Thursday, January 1, 2009

Indentured Children in 19th Century Ohio

Indentured Servant and Apprenticeship Record of
Green Creek Twp., Sandusky County, Ohio

Read abstracts from this township record

The term “indentured servitude” brings to mind a horrifying vision of a ragged, frightened child toiling his or her young life away for a hated tyrant – much like Cinderella in the children’s story. Today’s world, filled with the assistance of public and private agencies, makes it difficult to imagine a time when young children were “bound out’ until they reached adulthood. For families who settled in the wilds of Northwest Ohio’s Black Swamp, the death, illness, or injury of a parent could threaten the very survival of their children. As harsh at it seems, many parents had no choice but to place their children with those who were more financially secure.

During the 19th century, under Ohio law, the care of “destitute” children and orphans became the responsibility of township trustees. Intervening into the privacy of family matters was done with the greatest reluctance. But when relatives or neighbors could not help, trustees had little choice but to find families willing to care for another child.

Officials drew up contracts that legally bound caretakers to provide food, clothing, medicine, and some education for the child. In return, the parent or guardian committed the child to a stated number of years of labor. Beneath the cold, legal language of such documents, a parent’s heart-wrenching agony can sometimes be felt. When John Forester apprenticed his four-year-old Willie in 1866, he requested that his son “be treated as a member of the family.” The standard education was not enough for Forester either: he demanded that his son receive a “complete thorough education in the common sciences.” When Leah Shilts arranged an apprenticeship for her son, she asked trustees to spell out the exact number of months of schooling he would receive each year.

Not every parent felt as John Forester or Leah Shilts about parting with their children. The mother of Mariah and William Pembleton refused to care for her five and six-year-old – even after township trustees provided assistance. Trustees were forced to find them new homes. It must have given officials a sense of satisfaction when they placed the Pembleton children in the homes of two of the township’s most prominent families.

With no formal system for monitoring care, helpless children were indeed at the mercy of their masters. Yet, the record shows that officials remained concerned for them. The same trustees who bound out eleven-year-old William Spence later cancelled the contract and placed the orphan in the county home.

For others, indentured servitude not only saved their lives, but also provided them with loving families who trained and educated them. Boys like William Herald learned the skills of harness making – skills that served him well throughout his life.

After the Civil War, the system collapsed under the weight of so many fatherless and homeless children. Institutions established and managed by charities and churches became home to thousands of Ohio’s orphaned children.

1 comment:

Sally said...

I am researching my ancestor whose parents died in the 1854 cholera epidemic in Cleveland. He was six or seven years of age when he was adopted - we have a copy of his indenture (most likely) from the City Infirmary or poorhouse. Thank you for the information you posted that was helpful in understanding the fate of this young German orphan.