Rhode Island’s population and Indians made up 1.9 percent (Evarts B. Greene and Virginia D. Harrington, American Population Before the Federal Census of 1790 [Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1966], 67). These percentages are almost certainly inaccurate, reflecting not the self-designations of people of color, but rather Anglo-American officials’ judgments of who was “black” or “Indian.” Further, many people of African and Indian ancestry stayed out of sight of Anglo-Americans and were unknown to the census-takers. Lorenzo Greene calculated that African Americans made up 7.3 percent of Rhode Island’s population in 1782 and 6.3 percent of the population in 1790 (The Negro in Colonial New England [New York: Atheneum, 1969], 87). Whatever the real totals of African American and Indian children, in the population of bound servants they were represented out of proportion to their numbers.

3. Both oral tradition and archival sources describe the steady stream of Narragansett people out of Rhode Island in the 1700s and 1800s. Petitions made to the Rhode Island General Assembly by Narragansett relocated elsewhere document numerous instances of this migration. See especially the petitions of Simeon and Elizabeth Chapman (1828), Thomas Cummock (1840), Samuel Coyes (1841), and John D. Bats (1841), Folders 72, 107, 109, and 111, Documents Relating to the Narragansett Indians (hereafter DNI), Rhode Island State Archives. Many other Narragansett left without informing authorities or leaving a documentary trail, but the history of their departure is contained in tribal and family oral tradition.

4. Ruth Wallis Herndon and Ella Wilcox Sekatau, “The Right to a Name: Narragansett People and Rhode Island Officials in the Revolutionary Era,” Ethnohistory 44 (1997): 433–62.

5. Town Council meeting (hereafter TCM), November 29, 1757, Providence Town Council Records (hereafter TCR), 4:163. The Town Council Records of each community are located in its town hall. Indenture of Santee, November 29, 1757, Providence Town Papers (hereafter PTP), 1:139, Rhode Island Historical Society.

6. Indenture of Joseph Peleg alias Anthony, TCM, November 5, 1763, Portsmouth TCR, 5:108; TCM, March 30 and May 25, 1789, Westerly TCR, 5:42, 45. Numerous adults were similarly labeled ambiguously in the town records. See, for example, the case of Winsor Fry, who appeared in the East Greenwich town records as “an Indian man” in 1790 but as a “black man” in 1795 (TCM, January 30, 1790, and November 28, 1795, East Greenwich TCR, 4:110, 235.) This habit of blurring racial designations was not peculiar to Rhode Island recordkeepers. For example, Lucy Garrett, a five-year-old child bound out in 1797 by the Stonington, Connecticut, selectmen, was described as “molatto” in the text of the indenture but as “Indian” on the label (Indenture of Lucy Garrett, September 4, 1797, Stonington Town Accounts, MS 70286, Connecticut Historical Society).

7. For an excellent discussion of race anxiety in southern New England in the late eighteenth century, see Joanne Pope Melish, Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and “Race” in New England, 1780–1860 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998).

8. Herndon and Sekatau, “The Right to a Name,” 447–50.

9. “An Act to prevent Indians from being abused by designing and ill-minded Persons, in making them Servants,” Acts and Laws of the English Colony of Rhode-Island and Providence Plantations (Newport, R.I.: Samuel Hall, 1767), 150.

10. “An Act to prevent Impositions upon Indians of the Narragansett Tribe,” The Public Laws of the State of Rhode-Island and Providence Plantations (Providence: Carter and Wilkinson, 1798), 615–16.

11. TCM, July 13, 1767, South Kingstown TCR, 5:184.

12. TCM, February 9, 1784, Warwick TCR, 3:152. For most of the eighteenth century, English currency was the official money of exchange and account in Rhode Island. One pound (£1) equalled twenty shillings (20s), and one shilling (1s) equalled twelve pence (12d). Throughout this period, 3 shillings (roughly equivalent to 50 cents) was a typical daily wage for a common laborer, £1 (roughly equivalent to $3.30) was a little more than a week’s wage, and £40 was a solid year’s wage.

13. According to the Rhode Island 1782 census, the sex ratio for children 0–15 years of age was 103.6 males for every 100 females (Jay Mack Holbrook, Rhode Island 1782 Census [Oxford, Mass.: Holbrook Research Institute, 1979], ix.) Of the 572 indentures for Anglo-American children in this study, 373 (65.2%) were for boys and 199 (34.8%) were for girls. Of the 187 indentures for children of color, 124 (66.3%) were for boys and 63 (33.7%) were for girls.

