The Little Red Book at the Courthouse
The Little Red Book in the Courthouse
by Dean Bolin
On February 24, 1836, Thomas P. Britton, Spencer County Recorder, sat down in his office, opened a fresh book and began copying legal documents into it.
The location of Britton’s office is anyone’s guess as the brick courthouse used by his predecessor and other county officials had burned in 1832, destroying much of the county’s records. In the two years following the fire, county business had taken place and Britton prepared to transcribe the dealings into the county’s official record.
The first entry he copied detailed a proceeding held two years earlier, on October 8, 1834. The Overseers of the Poor in Luce Township, Henry Jones and Josiah Richeson, stated they had placed William Hamby, a “poor boy of the said Township aged five years the 22nd day of January 1833” with Mr. Fielding Glenn, also of the township.
Under the terms of the contract, Hamby was to live with Glenn until he reached 21 years of age and “faithfully serve on all lawful business according to his power wit and ability and shall honestly orderly and obediently in all things behave himself towards his said master...”
In return, Glenn was to provide the boy with “...sufficient meat drink and apparel washing mending lodging and all other things necessary and fit for one in his grade...” Additionally, Glenn was to provide Hamby with 12 months of schooling and ensure the boy would not be a “charge to the said Township.”
Once Hamby reached the age of maturity, Glenn had further obligations. This included providing Hamby with “a horse saddle and bridle of the value of at least fifty dollars,” one suit of clothing worth $15 along with two outfits suitable for everyday wear.
Recorder Britton would hand copy two other entries that day, the start of about 150 similar entries.
Britton had just begun the county’s book of indentures.
These indentures are not typically studied in American history classes. The system of people entering contracts to work for a period of years (seven to nine being the norm) in return for passage from the Old World to the New does not appear in this record. Instead, the entire book deals with child indentures, sometimes called the apprenticeship program.
The book covers the period from 1833 to 1855. There was likely an earlier volume devoted to the subject, but if it did exist, it was lost in the ashes of the 1832 Courthouse fire along with much of the county’s early history.
It should also be noted the following were only the indentures that went through an official process. The number of children would easily triple or quadruple if unofficial but accepted “indentures or apprenticeships” were added, mainly with relatives of the child’s family.
Dennis Hanks provides a typical example of the unofficial version. His adoptive parents, Betsy and Tom Sparrow, died of the milk sickness in 1818. Abraham Lincoln’s father, Thomas, took Dennis into his home and Hanks remained with the Lincolns, eventually moving with them to Illinois.
The reason the children in the book had to undergo an official process is because they were wards of the township or county. The county lacked an orphanage or a “poor house” in the early years, so there was literally no place for children to go. The township had little choice but to find places for the children to stay. Indenture provided a workable solution to the problem.
Some entries briefly describe why the township became responsible for the children. These simple words are loaded, disguising the all too real hardships these children were living under and the many reasons families could break down.
Sometimes the family was unable to support a child. This was the case with seven-year old Thomas A. Bradley. Listed as a ward of the county (this would most likely be either modern day Huff or Harrison township as neither had officially organized at that time), Bradley’s mother “places him” with the county. It was not always the mother. In 1838, 15-year old Seth Thompson was “given by his father” to the system.
A far too common cause was death. On December 21, 16-year old William Dunker was “orphaned.” The loss of both parents was a primary reason townships assumed custody of children.
There would be other reasons as well. The following note was placed in the file of Amanda McFarlin, indentured to Nathaniel Grigsby at age 9, by Justice of the Peace William Grigsby: “I, William Grigsby, Justice of the Peace in and for Spencer County do certify the father of the child named in the within indenture is ded [sic] or not legal capacity to give his consent thereto dated.” [Note: Her mother gave the consent.]
Children were also abandoned. Robert Curry’s predicament was described this way: “Said pauper being abandoned and neglected by his father.”
Even when the county obtained a “poorhouse” called the asylum, child indentures continued. Four-year old Henry Allen Green in 1848 was indentured because “his parents are unable to support him” and “he is now in the asylum for the poor.” Matthias Hohn, 8, of Ohio Township was “abandoned by his father and whose mother is now a pauper supported by the county asylum...” leading to his January 8, 1855 indenture, the final action in the book.
