“Warning people out of town,” gained a foothold following the Revolutionary War when most towns were experiencing financial hardship. Unless you were an inhabitant of the town, generally defined as having been born in the town, you could be warned out of town. The town constable would deliver a notice to the family, naming every member of the family and demanding them to leave town. This absolved the town’s responsibility for providing welfare, as was customary at the time, should the family be unable to provide for their own.
Through the decades of the 1700’s, several well-known families were warned out of Groton.
“The following is a return of a constable who warned out the family of Caleb Blood, 3rd Middlesex, Groton February 6th, 1767, by virtue of the with warrant, I have satisfied and warned the within named Hephrabath, wife of the within named Caleb Blood with their three children, viz., Benjamin, Charles and Charlotte to depart and leave the town of Groton according to the tenor of the within warrant. – Joseph Moors Constable for Groton.”
Members of Amos Lawrence’s family were also warned out of town. Lawrence, a lawyer, was one of the first benefactors of the town, donating land for playgrounds, money to start a library, and Lawrence Academy, seems to have opened his doors to many through the years.
According to the town warrant of 1772, the following people were warned out of Groton. “Sarah Bowers last from Ringe New Hampshire to live with Capt. Amos Lawrence May 29, 1769… Jonathan Lawrence came from Harvard to live with Capt. Amos Lawrence as an apprentice in Oct. 1768. Johanna Willson came from Shirley to live with Capt. Amos Lawrence Oct. 1770.”
Every year a new person came to live with him – one man, two women… If this doesn’t set small town tongues to wagging, I’m not sure what would.
One author has tied the process of warning out to the original manner in which towns were established. “If we here be a corporation, established by free consent, if the place of our co-habitation be our own, then no man hath right to come into us without our consent.” In other words, if a group of individuals establish a town as a corporation, then they should have the power to determine who becomes an inhabitant. The result was that each New England had its own process to become an inhabitant.
According to author Josiah Benton, “In Woburn, no one was allowed to become an inhabitant without first producing evidence of his peaceable behavior, and by consent of the selectmen or the town at a public meeting. One of the original town orders provided that no person should entertain any inmate in his family, whether married or otherwise, for more than three days without the consent of four selectmen, under penalty of six pence for the use of the town for every day.”# The town of Canton had similar laws. According to Benton, “it [was] the duty of all heads of families to inform the selectmen immediately of the name, age, occupation, and previous residence of the new comer. One of these notifications in 1734 said of the newcomer, ‘The selectmen are informed that he has several hundred acres in Connecticut, but that a glass of good liquor stands a very narrow chance when it lies in his way.’”# Does this suggest possible budget enhancing ideas? Should the Groton selectmen be charged with collecting duties on people visiting town for more than 3 days for “usage fees.”
Apparently, there was little compassion on the part of some town constables. One constable went so far as to deliver notice on Christmas day. It is hard to imagine what the family must have felt with the constable showing up on the doorstep Christmas day. “… Boynton and Lydia his wife with her two children, Silas and Mathew, last from Hollis in the county of Hillsborough warned out of Groton, December 25, 1783.”
If you were born in Groton, you would not be warned out. As a result, often many pregnant women became the subject of warnings. According to Brian Deming,
“In some cases, to be warned out was to be escorted out of town then and there. Pregnant women with no evident means of support were especially likely to be forced to leave. Towns acted quickly to hustle such women out of town before the baby was born because, once the child came into the world, it was the responsibility of the town where it was born. No town wanted to be burdened for the care of both penniless mother and helpless child.”
Connecticut, though, was the harshest with those who refused to leave after being warned out. According to the 1796 Settlement Act, paragraph 7, “…after warning given to him to depart aforesaid, he shall be whipped on the naked Body not exceeding ten stripes, and may again be sent away…” At least in New Hampshire, individuals returning to a town, after being warned out, were not whipped until they were found guilty of returning in a court of law.
Many towns on New England established a policy of warning out families not from the town – whether or not they were productive members of the community. It served as an insurance policy, that should the family fall on hard times, the town would have no responsibility to provide for the family.
According to Benton, some town’s allowed newcomers to buy their way into a town. “The sons of even the first settlers of Springfield were not admitted as inhabitants, to be voters and assume the responsibilities of citizenship, without giving bonds to the town to secure it against any charge which might possibly arise on their account.”# This practice, of charging newcomers to a town for any potential cost they may create sets an interesting precedent in the commonwealth.
The process of warning people out of town stopped around 1815. Today, as towns grapple with budgets, what ideas could or should we take from the past? As a selectman, I advocated for impact fees to be instituted in Massachusetts. Impact fees assess a cost to builders based on the impact a development might have on the infrastructure of the town – schools included. The State Legislature, lobbied heavily by construction companies said that no precedent had been established, with which the legislature agreed, that would allow such a fee – despite the fact that a majority of other states in the country allow it. Can a case now be made, based on historical records of the 17th and 18th centuries, that indeed precedent exists that would alleviate the overwhelming financial impact of when a large development is proposed in a town?
The foundation on which our American culture was built continues to surprise me – but it explains so much about who we are today. It is curious that the same issues continue to plague us, but on a larger scale. It is like whack-a-mole, but each time the mole pops up he is a bigger version of the last. Can we find solutions for national issues, like immigration, welfare and national budgets, by looking at how we solved problems two centuries ago?
A sample of some of the families warned out of town:
- Andrew Dodge and Mary his wife, with six children, named …ry, Samuel, Sarah, Luke, Andrew and Thomas who came from Woburn warned out by Joseph Rockwood, Constable 1782
- … Shed and his wife, Julianna with William Scott who came form Pepperell, also Sarah, the wife of Jonathon Carrell who came from Roxbury, in the county of Suffolk, warned out by Ephraim…., constable January 5, 1783.
- … Grant, last from the Continental Army, his former home unknown warned out by Constable Nathaniel…. January 27, 1784.
- … Boynton and Lydia his wife with her two children, Silas and Mathew, last from Hollis in the county of Hillsborough warned out of Groton, December 25, 1783.
- … Lampton and Sarah his wife, who came form Shirley, warned out January 9th, 1782.
- ..enezer Stacy and his son Ambrose, who last came from Mason within the state of New Hampshire warned out July 30th 1783.
- …ron Brown and Elizabeth his wife with five children …, Polly, Betsy, …, Samuel, also Mary Whiting who last came from New Ipswich in the state of New Hampshire, warned out December 23, 1783.
- …Champney and Abigail his wife with seven children named Benji, Francis, Abigail, Hannah, Betsy, Ebenezer, Jonai, who last came from New Ipswich state of New Hampshire, December 23, 1783.
- …Nutting, who last came from Pepperell, also Oliver Trowbridge, who came last from Chesterfield in the county of Chester in the state of New Hampshire, warned out August 9, 1783.
The above persons warned out by John Gregg, Constable
Here is an account of persons warned out of this town this year, 1789:
- … Woodbury, and Esther his wife with three children, Hernee (?), Esther, and Samuel who last came from in the county of ….
- Isaiah Hall who came last from Westford in the same county.
- … Scott last from Pepperell, and Peter Clarks, last from Water…
- Isaac Warren and Eunice his wife and three children named …, Isaac and Abigail who came last from …. In the state of New Hampshire and the county of Chester.
- John Chase who came last from Sutton in the county of [Wooster].
- Betsy Farling, last from Lunenburg in the county of Wooster.
- David Bennett with his wife … last from Lancaster in the county of Wooster.
Next chapter: what did welfare in the late 1700’s look like?