Wellfleet Poor Apprentices in the 18th Century

It’s easy to think of Wellfleet as an isolated village on the Cape Cod peninsula, especially in the 18th century. Recently, however, I found a set of documents that reveal the close ties certain Wellfleet men had to Colonial Boston. At this time, Wellfleet was changing from the “North District” of Eastham, a part of Plymouth Colony, to become an incorporated town in 1763.  Before the Revolution, many of Wellfleet’s citizens were third and fourth generation Cape Codders.

 The documents I found are contracts assigning poor Boston children as apprentices to Wellfleet “masters,” demonstrating an important role the town played in the life of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. There are two types of documents: first, a signed agreement between the Wellfleet Selectmen and the Boston Overseers of the Poor vouching for the character of the proposed Wellfleet master, described as “a man of sober life and conversation.”  One of these is pictured here:

Selectmen approve of a Wellfleet citizen to become a Master of a Poor Apprentice


The second set of documents are the indentures, naming the Overseers, the Master, the Apprentice, and the expectations of all. These were pre-printed, with the particulars filled in by hand. One of these is pictured later in this post.

The Boston Overseers of the Poor, in legislation in 1692 and again in 1735, were assigned the task of dealing with Boston’s poor people who could not support themselves. From the 1740s to the 1760s the number of poor increased due to population growth, economic inflation, and the 18th Century wars, particularly the French and Indian War, that lasted from 1754 to 1763. It is during this period of increased poverty in Boston that the poor apprentices came to Wellfleet.

In Wellfleet and in other towns the poor and others unable to care for themselves were the responsibility of the Town Selectmen. First, in these villages, a person had to establish residency in order to get help. This made the “town fathers” very careful as to whom was admitted to live in the town. Those who were not yet residents were watched and formally “warned out” if their residency was a problem. No town wanted the responsibility for taking care of needy persons.  In addition, families were legally declared responsible for their family members. Parents had to care for their children and children had to care for their parents and grandparents. When family structure broke down, the town would pay another family to provide care. This arrangement lasted a long time, as the town reports into the 20th Century show the expenses for such care.

Another solution for the town was to establish an almshouse. Wellfleet had one, although there is scant information about it. There’s a note on what I’ve found at the bottom of this post.

I also found one record of a Wellfleet town warning. An 1803 newspaper advertisement placed by “The Overseers of the Poor of the Town of Wellfleet” (e.g., the Selectmen) warned the reader that Sarah Bunting of Wellfleet “taken out of the Almshouse in Boston and brought to Wellfleet” is now gone from us” and forbids “any person in any city, town or village whatever harboring, entertaining and trusting her one cent as we are determined not to pay any debt that she may contract with any person.”

Boston had its Almshouse and also a Workhouse, both reflecting adoption of the British Poor Laws of 1601 on managing the poor.  Conditions in these institutions were never made comfortable giving poor people a reason to avoid them. People who were mentally ill or addicted were included along with those who had no support. The overall poor conditions, withholding food as punish­­ment, along with whipping those who would not work were all management techniques.

For the Massachusetts Colonials, poverty had both a financial and a moral aspect. They believed that a well-regulated family was of vital importance, but this came after the religious and secular needs of the community. Consequently, the children of parents who needed poor relief or who were not being raised according to religious or social standards were removed from their home and bound out to a master who would provide daily maintenance and basic education in exchange for labor. A female child would be bound out until age 18, and a male child to age 21. As poverty became more of a problem in the mid-18th Century, there was less focus on removing children because of bad parenting, and more on dealing with the economics of poverty.

After the French and Indian War ended, and shipping became safer again, there was more demand for masters who would teach the maritime trades which is reflected in the number of 1760s Wellfleet apprenticeships. The Boston Overseers of the Poor also found coopers who made barrels and cordwainers who made new leather shoes there. The age of the children assigned in Wellfleet at the time of binding reflects the average age of all poor apprentices of between five and nine years.

The listing of records I first found for Wellfleet were in a 1958 Master’s Degree thesis written by W. Graham Millar College of the College of William and Mary.  Millar had access to microfilmed copies at the College where early American history is still a focus. The Boston Public Library has boxes of 1,212 of these indenture documents where several of them are in digital version at the Digital Commonwealth section on the Library’s website. The Colonial Society of Massachusetts also has records of the apprentices contained in a 1962 paper by Lawrence Towner.

An additional number of apprentices are mentioned in the Wellfleet birth records 1763 to 1844, organized by family unit, online at Ancestry. The Town Clerk added in an apprentice’s name and birth date as part of a family record. However, we do not know if these apprentices were from the Boston system or another source. They may also have been “craft apprentices” under an arrangement their family made for them to learn a trade.

There were no girls assigned to Wellfleet masters, although I did find one in Truro. Generally, girls were apprenticed in the 1760s to learn “housewifery.” Girls were about a third of the overall number of Boston poor apprentices.