Every township would have at least one case the court had to contend with. Not surprisingly, Ohio, Luce and Grass townships dominated the cases listed in the book. As these townships were closer to the county seat, it would have been easier for the parties to make their way to Rockport. In the northern part of the county, the indentureships would be made, but the paperwork would not be recorded until someone made the trip to Rockport.
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The age of maturity
One detail in the contracts was consistent from the first entry to the last: The contracts lasted until the age of maturity was obtained. For boys, this was age 21. This was not only tradition but an economic necessity. Manpower for the farm was constantly needed. The indenture system worked in antebellum America because it helped provide manual labor which could be difficult to obtain in sparsely populated areas.
It was not seen to be restrictive - all men were supposed to wait until age 21 before striking out on their own. Abraham Lincoln’s experience in Indiana is illustrative. He was not allowed to leave his father’s care until the age of 21.
For girls, indentures commonly ended at age 18 if not sooner. With men, economic concerns helped set the age; with women, biological clocks intervened.
Mildred Cosler, the six month, 25 day old infant from Luce Township, was the first female recorded in the book. She was obligated “...until the said infant shall accomplish the full age of eighteen years according to the statute...” Other girls had the added provision “or until married” listed in the document.
As Huff Township’s Johann Meyer’s indenture document shows, young men were not to get married until after the obligation was met. Meyer was ordered to “avoid all evil practices and shall not contract Matrimony...”
Though every other detail in the indenture document could vary, the age of maturity requirement was the one consistent factor in every one of the cases listed in the book.
The child’s duties
The number one responsibility of the indentured servant to his or her master was obedience. The instructions given to William Hamby were commonplace. Seth Thompson, mentioned earlier, “shall at all times obey the reasonable commands...” of his master. The “reasonable” requirement is important as it prevents the master from forcing his servant to do anything unjust or illegal.
In the 1840s, the more specific instructions became commonplace. John J. Abshier was charged to “faithfully serve his Master Keep his secrets obey all his Lawful commands and shall do no damage to his master nor suffer any to be done by others which it is in his power to prevent.”
Gambling and other forms of gaming came to be seen as a problem. Later entries regularly featured items such as this: “He shall not play at any unlawful game nor frequent tipling [tippling] houses or places of gaming...” The “unlawful games” included cards and dice and were the “evil practices” referenced in the Meyer indenture.
The master’s obligations
The indentured child would live under the Master’s charge. Providing basic necessities (food, shelter and clothing) were always mentioned in some fashion, usually followed by requirements not to abuse or neglect the child.
The child was to receive some education, although the length of time varied, from six months to a year and a half. Sometimes instead of a time frame, educational benchmarks were listed, usually phrased as the child should be taught reading, writing and arithmetic to the “Rule (and Double Rule) of Three.”
Girls were provided with formal education as well, usually ranging from six months to a year. Susannah Woodruff’s master was instructed as follows: “he will teach and instruct the said Susannah or cause her to be taught and instructed to read and write if the said Susannah be capable of learning...”
Besides formal education, the master was to train the apprentice in skills associated with a trade. By far, the most common trade to be learned was the “art and mystery of farming.” Other trades mentioned throughout the 20 years included carpentry (house construction, furniture making and woodworking), office work and blacksmithing. Girls were to be taught of the “mysteries of housewifery” (spinning, weaving and sewing).
A few of the “professions” are a bit suspect. The Davis brothers, Wilhem, Enok and John, were sent to be taught to be “common laborers.” One boy’s apprenticeship was devoted to “sweeping of floors.”
In theory and, to be fair, what often happened was the child picked up useful skills that would serve him well in later life, either to gain employment or (in the case of a trade like blacksmithing) allow him to set up his own shop.
The master had further obligations once the child had matured. This section, the most detailed item in the document, was the payment rendered by the master for the servant’s years of service. It was also an attempt to provide the child the means to start off on his or her own.
