[The following entry is from guest blogger and SF State University undergraduate, Jack Prunty, who volunteered for the Sutro Library before he graduated in May. He supplied all of the text and images that follow.]

Most of you are probably wondering what an “indenture” is. It sounds whimsical enough, and it is, to some level of degree! For those who do not know, an indenture is a legal form or agreement between parties, with some agreements involving up to two or three separate parties alone. While researching the Sutro Library’s collection of indentures, I was on the lookout for any document that might be related to “servitude,” specifically, anything relating to the early forms of labor in the United States. In the last three months, I reviewed thirty documents in this previously uncatalogued collection and described each indenture—many having not seen the light of day in quite some time.

When opening the map carrier that held the documents, I released a wave of historical background that has gone untouched for quite a long time.

Map carrier case used to transport historic indentures to the reading room.

Many of these documents are hand-written on “vellum” (which is animal skin and was a common way to hold deeds of business between parties). Many of these legal documents contained extremely valuable information about how transactions worked. For example, to whom would “witness” said transactions between parties.

Example of witness signatures from one of the Sutro Library’s many indentures.

Many of these documents would also contain “stamps” such as an “embossed” and or a “wax” stamp or seal, and these would be the “official” ways to record the indentures credibility.

An example of a wax seal found on one of the Sutro Library’s indentures.

Also, to note, many were signed by those who were recording said documents, such as stewards or legal court representatives. Unfortunately, I did not find any indentured servant records, as many of the said transactions were about land deeds, and many occurred in Great Britain and at various times (mostly 1700’s and 1800’s).

There were exactly two documents that I found extremely noteworthy of interest that I believe people should hear about, because personally, both are not only fascinating, but also worth attention to analyze and looking at for their information.

The first, is from Washington D.C. and is dated in the mid-1800’s. This caught my attention immediately because of the D.C. mailing stamp with first President George Washington on the cover and seeing the name “George H. Williams”[1] on the cover, was indeed quite fascinating:

Close up of George Williams’ indenture.

Going even a step further, it is important to note that Williams was paying off a specific branch of a bank known as the “Freedmen’s Savings Bank”[2]  (which at the time was a part of the Reconstruction Era, helping freed slaves have a banking system). And this raised more questions than answers for me: Why was Williams (a white politician from Oregon) paying off a loan he himself received from the Freedmen’s Savings Bank? Much of the research is easy to find about Williams  and will detail his political support for Reconstruction and the rights of now freed slaves, but the question is still raised: why would a privileged white man in Reconstruction society have taken a loan from a bank that only works for the benefit of those that actually need the funds? I myself still question, why was he paying off the Freedmen’s Bank?

The second indenture that I wish students would come to see doesn’t look like an indenture at all, rather a piece of art sent from Heaven itself:

A large handwritten and illuminated indenture made of vellum.

The historical background behind it is little known (due to all the text being in Latin) and the names described–at least to me–were difficult to distinguish between vast importance or on the lower chart of society. A hand-drawn illustration of Jesus Christ on the Cross with his followers looking up, and behind Jesus, was almost a man surrounded by clouds with a white beard (this is not Santa Claus but rather an interpretation of what God is supposed to look like):

A close up of the indenture’s cartouche featuring Jesus Christ on the cross surrounded by his followers.

On the sides of the indenture were drawings and sketches of objects (one being an actual grape and vines):

 It’s not even so forth put on a piece of “vellum” or “paper” but rather looks like a brown canvas that an artist would use, not something of legality for an indenture, and has more artistry than just a legal formality.

I myself gathered that it was vellum, due to the distinguishable signs between the two examples. From the evidence that I gathered, it was both “legality” with “religion”, which shockingly, most indentures are of that time period. But this, feels different, you feel holiness behind it. You forget that it had at one point been a legal document. This evidence suggests to me that it was from Spain or from other Latin-speaking country that could fluently write about the indenture itself. I myself couldn’t even find or trace the date on this legal document, but overall a great piece to ask questions such as how was religion and law blended so effortlessly in the past? What does that tell us about indentures generally going forward and what similar themes are present throughout all the indentures at the Sutro Library?

I found this work extremely fascinating for several reasons. One, I learned about how legalities were performed in Europe in the 1700’s and the United States in the 1800’s, and these indentures are exemplary of this kind of knowledge. I also learned about the different ways that legalities were carried out, such as how documents were filled out, to what kinds of printing materials—either vellum or paper–they would use. Furthermore, I found it truly unique how stamps were used as proofs of legality— just as much as “witnesses” were–to really prove that these documents were in fact, real and not forged. Personally, I was pretty happy with the knowledge I have learned, and hope many get to come visit the indentures at Sutro Library as soon as possible!


[1]   For more information on George H. Williams, reference Wikipedia article, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Henry_Williams.

[2]   For more detailed information on the Freedmen’s Savings Bank, reference Wikipedia article, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freedman%27s_Savings_Bank.

One thought on “The Wonderful World of Indentures!

  1. Great article, Jack. The drawings on the last contract are amazing. Might I request that you learn Latin in your spare time so that you may provide me with an error free translation? Thank you for your time.

    Liked by 1 person

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