Many of those researching the founding Portsmouth families will find that among their ancestors is an indentured servant who labored hard to gain their freedom. Other families may find that their ancestors were the masters of such servants.   What was an “indentured servant”?  Why would someone agree to be a servant or on the other hand be forced to be such a servant?  What kinds of indentured service were there?  I haven’t made a study of this kind of servitude,  but I have encountered some examples of indentured service as I have researched other topics of Portsmouth history.

What was an “indentured servant”? An indenture is a legal document which binds a worker to a master for a fixed period of time.  It is a legal contract and there are responsibilities for both the master and the servant.  Our document collection includes legal procedures that occur because either the master or the servant has failed in his duties.

In the collection of the Portsmouth Historical Society there are documents that show different kinds of arrangements for the services.  Some are simple exchanges  – labor for room and board.  Others involve “apprenticeship” where the master exchanges labor for training in a trade or skill.

Robin’s indenture

The following document is an agreement of indentured servitude. In the document, an Indian man named Robin Richman agrees to a term of four months as an indentured servant to Ann Brayton, an Englishwoman:

Articles of agreement Between Ann Brayton of Portsmouth on Rhode Island in New England and Robin Richman an Indian lately belonging to Little Comton [sic] in the county of Bristol in said New England witness that the said Indian Robin shall serve the said Ann Brayton four months beginning on the first day of may next and shall do her good services in any Lawfull business as she shall set him about in consideration whereof the said Ann Brayton shall pay five pound ten shillings on half in money and the other half in such cloathing [sic] as the said Indian shall have occation [sic] for at money price to be paid on or before the End of the said term of four months in witness in hereof the said Ann Brayton and Indian Robin have hereunto set their hands and seals the seven and twentieth day of Aprill [sic] the year 1692
[Signed by]
Joseph Anthony,  John Anthony
Ann Brayton Her mark
Robin Richman An Indian his mark****

Robin will work for Ann Brayton and does her bidding.  Ann will pay Robin for his services and provide clothing.   As Europeans settled Portsmouth, the Narragansett tribe lost its hunting and planting ground.  Native Americans could no longer live their traditional life and they were not prepared to fit into the settlers’ way of life.  Attaching themselves to serving a white family, working in the fields, or working in construction was a way to survive.

Other Portsmouth Historical Society documents illustrate apprenticeship, also called “indenture” in this case.  There are obligations for both the apprentice and master. An apprentice will be learning skills from a master.  Note that this child “Philip” is a “Parish Child”  This means that he is an orphan in the care of the town or coming from a poorhouse.  Note that it is the “Town Council” that is putting this child into indenture.  Pay attention to the responsibilities of the apprentice and those of the master.  The master will take care of the apprentice “in sickness and in health” and teach him how to read, write and cypher.  This contract is very typical of the wording in most of the apprentice type indentures.

Whereas the Town Council of the Town of Portsmouth in the County of Newport in the Colony of Rhode Island. At a meeting of said Town Council held the 14th Day of May, Anno Domini 1750. Ordered that a Parish Child named Philip Gusteen, the son of Pathena Gusteen be bound out an Apprentice by the clerk of said Town Council unto John Cory of North Kingstown in Kings County in the Colony aforesaid for the term or time fifteen years from the day of the date of said meeting.
Now this indenture, made the fourteenth day of May in the twenty third year of his Majesty’s Reign George the Second, King of Great Britain, Anno Domini 1750. Witnesseth that I, William Sanford, Clerk of the said Town Council of Portsmouth aforesaid, pursuant to the order of the said Town Council, have put, and by these present, do put and bind the above named Philip Gusteen, an Apprentice, unto the above named John Cory and in case of death of the said John Cory within the said Term then to serve Joseph Cory, son to the said John Cory, the remaining part of his apprenticeship. During all which time the said apprentice, his master faithfully shall serve his secrets keep, his lawful commands, being lawfully obeyed, he shall do no damage to his said master, nor flee, it be done by others without giving notice thereof to his said master, he shall not wrest, lend nor purloin the goods of his said master, nor absent himself from the service of his said master either by night or by day without his leave or consent, he shall not contract matrimony within the said term, nor haunt Ale-houses, Taverns, or Playhouses, nor play at any unlawful game or games whereby his said master be damaged, either with the lots of his own goods or the goods of others but in all things behave himself as a true, faithful and honest apprentice ought to do during said term. In consideration whereof the said master John Cory for himself and his son Joseph Cory both covenant and agree to find, provide and allow unto his said apprentice good and sufficient meat, drink, and apparel, lodging and washing fit and suitable for his said apprentice, both in sickness and in health and also teach his said apprentice or cause him to be taught to read, write and cypher within the said term and at the end and expiration thereof to discharge his said apprentice with one good new suit of apparel throughout besides his usual apparel and for the true performance of the Covenant and agreements above expressed the parties to these present above named bind themselves to each to the other. In witness whereof they have hereunto interchangeably set their hands the day and year above written with seals affixed.
[Signed by:]
Gideon Freeborn, Esq. Joseph Anthony
John Cory *****

The indenture of Joseph Cundall illustrates another reason people entered into servitude.     In 1706 Joseph Cundall had left his native England to become an indentured servant in America.  Becoming an indentured servant was a way for a young person to learn a trade and get an education in exchange for working for seven years or more. Cundall seems to have learned his trade well and was in a good position to buy land as an adult.  Joseph Cundall’s family would ultimately hold most of the Glen land and they were pillars of the community and master millers.

Indenture Form

For the white apprentices, this period of service gave them an opportunity to pay their fare to America, gain profitable skills and then take their place in society.  For the Native Americans and Blacks, indentures were not always voluntary.  It was sometimes treated as a punishment by the courts.  If they violated a law and could not pay restitution, they might be bound over as an indentured servant.  It is hard for us to imagine choosing to bind yourself into service or forced into service because of race or poverty.  It was however, a feature of life in Portsmouth for over a hundred years.


**** PHS document 111.04 INDENTURE Portsmouth, RI 4/27/1692 Indenture Agreement April 27, 1692 between Ann Brayton of Portsmouth and Robin Richman, Indian, of Little Compton.

*****PHS # 1700.017: Indenture of Philip Gusteen, son of Pathena, to John Cory of North Kingston dated 5/14/1750