Find Post-Civil War Black Ancestors Through Apprenticeship Indentures

I’ve blogged that one of my ancestors living in the (later notorious) Forsyth County, Georgia had a 14-year-old Black child named Isaac Suthard living on his farm in 1880

I wrote that blog post 10 years ago, and at the time I just assumed that Isaac was a hired hand, in the same way that I’ve found many of my own ancestors working as laborers on other farms. 

This particular ancestor who employed Isaac Suthard was growing older and had SIX HUNDRED apple trees. His own children had mostly moved west to Arkansas. So it made sense to me that he might hire some help.  And, of course, at the time it wasn’t at all unusual for a 14-year-old, especially a Black 14-year-old in the postbellum South, to be employed. 

Isaac Southard could have lived with my ancestor for years or he could have simply been living on the farm as a laborer at the time the census was taken.

Or, he could have been an “apprentice.” 

Apprenticeship Indentures and the “Black Codes” of the Postbellum South

I first discovered apprenticeship indentures in the postbellum South when FamilySearch released newly scanned sets of county court records. I found a set of records from my own Georgia county called “Apprenticeship Indentures (1866-1904).” (By the way, an “apprenticeship” is the master/apprentice relationship. An indenture is the terms of that relationship, including the length of the contract, what the apprentice will learn, and the payment.)

In my innocence, I thought that I might find documents about blacksmiths and tailors apprenticing young proteges. And in my defense, that is generally the gist of other apprenticeship indenture records.

Instead, I was greeted by, to paraphrase, “It’s 1866 and John McAfee has come before me and agreed to apprentice Jac McAfee, age 12, a minor Freed Boy, and teach him all the duties of a Farm Hand until he comes of age in 9 years.” 

The record goes on to say that John McAfee will provide Jac McAfee with “meat, drink and clothing during the said term” and “at the expiration of said term allow to the said farmhand the sum of one hundred dollars and one suit of common clothes.”

More records follow. The next “apprentice” is Laura McAfee, a 6-year-old. She is to be apprenticed as a farm hand for a term of 12 years. Next is Evaline McAfee, age 11, who will be apprenticed for 7 years.

Yeah, these are not blacksmiths and tailors. 

Instead, this was fallout from the Black Codes–laws passed during Reconstruction that allowed white people to apprentice recently freed children who were orphans or whose parents were absent, or who had been deemed “vagrant” or otherwise unfit to care for them. 

The first Black Codes were passed in Mississippi in 1865 and were expressly designed to limit the freedom of recently freed people. Other Southern states soon followed, using Mississippi’s laws as a blueprint. Georgia passed Black Codes in 1866, hence why this record, and other Georgia county Apprenticeship and Indenture records, begin in 1866. 

Black Codes governed the behavior of Black people, including: 

  • Instituting harsh penalties for minor crimes like “vagrancy” and animal stealing if the perpetrator was Black (this is where today’s “no loitering” and “no cruising” laws stem from)
  • Instituting separate court rules for Black people, such as a sentence of hard labor or even the death penalty if a Black perpetrator committed rebellion, arson, burglary or assaulting a white woman (this is where today’s… yep, you get it)
  • Allowing for convicts to be leased out as laborers
  • Requiring Black people to post a cash bond for good behavior when entering a new state
  • Instituting the above-mentioned apprenticeship system. Men were eligible to be apprenticed until age 21, and women until age 18.

Basically, if you were Black and living in the South during this time, you needed to have a white person vouch for you or be under some sort of contract to a white person otherwise you were committing a crime. 

Wow, that truly sounds like hell. 

So why are we talking about some old racist laws (aside from the fact that they absolutely have reverberated down the years)? 

Finding Clues to Formerly Enslaved Ancestors in Apprenticeship Indenture Records

One old genealogy myth holds that it’s impossible to trace enslaved ancestors before they began to appear by name in the 1870 US Federal Census. 

Thankfully, that’s not true, especially with more records now available online. While yes, it is ridiculously difficult, records like those from the Freedmen’s Bureau and these Apprenticeship Indenture records allow you to possibly fill in the gaps when it comes to where your ancestor lived and who they worked for (and potentially were enslaved by) before 1870. 

Through some weird confluence of events, I’ve had two conversations about apprenticeship indentures in the past two weeks. So with Isaac Suthard in mind, I began poking through Forsyth County, Georgia’s “Apprenticeship Indentures, 1857-1874” record set to determine if perhaps my ancestor had taken on Isaac Suthard as an apprentice. (If he were 14 in 1880, Isaac would have been born after slavery, but I’ve seen apprenticeship indentures from as late as the first decade of the 1900s).

(Note: This particular Forsyth County record set also includes some freight records, for some reason. Skip ahead to Image 35 for the apprenticeship indenture records. Also, Image 35 is a bit of an interesting read, as it lays out the template from the Freedmen’s Bureau for how the county clerk should structure the following apprenticeships.) 

