Apprentices at Forty Acres

The papers of Charles Phelps Jr. include the documents of two boys contracted to live with and serve the family before they passed into adulthood. The Phelpses had relied on the work of at least six slaves and several more indentured servants (such as John Morison) in the years prior to these contracts, most of whom were legally bound to service either without their consent or out of financial necessity. This was in addition to “the usual stream of hired women and short-term workers such as needlewomen, weavers, and cordwainers, and as many as five hired men” [6]. But each had a different story. These two young men arrived at Forty Acres under a different category of indenture, one which may have offered them more privileges and protections than most servants. 

In 1783, Elisha and Rachel Searl of Northampton apprenticed their 12-year-old son David Johnson to Charles Phelps for a term of eight years and eight months [1]. While technically under an indenture contract, apprentices served for their own educational benefit, being promised instruction by their “master” in his (or her) specific trade. David would  “learn and be informed in the art or mistery [sic] of husbandry… after the manner of an apprentice.” Arguably the most formative eight years of his life would be spent living among the Phelps’ servant community, learning to farm and possibly manage the 600-acre property. In return, Phelps covenanted “to teach and instruct and cause to be taught and instructed in the art or calling of husbandry” and to provide the typical “meat, drink, and lodging” and care in sickness, as well as “two decent suits of apparel one for Sabbath day, and the other for laboring or every day.” Phelps also promised David a “freedom due,” a payment of fifteen pounds to be given after the term’s expiration. Northampton town records indicate a household headed by Elisha Searl from this time, and Andover recorded a David Johnson baptized by father John Johnson in 1771. David was more than likely taken under guardianship by the Searls from different parents, though the circumstances of either family remain unclear.

Craft apprenticeships in North America date back to the early colonial era, when the movement towards an independent American economy relied on the training of skilled craftsmen to supplement a primarily agrarian society. Boys between the ages of 14 and 17 were sent away from home to learn necessary skills like carpentry and cordwaining (shoemaking) until their 21st birthday [4]. Apprentices would emerge with the skills necessary to support themselves in their own businesses. Though the Phelpses’ apprentices trained and labored in agriculture rather than more remunerative crafts, their contracts promised the same accommodation of “meat drinke [sic] & clothing fitting such an apprentise,” that appeared on indenture documents as early as 1640. 

But by 1783, apprenticeship, which remained a local institution, had evolved in response to a series of factors. With urbanization and the beginnings of industrialization, the need for new craft-trainees decreased while rural landowners were slowly finding it more difficult to acquire ample farm labor. After 1790, early factories offered lower class youth steady pay for producing the same goods they might have needed years of unpaid training to make by hand. Also in the North, immigrant workers became a primary source of indentured labor. A covered cost for their voyage to North America satisfied most immigrants in place of the freedom dues which apprentices required [4]. Most significantly, owning slaves had attracted white New England citizens as a cheaper source of long term labor which did not hold them accountable for the education, payment, or even humane treatment of their workers. But beginning in 1782, the gradual abolition of slavery in Massachusetts meant farm owners like Phelps turned to alternate sources for labor.   

Akin to common or craft apprenticeship, pauper apprenticeship also developed in the colonial era, a practice which indentured children in the most dire circumstances. In these instances, orphans or children from families that could not afford to care for them were contracted by town officials to labor in the homes of wealthier families deemed more fit for child-rearing. Pauper apprentices rarely learned a skilled craft, and instead found themselves assigned to help on farms or carry out manual labor around the home. John Murray and Ruth Herndon’s study “Markets for Children in Early America: A Political Economy of Pauper Apprenticeship” emphasizes that these were child servants with essentially no agency, who finished their contracts with minimal advantages. “Variation in freedom dues to suit the needs of the master or overseer of the poor, without reference to the worker-child's own interests, resulted from the child's lack of advocacy during contract formation”[7]. While parents and children were sometimes present to sign the contract, negotiations between the employer and overseer determined what it stipulated. Unlike Phelps’ indentures, cash freedom dues were not commonly offered to pauper apprentices [7]. Yet because conditions ranged a great deal between apprentice and locality, some “craft apprentices,” like the Phelpses’ may have had much in common with pauper apprentices.

The 1782 Phelps Barn, where both apprentices may have tended to livestock.

In the New Republic, rural gentry families like the Phelpses struggled to find suitable farm labor. The farm was at its height of size and productivity and remained their primary livelihood. Meanwhile, they had higher ambitions for their son Porter, despite his usefulness at home. The new American economy did not centralize around agriculture in the same way it had 30 years prior. Cities were growing, universities gained widespread prestige, and increasing numbers of prosperous Americans could become lawyers, doctors, ministers, scholars, or other educated professionals. While the art of husbandry would set up boys like David Johnson with enough skills for a sustainable future, his training was not the sort of education Charles and Elizabeth had in mind for their son. After learning to read and write, Moses “Charles” Porter (known as Porter) left home at age 11 to board with one highly respected mentor in Hatfield, the Reverend Joseph Lyman, while learning Greek and Latin at the nearby grammar school. Porter also accompanied his father to occasional court sessions in Springfield and Northampton [8]. When their son turned 15, the Phelpses paid for Porter’s education at Harvard University, after which he spent three years studying law as a clerk for the practice of Theophilus Parsons, Esq., in Newburyport [8]. The Phelpses prepared their son—just one year younger than David—for society and economic independence, a contrasting ‘apprenticeship’ for the elite.

