Bound Boys

by Bob Brooke

Genealogists often come across archaic terms in their search for the truth. One such term, "bound boy," referred to someone who was often taken from an orphanage to become an "indentured servant."

The old, reliable Century Dictionary (10 volumes published in 1896), is a useful tool for discovering the meaning of archaic phrases and illustrative quotations as well as words. It defines "bind" as "to indenture as an apprentice." A son was "bound out" by his father, his widowed mother, or his guardian to give him training in some craft or trade, or to relieve the parent from the expense of feeding and clothing him during his mid-childhood.

Orphanages regularly bound out boys and girls in the same way so that they could be trained to support themselves. This system of indentured apprenticeship had its origin in the trade guilds of the Middle Ages. During the course of the centuries, various laws governing and controlling it have been enacted.

It's sufficient to say that, from early colonial days, a boy might be "bound out" to a master, who, under the terms of the indenture, or legal agreement, had to provide him training in his craft or trade and give him board, lodging, and clothes, and perhaps pay him a stipulated sum at the end of his term. This was usually seven years or, in some instances, until the boy came of age. A farmer, lacking sufficient help, would take a boy in this way to help him with the farm work, or a girl to help his wife spin and weave and cook; a goldsmith, or printer, or paper-maker would do the same to get assistants and to train them.

The indentured child would, in seven years, learn the craft and be able to take care of himself or herself at the end of the contract. A widow, bereaved of her husband and left with little support, might bind out one or more of her elder children in order to provide them with a trade and at the same time relieve herself of their support.

An indentured servant was generally a person who, wanting to emigrate to America, where there was often a better chance of improving his economic condition, would sell his services to someone by indenturing himself as a servant in return for the passage money he needed to get to the New World. By this indenture he contracted to work for the man who advanced the money for a specified number of years. Some of the passengers on the famous Mayflower were such servants.

Some masters were exacting, severe, even cruel and inhuman in their treatment of their apprentices and "indentured servants," in fact used them like slaves. Others were fair and kindly, even though they may have been strict and insistent upon full service and good workmanship. And some went even further and treated their "bound boy" or girl as a member of the family.

Although it may be difficult, it isn't impossible to find the parentage of a bound boy, or an orphan. Indentures of apprenticeship were generally matters of public record, so the records of them may be found in county courthouses or state archives. The custodianship of such records varies from period to period and state to state. In some, for instance, it's an orphans court within the county. In others, the records may be kept in some division of the municipal government.

Perhaps the best way to locate records of indenture or orphanage is to write to the county clerk and ask for information. Failing that, try the Secretary of State at the State Capitol. When writing to an official for the records of a specific individual, make sure to give all the available data, especially the approximate date, for lack of a specific one.

To descend from a bound boy, an orphan, or an indentured servant is nothing to be ashamed of or be sensitive about. Poverty isn't a disgrace nor is orphanage, whatever the circumstances that brought it about. Not all children in orphanages were illegitimate or of unknown parentage. All were wards of the state through no fault or act of their own and should be respected as human beings and treated with sympathy and understanding, if for no other reason than that they were deprived of parental affection and normal family life.

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