The Modern Day “Indentured Servants” of Smithfield’s Smith-Appleby House

By Marguerite (Peg) Brown, PhD

You won’t find them in the fields, hoeing or plowing, or tending the fire at the cavernous hearth as you might have in the 17th and 18th centuries. But you will find them gathered around the harvest table working diligently on completing their circa 19th century sewing kits.

Meet Bryant University students, Nick Beeson, Alex Parent, Maddison Tassinari, Carly Mercede and Emily Depres, who, under the curriculum developed by Smith-Appleby Board Member and Treasurer, Maggie Botelho, complete their semester long internships as part of the University’s course in “Doing Public History.” The course, a 300-level history course developed by Bryant Professor Gail Mohanty, places students in several historic sites throughout Rhode Island to assist in preserving, researching and adding to Rhode Island’s historic legacy. Professor Mohanty has spent over three decades working in museums and at historic sites, developing and teaching similar courses at other colleges and universities, and writing extensively on topics such as the History of American Technology.

The internship curriculum components at Smith-Appleby include archival science, oral history, curatorship, historic preservation and performing some general duties necessary to maintaining a small museum.

In addition to the students, who major in such diverse fields as marketing, human resources and business, and hale from as far away as California, it is the Town of Smithfield, the Historical Society and the Smith-Appleby House that benefit most from these students’ semester long commitment to exploring and researching the past.

In December 2016, the Smith-Appleby Museum received a gift from Walter R. Aldrich and the Aldrich Family, Sacramento, CA, that included 22 historic documents, including letters, deeds, ledgers, and other legal correspondence from the Collection of James Appleby, Jr. born October 2, 1733. The oldest among those documents was a letter of indenture dated June 21, 1761, detailing and indenture of Mary Daly to James Appleby, Jr.

It was these documents that Maggie’s Bryant University first year intern students reviewed, researched and transcribed last year for the Historical Society. Maggie led the students as they read the documents, determined the type of document it was, and transcribed the contents of those documents, now an important part of the archives.

In her praise of these students, Maggie stated: (the documents included) …” many letters of indenture, an actual letter written to James Smith (from Samuel and Charles Mowry) with much talk of his situation, lodging, horses and hay…and other documents pertaining to the dispersal of estates. The latter were mainly listings of items.”

“The real magic of this component (of the internship) was the ability to actually hold in your hand something that was written before the birth of the United States of America, and how the anniversary of our founding was celebrated in the documents. When the documents were signed, the authors noted the date as no longer in the Reign of His Majesty King George the Third, but, for example ‘on the fifth-anniversary of the Declaration of Independence…’”

Inspired by the 18th century letters of indenture, Maggie used that model to create similar letters for her students to sign this year.

This Indenture witnesseth that ________ of ________

In the County of Providence one of the overseers of the Historical Society of Smithfield, in the Town of Smithfield, Rhode Island and Providence Plantations and the Smith-Appleby House Museum as of ______ shall faithfully perform 20 hours of service to said House, Signed and sealed on the _____ of September in the year of our Lord two thousand and eighteen.

Both Maggie and the students report that the most difficult task was trying to figure out how to make the appropriate wax seal look as it had in the 18th century.

As other components of this semester’s work, the students have been conducting projects that are also adding to the rich history of Smithfield. For example, Professor Mohanty has identified six historic cemeteries on the Bryant campus. Her students have researched and catalogued the details from five. “The Historic Cemeteries of Smithfield were surveyed in the 1990s, but this is an important update. We have yet to identify the sixth cemetery on campus but will continue to search. We have also reached out to the town as a re-survey of all the historic cemeteries might be a project for future students involved in the Public History course.”

Several of this year’s interns are also working to transcribe letters written home from women who served overseas in many capacities during World War II. This is an ongoing project, based on one professor’s collection of World War II related letters gathered over the past several decades. However, both Maddison and Emily remarked that the most difficult part of reading and transcribing letters, whether they are in the Historical Society’s archives or as part of the World War II project is reading cursive. There are several students who can’t read cursive writing at all. As they both reminded me when I just stared at them with an open mouth, “We only had cursive writing as a one-week unit in third grade—so many of us can’t read it.”

Clearly these indentured servants might have more in common with their 18th century counterparts than originally had been expected!

The Smith-Appleby House Museum began as a one-room stone-ender with a loft above. It was built circa 1696 by Elisha Smith, the grandson of John Smith, a member of Roger William’s original party of six men who left the Massachusetts Bay Colony to settle in Providence, RI.