Libations of the Eighteenth Century

Everyday Life in Colonial America

Customs and Fashions in Old New England

The pious colonists felt that great spiritual, as well as temporal responsibility rested upon them in regard to their bond-servants. We find in contemporary letters frequent reference to the souls of the indentured ones; Englishmen at the old home wrote to the settlers to remember well their religious, their proselyting duties; and they faithfully reminded each other of their accountability for souls. For instance, when a smart young Irishman came over with some Irish hounds, his consigner besought the New Englanders to remember that it was as godly to "winne this fellowes soule out of the subtillest snare of Sathan, Romes pollitick religion, as to winne an Indian soule out of the Dieuells clawes;" and he urged them to watch the Papist narrowly as to his carriage in Puritandom, his attitude toward Protestantism. This was the same religious zeal that led the Boston elders to send missionaries from New England to convert the heathen of the Established Church in Virginia.

The moral and religious condition of these servants was truly of great importance in the preservation of such a theocracy as was New England, since few of them returned to England, but after serving out their time became freemen with homes and land and votes of their own; and the commonwealth could not live as a religious organization unless it thrived through the religious spirit of its citizens.

One other form of domestic service existed until this century. A limited amount of assistance was given in some households by those unhappy wights, the town-poor. These wretched paupers were sold to the lowest bidder. Sometimes the buyer received but a few shillings a year from the town for the "keep" of one of these helpless souls. We may be sure that he got some work out of the pauper to pay for his board. We read of one old Dimbledee, of Widow Bump and Widow Bumpus, degenerate successors in name as well as in estate of the Pilgrim Bompasse, who were sold from year to year from one farm to another and given a grudged existence, till at last we find the town paying for their welcome coffins and winding sheets. Two curious facts are to be noted in the poor accounts: that the women paupers were almost invariably "very comfortable on it for clothes," as were other women of that dress-loving day; and that liquor was frequently supplied to both male and female paupers by the town. Sometimes ten gallons apiece, a very consoling amount, was given in a year. I have also noted the frequent presence on the poor-list of what are termed "French Neuterls." These were Acadians—the neighbors and compatriots of Evangeline"feeble folk, who, void of romance, succumbed in despair to exile and home-sickness, a new language and a new manner of living, and yielded weakly to work as servants when they had no courage to maintain homes. New England paupers lived to a good old age. I have been told that the unhappy fate of one of these town-poor—an Acadian—was traced for over thirty years in the town records of her sale. In 1767 there were twenty-one paupers in Danvers, Mass., and their average age was eighty-four years, thus apparently offering proof of good rum and good usage from the town. There was also an hereditary pauperism. In Salem a certain family always had some of its members on the list of town-poor from the year 1721 to 1848; and perhaps they found better homes through "living around" than in trying to support themselves.

Criminals were also sold into service to work out their sentences. Thus did the practical settlers attempt to carry out one of Sir Thomas More's Utopian notions. Upon the whole, I think I should rather have a Nipmuck squaw cooking in my kitchen, or a Pequot warrior digging in my garden, than to have a white burglar or ruffian in either situation.

It is well to observe in passing that no gingerly nicety of regard in calling those who served by any other name than servant, was shown or heeded in olden times. They believed with St. Paul, "Art thou called being a servant? Care not for it." All hired workers in the house, hired laborers in the field, those contracting to work under a master at any trade for a period of time, apprentices, and many whom we should now term agents or stewards, were then called servants, and signed contracts as servants, and did not appear at all insulted by being termed servants.

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