The indenture of former slaves in the early Reconstruction Era

I have been blessed to have found a wealth of American and European family history information and documentation online. No doubt the pace in which historical archives have been digitized and made available online has been fueled by the family history and genealogy boon. There’s still a way to go in terms of information that is available. However, the breadth of volume of materials that have been digitized has led to discovery after discovery with regards to my overall family tree.

There will be a time when I have to begin making trips to the areas in the US that are associated with my parents’ ancestors to access materials that haven’t been digitized. The document below is a perfect example why. This document is valuable on a historic as well as a family history level.

The Reconstruction Era.  I know what it is, this period in the American South that followed the end of slavery after the Civil War ( I know the that the Reconstruction Act formally established it. And I know that, as a period of time, it lasted until 1877. Overall, the Reconstruction Act was envisioned to bring the southern American states to ‘normalcy’ in terms of their inclusion in the Union. It was also an Act which sought to protect the rights of newly freed African American slaves. So while I am by no means a scholar on reconstruction, I have a broad-strokes grasp of what it was about. The successes and failures of Reconstruction aren’t the focus of this post. I merely cite it as a reference point and as contextual background.

So what did I already know about Reconstruction?

I knew that freed slaves who remained in the south were to be paid for their labor (again, a point that has been debated since the end of Reconstruction). I never really thought about how that newly introduced system worked. I never thought about the intricacies or the semantics of it. I vaguely recalled the term ‘indentured’ being applied to the newly free African American workforce. While I didn’t have a romantic notion of what that meant, I thought it largely similar to the indenture of immigrant peoples arriving in the early American colonies. OK so the history classes at the high school I attended romanticized the lives of European indentured servants, those who were more than likely to go on to become America’s early pioneers. This would be territories like Kentucky, Tennessee and the Carolinas. As a more informed adult, I know the plight of European indentured servants was far from easy.  Many were forced to become pioneers due to socioeconomic and sociopolitical reasons. I guess the cold hard truth of it was deemed too difficult for teenagers to understand 😉

Be that as it may, I knew that the system of European indenture was a very formal and very legal arrangement. It was a system that was rife for abuse by indentured servants’ masters/employers. Just Google the number of lawsuits between indentured servants and their masters and you’ll soon get the gist of the common abuses perpetrated by masters – and the common complaints masters had about their indentured servants. But I digress. It was a formal system of employment. For whatever reason, I thought the system between newly freed slaves and their former slave masters was less formal. Or, indeed, an informal arrangement between former slaves and their new employers too. To be brutally honest, I just didn’t think people would go to the effort of formalizing employment matters with freed slaves. I thought it would be like any other form of manual type labor employment: there’s a job, you could do it, you were hired and then paid. In my mind, I envisioned it confirmed on a handshake.

And then I read the below (which was sent to me courtesy of Bernice, who found this in her local library in Edgefield County, South Carolina – and I’m so grateful that she did!):

Indenture of Eliza and Ellen Cramer to Simpson Matthews - Page 1
Indenture of Eliza and Ellen Cramer to Simpson Matthews – Page 1- click for larger image
Indenture of Eliza and Ellen Cramer to Simpson Matthews - Page 2
Indenture of Eliza and Ellen Cramer to Simpson Matthews – Page 2- click for larger image
Indenture of Eliza and Ellen Cramer to Simpson Matthews - Page 3
Indenture of Eliza and Ellen Cramer to Simpson Matthews – Page 3 – click for larger image

The above is a very formal agreement. Every aspect of Eliza and Ellen Cramer’s service is covered, including their general conduct. Simpson Matthews/Mathis would have been a cousin to my enslaved 3 x great grandfather, Lewis Matthews (If I’ve identified the correct white Matthews gentleman as his father. I need to see another document before I’m ready to disclose the name).

My first reaction upon reading this agreement was that the girls were so young. Eliza was nine years old and her sister Ella only seven at the time this agreement was struck. Then I remembered that it was common practice at the time for young children from poor families from any background to go to work. All around the world. What would Dickens have written about if not this very thing? 🙂

The one line that really struck me was “…Eliza and Ellen shall faithfully serve the said Simpson Mathis, keep his commands and obey in all things everywhere.” This whey would have to do until they reached the age of eighteen. They could not cause damage during the term of this indenture, nor could they waste goods or allow goods to be damaged or wasted by others. Nor could they marry without Simpson Mathis’s consent during the period of their indenture.