In his essay, Mr. Towner discusses the lack of information on what happened to the apprentices after they completed their service. I was curious about that too, and did a few brief searches where a distinctive name helped define a particular individual and have incorporated my notes into the following listing. It’s possible that boys who reached age sixteen by the time of the Revolutionary War were allowed to enter military service.

Pulling all these sources together, the list below includes the names of the apprentice and the Wellfleet master, the dates of the contract, and any additional information I found on the people involved. I did not find any record of a Wellfleet apprentice running away. Newspaper databases for this period have many advertisements from masters describing their runaway apprentice in great detail and usually giving a reward for their return.

Benjamin Lemoine was bound to Robert Stetson on November 16, 1766, to learn the craft of cordwainer. Benjamin’s indenture was to last for 14.2 years, to January 10, 1781 when he would be 21 years old.  He was seven years old when bound. I found a birth record for a child of this name born to John and Mary Lemoine in January 1761, and baptized at New South Church. He was given the middle name “Derby” when baptized. A man of the same name married in Hardwick, Massachusetts in Worcester County in 1786. He died fairly young, in 1813, and is buried in a cemetery in Lake County, Ohio. Of interest is Robert Stetson’s death record, in January 1814, in Hardwick, Massachusetts, which seemed to confirm the link between the master and his apprentice.

Thomas Cloud Reed was bound to Barnabas Atwood on October 17, 1772, to learn to be a cooper and a farmer. Mr. Atwood was referred to in the agreement as a “gentleman.” The indenture was to last for 13 years until Thomas was 21. He was eight years old when bound. There is a possible marriage record for Thomas’ parents in Boston in 1766 when a Thomas Reed married Elizabeth McCloud.

Samuel Myrick was bound to Wellfleet’s famous Elisha Doane on January 20, 1764, to learn to be a cooper. His apprenticeship was to last only two years, which makes it seem like a family action, but the document is made by the Boston Overseers of the Poor. Samuel was to be released in January 1766. Mr. Doane, known as Colonel Doane for his service in the militia. He and Thomas Boylston were estimated to be the two wealthiest men in Massachusetts Bay. When Doane lived in Wellfleet, he bought his wife a coach, the first in town, but it could not be used on the roads there. Later in life, he moved to Boston where he died of apoplexy in 1783 and is buried in the Doane Tomb under King’s Chapel. There are many Myricks in New England, so I could not make a confirmed link between this Samuel and others. In the reference made to this document, the writer refers to an “Elijah” Doane, but after finding no such person, and finding the original document when the letter “S” was elongated, I have concluded this was “Elisha.”

Stephen Burgis was bound to Samuel Basset(t) on July 2, 1766. No trade was listed. He was eight years old, and was bound for nearly 15 years to May 5, 1781.

Joseph Gray was bound to Joseph Higgins (and his wife Hannah) on March 17, 1768, to learn to be a navigator or mariner. He was five years old when bound for 15 years until April 15, 1784. He may have been the son of a Joseph Gray who died in Boston in 1762.

Nathaniel Corbett was bound to David Howse (and his wife Eliza) on March 19, 1768, to learn to become a navigator/mariner. His indenture was to last 16 years, until May 25, 1782.

James Morris was bound to Ezekiel Holbrook March 28, 1770. No trade was listed. He was bound for nearly eight years until March 16, 1778.

Henry Welch was bound to Reuben Newcomb (and his wife Mehitable) on April 7, 1772. His records mention two trades, cordwainer and mariner. He was eight years old when bound. His indenture was to last slightly more than 13 years, to August 9, 1785.

John Watson was bound to Joshua Atwood (and his wife Joanna) on October 29, 1767, to learn to become a cooper. His indenture was to last for 14 years until November 7, 1781.

Richard Warren was bound to Samuel Hatch on May 7, 1766, to learn to become a cooper and a mariner. He was bound for over 15 years to December 20, 1781.

William Smith was bound to Jeremiah Hawes (and his wife Huldah) on March 11, 1768, to learn to become a navigator/mariner. He was 12 years old when bound for nine years, to March 24, 1777.

Edward Taveneaug was bound to James Brown on June 4, 1766, to learn to become a cordwainer. He was bound for 14 years until August 23, 1780.

Samuel Smith was bound to Edward Smith on May 24, 1766, to learn to become a cordwainer. He was eight years old when bound, and would serve for over 12 years until December 27, 1778.

Richard McGrath was bound to Isaiah Holbrook on July 1, 1767, with no trade listed. His indenture was for 17 years, ending May 6, 1784.

Found in the Digital Commonwealth records but not mentioned in the thesis:

Elias Cox bound to Thomas Holbrook on October 3, 1763 until March 5, 1779.

The Wellfleet birth records that were compiled by family unit starting in 1763 mentioned an apprentice from time to time. This practice, mentioning a non-family member, started in the 1780s, and lasted to the 1820s. These apprentices may have been sent to Wellfleet to learn a craft. Only their name, their master’s name, and their birth date are recorded. The records I found are:

Gideon Spooner, apprenticed to Isaac Pierce, born in Boston September 2, 1780.

