Tracing the Stories of Poor Children in Early America

Written by Professor Ruth Herndon

For more than a decade, I have been tracking down information about needy children who caught the attention of Boston’s overseers of the poor in the 1600s and 1700s.  For my book project “Children of Misfortune,” I am piecing together the lives of dozens of children who were taken away from their parents and placed in homes considered to be “proper” environments.  Some of these boys and girls were illegitimate or orphaned; others had been neglected, abused, or abandoned; still others had parents who had gotten into trouble with the local authorities.  For emergency or short-term care, the overseers of the poor (akin to social workers and administrators in our modern-day Departments of Children’s Services) usually placed these children informally with neighbors or relatives.  For long-term care, the overseers usually bound the children formally as “poor apprentices.”  Thousands of poor apprentice indentures still remain in historical archives.  Central to my project is the curated collection of indentures at the Boston Public Library.  I have also drawn heavily on the records of the Boston Overseers of the Poor at the Massachusetts Historical Society.

Indenture of Thomas Banks, July 1, 1761. Source: “Indentures of Poor Children Bound Out as Apprentices by the Overseers of the Poor of the Town of Boston [1734-1805],” 2:169, Boston Public Library Rare Book and Manuscript Division.

Poor apprenticeship was widely used throughout early America.  It was a cost-saving measure, as local magistrates believed “poor” children were likely to become a burden on tax-paying citizens.  The overseers bound the children at all ages: some were as young as two or three years old; others were already in their mid and late teens.  Masters promised to provide the necessities of life, work training, and some literacy education.  Children promised obedience and labor.  The contract lasted until adulthood (age 21 for boys and age 18 for girls), so the master could expect a profit: getting the young person’s labor at no cost beyond food, clothing, and lodging.  Girls usually worked at “housewifery” tasks of knitting, sewing, spinning, cooking, cleaning, and washing.  Boys usually worked as farm hands or in a trade that farmers included in their wider skillset – blacksmith, tailor, carpenter, for example.

My project asks tries to answer the question: “What happened to the children?”  Because these children came from poor families, their stories are hidden in the archives.  Tracing their stories requires long hours following a name through records of births, marriages, deaths, church membership, census data, military service, property ownership, and more.  My research has taken me to many towns in Massachusetts, because the children who came from Boston were often bound into households elsewhere in Massachusetts.

Recently, I have had three opportunities to present my research to various audiences.  At each venue, I presented the stories of four boys: Thomas Banks, Benjamin Buffard, Thomas Greenough, and James Taunt.  Most apprentices left very few records; in many cases, the indenture is the only document showing they once existed.  To find enough information to follow a poor child from a birth record to the indenture to a marriage record and even to a death record – this is a rare window onto the lives of poor people.

Thomas Banks was bound out in 1761 at age 8; he came of age in Hatfield, Massachusetts, in 1773.  When he turned 21, he continued on in his master’s home town, working as a shoemaker.  He served Hatfield in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, married a Hatfield girl, and lived out a long life in the town that had become his home.  He earned a reputation as a practical joker and became so popular with his neighbors that they named his part of town “Banks’ Corner.”  He died in 1826 at age 74.

Benjamin Buffard was bound out at age 6 in 1772.  He came of age in Rutland, Massachusetts, in 1787.  When he turned 21, he traveled from Rutland to Boston to get a copy of his cancelled indenture, proof that he was free.  He then moved to Wendell, Massachusetts, where he purchased a plot of land, built a house, married, and began to clear more land.  He died suddenly on his land in Wendell in 1800, aged 33, when the tree that he was cutting fell on him.  He left behind his wife of only two months.  Several years later, Benjamin’s widow Ruth married his friend Joshua Bancroft.  They named their first son Benjamin Buffard Bancroft.

Thomas Greenough was bound out in 1774 at age 7.  He came of age in Royalston, Massachusetts, in 1788.  When he turned 21, he (like Benjamin Buffard) requested a copy of his cancelled indenture from the Boston overseers of the poor.  He stayed in Boston, reunited with his brother Samuel (who had been bound to a different master in another town), and tried to earn a living as a laborer.  He had been educated by his master, the minister of the Royalston Congregational church, but his apprenticeship did not prepare him for life on his own.  His brother died in the Almshouse in 1797.  Thomas continued to live on the margin in Boston, using the Almshouse as a refuge during the most difficult years.  He died in the Boston Almshouse in 1817 at age 50.

