A GRAPHICAL OVERVIEW OF NEW ORLEANS INDENTURES, 1809-1843


The graphics on this page describe ten general patterns in indenture documents:

  1. Types of indentures
  2. Number of indentures and apprenticeship contracts per year
  3. Proportion of indentures in French
  4. Race of masters and apprentices
  5. Number of apprentices by race and origin
  6. Number of literate and illiterate apprentices by age
  7. Average duration of contract by age at beginning of apprenticeship
  8. Most frequent trades of apprenticeship
  9. Arrangements for care of apprentice by period
  10. Proportion of cash payments by resonsibility for care of apprentice

Keep in mind that any characteristic can vary in multiple ways. For example, Graph 2 compares the trend over time in apprenticeship contracts per year to the trend for all indentures; but the trends for other types of indentures shown in Graph 1 are quite different. The proportion of indentures in French rather than in English, described by Graph 3, varies by the race of masters and artisans shown in Graph 4. Patterns, in other words, are just the ways we simplify extraordinarily complex historical reality to make it seem understandable.

In 1806, in its first session, the legislature of the Territory of Orleans (roughly co-extensive with the present boundaries of the state of Louisiana) passed an act regulating apprenticeship and temporary servitude. It proposed two standard forms for contracts, one for apprentices and the other for servants, reproduced and commented in another section of the index. In applying the law of 1806, the mayor of New Orleans recorded in five ledgers the text of 1,152 indentures drawn up between 1809 and 1843, some of which differed considerably from the recommended wording. That is not surprising since indentures served several functions, as shown in Graph 1:

This pie chart represents the relative importance of different types of indentures. Fully 87 percent were for the purpose of apprenticeship. (Click here for an example.) These were legally binding contracts of boys and young men to work a certain number of years for an employer in return for instruction in a trade or occupation. The other 13 percent of indentures served a variety of purposes including de facto adoption of very young children (the Civil Code did not then have provisions for formal adoption), training of slaves in crafts, temporary servitude to pay off personal debts, reimbursement of the costs of ship passage from Europe to Louisiana, and an agreement by which a whole family supplied its labor to a planter for a year in return for room and board and monetary compensation on completion of the contract.

Over time the number of indentures recorded each year in the mayor's office diminished markedly. As Graph 2 shows, so did contracts of apprenticeship. In this respect, New Orleans serves as a striking example of the general decline in traditional apprenticeship in the United States in the antebellum period studied by W.J. Rohrabaugh in The Craft Apprentice from Franklin to the Machine Age in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986).

With the exception of one year during the War of 1812, the yearly total of indentures increased up to 1818. The number dropped between 1819 and 1821 due to a financial panic in 1819 and ensuing recession, then rebounded in 1822 to 63, exceeded only by 110 in 1818. However, 1822 also marked the beginning of an extended decline in the annual number of indentures over the next two decades. From over 40 in every year between 1815 and 1825, the number fell to less than 40 from 1826 to 1832 (except for 1828 when there were 56), less than 20 from 1833 to 1840, and less than 10 after 1841. The numbers are slightly lower for apprenticeship contracts, but the trend is the same.

The register of indentures in the mayor's office contains less than the total number of apprenticeships actually begun each year. Unregistered agreements bound other youth to serve masters to learn a trade. Almost to the very end of the years covered by the indenture books, the indentures were hand-written; but printed forms began to be used around 1840. Space was left on these forms for information that varied from document to document, and standard provisions could be crossed out with alternative provisions added by hand in the margins. If printed forms were also used for unregistered apprenticeships, their appearance just at the point when the number of indentures fell to less than 10 per year seems less odd, and at the same time is evidence that informal agreements were still relatively numerous.

Graph 3 traces the trend in the proportion of indentures in French.

In 1809 and 1810, a majority of the documents were in English; but a glance back to Graph 2 shows that these were years with few indentures. From 1813 to 1836, over 60 percent of indentures, and sometimes over 80 percent, were written in French. The proportion dropped sharply in 1837, the first year of a severe economic downturn, then rebounded in 1838 to a larger proportion than from 1832 to 1836. It seems likely that French-language contracts that would normally have been drawn up in 1837 were postponed until the following year. However, the proportion of indentures in French declined thereafter in every year until the end of the period covered by the indenture books.

The indentures are especially revealing about race relations among skilled laborers and their families. Graph 4 shows the relative importance of the four possible racial combinations of master artisans and apprentices.

