The Journey to Indenture

In the years immediately preceding the American Revolution, over five thousand people entered into contracts of indenture at the Port of Philadelphia between 1771 and 1773. How did they travel to Philadelphia? And where did they come from?1

Most people arrived by ship, traveling across the Atlantic in search of a better life. Others came from within Philadelphia, voluntarily entering into indenture contracts or through coercion. The interactive map below plots the journey of over two-thousand individuals who found their way to America through the Port of Philadelphia.

Using the data to create maps helps us highlight patterns of movement. Visualizing the data in this way also highlights individual records that stand out as unusual. Find out more in the maps below.

The Story of John Dobbs

A digitized excerpt from the APS Indenture Book that shows the record of John Dobbs' indenture. Click here to examine the record of John Dobbs. On 1772 October 12th, John Dobbs signed an apprentice contract with William Logan. He was to be apprenticed for four years during which time he would learn "the house carpenter and joiners trade." Dobbs' story was unusual as his apprenticeship was to spent on an island in the Caribbean referred to as St. Eustatia, commonly known as St. Eustatius.2

A colored engraving showing many ships in the harbor of the island of St. Eustache as it appeared in the 18th century.Engraving of St. EustasiusThis small island was critical, in terms of trade, for North America since the 1680s. Initially the island housed plantations, however the lack of fresh water made them difficult to sustain and the island's focus turned to commerce, soon becoming a critical center of trade. By 1770, Dutch tea was regularly shipped to St. Eustatius, repackaged and sent onwards to America.3 The island had therefore become one of the busiest ports in the Americas. Records show that a large portion of the island's inhabitants were involved in supporting the shipping trade as "porters, joiners, coopers” and more. It seems clear that Dobbs’ apprenticeship would have been a valuable source of labor for merchants trading in this busy port.

When Dobbs' contract of indenture expired, he was to be given "a sett of bench tools new, and one compleat new suit of apparel besides his old, or five pounds laful money of Pa. in lieu of the clothes which said apprentice may choose." These "freedom dues" - tools, clothes or a sum of money - were a legal requirement, though many masters were known to ignore the law. The provisions were only paid upon completion of contracts and were an incentive for apprentices to complete the full term.4