Sunday, January 3, 2021

Married by Indenture - What is This?

What Is Indenture / Indentured?

An indenture is a legal contract between two or more parties which reflects an obligation or covenant between those parties. An indenture may also be called a "secured contract." We see them in Europe, Africa, and the Americas repositories when researching our ancestors. Here are a few common types of indentures that we may come across in our genealogy research.  (

  • leases
  • bonds
  • apprenticeship agreements
  • marriage agreements

Indenture is not race based.  It is a legal binding contract.  So the term "indentured servants" which we are so familiar worth as it is commonly used in genealogy must be dissected. In this case we are talking about the legal work contract of servants. Note: slavery is not equivalent to indentured servitude, as it is not voluntary; thus not an agreement at all! 

"of his own free Will and Accord..."

I am not going to review indentured servant in the 17th and 18th centuries; but to again emphasize all indenture references do not imply "indentured servant" or labor contracts. In this case an indentured servant is contracted to labor for multi-years in exchange for passage or expenses of room and board. If the researcher is working in Colonial Courts contracts of indentured servants contracts were particularly harshly enforced. But, to summarize an indentured servant is essentially bound by a rather detailed labor contract. Again, race or nationality may be noted, but this was for the purpose of distinguishing physical, or personal detail.  

Indentures and Bonds
Other indentures are as common in our historical and in present day practices. Like the agreement of an indentured servant, these indentures may be tied to a bond contract with specifications outlined. Researchers will note that references of indenture often is associated with an issued "bond." A legal binding indenture governs all of the terms of a bond before a bond is issued. An indenture may include an obligated fee (or not).  It is a contracted agreement between a bond issuer and the bond holders or at minimum a court recognized contract. 
Irish Indenture 1766

What is most interesting is that many genealogists only appear to recognize the term "Indentured Servant." But, let's take a look at "married by indenture." Again, I want the genealogists to recognize that the word indenture is used in present day courts even in USA. And, it has nothing to do with servants, but again contractual agreements recognized by the courts. Take a look at this 1994 reference of "married by Indenture" in Burlington County, New Jersey (public notice: new Jersey Press Association: //

How does a Marriage Indenture Benefit?

British indenture, 1831

In today's world we know quite a bit about a pre-nuptial agreement. Yet, marriage by indenture has terminology is not as common in daily language. But, it too is a contract - financially or not - tied to the marital property or the marriage itself.  It is always a pleasure when a widow's assets does not translate to a "payment for marriage," as that described above in the British 1831 case. An indenture of marriage can assist the "wife."  Read on about Alice Thaw and her indenture of marriage that protected her dower ( 

Readers of the a3Genealogy blog know that topics explored are most often reader generated. A question initiated by a facebook post led a reader to write for clarification of what does "married by indenture" mean? As I am not a lawyer, I can only share with you the genealogical application of this topic (I did reference the a3G office's copy of Blacks Law Dictionary). For a legal explanation, consult an attorney. 

Happy 2021
Be Historically Correct  

Kathleen Brandt


  1. This is very helpful, thank you. I wrote a book entitled 'Joan-Put on a happy face' by Carol M Mottershead and published Sept 2020. It started out purely fictional, but the characters often came up in history I found, which brought me to one of my characters known as John Punch. I was amazed to find that he was a real person, the 11th generation great grandfather of US President Barack Obama.
    Historically, it is claimed that he was the first person to become a slave when his indentured servitude was extended to life long by Hugh Gwynn, the owner of his indentures. My John Punch believed in family so in my story, he had never actually been a runaway slave, I'd created him as being the first man to have his indentures used to legalise a marriage that he maybe not allowed to have otherwise, and now I've found your site, saying that there is such a thing as married by indentures haha! WOW! That is truly amazing!! Thank you :-)

  2. Carol, Thanks for following a3Genealogy. So my first confession is "I love historical fiction!" I've read 48 books since the pandemic (thanks to the cancellation of conference presentations and appearances). Most of these books have been historical fiction, but I do have rules. I look up what's true, and I read the author's notes carefully. My favorites range from Fiona Davis (just fun reads), to more genealogical and WWI and WWI based. I've learned so much about NY, the Channel Islands, and even have picked up one favorite African author (though the stories are HARD). Through a well written historical fiction novel, the reader learns so much on culture, historical facts, social practices and the influences of politics. I am now reading The Awakening by Kate Chopin. I'm sure it was required reading for me college (I attended a women's college - Stephens College - in the late 1970's). I will have to add your book to my GoodReads.
    Oh...and be sure to follow a3Genealogy on social media.

  3. Thank you for replying and I apologize for the delay in writing. I like to keep as much accuracy as I can when I write so researching for my book 'Fictional Memoirs of John Punch' (working title only lol!) has been ongoing but I'm close to finishing now. With so much of the records for that time period in Maryland being burnt it gives me carte-blanche to create fictional lives for a few of these characters, that could be seen as challenging history, but it's only my writers versions and I am not looking to re-write history :) I hope you enjoy reading 'Joan-put on a happy face' and look forward to a review if you can find the time. Happy reading! Carol