In The Roots of Rural Capitalism:Western Massachusetts, 1780-1860, Christopher Clark confirms that from 1780 to 1820 it was particularly hard for farm owners to find proper labor, even amidst a growing population, because of the irregularity of the amount and duration of labor required. As a result, "most live-in servants identifiable in 1820 were young" [3]. Western Massachusetts land owners increasingly hired children––like David Johnson––during this period to acquire the long term farm labor they needed. Johnson’s term ended in 1791, and in the spring of 1802, Charles Phelps continued a common complaint as he admitted to his son that Forty Acres was “only half Mand” [3]. While employers sometimes saw the taking in of pauper apprentices as an act of charity or civic duty, regardless of the servant’s actual treatment, Phelps’ contract with David’s parents was undoubtedly a practical one for the farm. Still, with “no uniform system of apprenticeship” even at a state level, and variation in the conditions of apprentice contracts to suit the needs of the master, the experience of Phelps’ young husbandry apprentices likely reflected characteristics of both pauper and craft apprenticeship.

David leaves a sparse paper trail in the Phelps family papers in comparison to other indentures. In 1783, Elizabeth verifies in her diary several times near the date of David’s indenture contract that Charles went to Northampton “on errands”. These may have included contract negotiations and/or transporting Johnson from his Northampton home.

In January of 1807, Charles Phelps brought on a new apprentice. Once he and the Scottish indenture John Morison (as a witness) had signed and the apprentice and his father had each inked the page with their marks, 13-year-old Robert Frasier was contracted to serve a term of 7 years, 7 months, and 12 days [2]. Robert’s indenture read much like David’s; “I Henry Frasier of Hatfield… do of my own free and accord part and bind my son Robert Frasier…[as] an apprentice to Charles Phelps Esq. of Hadley… to learn and be instructed in the art or mystery of Husbandry.” Both this and Johnson’s contract meticulously stipulated, “He shall do no damage to his master nor see it done by others… He shall not waste his masters goods nor lend them unlawfully to any— he shall not absent himself by day or by night from his master or his service without his leave, but shall behave himself as a faithful apprentice ought to do toward his master...” Phelps promised to provide Robert with the same food, lodging, and care in sickness during his term, after which he would furnish the young man with two decent suits “proper for his station in life” and pay him one hundred dollars. In 1800, one noteworthy payment minimum set for pauper apprentices was $43 - Phelps’ offers waxed generous in comparison [7].  Both cash dues valued the equivalent of approximately $2,000 today. 

Both father and son’s inability to write further indicate their lesser socioeconomic standing. The Frasiers may have indentured Robert in the hopes that he would receive an education with the Phelpses, one which his upbringing at home could not afford. However, there is no evidence to confirm if Robert received rudimentary education during his time at Forty Acres. American apprentice indenture documents typically “required masters to provide a modicum of education for their charges.” But both Frasier and Johnson were beyond the basic schooling age, and even if they had not been, “whether training in the three R’s developed into adult reading capacity depended on circumstance and individual initiative” [5].

By this time, the particular challenges that employers faced in hiring apprentices had also progressed. William Rorabaugh’s work on apprenticeship in the early republic reveals that,

“Freedom was increasingly equated with contractual relations and consent...And so it was with servants and apprentices who, empowered by Republican ideology, began to challenge their masters conceiving themselves, not as willful children, but as free and independent citizens of the Revolution.”[4]

The ideology pervaded young indentures, or more significantly, their parents. As a letter Phelps wrote to his wife indicates, “[s]earching for labor in 1802, Charles Phelps had hired a boy from Pelham as a live-in farm servant. In due course, he was visited by the boy's father, who demanded 'more liberty' for his son. ‘I asked him what liberty,’ wrote Phelps. ‘Liberty of the house,’ replied the father”[3]. Elizabeth had kept many doors and drawers locked, maintaining a large system of keys which she stored in specific and—to most residents—secret places, resulting in highly personalized and limited access within the house for servants [6]. Further “liberty” was refused, and the boy left. The incident illustrates the extensive efforts which Elizabeth and Charles took to keep a tight rein on their household staff as much as they did with  their property [6]. Charles maintained that the boy “would not have more liberty than he had,” but employers of indentured children inevitably answered to the insistings of parents. The Pelham boy left before completing his agreed time of service, abandoning the contract without major repercussions. He exercised far greater freedom and legal protections than pauper apprentices, some indentured servants, and, by far, slaves. Apprentices like Johnson and Frasier, too, could benefit from this extra degree of protection.


  1. Indenture of David Johnson, Porter-Phelps-Huntington Family Papers, Box 4 Folder 32.

  2. Indenture of Robert Frasier, Porter-Phelps-Huntington Family Papers Box 4 Folder 32.

  3. Clark, The Roots of Rural Capitalism, 109-111.

  4. Jacoby, “Apprenticeship in the United States,” n.p.

  5. Kaestle and Foner, Pillars of the Republic, 31.

  6. Miller, “Labor and Liberty in the Age of Refinement,” 18-21.

  7. Murray and Herndon, “Markets for Children in Early America,” 356-362.

  8. Carlisle, Earthbound and Heavenbent, 122-3, 133.


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Phelps, Elizabeth Porter. The Diary of Elizabeth (Porter) Phelps, edited by Thomas Eliot Andrews with an introduction by James Lincoln Huntington in The New England Historical Genealogical Register. Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, Jan. 1964, p.6, in Porter-Phelps-Huntington Family Papers [Box 9]. On deposit at Amherst College Archives and Special Collections, Amherst College Library.

Porter-Phelps-Huntington Family Papers, 1698-1968 (Bulk 1800-1950). Box 4 Folder 32, Amherst College Archives and Special Collections. 

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