Op-Ed The Blog of the Yale Indian Papers Project

Compelled to Make Retaliation for ye Expence of Nursing

In 1763 a transient Native woman gave birth to a son in Colchester, Connecticut.  Soon after, the child was left unaccounted for.  The historical record is silent on the circumstances.  The mother may have moved on without her child, as the selectmen of Colchester would later presume.  She may have given the custodial responsibilities to others, or it is possible that she may have died.  In any event, the infant was taken and nursed at the town’s expense.

As it turned out, he was a sickly, hence costly, child, and the town authorities could find no one willing to care for him.  When he was three years old, the selectmen came up with what they thought was a solution to their financial problem.  Through Daniel Foot, a justice of the peace for Hartford County, they petitioned the Connecticut General Assembly, seeking permission to bind out the child into “service.”  In fact, they thought it only "reasonable that said child ought to be compelled to make retaliation" for the expense of his nursing.

Service, or, more specifically, the placing out of children, was an arrangement whereby a child would work for a master or mistress for a period of time in exchange for his or her support as well as to learn a useful trade, such as husbandry or housewifery.  The practice was the most common custodial arrangement for thousands of orphaned, abandoned and indigent children, but in this instance, the Connecticut General Assembly, the institution with the ultimate responsibility for the management of Indian affairs, rejected Colchester’s request.  In fact, the petition never reached the consideration of the full legislature and died a quick death in the House of Representatives.

Colchester selectmen may have overreached when they asked that the unhealthy three year old child work until he reached the age of twenty-eight.  Children were placed into service at the average age of seven and typically worked until they reached their adulthood—age 21 for boys, age 16 or 18 for girls, although analysis of Rhode Island indentures from 1750 to 1800 has indicated that the release age for Native children in that colony was higher—22 for Indian boys and 19 for Indian girls.

Daniel Foot and the Selectmen of Colchester's Memorial to the Connecticut General Assembly is from the Connecticut Archives, Indian Series, from the Connecticut State Library.   An image, metadata, and transcription of the document can be found here.  Other indentures in the Indian Papers Project collection can be viewed here.  A great scholarly resource for those interested in indentured children is the collection of essays edited by Ruth Wallis Herndon and John E. Murray, published as Children Bound to Labor: The Pauper Apprentice System in Early America (Cornell University Press, 2009).  

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