At the lowest level of the artisan hierarchy, apprentices, the two races were almost equally represented. During the whole period from 1809 to 1843, 475 of male apprentices were white and 505 were free persons of color. At the top of the hierarchy, whites predominated: 769 of the master artisans were white and 211 were free men of color. Counting individual masters only the first time they were mentioned, 335 were white and 79 were free men of color. More free colored apprentices were apprenticed to white masters than to masters of their own race. On the other hand, only ten whites were apprenticed to free colored masters.

As Graph 5 indicates, the origins of apprentices varied by their race.

Among white apprentices, there were three immigrants for every two natives of Louisiana. Close to half of the white immigrants were born in Europe, a quarter were born in Saint-Domingue or Cuba, and the other quarter in a state other than Louisiana. Those born in the Caribbean were mostly the sons of French-speaking colonials who had fled the successful slave revolt in Saint-Domingue and settled first in Cuba. Expelled from there in 1809, they made their way en masse to New Orleans. Frenchmen also made up the most numerous European contingent of immigrants.

With the beginning of large-scale Irish and German immigration to New Orleans after 1830, the proportion of apprentices of Irish and German apprentices rose; but it still fell far short of estimates of the proportion of these nationalities in the total white population of the city. American apprentices born outside Louisiana are also under-represented. As the language of the documents also suggests, young Irish, German and Anglo-American immigrants were less likely to be apprenticed than members of the Gallic community, whether "Creole" (Louisiana-born) or "foreign French."

The ratio of immigrants to Creoles was lower among apprentices who were free persons of color. Only a third were foreign-born, virtually all in Saint-Domingue or Cuba. They were part of the same refugee movement that brought large numbers of Caribbean-born whites to New Orleans in 1809. Free colored males over the age of fifteen were barred from entry into Louisiana at that time; but women and children were allowed to stay. Upon reaching adolescence, many of these children became apprentices.

The two-thirds of free colored apprentices native to Louisiana were sons of manumitted slaves and their descendants. Their training helps to explain the 64 percent of free black males in New Orleans who were employed as artisans according to the 1850 census. Two-fifths of white apprentices were also Creoles. Many were born in the city, but a fourth gave a rural Louisiana parish as their birthplace. The presence of these white Creoles is conspicuous enough to give pause before generalizing about the "disdain" of native whites for manual labor because of its association with slavery. White immigrants had to compete for apprenticeships with native whites as well as with free men of color.

Next, the indentures provide evidence of the age at which youth were apprenticed and their ability to read and write, as revealed by their signature on the contract or a mark in lieu of a signature (see again the example of an indenture of apprenticeship). Not unexpectedly, Graph 6 demonstrates a clear association of literacy with the age of apprenticeship. The full length of the bar, green and yellow sections combined, shows the number of apprenticeships begun at each age. The larger the amount of yellow in the bar, the higher the proportion of youth already literate at that age.

First, apprenticeships usually started between the age of thirteen and sixteen, with the age of fourteen being most common. By then, approximately half of the youth had already learned to read and write. Judging from apprenticed youth, few learned how to write their names earlier than the age of eleven. By comparison, children today are taught how to sign their names in kindergarten and how to read in the first grade. In the first half of the nineteenth century, many youth past the age of fifteen were still not yet literate. Provisions for rudimentary schooling, usually at night school, were written into 55 percent of indentures of apprenticeship.

The duration of apprenticeship also depended on the age at which it began, as can be observed in Graph 7.

The length of the contract averaged six or seven years for boys apprenticed at the age of ten or eleven, but less than three years past the age of seventeen. By the law of 1806, the term of apprenticeship was supposed to expire by the age of 18 for females and 21 for males, although males or females above the age of 21 could bind themselves for up to 7 years. Since most youth became apprentices between the ages of thirteen and sixteen, the typical term was three to four years. The average term for all apprentices was just four years.

Graph 8 shows the trades that account for more than ten apprenticeships each.

The two construction trades of carpenter and bricklayer predominated. Carpentry included both house builders and furniture makers. If the two are distinguished, more youth learned the art of masonry than any other skill. The retail crafts of tailor, shoemaker, and cigarmaker constitute a second general category in which apprenticeships were fairly common. Apprentice printers and merchants were an elite. They were almost all white, literate, and in their late teens when they were indentured; and they were more highly compensated than other apprentices. In addition to these trades, there were many others in which ten or less youth were apprenticed, including architect, gunsmith, publican, butcher, baker, mariner, saddler, hatter, pharmacist, goldsmith, barber, perfumer, and stablegroom.

