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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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