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Guide to New York City-Indentures
1718-1727, 1792-1915
  MS 1988

New-York Historical Society
170 Central Park West
New York, NY 10024
Phone: (212) 873-3400

@ 2011 New-York Historical Society

Collection processed by Maurita Baldock

This finding aid was produced using the Archivists' Toolkit on November 02, 2011
Description is in English.

Historical Summary for Indentured Children

Children in New York from the eighteenth through the twentieth century were often placed under the care of the state because of the sickness, mental illness, or the imprisonment of the parents, or because of the general poverty of the family. Commissioners of the Almshouse oversaw the city's charities concerning the care of "insane, feeble-minded, sick, infirm, and destitute persons" and were supposed to care for children until they could be indentured, adopted, given back to a parent or family member, or until they turned sixteen.

Many children under the state's care were placed in orphan homes or "baby farms." Although it differed with time and in each borough, when a child was found, the child was generally sent to a specific hospital or the city nurse for care. The child was then transferred to a private foundling home or orphan asylum, often one that corresponded to what was perceived as the child's religion. These asylums received public subsidies and relieved the state of the burden of the children. These children placed in orphan homes often faced serious health issues and many times death.

It was also common practice to relieve the city of the burden of caring for children by indenturing them out. Children in New York City had been apprenticed since colonial times as a way to receive training in a particular trade or skill. Although some indentured children were from stable families who wished their child to be indentured, other children apprenticed were under the care of the almshouses or public charities. These indentures were often made under the objection of parents.

Although the conditions of the indentures varied over time, most colonial and post-Revolutionary apprentices were provided with clothing, food, lodging, some schooling, and training in a trade in exchange for a promise not to "commit fornication nor contract matrimony" as well as refrain from "Alehouses, Taverns, or Playhouses" and vices such as cards and dice. At the end of their term, an apprentice was generally given a new set of clothing and a bible. Children were indentured at ages ranging from a few weeks old to their teenage years; boys were apprenticed until they were 21 years old and girls until they were 18 years old. While a boy apprentice was supposed to learn the trade of his master, a girl apprentice was expected to do mostly housekeeping and sewing and functioned as a servant. The children of New York City were apprenticed in New York City as well as to families in New Jersey and places elsewhere in the country.

While some apprentices were well cared for and perhaps even adopted by their masters, other apprentices faced cruel or lazy masters and ended up living the life of a slave. Although the indenture was a legal contract, many were cancelled due to a master's cruel treatment or his unhappiness with the child as well as for an apprentice running away or getting married. The Commissioners of the Almshouse were responsible for disputes between masters and apprentices as well as for the investigation of accusations of mistreatment and violation of agreement. In 1849 laws were passed giving parents the right to break an indenture and resume care of their child.

In 1860, the Department of Public Charities and Correction of the City of New-York took over the functions of the Governors of the Almshouse, and the Commissioner of Public Charities became responsible for the indenturing of children. The agency eventually became the Department of Welfare in 1936. Although an exact date is unclear, children in New York City were apprenticed until the beginning of the twentieth century.


Peterson, Arthur Evert and George William Edwards. New York as an Eighteenth Century Municipality. New York: Longmans, Green & Company, 1917.

Romanofsky, Peter. "Saving the Lives of the City's Foundlings" New-York Historical Society Quarterly v. 61 (January/April 1977), 49-68.

Klips, Stephen A., Institutionalizing the Poor : the New York City almshouses, 1825-1860. Ann Arbor, Michigan: University Microfilms International, 1981.

City Officials Responsible for Indenturing Orphans or Children of the Poor:

1792-1849 Commissioners of the Alms-House and Bridewell
1850-1860 Governors of the Alms-House
1860-1896 Commissioners of the Public Charities and Corrections
1897-1936 Commissioners of Public Charities