John Barns, apprenticed to William Chipman, born July 11, 178 (no last digit given).

John Battis, apprenticed to Joseph Holbrook, born October 15, 1781.

Joseph Wales, apprenticed to John Stubbs, born January 17, 1787.

Jacob Treat, apprenticed to William Cole, born June 11, 1792.

James Trout, apprenticed to Jesse Smith, born March 10, 1796.

John Odin, apprenticed to “Herzekiah” Rich, born December 25, 1795.

Richard Murphy, apprentice to Benjamin Holbrook, born 1797.

Benjamin Oliver, apprenticed to Benjamin Holbrook, born October 13, 1798.

William H. Greenough, born March of 1807, served his time with Simon Newcomb.

John Smith, apprenticed to Captain Thomas Higgins, born July 2, 1818.

Peter Rich, apprenticed to Silas Rider, born September 7, 1826.

The Apprenticeship Binding Document

Wellfleet Poor Apprentice Indenture Document

These forms, stored in the Boston City Clerk’s Office until they were moved to the Boston Public Library, were pre-printed forms with the names and dates filled in for each case. The agreement was between the Boston Overseers of the Poor, by name, and the Master, with the consent of “two Justices of the Peace.”  The Master’s name was written in, followed by “with his wife and their heirs” which implied a sort of family arrangement. The name of the apprentice was noted “to dwell and serve from the day of these presents” until the date of his or her freedom, at age 21 for males.

The original documents I found usually referred to “the District of Wellfleet” even though it had become a town.

In the pre-printed portion of the document the Master “doth hereby covenant and agree for himself, his said wife and heirs to teach the said Apprentice or cause him to be taught the art, trade, or mystery of blank to be filled in, and to read, write, and cipher.” It goes on to charge the Master “shall provide wholesome meat and drink, with washing, lodging, clothing and other necessaries” during the term. Further, “at the end and expiration shall provide the said Apprentice with two good suits of wearing apparel filling for all parts of the body the one for the Lord’s Day and the other for Working Days suitable to his degree.” This was known as the “Freedom Dues” or “Freedom Suit.” One writer noted that in 1761 a “freedom suit” was worth five month’s wages.

Another portion of the document named the responsibilities of the Apprentice. In summary, he was to avoid gaming, taverns, fornication, and marriage. All of this was expressed in 18th Century language, along with other promises. “Said Apprentice well and faithfully shall serve said Master and Mistress …their secrets he shall keep close, the Commandments lawful and honest he shall gladly obey …He shall do no damage to Master or Mistress nor suffer it to be done by others without letting or giving reasonable notice thereof. He shall not waste the goods of Master or Mistress nor lend them lawfully to anyone. At cards, dice, or any other unlawful games he shall not play. Fornication he shall not commit. Matrimony during said contract he shall not contract. Taverns, Ale Houses or places of Gaming he shall not haunt or frequent. At all times he shall behave as a good and faithful Apprentice to the utmost of his ability.”



In 1804, the Wellfleet Town Meeting records show an action to “enlarge the Poorhouse.” In 1839 the Town Meeting voted to move the Poorhouse to the “land of Giles and Benjamin Holbrook, lying to the westward of Lemuel Pierce’s dwelling house, and adjoining his house lot of 1.5 acres.” An 1887 report by the state of Massachusetts reports on a visit to the “Wellfleet Almshouse,” a mile from the railroad station, with a note that it was to be closed that year as there were “few paupers.” In 1927, Wellfleet voted at its Town Meeting to “sell the almshouse” to the Cape and Vineyard Electric Company for a substation. This was at the point where the town was contracting with the company to provide electric service. A 2019 news report referred to the “substation on Gull Pond Road” when it was hit by lightning.


Graham Millar, “The Poor Apprentices of Boston: indentures of Poor Children bound Out by the Overseers of the Poor of Boston, 1734-1776” (M.A. Thesis, College of William and Mary, 1958)

Ancestry.com database “Wellfleet Births, Marriages, Deaths 1763-1844”

Dawn Rickman document “Highlights of Town Meetings” (Wellfleet)

Boston Public Library digital resources at “Massachusetts Digital Commons” online at http://www.bpl.org

Lawrence W. Towner “The Indentures of Boston’s Poor Apprentices, 1734-1805” online at the website of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts www.colonialsociety.org/node/938.









About pamticeblog@gmail.com

Family history researcher living in New York City.
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2 Responses to Wellfleet Poor Apprentices in the 18th Century

  1. irenempaine says:

    Your research is always fascinating. My dad once told me that family trees of old in Wellfleet would suddenly include a child that had been adopted, sometimes a bound child, sometimes a neighborhood orphan who had just lost parents.
    I hope we get to talk soon.

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