The difference

Apprenticed or bound out

So The Legal Genealogist was in Lakeland, Florida, this past weekend with the Imperial Polk Genealogical Society and one of the topics was the way the law dealt with widows and orphans.

And the question came up, as it often does, about children and this whole business of being bound out: placed by the courts or the overseers of the poor or the vestry of the local parish or some other local authority into someone else’s home.

ApprenticeWhat’s the difference, the questioner wanted to know, between being bound out and being apprenticed?

It’s a great question, because the language of the documents you’ll find dealing with children and these out-of-home placements in the decades and even centuries before adoption began to be formalized often sounds an awful lot like these two are exactly the same.

In Black’s Law Dictionary, for example, an apprentice is defined as a “person, usually a minor, bound in due form of law to a master, to learn from him his art, trade, or business, and to serve him during the time of his apprenticeship.”1 And the term bind out is then defined as “to place one under a legal obligation to serve another; as to bind out an apprentice.”2

So why do we as genealogists talk about one as apprenticeship and the other as binding out? What’s the difference?

The big difference between the two was the notion of voluntariness — not so much on the part of the child, of course, but on the part of the parent or parents.

A parent — usually a father — who wanted his child trained in a trade could voluntarily contract with someone who was in that trade to take the child in as an apprentice. The apprenticeship system in England can be traced as far back as the 12th century:

The parents or guardians of a minor would agree with a Guild’s Master craftsman the conditions for an apprenticeship which would bind the minor for 5–9 years (e.g. from age 14 to 21). They would pay a premium to the craftsman and the contract would be recorded in an indenture. In 1563, the Statute of Artificers and Apprentices was passed to regulate and protect the apprenticeship system, forbidding anyone from practising a trade or craft without first serving a 7-year period as an apprentice to a master (though in practice Freemen’s sons could negotiate shorter terms).3

Under this type of apprenticeship, it was common for the master craftsman to charge a fee — often a hefty fee — to accept the child for training. Think of this as vocational school for colonials and early Americans.

Binding out, on the other hand, wasn’t voluntary at all. A child whose parents couldn’t support him — usually (but not always) an orphan, meaning in the law a fatherless child4 — was simply ordered to be handed over to a freeman of the community to raise and train, to keep the child from becoming a public charge.

The law allowed for this type of involuntary binding out very early. That sort of binding out had been adopted in England as early as 1601, and eventually spread through the English colonies as well.5 An example would be the Virginia statute of 1656.6

So a child could be bound out as an apprentice — but the conditions under which that happened tell us much different stories about this child and this family.

That’s why, when we come across documents placing children into what look like apprenticeships, we need to look deeper. Is there a contract involved and, if so, did a father sign it? If so, then it’s likely a voluntary “train my son” apprenticeship.

Or was it just a court order entered at the request of, say, the overseers of the poor? In that case, it’s likely that one or both of the child’s parents were dead and the child was poor and being placed out mostly so as not to be a public charge.


  1. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 81, “apprentice.”
  2. Ibid., 138, “bind out.”
  3. Wikipedia (, “apprenticeship,” rev. 8 Apr 2014.
  4. Black, A Dictionary of Law,857, “orphan.”
  5. See Wikipedia (, “apprenticeship,” rev. 8 Apr 2014.
  6. See Act II of 1656, in William Waller Hening, Virginia Statutes at Large 1: 416-417 (1656).
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17 Responses to The difference

  1. Linda Deppner says:

    I have examples of both – in one case, my ancestor contracted with a tobacco maker to apprentice his 12-year-old son to learn that trade. Some time later, the father removed the boy from the master’s home, and the master sued for monetary damages for the loss of his apprentice. This is in St. Louis when it was still Louisiana Territory, and the records are in French.

    In the other case, my ancestor’s write-up in a county history indicates he was bound out to a farmer after his father died in 1826. I believe that farmer was probably the boy’s uncle, but unfortunately, the Hamilton County OH records for that time period are no longer extant.

  2. Jade says:

    Thanks for the very good description.

    There can be some remarkable Court records when orphans are bound out by Court order. In one of my ancestral families, the several children’s last birthday was given, so they had dates certain when they came of age and were free of the indentures. In a most extraordinary action, one of the children, then age 12, was permitted to come into Court and testify as to how he was being mistreated by his master (the clerk put in a lot of the details on the record); the Court immediately reassigned the child.