The last two graphs show how provisions for the care of the apprentice varied from indenture to indenture. Graph 9 describes change over time in who was charged with providing for his basic needs. Responsibility for food, clothing, lodging, medical care in case of illness, and education could rest entirely with the master, as assumed in the 1806 model contract; but it might also be assigned to the apprentice's sponsor in whole or in part, or even be delegated to the apprentice himself.

The most common arrangement was for the master to assume complete responsibility for the care of the apprentice. 621 of the indentures (63 percent) took this form. Sometimes the obligations were specifically enumerated, as in the 1811 indenture of John Gallius (Jean Galliot) in which his masters promised to find him "good & sufficient food, meat, drink, lodging, clothing, washing, and medical aid in case of sickness, and also ... four months of night schooling for the purpose of learning him how to read and write and the arithmetic as far as the rule of three." In other cases, the master's responsibilities were expressed in more general terms, as in the 1835 indenture of George Medart whose master accepted to "generally maintain his said apprentice in health and sickness."

Full care by the master in return for the apprentice's faithful service for the duration of the contract was the traditional arrangement. In 165 indentures (17 percent), however, the sponsor or the apprentice agreed to assume part of the master's responsibility for maintenance of the apprentice. One example is Louise Lominil, who sponsored her nephew Jean-Louis Moreau, a 14-year-old free-black orphan born in the former French colony of Saint-Domingue, apprenticed in 1811 to the master carpenter Ferdinand Lioteau for five years. Lioteau promised to teach Moreau his trade, feed and lodge him and provide six months of night schooling. Responsibility for clothing, laundry, and medical care in case of sickness remained with the aunt..

Responsibilities for care of the apprentice were shared in practically every way imaginable, from masters who accepted to provide for the apprentice's needs in all ways but one to masters who provided only one form of care. In 69 percent of indentures of shared responsibility, the master provided food and clothing to the apprentice. In 38 percent, he provided lodging; in 27 percent, medical care; and in 16 percent, laundry. Only with respect to clothing and medical care can a clear trend over time be observed. The proportion of masters providing clothing increased from 57 percent before 1820 to 74 percent in the 1820s and 83 percent after 1830. Around a quarter of masters accepted responsibility for medical care up to 1830, but three-fifths did so after that date.

Thirdly, in 194 indentures (20 percent), the master delegated all responsibility for the apprentice's needs to the sponsor or apprentice. The 1819 indenture of Joseph Raphael specified: "All expenses such as board, food, clothing, maintenance, medicine in case of illness, etc., remain by express agreement at the charge of the aforesaid Marie Joseph Marine mother of the aforesaid apprentice." The 1833 indenture of Pépilla Ronquille mentioned simply that his "support, in general, will be the mother's responsibility." Nine apprentices between the ages of 18 and 24 who sponsored themselves were responsible for their own maintenance, receiving to this end payments from the master that were in effect wages. All but 25 apprenticeship indentures (2.5 percent) specified who was responsible for the care of the apprentice; and in 24 of these, provision for monetary payment to the apprentice suggests that the absence of any clause concerning responsibilities on the part of the master other than the payment meant he recognized none.

There is no simple relationship between the decline in apprenticeships and the proportion of masters who accepted full, partial, or no responsibility for meeting the needs of the apprentice. Graph 9 shows that the number of indentures in which the master assumed full responsibility fell in the 1820s relative to the period 1809 to 1819. Meanwhile, arrangements of shared and delegated responsbility both increased. Already in the 1820s delegated responsibility became more common than shared responsibility. The decline in the number of indentures from 1830 to 1843 makes it more difficult to perceive change relative to the 1820s; but the percentage of arrangements of complete responsibility moved back towards the level observed before 1820. Shared responsibility for care of the apprentice became even less common after 1830 than it had been prior to 1820. A linear pattern is evident only in the proportion of masters delegating all responsibility for maintenance, which increased in each successive decade.

The trend in delegated responsibility confirms that some masters endeavored to be released from traditional obligations for care of the apprentice as the system declined; but this behavior was limited to a quarter of indentures in the decade of most rapid decline. At least in formal indentures, master craftsmen did not abandon with undue haste the practice of satisfying the basic needs of apprentices in their households. As late as the 1830s, almost two-thirds continued to accept full responsibility for maintenance of the apprentice.

Indentures often had a clause stipulating a payment in cash or kind by the master to the apprentice or his sponsor. Over the entire period from 1809 to 1843, 21 percent of the indentures mentioned some form of compensation. Only 2 percent mentioned a payment to the master by the other party; and a third of these (6 out of 18) were in return for letting the apprentice quit before the end of his term. In all three types of arrangement for care of the apprentice, Graph 10 shows that payments from the master to the sponsor or apprentice increased over time.

