Teenage Servitude and/or Slavery in Charleston

Elizabeth King's Apprentice Indenture, 1832

Apprentice’s Indenture, Elizabeth King, 1832

It’s nearly back to school time for teens in the lowcountry, and many young folks probably wish they didn’t have to return to the classroom. Some may dream of a more exciting alternative to textbooks and homework, but, historically speaking, they should consider just how lucky they are. Until about a century ago, only a small minority of the teenage population of  Charleston ever set foot in a proper classroom. Instead, most boys and girls of about 13 or 14 years of age left their familiar home and moved in with another family to begin a long apprenticeship. Only the wealthiest boys (and rarely, wealthy girls) went on to what we now fondly call “high school.” Everyone else, including many enslaved teens and free teens “of color,” were “indentured” to a master to learn a skill or trade. A wide range of career options were open to boys, ranging from attorney to mariner to wheelwright and beyond. Girls had fewer options, however, and were usually limited to domestic pursuits such as cooking, sewing, and nursing.

The documentary history of teenage apprenticeship in early America is generally rich and robust, but not necessarily so in South Carolina. A perusal of books about the history of American childhood, or even a simple search of the Internet, will connect you with good information about apprenticeships in old New England and even Virginia, but you’ll find almost nothing about early Carolina. Rest assured that the early inhabitants of the lowcountry were every bit as familiar with the traditional European practice of sending young teens out of the house to learn a trade, but the paper trail of such practices in early South Carolina is relatively faint. As a result of this dearth of evidence, one doesn’t often hear about the widespread and pragmatic use of teenage servants and/or slaves in this area.

Recently I’ve gathered a number of examples to demonstrate the customs, concerns, and legal issues surrounding the apprentice system in early Charleston. The image seen above, for example, is taken from the Charleston Orphan House records, which are part of the Charleston Archive here at CCPL. Here young Elizabeth King is being “indentured” (denoting a transfer of legal custody) to Elizabeth Williamson for a period of five years, to learn “the trade or mystery” of being a milliner. As you can read in this 1832 document, Mrs. Williamson is undertaking a legal contract to educate, clothe, feed, and care for her teenage apprentice. In return, Miss King promises to keep her mistress’s secrets, to abstain from contracting matrimony, and to avoid ale-houses, taverns, and play-houses. Hundreds of similar examples can be found scattered among the records of early Charleston. If you’d like to learn more about this fascinating topic, join me tomorrow for a program titled:

“Teenage Servitude and Slavery: The Apprentice System in Early Charleston”

Time: Tuesday, August 12th 2014 at 6 p.m.

Place: Charleston County Public Library Auditorium, 68 Calhoun Street, 29401.

For more information, please contact Dr. Nic Butler at butlern[at]ccpl.org or 843–805–6968.