While I didn’t find my ancestor or Isaac Suthard, I found another, older, Isaac with no listed surname being taken on as an apprentice by one of my ancestor’s neighbors. While this might sound like grasping at straws, if I knew Isaac Suthard who was found in the 1880 Census were my ancestor, I would at least follow this line of inquiry to determine if perhaps we were dealing with an Isaac Sr. and Isaac Jr. situation. Sometimes, with difficult tasks like finding an enslaved ancestor, you do have to grasp at every last straw.

How to Find Apprenticeship Indenture Records

These records are held at the county level. So far, I have only found them scanned on FamilySearch in Georgia. 

However, because most Southern states passed Black Codes and because the Freedmen’s Bureau got involved in regulating these laws, these records likely exist in other states. I recommend looking for them under Probate Court in the county where your ancestor might have lived. However, we may have to think like old-timey lawyers and try to figure out how other county clerks would have labeled and stored these records. 

In Georgia, these records are held by the “Court of Ordinary” (a type of court that isn’t around anymore and is sort of like Probate court. Judy Russell, the Legal Genealogist, explains it better than I do!) 

In counties where you can find these records, they are sometimes called “Apprenticeship Indentures (Year-Year).” Another name for them is “Free Persons of Color and Indentures.” Basically, look for something about Apprentices or Indentures and let that be your guide.

To find Apprenticeship Indentures on FamilySearch:

  1. Click “Search” on the top FamilySearch navigation bar, then click “Catalog” from the dropdown menu
  2. Make sure “Place” is selected as your search criteria under “Search by:” 
  3. Enter the location you are looking for in Country, State, County (Example: United States, Georgia, Thomas) 
  4. Make sure you have the radial button for “Any” availability checked
  5. Click “Search” 

This will bring you to a big list of every record FamilySearch has for this county. In Georgia, apprenticeship indentures are often listed under the “Occupation” subheading. They are likely also listed under the “Court Records” subheading.

But as I mentioned above, in other states they may be under “Probate Court” or they may be disguised as some other court record. (While I have no proof of this, I wouldn’t be surprised if some apprenticeship indenture records snuck in under “Guardianships” since they were often disguised as a way to care for minor children who would otherwise have no support.)

To Find Apprenticeship Indenture Records Elsewhere:

We know that not all information is conveniently at our fingertips online. Finding this particular record may necessitate some creative thinking and a trip to the local courthouse where your ancestor lived.

You may also want to contact that county’s historical society or the state’s historical society to try and determine where apprenticeship indenture records would be stored in that state (and what court would have maintained them).

Further, the Freedmen’s Bureau has a list of some records pertaining to work contracts after the Civil war.

Ancestry Clues you Might Find in Apprenticeship Indenture Records

Potential ancestry clues you can find in apprenticeship indenture records include:

  • The name of person who apprenticed or employed your ancestor after 1865.
  • Potentially the person who enslaved your ancestor. Sometimes the apprenticeship indenture record will note that the same person doing the apprenticing is “his former owner”.
  • Potential relatives of your ancestor. Often one person took on many apprentices. These fellow apprentices could be related to one another. At the very least, if they were apprenticed by the same person they are associates who might provide clues to your ancestors’ origins and where they went from there.

Tips for Searching Apprenticeship Indenture Records

  • It’s helpful to know where your ancestor lived after the Civil War. If you don’t know, start from the earliest place you can pinpoint them and work backward. (Hopefully that’ll be the 1870 Census!) Most apprenticeship indenture are not indexed, or only indexed by the person taking on the apprentice, so you’ll be doing a lot of reading when searching this record set.
  • As mentioned above, research all the other apprentices taken on by the same person. These may be relatives, and they are definitely associates. Researching them may help you find clues about your own ancestors.
  • Research the person doing the apprenticing! (I really need a word for that. I refuse to use “master” because ugh.)  Maybe a “Lowell Wood” indentured your ancestor “James Wendell” as an apprentice. But wait, Lowell Wood didn’t own any people back in 1860. Upon researching Lowell Wood you might find that he married Miss Mary Wendel in 1862, and it was her family who enslaved James Wendell.
  • Look for first and last names. It’s true that some formerly enslaved people took on the last names of their former enslavers, but that was not always the case. Your female ancestors could have married or changed their last name or both. Your male ancestors might have taken on a new last name. Look for first and last names in Apprenticeship Indenture records, and don’t discount someone who otherwise fits your ancestor even if the surname isn’t quite right. 
  • Look at surrounding counties or counties associated with your ancestor’s enslaver. 
  • Don’t discount negative research. Does your ancestor fit the criteria to have been apprenticed but they weren’t? This, too, can provide clues. Perhaps parents you thought were absent were there after all, and so their children didn’t qualify to be apprenticed. Familiarize yourself with the Black Codes of your research state and use things you don’t find as clues, too.

Not to brag about what a nerd I am, but have a history degree with a focus on the postbellum American South. As part of my degree, I read and saw a lot of heinous acts of racism. But I was still shocked and disgusted by finding these apprenticeship indenture records. Seeing a six-year-old who should be newly free to pursue her life, liberty and happiness basically become re-enslaved by yet another legal contract will do that to you.  

Have you had any success with Apprenticeship Indenture records? Have you found them outside of Georgia? Let me know in the comments or contact me!


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