James Taunt was bound out in 1779 at age 5.  He came of age in Billerica, Massachusetts, in 1792.  He had originally been bound to a master in Bedford, but when that master died, he was re-bound to another master in Billerica.  When he turned 21, he married, left Billerica, and moved to Waterford, Vermont.  He and his wife had one son and two daughters by 1800.  He vanishes from the documentary record after 1800, perhaps having moved on to Canada or to upstate New York.  I am still looking for evidence of him and his family.

Map of the towns where the four boys (originally from Boston) grew up as poor apprentices

In March, I presented my chapter on the four boys at the Duquesne University symposium on “Children, Youth & Labor on the Eve of Independence.”  The scholars at the symposium gave me excellent ideas for revising the narratives and analysis.  In June, I presented these stories again at a talk titled “The Earliest At-Risk” in the Wood County Museum Tea series.  For the 70 people who attended this public talk, I connected the experience of poor apprenticeship to the museum’s current exhibit “For Comfort & Convenience,” which features Ohio’s poor farms of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  The questions the audience asked helped me revise the chapter again.  In July, I presented the chapter a third time at the Biography Workshop at the annual conference of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic, which convened in Boston.  I received excellent feedback again and revised the chapter further.  As a bonus, I was able to work in various archives for a few days before the conference, continuing my search for information about Boston’s poor apprentices.

These three presentations helped me see Thomas Banks, Thomas Greenough, Benjamin Buffard, and James Taunt through others’ eyes.  Comments and questions reminded me what poor apprenticeship looks like in today’s contexts of welfare, child abuse, and family separation.  In 2019, state and federal officials would make very different choices than local town leaders made in the 1700s, before foster parenting or adoption were options.  But in both eras, vulnerable children present a major problem to a community, and we are still figuring out how to make sure that “no child is left behind.”

2018 Graduate Dylan Emahiser answers “Where can history take you?”

Being a student of the past has had a funny way of defining my present and future.

Dylan Emahiser in Aikido Uniform

My name is Dylan Emahiser, a recent graduate of BGSU. As you might imagine, I spent my time there focused on history. I still focus on history but am now nearly as far away from BGSU as one can geographically get. Continue reading

A Serendipitous Inspiration of Undergraduate Research



By Andrew M. Schocket

When I replied “No” to Kinzey’s question, and to Colin’s follow-up, I was pretty sure of my answer.
I was wrong. The resulting historical adventure began with a lively class discussion, continued through an independent study, and eventually resulted in an article that undergraduates Kinzey McLaren-Czerr, Colin Spicer and I wrote together. Continue reading

Undergraduate Article Published in Journal of the American Revolution

Students Kinzey M. McLaren-Czerr and Colin J. Spicer, along with Professor Andrew M. Schocket, are published in the Journal of the American Revolution. Titled “The Constitution Counted Free Women and Children – And it Mattered,” the article tackles the importance of counting women and children in the population count of a state.

Congratulations to Kinzey, Colin, and Prof. Andrew!

To check out the article, click here or the link below.

The Constitution Counted Free Women and Children—And It Mattered


The Lunar Landing at 50: Prestige in History and Memory

by Dr. Benjamin Greene

I recently had an opportunity to contribute to the “First on the Moon” series of events sponsored by Auglaize County Historical Societyand the Armstrong Air and Space Museum that commemorate this year’s 50thanniversary of the moon landing.  My discussion at St. Mary’s Community Public Library cautioned that our commemoration of the moon landing must firmly situate this episode in the tumultuous context of 1969.  Although the lunar landing garnered immediate international admiration and adulation, its benefits were frustratingly fleeting, as other events at home and abroad continued to diminish America’s international prestige and moral authority. Continue reading