14. TCM, January 6, 1755, Tiverton TCR, 2:78.

15. TCM, September 12, 1791, Warwick TCR, 4:303–4.

16. TCM, July 12, 1784, South Kingstown TCR, 6:106.

17. TCM, April 14, 1746, South Kingstown TCR, 4:94.

18. TCM, May 2, 1785, Providence TCR, 5:313.

19. See the case of John Langworthy, who “broke up housekeeping” and gave up the indentures he had for six-year-old Martha Deake and seven-year-old Mary Deake because “his wife not retaining her common reason,” he could no longer provide a proper home for the girls (TCM, February 15, 1768, Hopkinton TCR, 1:117). In another circumstance, the Cumberland town council bound Eunice and Elihu Jones to Jabez Whipple of North Providence in 1779, but three years later Whipple’s wife died and the council ruled that there was “no proper person in his family to instruct and bring up the said Eunice.” The council left Elihu in Jabez’s charge, indicating that a boy past a certain age could be raised properly without female care, but it bound Eunice to another master, who presumably was married (TCM, April 21, 1779, and August 5, 1782, Cumberland TCR, 3:4, 68).

20. TCM, March 27, 1762, Jamestown TCR, 1:143–44. Another particularly illuminating case is that of Marcy Scooner, who “left” her daughter Hannah at the household of Matthew Greenhold before Scooner departed the town to pursue work elsewhere (TCM, September 3, 1766, Jamestown TCR, 1:229). This placement strategy occasionally had an air of desperation, as in the case of two-year-old “Indian” girl Sarah, who was “left” at George Babcock’s house by an “Indian squaw” who was “unknown” to Babcock; the South Kingstown council bound the toddler to Babcock until she was twenty years old (TCM, April 9, 1770, South Kingstown TCR, 5:228).

21. TCM, August 27, 1754, Jamestown TCR, 1:75–76.

22. TCM, September 13, 1742, and October 13, 1772, South Kingstown TCR, 3:176 and 6:7; TCM, March 27, 1773, East Greenwich TCR, 3:142–43; TCM, July 4, 1800, Exeter TCR, 6:200.

23. For eighteenth-century Rhode Island laws pertaining to indenture, see Acts and Laws of His Majesty’s Colony of Rhode-Island and Providence Plantations (Newport, R.I.: J. Franklin, 1745), 48–51; Acts and Laws (1767), 228–32; and Public Laws (1798), 352–58.

24. Eighteenth-century Rhode Island law gave town officials wide latitude in indenture, empowering them to “bind out to apprenticeship poor children, who are likely to become chargeable to the town wherein they live” (Acts and Laws [1767], 232). In 1798, the law was revised so that town officials could bind out any children whose parents were “chargeable” to the town, appeared “unable to maintain” their children, or were being supported “at the charge of the state” (Public Laws [1798], 350–51).

25. Nearly one-third of the “orphans” (42 of 143) had a father who was described as having “absconded” or who had been “absent” for a long period of time. Because the record-keepers frequently called these children “orphans,” we have folded them into that larger category.

26. See the examination of Betsy Spywood (TCM, March 4, 1799, Providence TCR, 7:330) who referred to her mother “Dianna” (the clerk’s rendering of Diadami) in the past tense.

27. Ruth Wallis Herndon, Unwelcome Americans: Living on the Margin in Early New England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001), 106–9 and 125–29.

28. TCM, December 29, 1746, Westerly TCR, 4:92.

29. TCM, August 29, 1761, East Greenwich TCR, 3:76.

30. TCM, July 13, 1767, South Kingstown TCR, 5:184.

31. TCM, October 8, 1759, Warwick TCR, 2:181.

32. Oral tradition tells us that Indians began to have non-Indian marriage ceremonies, which would be legally recognized by Anglo-Americans, in order to protect their future offspring from being designated “fatherless” and therefore subjected to town magistrates’ official management.

33. Town meeting, May 11, 1757, Middletown Town Meeting Records (hereafter TMR), 1:63; TCM, November 8, 1800, Providence TCR, 7:576.

