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Master and …?

Reader Allison Saxman was struggling to get a handle on probate court documents entered in 1858 for her great great grandfather, John Thomas Moore. The family story, supported by documentary evidence, was that John was “orphaned at an early age.” But if he was an orphan, she wondered, why didn’t John have a guardian appointed to care for him? Why, instead, was a man who wasn’t a close relative by blood or marriage chosen by the court as John’s master?

Here’s yet another of those cases where we as 21st century Americans get tripped up by the very different practices and even language of the past. John wasn’t being mishandled, by 1858 standards. Instead, he was being cared for as the laws of the day allowed.

First off, let’s look at the exact language of the court records.

There are two documents, a court order and a bond, both recorded in Probate Book 1A of Fayette County, Alabama, a far western county that, at that time, ran out up against the Mississippi border. It had fewer than 9,700 residents as of the 1850 census, and only 12,850 as of 1860.1

One document was a bond, executed by B.P. Wheeler, with two sureties, in the amount of $200. The bond recited that he had been “duly appointed Master for John T. Moore a minor child Eleven years of age 4th April 1858” and the bond was to guarantee that he would “well and truly perform all the duties which are or may be required of him as (Master) by law.”2

At that time, Wheeler was around age 31, a farmer, married with two little girls; a third would be born before 1860.3 He’d have had a need for a boy’s work around his place, which would explain why he’d be willing to take in the orphaned John.

The second is an order by the Probate Court, and was entered on 2 September 1858 by William P. Harvey, Fayette County Probate Court Judge. In it, Harvey certified “that Letters of Apprenticeship for John T. Moore a Minor were on the 2nd day of Sept 1858 granted to Wheeler who has duly qualified, and given bond as such, as authorized to have the custody & service of said Minor. Dated the 2nd of Sept AD. 1858.”4

So what we’re dealing with here isn’t the kind of master situation that may come to mind when thinking of pre-Civil War Alabama. What we actually have is a master-apprentice situation, in the usual legal-dictionary sense of the word.

An apprentice, Black’s Law Dictionary tells us, was “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.”5 In that context, Wheeler was “a person having authority; one who rules, directs, instructs, or superintends…”6

The fact that John was bound to Wheeler as apprentice to master, and not put into the care of a guardian, tells us two things. First, John didn’t inherit any property when he lost his parents. Had there been property, whether real estate or personal property of value (such as slaves), the laws of Alabama at the time would have required that a guardian be appointed — not to care for John but to care for his property.7

Second, neither John’s mother, if she was still alive, nor any relatives had the financial wherewithal to care for the boy. If his mother had been alive, and had the resources to care for John, the law would have given her custody of John until he reached the age of 14.8 There was no such thing as formal adoption at that time — the first adoption law wasn’t enacted until 1851 in Massachusetts and even as late as 1900 “formalizing adoptive kinship in a court was still very rare.”9 But children routinely were cared for by family, if they had any.

Only a child who had no-one willing and able to care for him was subject to being bound out as an apprentice. If a boy, the apprenticeship lasted to age 21; if a girl, it lasted to age 16.10

But along with the “custody & service” of young John, Wheeler took on responsibilities as well. Under Alabama law at the time:

The person to whom such apprentice is bound, must provide a sufficiency of good and wholesome provisions, furnish all necessary clothing, washing and lodging; treat with kindness and humanity, and instruct such apprentice in the trade, business, or occupation which he pursues; have him taught to read, write, and cypher as far as the rule of three11; and at the expiration of his term of apprenticeship, furnish him with two complete new suits of clothing.12

Those obligations not only explain why John was shown on the 1860 census as living in the Wheeler household, but also why he was shown as having attended school within the prior year.13

By 1870, John had turned 21. His apprenticeship over, he was working as a farm laborer and living with William and Nancy Street in Sanford County,14 formed in 1868 from western Fayette and Marion Counties and later renamed Lamar County.15

In this case, then, though Wheeler was called a master, he was more the caretaker with legal obligations, who could be removed from that position “at any time, for good cause.”16


  1. Wikipedia (, “Fayette County, Alabama,” rev. 21 Jul 2012.
  2. Surety bond, Fayette County, Alabama, Probate Book 1A: 645; Probate Court Clerk’s Office, Fayette, Alabama; digital image in possession of Allison Saxman.
  3. 1860 U.S. census, Fayette County, Alabama, population schedule, p. 582 (stamped), dwelling 707, family 717, B.P. Wheeler household; digital image, ( : accessed 3 Sep 2012); citing National Archive microfilm publication M653, roll 9; imaged from FHL microfilm 803009.
  4. Letters of Apprenticeship Issd., Fayette County, Alabama, Probate Book 1A: 645.
  5. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 81, “apprentice.”
  6. Ibid., 759, “master.”
  7. Title 5, Chapter 3, “Guardian and Ward,” The Code of Alabama (Montgomery: Brittan & DeWolf, State Printers, 1852), 385-386; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 3 Sep 2012).
  8. Ibid., §§ 2014-2015, 386.
  9. Adoption History in Brief,” The Adoption History Project ( : accessed 3 Sep 2012).
  10. Title 13, Chapter 15, § 1215, Code of Alabama, 268.
  11. The rule of three meant the ability to solve proportional math problems with basic algebra. See “Rule of Three,” Ask Dr. Math, The Math Forum@Drexel ( : accessed 3 Sep 2012).
  12. Ibid., § 1216, at 268.
  13. 1860 U.S. census, Fayette Co., Ala., pop. sched., p. 582 (stamped), dwell. 707, fam. 717, John Moore in B.P. Wheeler household.
  14. 1870 U.S. census, Sanford County, Alabama, population schedule, p. 311 (stamped), dwelling/family 4, John T Moore in Wm A Street household; digital image, ( : accessed 3 Sep 2012); citing National Archive microfilm publication M593, roll 39; imaged from FHL microfilm 545538.
  15. Alabama Counties: Lamar County,” Alabama Department of Archives and History ( : accessed 3 Sep 2012).
  16. Title 13, Chapter 15, § 1218, Code of Alabama, 268.
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