Indenture and Orphan Homes: “Rescuing” Indigent Children

I recently posted, on my Mennonite heritage website, an essay about a great-great-aunt, Mary Cress. Mary’s mother died a few weeks after her birth in 1876. Two years later, her father indentured her to a Mennonite family, who agreed to raise her “as their own child” until she was 18 years of age.

This was the first I’d heard of children being indentured at such a young age. I was familiar with older children being indentured as servants or apprentices and with adults indenturing themselves in exchange for passage from Europe and Great Britain to North America. I knew of it as a desperate measure taken by poor parents to provide for their adolescent children or by young adults with no other hope to escape poverty.

But a 2-year-old? I had to look into this more closely.

What I discovered is that indenture of young children was a fairly common means for 19th-century parents who found themselves in dire straits to provide shelter, food, and clothing for their offspring. Here’s a portion of the legal agreement that Mary’s father, August Kress, entered into with Benjamin Martin (edited to eliminate some legal jargon):

…the said August Kress doth hereby place and bind his daughter, Mary Cress, of age of two years, to Benjamin B Martin to live with and serve Benjamin B Martin as if the said child was his own, … until the said child has arrived at the age of eighteen years, and Benjamin B Martin … doth hereby covenant with August Kress that he will constantly provide the said child with good suitable and sufficient food, lodging, and clothing, and all other necessary things in sickness and in health, and will train the said child up in the habits of Industry and Virtue….

The phrases that I have italicized reveal some interesting things about how childhood in general was viewed in the 19th century and about the context and purposes of such measures as indenture.

The phrase “to live with and serve [him] … as if [she] was his own” indicates that children, in general, were expected to serve their parents: they were born to service. One of the main reasons couples had a lot of children was that, from the age of three or four, they were expected to serve as free labour on the farm or in the family’s shop or home industry. In exchange for their service, the children could expect room and board and, when they set out into independent adulthood, some material assistance (“such Furniture and Furnishings as customary, viz: one Bed and Bedding, one Bureau, six Chairs, one Single Cupboard, one Couch, etc.” was stipulated for Mary Cress in her articles of indenture).

But Benjamin Martin wasn’t just bound to provide material sustenance; he was also required to “train the child up in the habits of Industry and Virtue.” A later clause states that he was to “send her to school as much as possible when she is of school age and … also instruct her in German if possible.” These conditions betray the nineteenth century’s concern about the poor and its drive to “rescue” poor children from the habits of indigence through basic schooling and education in the habits of industry and virtue.

— — — —

It appears from available evidence that August Kress was a semi-skilled labourer, a cooper when he gave up Mary and her two older sisters and a mason when he died in 1913. He was apparently prominent in the bricklayers’ union for a number of years. He clearly didn’t own land of any consequence, as he is known to have lived in Hawkesville, St Jacobs, and Waterloo at different times. When he died at age 62, he had been living in a Waterloo hotel for several years, his wife having died in 1910.

August’s first wife—Mary’s mother, Gertrud Mayer—died in 1876 at the age of 25, probably from complications of childbirth, leaving him with three young children. His second wife, Wilhelmina Koch, died within a few years of their marriage, after (probably) having given birth to a boy in 1882. His third wife, Eliza Thiel, bore three children and died at age 48, when their youngest child was just 12.

From these few details, we get a picture of a man who struggled his whole life against circumstances over which he had little control. Born in a rural settlement (Hawkesville) in a township that had only recently been surveyed and opened up for settlement (Wellesley), he migrated to a larger village (St Jacobs) and eventually to the town of Waterloo. His moves were no doubt in pursuit of work, as he discarded the trade of his father (cooperage) for a construction job.

In the emerging society of Waterloo County in the nineteenth century, August Kress would probably have been viewed as a member of the “deserving” poor, someone who was willing to work, but struggled to make ends meet for a variety of reasons, and certainly struggled at times to care for his children. This class of people was carefully distinguished from the “undeserving” or “idle” poor, who were able-bodied but just didn’t want to work: vagrants, drunks, prostitutes, white trash.

— — — —

In White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, Nancy Isenberg traces the evolution of concepts of the poor white class in the USA from the earliest European settlements into the twenty-first century. Using government documents, speeches, sermons, newspaper and magazine articles, political platforms, popular fiction, movies, television programs, and so on, Isenberg tells a story of unrelenting demonization, social marginalization and political exclusion, exploitation for economic and political purposes, anxiety about race degradation and infectious disease, and well-meaning attempts to find solutions to the “problem” of a class of white people who seem no better than Blacks or Indians.

Although White Trash is about the USA, Canada has a similar history of social marginalization and political exclusion of those who struggled for economic security and social “standing.” The rebellions in Upper and Lower Canada in the 1830s were precisely about this socio-political injustice, and throughout our history we too have had sub-classes of marginalized people, broad social anxiety about how to deal with them, and varied attempts to provide immediate relief and to help rescue the poor from their predicament.

