Isaiah’s Indenture

In this short film, Isaiah Thomas describes his apprentice indenture and why it is important to him. Scroll down for video transcription and film credits.

Transcription of Video

(Pan into the portrait of Isaiah Thomas painted by Ethan Allen Greenwood. As the camera closes in on the face there is a crossfade to an actor dressed and posed as the painting. He then looks directly at the camera.)

THOMAS: (He holds up the book in his hand and lovingly studies it) I collect books and all manner of printed materials. For I am a printer and a bookseller and stationer by trade. I clutch at examples of the printed word the way others might grab at money and jewels. I now have some 3,000 books in my possession, in addition to many volumes of newspapers, pamphlets, broadsides, and manuscripts. I shall share a few with you now. Some of these I created, while others created me. (Taking the indenture in hand) And all of them tell of our nation, the United States of America, and of the people, like myself, who created it. This is an example of a document that created me. (Close up of the Indenture) And you will note that some of this document is printed, some of it written out by hand. It is a contract. It is my indenture that bound me as a printer's apprentice to Zechariah Fowle.

(Cut to the exterior of Fowle’s Printing Shop in Boston, 1756. Fidelity Thomas walks with Young Isaiah, passing a gentleman who bows to her. Fowle greets them and then ushers them into the door of his shop.)

THOMAS (in voice over): I was placed in this apprenticeship because my mother could not afford to keep me. She put me in the care of Zechariah Fowle of Boston, a printer of cheap broadsides.

(Cut to the interior of Isaiah Thomas’s Study in 1812.)

THOMAS: I never knew my father; he left to go to Carolina and was never heard from again. That left my mother with five children to bring up without any means for her own or their support. I, being the youngest, was placed in the apprenticeship with Mr. F.

(Cut to the interior of Fowle’s Printing Shop, 1756. Young Isaiah is sweeping with a broom. Fowle enters.)

FOWLE: Isaiah, come here lad.

(Young Isaiah walks to Fowle, who takes the broom and puts it down.)

FOWLE: This is your indenture, binding you as my printer's devil. You will be my apprentice until you reach 21 years of age.

ISAIAH: Does my mother know about this?

FOWLE: Of course, your mother and I had the Overseers of the Poor draw that up.

ISAIAH: What does it say?

FOWLE: Say? Well, it spells out what you can and can't do. Here for instance, (Reading) “At cards, dice, or any other unlawful Game or games he” — meaning you — “shall not play; taverns, ale-houses, or places of gaming he shall not haunt or frequent.” Now, you mind that.

ISAIAH: I will, sir.

FOWLE: (Reading) “From the service of his said Master by day or night he shall not absent himself; but in all things and at all times, he shall carry and behave himself toward said Master and all theirs as a good and faithful apprentice ought to." Now, you mind yourself, this is a legal document.

ISAIAH: Yes, sir.

FOWLE: (Smiling) Ah, don't worry lad, I'm going to teach you all the mysteries of the trade. Now, you go back to your broom and mind you empty the chamber pots for Mrs. F.

(After taking the broom from Fowle, Young Isaiah starts to walk away but then turns back to Fowle.)

ISAIAH: Will I go to school, like you promised?

(Fowle grabs a hickory switch and threatens Young Isaiah with it.)

FOWLE: Back to your broom and mind those pots or I'll give you a taste of this!

(We see Young Isaiah sweeping in the distance. Dissolve to the interior of Isaiah Thomas’s study in 1812.)

THOMAS: Despite his promises to my mother that I should receive a good education, Fowle's print shop was the only school I ever had.

(Cut to Fowle’s Printing Shop. Through a window we see Young Isaiah stand on a bench at the type cases. Then we see him inside as he picks up a sort and then studies a tattered book.)

THOMAS (in voice over): I learned to read and write by setting type and by studying an ink-stained dictionary and a tattered Bible that he kept on hand. Gradually, I came to understand that each sort, each piece of type, was vested with a transcendental power and potent with possibility.

(Close up of type in the composing stick. Young Isaiah adds the B to the word “Boston.”)

THOMAS: All my knowledge and the many books that I would later create all came from these letters, taken up one at a time.

(Cut to the interior of Thomas’s Study in 1812. Thomas is standing holding the indenture.)

THOMAS: My indenture was a very good thing, indeed!

Credits for Isaiah’s Indenture

Produced by
Northern Light Productions
for the American Antiquarian Society


Isaiah Thomas
Neil Gustafson
Young Isaiah
William Hood
Zechariah Fowle
J.T. Turner
Fidelity Thomas
Nan Wolverton
Gentleman on the Street
Brian Thomas
Written and Produced by
James David Moran
Directed by
Bestor Cram
James David Moran
Associate Producer
Matthew Maclean
Jesse Beecher
Matthew Maclean
Edited by
Michael Majoros
Joe Rossi
Ilene Schulenberger
Ken Perham
Anne Marie Couto
Erika Nardi
Production Assistants
Anicka Chaffey
Kayla Hopper
Brian Thomas
Special Thanks to
Historic Deerfield
Joseph M. Adelman
Annie Davis
Ellen Dunlap
Babette Gehnrich
Jayne Gordon
Lauren Hewes
George Holmes
Juliet Jacobson
Thomas Knoles
Amanda Lange
Laurie Nivison
Timothy Loew
Christine Ritok
Nan Wolverton

© Copyright 2016 by the American Antiquarian Society