34. TCM, March 6, 1786, Tiverton TCR, 1:np. In 1783, Tiverton taxpayers purchased and renovated the dwelling house of resident Esther Manchester to use as “a workhouse for the poor of this town” (town meetings, October 6 and December 13, 1783, Tiverton TMR, 2:157–58). The record does not indicate if this workhouse was still in use three years later. The wording of the 1786 council order suggests that the overseers intended to segregate “black people” into a separate workhouse, to be put to whatever labor the overseers deemed beneficial for the town.

35. TCM, November 28, 1800, Providence TCR, 8:6.

36. In two exceptional cases, premiums were paid to the masters of children of color. The Warwick town council ordered that Simon, an eighteen-month-old child abandoned by his “molatto” mother and “negro” father, be bound out to “any of the inhabitants of this Town, who shall see cause to take him” with the added “incouragement” of £40 (TCM, March 20, 1752, Warwick TCR, 2:100). And Ephraim Church, three-year-old “mustee” son of an “Indian squaw,” was bound to Joseph Hix, who received £100 for taking the boy’s indenture (TCM, March 14, 1764, Warwick TCR, 2:241–42). In both cases, the amount of the premium in Rhode Island Old Tenor (£40 in 1752, £100 in 1764) was equivalent to £4.5 sterling, the equivalent of a month’s wages for a laborer.

37. In those 16 cases, four stipulated reading only; three stipulated reading and writing, and nine stipulated reading, writing, and cyphering. Sampson Spywood’s contract was typical: the master of this fourteen-year-old “black boy” was bound to “learn him to read” but not to write or cypher (Indenture of Sampson Spywood, TCM, March 11, 1782, Warwick TCR, 3:113).

38. Lesser literacy training for girls was standard practice in New England. The Town Officer, a manual published in 1791 to assist town officials in their duties, provided a model indenture for use in binding out poor children. A male Anglo-American child was presupposed, and the indenture form included the phrase, “read and write, and cypher as far as the rule of three”; but the author advised that “If the apprentice be a girl . . . leave out the words ‘and cipher as far [as] the rule of three.’” No special provisions for indenting children of color are included (Samuel Freeman, The Town Officer; or the Power and Duty of Selectmen, Town Clerks . . . and other Town Officers [Portland, Maine: Benjamin Tiscomb, Jr., 1791], 35). Until 1798, Rhode Island law required no literacy education for indentured servants; that year, Rhode Island revised its laws to conform to Massachusetts standards and gender distinctions: “And provision shall be made in such deed for the instruction of male children so bounden out, to read, write, and cypher, and of females to read and write” (Public Laws of Rhode Island [1798], 351). No provision in the law indicated that this standard might be adjusted for children of color.

39. Freeman recommended as a standard element of an indenture the phrase “promise and agree to teach and instruct the said apprentice, or cause him to be taught and instructed in the art[,] trade or calling of [blank to be filled in]” (The Town Officer [1791], 35). He indicated no special adjustments if the “apprentice” were a girl or a child of color. The Rhode Island indenture agreements, which are recorded in fragmentary form in the town council minutes, do not always indicate what skill the child was to be taught, perhaps reflecting hurried or sloppy record-keeping. Even so, clerks omitted this information more often in the case of girls and children of color, which suggests that this data was considered of less importance in their contracts.

40. The three exceptions were boys of color bound to be trained as a cooper, a shoemaker, and a boatbuilder.

41. Indenture of Elizabeth Pearce, TCM, September 13, 1762, Warwick TCR, 2:215.

42. Indenture of Sophia Havens, August 7, 1797, PTP, 28:48.

43. Public Laws (1798), 350; emphasis added.

44. Until 1798, Rhode Island town authorities were empowered simply “to bind out to apprenticeship poor children,” without any mandatory requirement that those children learn a specific skill (Acts and Laws [1767], 232).

45. Rhode Island law made no stipulation about freedom dues, indicating that local authorities had a free hand to distinguish among servants in this matter. Samuel Freeman prescribed that at the end of indenture, the servant receive “two suits of wearing apparel, one suitable for Lord’s Days, and the other suitable for working days,” making no distinction according to a child’s racial designation (The Town Officer [1791], 35). However, in Rhode Island, children of color usually received only one suit of clothing.