First, the proportion of apprentices receiving a bonus in addition to full maintenance doubled after 1830 in comparison to the two preceding decades. Secondly, arrangements in which the master compensated the other party for sharing the costs of maintenance, after decreasing slightly in the 1820s, increased after 1830 to one-third of this type of indenture. The clearest trend is in compensation to be relieved of all responsibility for maintenance for the apprentice, the arrangement that most closely resembles a cash wage. Payments increased from 13 percent of indentures with delegated responsibility before 1820 to 52 percent in the 1820s to 92 percent after 1830. Over all, 12 percent of all indentures registered between 1809 and 1819 stipulated either a bonus or compensation. In the 1820s, just over 20 percent did so; and almost 40 percent after 1830.

Any payment to an apprentice by a master who accepted full responsibility for his maintenance has been classified as a bonus. The clearest cases of remuneration over and above simple maintenance of the apprentice were 39 payments promised on completion of apprenticeships, either in the form of clothing, tools, a sum of money, or a combination thereof. Seventeen indentures stipulated a new set of clothes at the end of the term, ranging from one to several new suits and wearing apparel. Judging from indentures in which the master gave the apprentice money to buy clothes, a new suit cost $50 to $60. In nine indentures, the master committed himself to furnish tools to the apprentice on completion of the term, for example, an anvil and bellows to a blacksmith's apprentice, and a compass, plane, hammer, and other items to a carpenter's apprentice. Finally, cash bonuses were pledged at the end of 20 indentures.

In 30 other indentures the master agreed, in addition to maintaining the apprentice fully, to make cash payments to him over the course of the apprenticeship. The tailor Jacques Cornu, for example, promised to pay Auguste Leduc $8.00 a month "above the costs of maintenance" during the last year of his apprenticeship. Such a payment may be considered a bonus because it was not contingent on the apprentice paying for his room, meals or any other needs.

Bonuses accounted for 62 percent of indentures with some form of remuneration paid to the apprentice or his sponsor before 1820, but only 27 percent in the 1820s and 33 percent after 1830 as compensation for shared or delegated responsibility for care of the apprentice became more common. Particularly when responsibility was shared between master and sponsor, indentures specified the type of care for which compensation was paid. For this reason, they provide an idea of the cost of different types of maintenance. Indentures where cash payments were specifically for clothing ranged from $10 per quarter, or $40 a year, for a blacksmith and machinist's apprentice, to $16-17 per month in the last year of service for two printer's apprentices, equivalent to around $200 per year. In three-fourths of indentures providing money for clothing, the allowance was between $8 and $10 per month, or around $100 per year.

One indenture permitted the master to meet his obligation to feed a free Negro apprenticed as a domestic servant by providing him with an allowance of 25 cents a day, equivalent to $7.50 per month; and the shoemaker Marc Lambert paid 2 piasters a month to an apprentice who continued to be lodged at his father's expense. The minimum cost of room and board for an apprentice would appear to be around $10 a month, the amount paid to a baker's apprentice who received all care from his master except room and board.

Including clothing, adequate maintenance of an apprentice involved expenses of around $200 per year. Two printer's apprentices were paid $15 a month, plus meals, in compensation for providing their own board, clothing and washing; but they were atypical. Only 10 percent of apprentices receiving payments from the master in lieu of care made this much money. A 19-year-old self- sponsored apprentice mason received $400 over four years for all his needs but meals. Charles Palmer's sister likewise received only $100 a year for taking care of him during the first three years of his apprenticeship to a blockmaker. Compensation for general maintenance of an apprentice averaged $10 a month, enough to procure room and board, but with nothing left over for clothing and other needs. This was not necessarily exploitative. The difference between what an apprentice was paid and what it actually cost to satisfy his basic needs can be considered part of the price that he or his sponsor paid for an education in a skilled trade, the other part being the profit the master made from the apprentice's labor.

The terms of apprenticeship varied by trade and by characteristics like age, race, and birthplace mentioned in indentures; but they also depended on traits of personality of apprentice, sponsor, and master that, at best, can only be read between the lines of a formal legal contract. Each indenture tells a story that is in some ways reflective of a common experience and in other ways unique. In reading specific documents, it is rewarding to try to appreciate both dimensions.


Return to list of resources in introduction.

Created 8/11/98 pfl