Indentured Servants in Beverly
John Thomson and
We may think of the practice of “relief” or “public assistance” as a social system to help the poor first implemented during the Great Depression in the 1930s. But in Beverly, a mechanism existed long before that to assist those unable to care for themselves.
Among the records in the archives of Beverly City Hall are about a dozen contracts, or indentures, under which a Town committee known as the Overseers of the Poor placed or “bound out” various members of the Beverly community who lacked adequate means of support. Dating between 1806 and 1839, these indentures made servants or apprentices of men and women, boys and girls who were unable to care for themselves. They were common enough that a printed, fill-in-the-blanks form was used in most cases.
These indenture agreements identify the name and occupation of the “master” to whom the servant is bound is given, the general nature of the servant’s duties is described, and the length of the servitude is defined. Typically, the “master” agrees to provide certain support to the servant, such as “sufficient meat, drink, washing, lodgeing [sic], wearing apparel and every other necessary of life suitable and sufficient to and for said apprentice during the whole of said term”, and agrees at the end of the term to provide the servant with a small sum of money and two suits of clothes, one suitable for working and the other “suitable for worship on holy days.”
In one sad example, Mary Elizabeth King, aged seven, who had become “chargeable to [the] Town” was bound out in 1839 as a servant to one Brackley Rose of Salem, who was a “cordwainer” (shoe maker). Her servitude would last until she reached the age of eighteen. During that time she was to dwell with Rose and “well and faithfully serve” him, and “do no damage to her said master, nor willfully suffer any to be done by others, [and] shall not waste her master’s goods, nor lend them unlawfully to any…but shall in all things behave herself, as a good and faithful servant ought….”
Such indentures, while appalling by today’s standards, were an early version of welfare. Town residents unable to support themselves were the legal obligation of the town, and it was not unusual for towns to elect or appoint “Overseers of the Poor”, charged with finding or providing such support. Since cost was a concern then as now, it was common for the Overseers to bid out the care of needy individuals to those who offered to charge the town the lowest amount. There was some safeguard in that both the Overseers and the Selectmen had to approve the contract. Among the Overseers of the Poor in Beverly during this period were Robert Rantoul, Ezra Dodge, and Andrew Ober, whose signatures are on each Beverly indenture agreement.
The children who were indentured in Beverly resided in its poor house until they could be placed. The first poor house was established in Beverly in 1804 on Summit Avenue near the Beverly-Salem Bridge. A new poor house located on Cedar Street was built in 1872.
The Beverly Archives Project is currently organizing and indexing some of Beverly’s earliest records stored at City Hall under the auspices of the City Clerk. Approximately 200 volunteer hours have been spent on this project in 2009. Key volunteers to date have been Margaret Alfonso, Terri McFadden and John Thomson.
Coincidentally, these indentures came to light in the very week that the City Clerk received a request from a researcher at a college in California doing a study of indentured servitude in Beverly and other New England sea coast communities. Copies were able to be furnished to her by the Beverly Archives Project, and in return Beverly will one day receive a copy of the final research paper for the benefit of all.
Beverly Archives Project, an initiative of the Beverly Historic Society and Museum, is an association of public, private and religious organizations whose goal is to preserve the rich history of Beverly through the preservation of organizational documents.
BAP meets monthly from September to June. Meetings are open to the public and are generally held on the first Thursday of the month in the Beverly Library at 7:00 P.M. To learn more about the organization and its purpose, visit its web site http://www.beverlyarchivesproject.org.
Site Updated Monday, March 01, 2010 09:00 PM