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Not just for servants or apprentices

A Vermont librarian was a little confused by a word used to describe a donated record.

Patti Houghton Arrison, librarian at the Weathersfield, Vermont, Historical Society, was delighted to have the record: an 1857 document that’s clearly a prenuptial agreement between Seth Nichols and Alfleda Hazeltine. Under its terms, Seth agreed that if Alfleda married him and survived him, she would receive all the household furniture that she brought to the marriage, and would have the use of his house and garden for one year after his death; at the end of that year she was to receive the sum of $716 instead of dower.

It’s a great record, and not uncommon, particularly among propertied persons entering into a second or subsequent marriage.

You’ll find premarital agreements in the records as far back as Talmudic times (70-500 C.E.) in the form of the ketubah, “the standard marriage contract that Jewish law requires a groom to provide for his bride on their wedding day.”1 In England, in the 1500s, “prospective spouses used them in attempts to modify the legal rules that would otherwise govern their property rights during and after marriage. By the mid-seventeenth century, premarital agreements were so important that Parliament required them to be in writing.”2

And the word used to describe the document?



Isn’t that the kind of thing that was used to bind a servant into servitude for a number of years? Or to lock an apprentice into a term of service in return for being trained in a trade? That’s how Patti had always seen it used.


That’s the right word for that, all right.

But that’s not all it’s used for.

The term itself is defined as a “deed to which two or more persons are parties, and in which these enter into reciprocal and corresponding grants or obligations towards each other.”3


Deed? Isn’t that “a written agreement, signed, sealed, and delivered, by which one person conveys land”?4


That’s the right word for that, all right.

But that’s not all that word is used for, either.

A deed, in its broadest legal sense, is simply a “an instrument in writing, upon paper or parchment, between parties able to contract, subscribed, sealed, and delivered.” It’s used for land transactions only “(i)n a more restricted sense,” that of “its ordinary modern meaning.”5

And it was sometimes called an indenture because of the form it took: to indent meant to “cut in a serrated or waving line.”6

So any contract between two or more people, done up with the necessary legal formalities, could be legally called a deed, and an indenture was simply a form of a deed.

Giving us records called indentures indeed.

Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “Indentures indeed,” The Legal Genealogist ( : posted 28 Feb 2022).



  1. See “Art of the Ketubah: Decorated Jewish Marriage Contracts,” Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University ( : accessed 28 Feb 2022).
  2. Premarital Agreements,”, updated 23 May 2018 (social-sciences-and-law/law/law/premarital-agreement” : accessed 28 Feb 2022).
  3. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 615, “indenture.”
  4. Ibid., 343, “deed.”
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid., 342, “indent.”
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