Clothing was a big item, particularly as cloth was relatively expensive and at times hard to obtain. Monetary values denoting the worth of the clothing were usually itemized. Boys would receive one good suit (often called the “Freedom Suit”) along with one or two sets of everyday clothing. Ladies would receive one set of “holiday clothes” along with two or three dresses for everyday wear.
Additionally, young men would be provided a horse, saddle and bridle, the most common means of transportation. Ladies received bedding and more often than not, one cow and one calf. This provided the young woman something that could be used as a dowry for an impending marriage or the basic necessities if she remained single.
Who were the masters?
The men (and it was exclusively men) who made these arrangements did so for various reasons.
The main reason was labor. Farming is labor intensive and finding enough able bodied men to perform the work was a constant challenge. Big families could go a long way, but as the young men went off on their own, workers needed to be replaced. Young men starting their farms and families may not have had the children to provide a steady stream of labor. Indenture alleviated that shortage.
Sometimes the masters could be surprisingly generous. Isaac and Peter Kelly from Grass Township are an extraordinary example of the advantage having a good master could be.
The boys were orphaned at ages 17 and 15. John Romine applied to indenture or apprentice both boys.
That in and of itself was unusual, for an orphaned family to stay together. The entry before the Kellys, that of Seth and Mariman Thompson, showed the more common result. They were separated, each going to a different family.
The Jones family, losing their parents in 1840, went as follows: 10-year old Louisa went to Joseph Lamb, 8-year old Jacob was indentured to Redmond Grigsby and five-year old Pleasant Jones went to James Grigsby. Though separated, the trio could see each other occasionally (Joseph Lamb was a relative of the Grigsbys.)
The truth was, indenturing could and did split up families, sometimes permanently.
This was not the situation with the Kellys. Romine not only took them in, but gave what could only be called generous freedom terms. Romine would have had the boys for at most four and six years respectively. This was a short term as indentures go.
Instead of the usual horse, saddle and bridle, Romine promised each boy at his maturity “40 acres of good 3rd rate land” and a plow and a hoe.” Though land was relatively cheap in southern Indiana, this was an extraordinary offer to an indentured child.
Romine, in turn, benefited from two young laborers who were already capable of doing the work he needed.
End of child indenture
Each document recorded was signed by the township trustees, the county recorder and often the master, indentured child and, when applicable, the parents releasing their son or daughter. There are several examples of either the parent or child signing with a mark - often an “X” for those unable to write their names.
At its best, indenture or apprenticeship did train children in the needed skills to survive once they were released. Of course, as in any system, abuse, neglect and mistreatment could and probably did occur.
Childhood indenture was the closest legal procedure those in the 1800s had to adoption. The system continued to be used nationally, the most notable example being the Orphan trains, where the East Coast shipped orphans into the Midwest and West to be raised by farmers. Indiana was a prominent destination during the early years of the train, but the practice diminished before 1900.
Spencer County’s Indenture book closes abruptly on January 18, 1855. Recorder Fairfield simply wrote “Ended” followed by the date.
The rest of the book is unmarked. Why this occurred is a bit of a mystery. Indentures continued in the state through the Civil War, waning in the 1870s.
Nearby Harrison County had an indenture record in 1870 as do several other Hoosier counties. Indentures do not appear in the Court of Common Pleas, developed around this time, nor in the Probate or guardianship books of later time periods. Why Spencer County ended the practice 15 to 20 years before most other places remains a mystery.
Nationally, child indentures ended partly due to the creation of orphanages. Having places to put wards of the county lessened the need for the practice.
More importantly, the economics which created the need for indenture also became the reason for its obsolescence. Adding someone into the family for years was a costly expense, harder and harder to maintain. In parts of the nation, particularly the South, the loss of so many men in the war swamped the system, which could not cope with the throngs of orphaned, destitute people trying to regain their lives after the Civil War.
The system became unwieldy and cumbersome, unable to handle the pressures of a new age. Therefore, like the book, child indentures were filed away into the past and sometimes forgotten. The little red book stored in the County Clerk’s office serves as a reminder of the bygone practice and, in turn, preserves a major step in the development of both the state and Spencer County.