I really enjoyed last week’s Who Do You Think You Are season finale featuring actress Liv Tyler.
In the episode we learn that growing up Liv Tyler believed her father to be rock musician Todd Rundgren. At age 8, she learns that her father is really Steven Tyler, lead singer for Aerosmith. Steven Tyler was born Steven Victor Tallarico to an Italian American father and Polish American mother.
On the show, Liv learns that she also has African ancestry, inherited through her father Steven Tyler. His maternal great-great grandfather was a mixed race man named George Washington Elliott, born in New York, who passed for white and served in the Civil War as a drummer.
George’s father, Robert Elliott, who was also a mixed race man served in the war of 1812 as a drummer. We learn that Robert was likely born to an enslaved woman in New York in the late 1700s.
Through the episode I also enjoyed learning about how northern states abolished slavery. We learned that the state of New York outlawed slavery through a law that would deliver abolition gradually. The 1799 law stipulated children born to enslaved mothers would be considered free, but would also be required to serve an apprenticeship until the age of 28. This is how Robert Elliott likely became free.
Here’s my experience discovering that one of my ancestors was an orphaned apprentice in Northampton County, North Carolina in 1837.
An Orphan’s Apprenticeship
The earliest document I have acknowledging the existence of my great-great-great-great (4x great) grandfather Britton Cumbo Jr. comes from North Carolina court records.
The document, and the statement contained within it, is really about as good as it gets when it comes to genealogical finds. It’s a near perfectly efficient little statement that reads almost as if it was written back then simply to help obsessed genealogical hobbyists like me validate a family connection hundreds of years later. It checks off nearly all of the boxes.
Here it is, a Northmapton Court Record dated June 5, 1837 which reads:
Monday, June 5th, 1837 Ordered by the court that Britton Cumbo, a boy of color about twelve years of age, orphan of Britton Cumbo Sr be bound an apprenticeship to Jesse Morgan who entered into bond in the penalty of two hundred dollars conditioned with Henry Deberry and Kinchen Powell securities.
Life expectancy in the US between 1800–1850 was quite short, around 37 years. Mothers and fathers died young, leaving many more orphans as a percentage of the total population than we have today. Orphans in nineteenth century North Carolina, just as they are today, became the responsibility of the state.
An apprenticeship was a common option for courts to pursue for orphans. Most children who were apprenticed were orphans like Britton, or abandoned or illegitimate children, or were born to impoverished parents who needed the type of financial relief a working child could provide. Children could be white or free colored, male or female, and would be legally required to work for a craftsman in return for education, training in that craft, and food and lodging to up to a certain age, say 21.
Based on this document we can conclude that Britton Cumbo Jr. was born around 1825. The document validates the name of his father as Britton Cumbo Sr who likely died around or before 1837 an event which then triggered the court order for his son. Applying the average life expectancy to Britton Sr., it would mean he was born around 1800. The court document also refers to Britton Jr as an orphan. It’s important to note here that even though the courts referred to Britton as an orphan, is not necessarily an indication that his mother was also dead. Financial hardship, as acknowledged in the blog post, was one of the most common reason for declaring a child an orphan of the state. This often occurred after the death of a father, and the sole earner in the household. A mother, especially with multiple children, would sometimes be given no choice but to surrender her kids to the state. So it’s not clear to me whether Britton Jr’s mother, my 5th great grandmother was living or dead in 1837. My research has yet to yield her identity.
Based on the document Britton Jr. was hired out to a man named Jesse Morgan of Northampton. The $200 sum referenced in the court document was a bond Jesse Morgan had to post with the court for taking Britton in as his apprentice. The purpose of the bond is to protect Britton Jr. by providing insurance that Jesse Morgan would live up to the apprenticeship agreement.
I’ve not found much on Jesse Morgan other than an 1840 census record for Northampton which lists him as white, head of a household of 4, owner of 1 slave (perhaps a census taker erroneously counting Britton, a boy of color in a white household, as a slave not knowing he was actually an apprentice) and employed in agriculture. So it’s likely that Britton Jr. trained as a farmer until he was an adult.
By the 1850 census for Northampton County, we find Britton Jr (age 25 according to the court record) married with 4 children working as a farm laborer.
What family stories have you uncovered about ancestors who served as apprentices?