46. TCM, February 9, 1784, Warwick TCR, 3:152.

47. TCM, May 9, 1763, South Kingstown TCR, 5:142.

48. TCM, July 14, 1813, South Kingstown TCR, 7:101–2.

49. See, for example, the indenture of Thomas Berry, July 4, 1761, Warwick TCR, 2:205.

50. TCM, July 4, 1800, Exeter TCR, 6:200.

51. The vast majority of masters were male, though occasionally a child was bound to a single woman who practiced a trade or to a widow who carried on her husband’s business. In the model contract provided by Samuel Freeman, ‘master’ alone is mentioned, but there is an addendum for a female child: “to the word ‘master’ add ‘or mistress’” (The Town Officer [1791], 35).

52. Even in these cases of family indenture, economic issues were significant. In 1755, the Rhode Island General Assembly passed a law requiring parents and grandparents to support their children and grandchildren financially, and vice versa (“An Act declaring how far Parents and Children are liable to maintain each other,” Acts and Laws [1767], 201). However, some persons evaded this statute by pleading they were not “of sufficient ability” to take care of their family members in distress. The common practice of demanding indentures of one’s own grandchildren appears to have been part of a larger crisis in family relations that necessitated this law.

53. TCM, August 20, 1753, South Kingstown TCR, 4:237.

54. South Kingstown bound out 49 Indian and African American children between 1750 and 1800, representing 53 percent of its total indentures (93) and 10 percent of the town’s Indian/African American population (485). Warwick bound out 47 children of color, representing 32 percent of total indentures (149) and 27 percent of the population of color (173). Children of color were far less likely to be bound out in Providence, where only 17 were indented, representing 12 percent of the town’s total indentures (145) and 5.8 percent of its entire population of people of color (291).

55. In one illuminating exchange, a prospective master told the Jamestown council that a boy who had come to him as a five-year-old “several years” earlier had now “grown fit for business” and was ready to be bound (Indenture of Moll Pero’s “mustee” son, TCM, March 27, 1762, Jamestown TCR, 1:143).

56. Perhaps this was because girls did not undergo the transition from maternal to paternal supervision; instead, from their earliest years they labored steadily at household tasks of food and clothing preparation under the supervision of older females.

57. Rhode Island law did not mandate the ages at which freedom would be granted until 1798, when the age was set at 21 for boys and 18 (or upon their marriage) for girls, with no variations for children of color (Public Laws [1798], 351). Freeman’s model indenture ended the contract at 21 years of age for boys and prescribed that if the child were female, “for twenty-one say eighteen,” with no variations for children of color (The Town Officer [1791], 35).

58. In most of these contracts, the child was less than five years old when bound. Such longer-than-normal indentures were probably town officials’ way of compensating masters, without paying a premium, for taking on children too young initially to contribute significantly to the household economy. Typical cases were those of “a Negro boy named Richard” bound to a Newport boatbuilder until the child “arrives to the age of twenty-four years”; and “Mary a black child,” daughter of an indentured servant, who was bound to her mother’s master “until she shall arrive to the age of twenty years” (TCM, September 21, 1772, Middletown TCR, 2:53; TCM, December 29, 1770, East Greenwich TCR, 3:127).

59. TCM, April 12, 1784, South Kingstown TCR, 6:102.

60. Indenture of Hannah Tuntiahehu, June 1715, PTP, 1:1:39B; Indenture of Jenney Wompom, July 25, 1728, PTP, 2:3:7; TCM, February 14, 1725/26, South Kingstown TCR, 2:27.

61. TCM, July 13, 1868, South Kingstown TCR, 8:431.

62. The story can be traced through the following records: Examinations of Mary Cummock Fowler and Mary Fowler Champlin: TCM, May 14, 1796, South Kingstown TCR, 6:229–30; TCM, April 11, May 9 and 14, 1796, April 10, 1797, February 9, 1801, September 11, 1837, September 10, 1838, South Kingstown TCR, 6:227, 229, 230, 243 and 7:2, 325, 331; and Holbrook, Rhode Island 1790 Census, 48. For a full narrative, see Herndon, Unwelcome Americans, 60–62.

63. Remonstrance against report of Dr. Daniel King, January 1832, Folder 89, DNI.

64. Petition from Narragansett Indian tribe for money for a school, June 1836, Folder 98, DNI.