    I have also occasionally seen wills in which a child was specified by the testator to be apprenticed. Just because this was not common does not mean we don’t look for such documents.

    In VA before the Revolutionary War, one occasionally sees records of the Vestrymen indenturing children without Court order.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      There are truly some wonderful things to be found in these records, Jade, and we should all look for them as a matter of routine in our research.

  3. In my husband’s ancestry, there have been several generations of apprenticeship bonds. One other reason why children could be apprenticed other than becoming orphans was if the father did not have gainful employment during the past year. I had made an erroneous assumption that the father was deceased. See the reply to the comment at:

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      You’re quite right that it wasn’t always because the parents were dead, particularly when we’re talking about free children of color. There, the law often swooped in to remove children from their parents’ custody on even a hint that the child might become a public charge.

  4. My late husband’s Bushong family has two really good examples of this but the one boy was paid for his apprenticeship when he reached the age of 21. The father, Lt. John Bushong who was a Revolutionary War soldier died intestate in 1793 leaving 5 children and a widow. The oldest girl was bound out when she was old enough and the oldest boy was bound out as an apprentice. But he was to receive money for his apprenticeship when he reached the age of 21. Not sure if this was the usual procedure.

    Records of Indentures and Guardianships in Shenandoah County, Virginia
    1772 – 1831
    Extracted from the Minutes of the Circuit Court
    By Daniel W. Bly

    13 April 1796 – Overseer of Poor District #1 to bind Rebeckah Bushong,
    orphan of John, to George Fravel. She is 11 years old May 1 next.
    George Fravel and William Bushong are appointed guardians of Augustine
    Bushong, Rebekah Bushong, Jacob Bushong and Betsey Bushong, orphans of John,
    under 14 years of age.

    Shenandoah County Virginia Order Book 1799-1803
    14 January 1800

    Overseer of the poor Dist. #1 is to bind John Bushong, orphan of John, to
    John Altdorffer to learn the trade of a nailsmith. He is 19 years old this month. Said Altdorffer is to pay him 9 pounds when he is 21.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Great examples, and see the follow-up blog as to the “Not sure if this was the usual procedure” part!

  5. Keith Riggle says:

    I have an ancestor who said he was bound out as as a child in Pennsylvania in 1820, but we haven’t found any record of it and don’t know if it was voluntary or not. I did some research on the laws that were in effect 1810-1820 (Laws of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Volume 1), and it seems that parents could bind their children over only for an apprenticeship. However, I have not been able to find any record of the contract between my ancestor’s father and the man he was bound to. Can you shed any light on what legal records might be available in Pennsylvania around 1820 pertaining to children bound out as apprentices or otherwise?

  6. The family story is that my 2x gr. grandmother, Bridget Callahan, came over from Ireland as a bond servant for seven years. Would this have been to pay for her passage? Would there be any record of this type of transaction or was it a handshake type? There is a possibility that her arrangement was with a family member, but that is just supposition at this point. Thank you for an always fascinating and informational blog post.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      It’s entirely possible that she would have had her way paid — and depending on time and place there very well may be records. The labor contract might even have been filed with the shipping company when she came to America. Lots of variables here.

  7. Valli says:

    Thank you for the descriptions. I have just found out that one of my ancestors was ‘bound out’ and didn’t know the meaning or why this would have been. His father died while he was a child but I am disappointed that family members did not take him in. This, at least to me, is one explanation as to why that branch of the family seems to have disappeared from the records, whereas before the surname can be found in many places.

  8. Cindy Stantz says:

    Hi, Judy. I saw the info posted about a child being bound out. I have a 6th great grandfather, Jacob Cox in Pulaski County Kentucky in December 1820 that had an orphan child James Lamb bound out to him until age 21 to learn the blacksmith trade. Could being bound out also mean being adopted? Maybe an adoption took place later. James Cox, an oldest son was on the transfer of property of the land in 1837 after Jacob Cox died. I don’t think James Cox has been proven to be a son of Jacob’s by a researcher I have been corresponding with. At least one other researcher hadn’t proven it.

    Cindy Stantz

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Nope, not an adoption as we know adoption. The first laws that allowed that didn’t come into effect until the 1850s. What you’re looking at is an involuntary (or voluntary if a surviving parent or the child wanted it) apprenticeship.

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