“Poore Billy”: Apprenticeships in Late 18th-Century Virginia

TOPICS: Eighteenth-Century Life, Martha Washington, Short Biography, Washington or Custis Family

by Lynn Price, Assistant Editor
August 17, 2018

Martha Washington shared the more personal facets of her life in letters to only a handful of close family members—often in one long run-on sentence. In 1794, Martha had no surviving children and corresponded with her niece Frances “Fanny” Bassett Washington often with news, advice, demands (disguised as advice), and opinions. These letters between Martha and Fanny are a treasure trove of historical tidbits, perfect for additional research.

For example, Martha wrote to Fanny from the presidential mansion in Philadelphia on Nov. 10, 1794. After commenting on family health issues and the president’s return from western Pennsylvania, she added:

poore Billy Dandridge how does he like to be bound out— I hope and trust it is for his good yet I cannot say but I am sorry to have him taken from his friends—such a distanc—his Brothers—I am sure thinks it is the best that they can do for him—and I hope he will turn out well.

Who was this Billy? Martha Washington was born a Dandridge and had seven siblings. Her brother William, born in 1734, died in 1776 from drowning.1 Another brother, Bartholomew, named one of his sons “William.” Unfortunately, this William’s birth and death years vary by source.2 If he had been born circa 1782, as one source recorded, William or “Billy” would have been about 12 years old at the time the above letter was written.3 An obituary in the Richmond Enquirer in 1830 noted the death of this William Dandridge at the home of his sister (who was also Martha’s niece), Martha Washington Dandridge Halyburton, verifying that he was indeed Martha’s nephew.4

Print of “The Fellow ‘Prentices at their Looms: Industry and Idleness, plate 1,” by William Hogarth (1747). Courtesy of the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art.

What does it mean to be “bound out”? In 1672, the colony of Virginia passed a law that empowered county courts to bind out children who were not being adequately cared for by their families, as determined and reported by parish churchwardens. The resultant formal agreement of apprenticeship placed children with professionals, where they would work for their masters in return for food, housing, and education. Boys were bound out until age 21, while girls were released no later than age 18.5 In 1705, an additional law was passed in Virginia that allowed “orphan’s courts” to bind out children. Some of these children had estates that could not financially support them, while other children had guardians who could not properly care for them as their estates demanded.6

Why would a nephew of the Washingtons—a member of the well-known Dandridge family—be bound out? In the late 18th century, an apprenticeship could be voluntary or involuntary. Although the court had the power to bind out an orphan or an older child deemed a vagrant, parents also had the option of apprenticing a child for whom they could not adequately provide. Free black and white children were bound out, and in rare instances, enslaved children were as well.

In the case of Billy, whose father Bartholomew Dandridge, Sr., had died in 1785, it was most likely his brother John Dandridge who decided in favor of an apprenticeship. John, who served as an executor of his father’s will, hinted about family problems after his father’s death in a letter to Martha. He specifically mentioned the amount of debt Bartholomew, Sr., left behind, including money owed to George Washington. As a male apprentice, Billy would learn a trade or skill, such as boot- and shoemaking, planting and farming, blacksmithing, Windsor chair construction, bricklaying and plastering, or rope making. Female apprentices commonly performed housework, spinning, and needlework.7

Apprenticeships often benefited society in addition to the individuals involved in the practice. For parents, an apprenticeship ensured their children were fed, clothed, and sheltered. Apprenticeships shaped children into skilled adults who could support themselves, or, in the case of women, run a household. However, as Martha stated in her letter to Fanny, apprenticeships had disadvantages too, including the separation of children from their families and friends. Another disadvantage was the family’s loss of an extra set of hands to help with labor.

A record of William “Billy” Dandridge’s indenture of apprenticeship has not been found. As an adult, he served as a cashier of the Bank of Virginia in Richmond and died unmarried. 8 George Washington, in his Last Will and Testament, released “the Estate of Bartholomew Dandridge deceased” from the remaining debt owed to him, “which amounted on the first day of October 1795 to four hundred and twenty five pounds.”9 No further reference to Billy has been found in Martha’s correspondence.


  1. Wilson Miles Cary, “The Dandridges of Virginia,” The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 5, No. 1 (July, 1896), 33.
  2. Research on “Billy” is ongoing.
  3. “Thomas Jefferson to William Dandridge, 5 April 1818,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 13, 2018, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/03-12-02-0489. Also available in print: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Retirement Series, 12:581.
  4. The Richmond Enquirer (Richmond, Va.), Nov. 11, 1830, p.3.
  5. William Waller Hening, The statutes at large: being a collection of all the laws of
    . . . Vol. II[-XIII] (New York: Printed for the editor, by R. & W. & G. Bartow, 1823), ACT VII, 298.
  6. Ibid., Vol III[-XIII], 375.
  7. Dorothy S. Provine, District of Columbia Indentures of Apprenticeship 1801-1893 (Lovettsville, Va., 1998), 56.
  8. Jefferson to Dandridge, 5 April 1818.
  9. “George Washington’s Last Will and Testament, 9 July 1799,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 13, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/06-04-02-0404-0001. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Retirement Series, 4:479–511.