Skip to main content

Boston (Mass.) Overseers of the Poor Indentures

Call Number: MS 7248

Scope and Contents

This collection contains 1,212 indentures that document the Overseers of the Poor of the City of Boston efforts to manage the children of the poor by placing them in house-holds where these children would have food, clothing, and shelter and receive a basic education in exchange for their labor. While the majority of the children were bound out to do housework, including knitting and sewing and farmwork, the indentures also document the kinds of trades that were open to young males in the 18th century such as weaver, shoemaker, and blacksmith. In addition, the towns and families into which the children were put into service as well as the attitudes of child rearing and literacy are also documented. Finally, the indentures serve as a record of the influence of Puritan values on social welfare in Boston.


  • 1734-1805
  • Acquisition: 1968


Conditions Governing Access

The collection is open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

Items in this collection may be subject to copyright restrictions. In most cases, the Boston Public Library does not hold the copyright to the items in our collections. It is the sole responsibility of the user to make their own determination about what types of usage might be permissible under U.S. and international copyright law.

Biographical / Historical

From 1630-1692, Boston’s poor were the responsibility of the Town Selectmen who believed that the welfare of the individual should come second to the religious and secular needs of the community and conversely, that the community had a responsibility to the welfare of the individual. Thus, poverty was viewed in both financial and moral terms, and the only way to remedy it was through a well-regulated family.  Consequently, the children of parents who needed poor relief or who were not being raised according to religious and social standards were removed from the home and bound out to a master who would provide daily maintenance and basic education in exchange for labor. The Boston Overseers of the Poor was established in 1692 by an act that called for children who had no visible means of support to be placed in either a home or in some kind of employment that would benefit both them and the public. In addition, this act stipulated that the female child should be bound out until she was eighteen, or time of marriage, and the male until he was 21. In 1720, it became the responsibility of the master to teach their male apprentices how to read and write and later arithmetic, and their female apprentices how to read. Eventually females were taught arithmetic and how to write. By 1735, there were twelve Overseers in Boston, one for each ward whose responsibility it was to remove children from families that were poor or where parents were considered unsuited to raising children or from the Almshouse, and to bind them out to appropriate masters. There were about 1,100 children bound out by the Overseers between 1734 and 1805.


1226.00 Items

Language of Materials



Arranged chronologically.

Source of Acquisition

City of Boston

Method of Acquisition


Related Materials

MS x Ch. A. 2.36   Memorandum to the General Court by Daniel Gookin concerning Indian children who were put into service to the English. The names and ages of the children, the names of their relations, the places where they belonged, and the names of the persons with whom they were placed are included. Dated  10 August 1675.


Former BPL call number MS Bos. W2. Conservation generously underwritten by the Associates of the Boston Public Library and the Yale Class of 1955 in honor of David McCullough.

Processing Information

Finding aid written by Kimberly Reynolds, August 2014.

Processing Information

This electronic finding aid is transcribed from legacy data. In many cases, transcriptions were not verified against collection materials at the time of transcription. As a result, this finding aid could be incomplete and might only reflect a partial understanding of the material.

Statement on harmful description

Archival description reflects the biases of time periods and cultures in which it was created and may include direct quotations or descriptions that use inappropriate or harmful language. Creator provided descriptions may be maintained in order to preserve the context in which the collection was created and/or used. Legacy description and potentially offensive content may be made available online until a collection can be reprocessed because the access that they provide to primary source materials is uniquely valuable to the research community at large. Our efforts to repair outdated descriptions and to describe our collections more equitably are iterative and ongoing.
Boston (Mass.) Overseers of the Poor Indentures
Finding aid written by Kimberly Reynolds
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description

About this library

Part of the Boston Public Library Archives & Special Collections Repository

700 Boylston Street
Boston MA 02116 United States