Finding and Using Apprenticeship Records in North Carolina

14 May 2007

I gave a talk in October of 2005 in an online chat room at the Genealogy Forum (Website no longer exists), where I host chats on Southern genealogy when I'm not in school. I hope to resume that in June 2008. The talk was about using apprenticeship records in NC for genealogy. The talk was a short one and not a lot of information in the original talk, so what I'm going to do here is post a transcript of the talk and fill in extra information. I hope this information can help someone in their research.

It is important to remember that even though this information is specifically about apprenticeship records in North Carolina, a lot of the information could easily be true for other states; however, every state had its own laws and laws also changed through the years.

So let's get to it . . .
I'm sure most who are reading this are probably very familiar with researching wills and census records for 1850 and on as a medium for searching for family connections, but what about trying to find those connections when no will exists and before the 1850 census? This is where apprenticeship records come in very handy (along with orphan's court records and bastardy bonds, which I'll discuss in another post).

A little background into this, before my research on free Blacks in antebellum North Carolina, I knew nothing of apprenticeship records. I've since learned a lot while doing research and I realized how under-utilized the source is. Apprenticeship records have helped me in my research more than perhaps any other type of records in connecting families before 1850.

If you go to the State Archives here in Raleigh, each county has a series for apprenticeship records called Bonds and a series for civil court cases located in Court Records. Apprenticeship records can be found in both places. In many cases, court orders issued for placing a child into an apprenticeship can be found in the Bonds series while the exit from/termination of the apprenticeship will be found in Court Records.

Update 2021: Court records can be find in the County Court of Pleas and Quarter Session, which ran untiul 1868, or in the Superior County Court Civil Action Papers. Superior Court often ran at the same time as the County court, but in some counties did not begin until 1868. Also, since this post was first published, I learnedd that you need to check both court and bond series. Why? the bond was created as an order of the court, and often information in the court can complement what is in the bond. Example: Susie Doe in the court record says she is about 5 years old and the daughter of John Doe while the bond may say Susie Doe was age 5 last March and gives what occupation she is to learn as an apprentice

There were minor differences in ages that apprenticeships lasted over the years, but generally, white males were apprenticed until age 21, white females to age 18, all free people of color until age 21 regardless of gender. In regards to free blacks during the colonial period, it was a common practice to keep the apprentice years after they turned 21 and they would sue for their freedom from their apprenticeship masters. Records of these cases can be found both in the bonds series and with court cases. Even white apprentices sometimes were kept in an indenture against their will past the date of the end of the apprenticeship and also had to sue for freedom.

Records don't always exist for an exit from an apprenticeship, as most ended outside of court and no reason to go to court in order to terminate it, but if your ancestors were free blacks or poor whites, it wouldn't hurt to check for an exit case. For more detailed look into the particular county you are looking for, go to the following website: Guide To Research Materials In the North Carolina State Archives. This site is in order by county alphabetically and it shows what type of records are available for each county. The archives also has this in book format, which can be purchased here or can be purchased when you visit the archives in person. I have this book and use both the book and pdf format all the time! Please note that the digital format of the book was last revised in 2002 so the information is not exactly the same as the book format. It’s a great tool to use though when you do not have the book handy.

General Summary of Laws Regarding Apprenticeships in Antebellum N.C.

In the 1700s, laws required the binding out of all apprentices until the males were age 21 and the females were age 18. The law was slightly changed in the early 1800s so that white males were bound out until age 21 and white females until 18. Free people of color (including in some cases Native Americans) were bound out until age 21 for both male and female. It was also common practice to hold free people of color until age 30, especially the males.

In the apprenticeship laws of the early 1700s, there was not much said about education being a requirement of apprenticeships, but in the late 1700s to early 1800s, this began to change. Apprentice masters were required to teach their wards to both read and write and in many cases, the court reminded them of this fact by stipulating that the apprenticeship master must teach, or cause to be taught their wards to read and write in the court order. Although apprentice masters were to educate their wards, a survey of census records in the latter part of the 19th century shows that not everyone followed this. In my own research with free African Americans in antebellum NC, some of the known apprentices were listed as being illiterate in later census records.

How Can Apprenticeship Records Help My Research?

In most cases, apprenticeship records will tell the name of at least one parent, and in some cases both. In a case where only the mother is listed, it is usually because the child was considered an orphan or born out of wedlock and it is definitely worth taking a look through bastardy bonds and orphan court records in the case where only the mother is listed for the apprenticeship record. If they were considered orphans, then usually there will be something in the orphan's court record about binding them out as apprentices.

If both parents were listed, it might be the case that the family was poor, or maybe it was the only way for a child to receive their education because of where they lived. Children in rural areas did not have many opportunities to receive a formal education, so apprenticeships in North Carolina offered a way for children to receive their education, as well as a skilled trade, from an apprenticeship master. A few cases do exist where no parents are named, or their parents are referred to only as Mr. or Mrs. and a surname. In these cases, an apprenticeship record won't do much in helping you to find the parents, but they might offer one more clue…. If the record only lists a mother (i.e., Mrs. SURNAME), and you know the parents were married from previous research, it can help you narrow down a death date for the father. The same could be true if it only lists a father, but given the fact that women didn't hold much esteem until the 20th century, it could just be that the court didn't feel it necessary to acknowledge the mother.

Update 2021: I have since learned what it means if only one parent is named. If only the mother is named, it can mean that 1. she was not married or the child was illegitimate. In these cases, the child is often listed as base born. If a child is an orphan, the father is often named. This does not mean the mother has died as well, but children were considered orphans when the father died. They were often given a guardian, but sometimes bound out as an apprenntice and in a few cases were given a guardian and bound out. I have yet to see an apprentice bond that lists both parents. In most cases only the father was named unless the child was illegitimate.

Another tidbit to glean from apprenticeship records is who the apprenticeship master was. In cases where only the mother was named as a parent, it is possible the master is actually the child's father. This seems especially true of free blacks before the Civil War. If the apprenticeship only lists the child's mother, it might be worth it to look through the bastardy bonds to find who the father was and you might just discover that the father and apprentice master were one and the same. In other cases, the master may be a relative of some kind, a brother in law (or sister), an uncle, a cousin, etc.

The trade to be learned can be helpful to know for future reference. It can be interesting to compare apprentices from the mid 1800s with the census records of the later part of the 1800s to see if the trade the learned became their occupation. In some cases it did, but not always.

Apprenticeship records are highly overlooked records in North Carolina. If you had ancestors in North Carolina, it will be worth your while to look for an apprenticeship record for your ancestor.


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Unknown said on August 2, 2007 at 6:46 PM
Hello I am knew to this site.Like yourself I am very intersted in the history of black americans in North Carolina. My family is from Halifax county. I find it very interesting.I believe they were free people of color. My familys surname is Hawkins.Thanks for the great information you provided about life for fpc in the 1800s. Erin good luck with your studies. Kari

Unknown said on March 29, 2008 at 9:41 AM
hey erin! can't thank you enough for the help you've provided. i have been searching for this kind of info for a long time, relating to guardian/apprenticeship possibilities for my ancestor, b. 1790 nc (we think halifax, given the family's locale.) the next reference we can find for him is an 1803 edgefield, sc deed where a john adams jr deeds him all his earthly goods and chattels with great affection...searched through adams history for a connection, and finally concluded, since our man appears fatherless, the guardian/apprentice route may be the way to go. also, the archives in raleigh were the most frustrating place i've ever attempted research. your help there is also greatly appreciated. you have given me encouragement to solve our paternity issue, (my main goal when i started this so many years ago...Ɯ so thanks and thanks and thanks again. yours, deb allen