On his part, Simpson was bound to train the girls properly on all aspects of house work. He was also bound to teach them to read, write and, specifically, how to spell. Food, lodging and clothing were also part of the agreement.

Now I refer to the terms given above as indenture for a reason. Historically speaking, parents and/or guardians were paid a sum of money for any children or charges placed under an apprenticeship. This payment could either be aid in a lump sum or in smaller amounts annually. Remuneration isn’t mentioned in this agreement, which is a striking omission. I don’t know if the girls were paid, or if what they did receive (a basic education, a trade, clothing, etc) was in lieu of payment. Nor is there any mention of their father Watts Cramer receiving payment or any payment in kind, apart from his daughters gaining a basic education and a trade. I suppose in the larger scheme of things he would have two less children to provide for and some measure of comfort that his daughters would have the means to provide for themselves in the wider world until they married. Perhaps this doesn’t seem like much in our modern age. I have an inkling that this meant a great deal 145 years ago.

I haven’t really researched this period of American history. As a result, I don’t know if this kind of document and agreement is common or rare. Nor can I assess whether the terms and conditions outlined in it were common or rare for the time in which it was written. If it is rare, does a document like this hint at a pre Civil War relationship between Simpson Matthews, Watts Cramer and Watt’s daughters? Was he their former master? Or was Simpson making a point of doing the right thing for the times they lived in? It would be brilliant if US historians specializing in this time period could drop me a line or post a comment and let me know.

Naturally this document has me thinking about what other nuggets of gold are lurking in archives which haven’t been digitized and made available online – documents that not only give a glimpse into my family’s past but also a glimpse into America’s past. So it’s definitely prompting me to make some trips to libraries and document archives in Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina and South Carolina to find out more about my ancestors.

For every person who finds a document like this, more light is shed on the experience of newly freed slaves during early days of the Reconstruction Era.

It reminds me of that saying that genealogy / family history is history in microcosm.

3 thoughts on “The indenture of former slaves in the early Reconstruction Era

  1. Welcome to the GeneaBloggers family. Hope you find the association fruitful; I sure do. I have found it most stimulating, especially some of the Daily Themes.

    May you keep sharing your ancestor stories!

    Dr. Bill 😉
    Author of “13 Ways to Tell Your Ancestor Stories” and family saga novels in The Homeplace Series such as: “Back to the Homeplace”
    The Heritage Tourist at In-Depth Genealogist:

  2. Hello Mr. Sheffey,
    My name is Marcellaus Joiner. I have contacted you because I have been working on my family history for the past year and half now and I think we have some relatives in common. My 3 great grandfather is Aaron Luther Mathis Sr. Grandfather to Narvle Mathis my great grandmother. I have documentation to show the connections. While I have conducted my research I have consistently been directed to your family tree on Ancestry. I’m hoping that we can connect and compare notes. If this message has reached you in error please disregard.
    Thank you,

    1. Hello Marcellaus. Thank you for your comment. I’ve been trying to attach your line to my overall Matthews/Mathis family tree for quite some time. The oldest confirmed ancestor I have for your line is Simpson Mathis (1800-1878). I’ve been trying to find his death certificate, without any luck, in the hopes that it would name his parents. I’ve also searched Freedmen Bank Records and Freedmen Office Records. I haven’t been able to find him via any of these records databases. I suspect he has something to do with the white Simpson Matthews of Edgefield, SC. The white Simpson Matthews was my 4x great grandfather Lewis Matthews’ cousin. Basically, I’ve been trying to figure out if, and how, Lewis and your Simpson were related. A number of white Matthews men fathered quite a number of mulatto children through female slaves. Trying to figure out which Matthews fathered each of these children is a monumental task.

      At some point, I will have to go to Edgefield and read through boxes of undigitized records which I hope will shed some light on this. I’m toying with the idea of doing a crowdsourcing campaign to enable me to live in Edgefield for six to nine months to tackle this goal. Apart from that, I hope more Mathises and Matthews will do DNA tests so we can figure this out via DNA results.

      I am curious. Do you have any of the following families in your family tree? Holloway, Peterson, Settles, Yeldell, Ouzts, Dorn, Harling. Higgins or Brunson? If you do, I can take a pretty good/educated guess as to where on the Matthews/Mathis tree we connect. Feel free to email me via briansheffey[at}gmail{dot}com.

      All the best


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