Professor Grunden obtains SOKENDAI grant in Japan

Professor Walter Grunden has been invited to the Graduate University for Advanced Studies (Sōgō kenkyū daigakuin daigaku, or SOKENDAI) in Hayama, Japan, to participate in a collaborative research project examining science policy under the Allied Occupation (1945-1952). Funded by an internal grant awarded to principal investigator Professor Kenji Ito (SOKENDAI), Grunden, Ito, and Professor Takashi Nishiyama (State University of New York, Brockport) will travel extensively throughout Japan this summer to conduct research in government and university archives and will begin collaboration on a book-length monograph. Their project will examine the links between occupation-era reconstruction and postwar remilitarization and economic recovery, with a particular focus on how science policy both contributed to and obstructed these processes. Grunden’s primary interest in the project is to illustrate how the Cold War era imperative to contain the spread of communism in East Asia directly informed policy decisions affecting the reformation of science institutions and the reintegration of Japanese scientists into the global scientific community even well after the occupation ended. Grunden’s preliminary findings on this subject were presented in the article, “Physicists and ‘Fellow Travelers’: Nuclear Fear, the Red Scare, and Science Policy in Occupied Japan,” published in the Journal of American-East Asian Relations (2018). The collaborative book-length project with Ito and Nishiyama will expand this study beyond physics and into the fields of aeronautics, engineering, and medicine. Continue reading

Graduate Student Rebekah Brown Works with Archivists across State Lines to Develop her Thesis

By Rebekah Brown

Image of Marion Neprude

When I applied for the History graduate program at BGSU, I had a general notion that I’d like to study what happened after the 19th Amendment ensured the right of women to vote in the United States. While I had lots of questions, like what citizenship education actually looked like or whether there was a generational gap in voting rates, spending time in various archives is what ultimately helped me develop a thesis topic. I took several trips to Columbus to visit the Ohio History Connection archives, which houses the Ohio League of Women Voters records. Since I was interested in post-suffrage women’s history, their 52-box collection seemed like a good place to start. Reading the minutes and publications of the OLWV helped me decide to frame my thesis as an investigation of the OLWV outreach to Ohio’s rural women in the 1920s. Continue reading

Learning about “Fred’s House” Brings A Greater Understanding of Local History

By Dr. Rebecca Mancuso

In the courses I teach on local history, my main message is that every place has a history, no matter how ordinary or how small. An abandoned storefront on a city block, a tumble-down farm house sitting in its lonely quarter acre, or your own home, has a history miles deep. If we’re willing to think creatively about the possibilities that small spaces hold, we can uncover intriguing stories about our communities that inspire and connect us. Continue reading

Is Catholic Enlightenment Possible?

By Dr. Kara Barr

Statue of Saint Paul in front of Saint Peter's Basilica in Vatican City. Photo Credit to Nils on Unsplash.

Statue of Saint Paul in front of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. Photo Credit to Nils on Unsplash.

Recently, while working on my own research, I was struck by the parallel trials facing the writers who participated in what we might call a project of Catholic Enlightenment in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and the current headline-making struggle to reconcile the institution of the Catholic Church with modern realities.  Broadly speaking, the participants in the early modern Catholic Enlightenment were much the same as their twenty-first century counterparts: women and men who both valued their Catholic identities and sought to resolve the apparent tensions between that identity and more secular understandings of reform, progress, and essential human dignity engendered by the Enlightenment.  Ulrich Lehner, the foremost scholar currently working on the Catholic Enlightenment project, depicts a project of social reform which sought to address a variety of perceived flaws within the church, from the despotic reign of the papacy and episcopacy to the church’s stance on controversial issues like slavery and the treatment of women.[1]  My own research into the theological and philosophical side of all this reveals much the same: dedicated Catholics who nonetheless saw value for the Church in embracing new philosophical concepts that reconsidered the nature of human identity and individuality, many of which the Church had remained skeptical if not openly hostile. Continue reading

Trip to Coasta Rica Inspires Future Study Abroad Course

By Scott C. Martin

1968 was an explosive year.  In Chicago, the Democratic National Convention produced riots, police violence, and vehement protest against the Vietnam War.  Student unrest and demonstrations in the United States, Mexico, France, and elsewhere rocked political and educational establishments around the world.   A different type of explosion occurred that year in Costa Rica; one that would change the nation’s rural community culture, terrain, and environmental policy.  To commemorate the 50 year anniversary of the explosion of Volcan Arenal, last month my spouse, Dr. Lara Martin Lengel, and I visited La Fortuna, a popular destination in the Zona Norte region, and the gateway to Volcan Arenal, the site of the massive 1968 eruption and lava flow.  A steep trek up narrow, rocky paths to the top of the lava fields reveals a landscape changed by tons of lava, now cooled into extensive swathes of black, volcanic rock, interspersed here and there with lone orange or white orchids, and patches of ground covered in blue berries.  At some points along the lava trail, one also finds magnificent views of Lake Arenal, Costa Rica’s largest body of fresh water. Continue reading

Skip to toolbar