Length of Indenture

One critical piece of information included in the Record of Indentures was the length of the contract each person was to serve. The length of the contract varied depending on whether the person was a redemptioner, indentured servant, or apprentice. For the period of their contract, individuals were handing almost complete control of their lives over to their masters for a number of years. They could not marry, vote, or earn other income. It was therefore very important that the length of each contract was noted accurately.1

The Story of Catherine Biesman

Click here to examine the record of Catherine Biesman.Click here to examine the record of Catherine Biesman. On August 1, 1772, Catherine Biesman was indentured as a servant to James Smith. The contract was a continuation of an initial agreement signed on September 17, 1771 with George Michael Kraft. In total, the length of Catherine's contract was for 26 years, an unusually long period of time.

Alms House in Spruce Street, PhiladelphiaAlms House in Spruce Street, Philadelphia.Like many individuals found within the Record of Indenture, documentary evidence of Catherine's life is quite limited. Since her original indenture contract can not be found, her age and much of her life remain a mystery. However, some records do exist and reveal a few details. For example, before being bound to Kraft and Smith, Catherine was impoverished and living in the Philadelphia Alms House2. The records also offer a clue that likely explains the length of her indenture. Catherine is described as “mulatto," a term for a person of mixed race in the 18th Century and one that illuminates the inherently racialized structure of society. It was common for people of color to be forced into longer contracts of indentured servitude.3 Catherine's contract was eventually transferred back to George Michael Kraft, and she was moved to the Northern Liberties area of Philadelphia to live with Kraft and his wife, Johanna Maria Kiefer.4 There Catherine was to learn "Housewifery, to read in the bible, to write a legible hand, to sew plain work."

Unfortunately, the trail of Catherine Biesman seems to end there. However, Catherine's story is just one of thousands held within the Record of Indentures. It is our hope that this project will allow us to tell those stories.