Research: The Federal Period

Overview: The Federal Period

The Federal Period (or Federal Era) of US History began around the writing of the US Constitution and lasted for three decades. The United States, a nation in its infancy, struggled to grow up in many ways—politically, economically, philosophically. One of its hardest-fought battles (a battle that still rages today) was how to define the role of the federal government. Balanced against the strength of the national government, each state had to resolve its own unique identity—and how it wished to function within the union of states.

It was in this historical landscape that our heroine, Susanna Marsh, lived.

Indentured Servitude

In the early years of US history, labor was a scarce resource. America needed millions of people to work on farms, construct buildings, and staff small industries. The young nation filled that need with slaves and indentured servants.

An indenture is a contract. Indentured servants were, therefore, laborers under contract to an employer. Adult immigrants and children (often orphaned) were the two largest sources of indentured servants.

Immigrants, often with a poor or criminal background, would travel to America by ship with the fee delayed. After arriving in an American port, the immigrant would contract with a merchant or landowner to pay the ship’s fee in exchange for seven or more years of labor. The employer—usually called ‘the master’—pledged to feed, shelter, and clothe the indentured servant. After the indentured period had elapsed, the servant (in theory) was free to go with his freedom dues, which is something like our modern-day severance package.

American children frequently acquired a trade through indentured servitude, similar to an apprenticeship. Boys might be bound to a master to learn how to shoe horses, build wagons, or run mills. Girls would be indentured to a family to cook and clean (housewifery) or make cloth (spin and weave). These indentures were usually involuntary and could begin as early as age two.

Susanna, the heroine of Whisper Falls, finds herself forced into indentured servitude, binding her into long-term labor for an upper class family in her fictional village.

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Fact or Fiction?

Is Whisper Falls a real waterfall?

Whisper Falls is fictional. Other fictional places are Worthville, Ward’s Crossroads, and Mark’s neighborhood. All other locations are real. Raleigh is the state capital of North Carolina, and Wake County is the capital county. Umstead State Park and Lake Crabtree Park are two of the many beautiful parks in this area. Raleigh really does have one of the largest greenway systems in the nation—and it does pass by the NC Museum of Art. The roads laid out around the State Capitol have been in the same approximate location for 200+ years.

Is the research process described in the book real?

Yes, the research process that Mark uses in Whisper Falls mimics the research I performed. The materials that he finds online are the same ones I found. I have made multiple visits to the State Archives, so his experience is the same as mine. The Search Room is the place to go to research wills, indentures, and court proceedings. The only time I made an adjustment was in the area of marriage records. Counties along the coast of North Carolina have marriage records dating from the 1770s. In Wake County (where Mark and Susanna live), I could only find marriage records dating to the mid-1800s. In the Whisper Falls trilogy, references to marriage records/registries are a composite of materials from counties such as Craven (New Bern) and Wake (Raleigh).

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  • Earle, Alice Morse. Two Centuries of Costume in America 1620-1820. New York: MacMillan Company, 1903.
  • Murray, Elizabeth Reid. Wake: Capital County of North Carolina (Volume I – Prehistory through Centennial). Raleigh, NC: Capital County Publishing, 1983.
  • Hawke, David Freeman. Everyday Life in Early America. New York: Harper & Row, 1988.
  • Spruill, Julia Cherry. Women’s Life&Work in the Southern Colonies. University of North Carolina Press, 1938.
  • Wright, Merideth. Everyday Dress in Rural America, 1783-1800. New York: Dover Publications, 1990.
  • Learn NC. “North Carolina History: A Digital Textbook”. 
  • North Carolina History Project.

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