The residents of colonial Portsmouth were well aware of scriptures that asked them to take care of the poor among them. Deuteronomy 15:11 is a good example: “You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.” How did the townspeople of Portsmouth provide for their neediest residents? The Portsmouth Historical Society has documents that shed light on how the town cared for the poor and needy.

This blog will focus on the lot of “parish children” or pauper children. They were children who were either orphans or their families had no means of caring for them. Their care was given over to the Town Council. One way provision was made was to make them indentured servants. Their servitude would end – usually when they were twenty-four years old, but they were servants none the less. The Portsmouth town fathers modeled their practices on the laws of Great Britain. The Poor Law Act of 1601 provided that the overseers of the poor and the churchwardens, with the approval of two Justices of the Peace, could apprentice any children under 14 whose parents could not take care of them. In the case of Portsmouth, Rhode Island it was the Town Council that held the responsibility for these poor boys and girls. Signing them into indenture was thought of as a way to keep the children fed, clothed and housed.

From the documents in the archives of the Portsmouth Historical Society we have three cases of “parish child” indenture to explore.

1750 – Philip Gusteen to John Cory to North Kingston for fifteen years.

1753 – Aaron who was indentured to Captain John Lawton for seventeen years. Aaron was under seven years old.

1763 – Joseph Pelig (alias Anthony) who was indentured to David and Abigail Anthony for thirteen years.

The indenture documents for these three children are very similar. Some indentures were even printed with blanks to fill in the names and dates.

  1. The children were bound to their masters and their heirs. If the master died, they would continue on with whomever inherited the master’s property.
  2. The child pledges to keep the master’s secrets, obey lawful commands, not to damage the master or his property or the property of others and not to run away or leave without permission
  3. The servants are to stay chaste and not to marry without permission.
  4. The servants are to stay away from Ale-Houses, Taverns, playhouses and unlawful games.

In return the children receive:

  1. Good and sufficient meat, drink, apparel, washing and lodging.
  2. Care in sickness and in health.
  3. Some are promised to be taught to read. Others are to learn a trade like farming.

In the end they will receive a new suit of apparel and their wearing clothes.

I have only been able to trace what might have happened to one of the children. Philip Gusteen is a name found in the Providence census after 1800 as a freeman with a household of his own. What became of Aaron or Joseph is a mystery.

The Town Council was taking care of these children in a customary way. Later laws in England would curb the practice by setting the minimum age to 14 and requiring the children to agree to the indenture. Poor Aaron was not even seven years old when his indenture was signed. We may be horrified at such arrangements, but there were no institutions like orphanages or state churches to care for these children. They were wards of the town and the town at least provided a way for them to be fed, clothed and housed.

In the archives of the Portsmouth Historical Society there are other indenture arrangements for children, but these are situations where a parent agrees to indenture their child. This was a legal process and there are even records of disputes being handled by the town. A third party would consider the situation and the master and parent would have to agree to go by the decision made.

Servitude for children who are wards of the town seems like a harsh fate. It is difficult for us to judge because even our modern methods of foster homes and state run facilities can be sad situations as well.


Philip Gusteen pdf of transcription

Joseph Peleg – image of document

Indenture of Aaron to Captain LawtonI