In their essay “Childhood and Charity in Nineteenth-Century British North America,” Patricia T. Rooke and R. L. Schnell outline the evolving methods used to deal with the children of impoverished parents in what we now know as Canada.

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, children were just lumped in with adults in poorhouses and houses of industry (and sometimes county jails). Little distinction was made between the chronically indigent, temporary victims of adverse circumstances, those who couldn’t work because of handicaps, and those who had been imprisoned because of debt or other crimes. The purpose was to provide relief and, as much as possible, to inculcate “habits of industry and virtue.” Children ended up living and working with vagrants and lay-abouts, drunks and women of ill-repute.

Toward the middle of the 19th century, people started to realize that, in such an environment, children from impoverished families were more likely to learn the habits of indolence and vice than those that were more desirable. Charities and churches established orphanages and “children’s homes” that were intended to care for children with no parents and to separate other poor children from the influence of their home environment and from indigent and criminal adults in order to teach them personal hygiene, good work habits, and proper manners.

The goal was to rescue children from the “class who, from inherent laziness, will not work or make any effort to improve the condition of themselves or their children” (J. J. Kelso, Ontario’s first superintendent of neglected and dependent children) and turn them into productive working-class citizens.

In many cases, single mothers (often young widows) who were working as live-in servants to wealthy families were forced to give their children over to such “homes” because there was no other place for the children to live. Likewise working widowed fathers who had no-one to look after their children while they were at work. Frequently, the charities that ran the homes insisted that such children be indentured to them so that they had legal control over their wards and the parents didn’t try to use the homes as temporary daycare establishments.

Many of the homes had farms or other small industries, such as wool-carding, where the children could learn good work habits. Formal schooling was generally limited to basic literacy and arithmetic. Very young children might be put up for adoption, while older ones were often indentured to good families to learn housekeeping (girls) or a trade (boys).

Interestingly, indenture was usually the preferred disposition of children from the children’s homes, as it retained a term-limited legal relationship of mutual responsibilities, while adoption was frequently used simply to acquire unfettered control over “free labour” for farms or workshops. (This was the fate of many of the “home” children who were sent to Canada from the UK by child emigration societies, such as Bernardo’s Homes.)

This, then, is the context within which August Kress indentured his daughter to Benjamin Martin. It is most likely that he had no other recourse when he was left with three young, motherless children in the backwoods of Wellesley township. Whether he was required to take this course by the authorities in return for some sort of poor relief or was driven to it in desperation, we cannot know.

Whatever the case, indenture was a socially accepted—and even prescribed—method of relieving a child of immediate poverty and of rescuing her from a class that was generally seen as idle, degenerate, and tending to vice and criminality, by training her up to “habits of Virtue and Industry.”

(Interestingly, Rooke and Schnell theorize that it was precisely the efforts of well-meaning people to find solutions to the problem of child poverty in the 19th century that led to our current concept of, and social norms for, childhood. They suggest that the “protection, segregation, and dependence” offered to children by orphan homes in an attempt to raise them out of their class-poverty evolved into the standard concept of childhood in the 20th century. The final pillar of childhood—”delaying of responsibilities”—was not established until compulsory schooling to age fourteen was extended to all classes of people.)

— — —

As I was reading Rooke and Schnell’s essay, I was struck by the distinct similarities between society’s solution to the problem of “poor white trash” and its solution to the problem of unassimilated “Indians.” In both cases, a big part of the solution was to separate the children from their degenerate environment and train them in the habits of “respectable society.”

In an eerie echo of the so-called Sixties Scoop, “baby harvesting” from poor unwed mothers was so prevalent among aggressive adoption agencies in the 19th century that some charities established maternity homes to care for single mothers and their newborn infants for up to a year, specifically in order to protect them from the practice.

I do not raise these similarities to diminish, in any way, the horrible experiences that First Nations people have suffered at the hands of white society. I wish only to put 19th-century Canadian attitudes to the poorer class of whites into a broader context, to illuminate just how prejudicial and inhumane even charitable reforming policies and practices were for poor whites, as they were for indigenous peoples.

— — —


Nancy Isenberg, White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America. New York: Viking, 2016.

Patricia T. Rooke and R. L. Schnell, “Childhood and Charity in Nineteenth-Century British North America,” Histoire sociale/Social History, Vol. XV, No. 29 (mai/May 1982), pp 157-79.

About Rick Martin

fish swim, birds fly daddies yell, mamas cry mean dogs snarl and bite I write (apologies to Mary Gauthier)
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3 Responses to Indenture and Orphan Homes: “Rescuing” Indigent Children

  1. Tim says:

    This, and your previous article on our great aunt Mary Cress, are certainly informative and thought-provoking.

  2. Francis Martin says:

    Thanks for shining the light into yet another dark corner of life and hardship around the turn of the last century. So many ways to suffer through this life. I hope this child was treated reasonably well but it must have been a grim existence for many reasons.

  3. Don Martin says:

    Rick, that is a great piece. Thanks.

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