Puritans warned out strangers and announced that the "town is full"Stories

The Town is Full!

As the Puritans in Massachusetts expanded their settlements, it was their policy not to admit persons to whom the town had not allocated land. It soon became the practice to
admit them if they had the means to purchase land from the present inhabitants, provided that the Selectmmen of the Town agreed. Inhabitants were further warned not to receive or entertain “strangers.” The custom continued for a century. The records of the Town of Newbury state that in 1734 an inhabitant was fined forty shillings for taking in “a tenant and not informing the Town’s Clerk nor Selectmen of the Town of his so doing.

from Ipswich in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Vol. I: 1633-1700 published in 1905 by Thomas Franklin Waters


The political privileges of those early years of the seventeenth century, when Ipswich was a frontier town, were few. In a community so thoroughly religious, one would expect to find perfect brotherliness. But Religion was itself narrow. Our Puritan forefathers founded the Bay Colony that they might enjoy the privilege of worshiping God according to their own consciences, and build up the kingdom of God on these shores.

The Puritans were very jealous, however, of any who would not build with them, and they could not believe that any, beside the avowed children of God, were competent to direct the affairs of the new Commonwealth.So it was ordered by vote of the first General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, May 14, 1634:

“To the end the body of the commoners may be preserved of honest and good men,…for the time to come, no man shall be admitted to the freedom of this body politic, but such as are members of some of the churches within the limit of the same.”

The Court granted the privilege of freemen to such as were deemed suitable under this law. Every freeman thus elected, took the freeman’s oath, prescribed by vote of General Court:

” I, being by God’s providence an inhabitant and freeman within the jurisdiction of this Commonwealth, do freely acknowledge myself to be subject to the government thereof, and therefore do here swear by the great and dreadful name of the everlasting God, that I will be true and faithful to the same, and will accordingly yield assistance and support thereunto with my person and estate.”

first_church_1749-1846 The fourth First Church Meeting House stood at the location of the present church from 1749 until 1846.

For thirty years this restriction of the franchise to church members who had taken the freeman’s oath was vigorously enforced, but in 1664, the Commissioners for New England were appointed, and one of their chief duties was to remove the restriction from the franchise and secure greater freedom in matters of religion. Very reluctantly, the sturdy Puritan legislators consented to this allowance, but a way was opened to modification of the ancient usage, and the separation of church and state went on apace.

The commoners had the privilege of voting on all questions relating to the common lands. The majority of commoners were also freemen, but the privileges of the two bodies were distinct. Some freemen were not commoners, and commoners were not all freemen. A third body of inhabitants, and by far the largest, was distinguished as “residents.” Every man, twenty years old was to take the “Massachusetts’ Oath” and was then recognized as a duly qualified inhabitant. The Statute of 1647 allowed such to be chosen on juries by the freemen and to vote for selectmen. Beyond this they had no political privilege,.

From the beginning, suspicion always attached to a prospective settler of any other nationality than English. A town vote of 1634 is to this effect:

“There shall no foreigner amongst us come into our meetings, unless he will subject himself unto the like orders and penalties that we the freemen of the Towne have established for our peace and comfort in our meetings.”

The evident purport of these instances of class legislation was to secure the town against any liability to support poor and shiftless people. Our community was full of thrifty and busy life, and it had no place for any who were likely to become a public burden. In 1673, an explicit order was written:

“No person shall suffer any stranger from other towns to continue or live more than one week in his own dwelling house or any tenement of his, unless satisfaction be given the Selectmen.”

A gruff welcome was the case of some humble folk in 1673:

“Ordered, the constable shall give notice unto William Nelson and Abner Ordway, and an Irish man that married Rachel, Quarter Master Perkins’ maid, that the Town will not allow them to inhabit here in this Town, but that they depart the Town, unless they give security to save the Town harmless from any charge the Town may be put unto, by receiving of them.”

In 1639, the Ipswich Town record shows the following:

“The Town doth refuse to receive Humphrey Griffin as an inhabitant, to provide for him as inhabitants formerly received, the town being full.” 

Griffin became an inhabitant despite this uncomplimentary reception. In 1678-79, a list of commoners and freemen was prepared and put on record. Only 220 names of men appear on the commoners’ list, about half of the adult male population, and there were only 125 freemen. Probably there was no nation of the Old World where the lines of division between the rich and the poor, the learned and the unlearned, the master and the servant, were drawn more sharply. The aristocracy of old Ipswich was as definite and as haughty a body as the aristocracy of London.

Further reading: 

Categories: Stories

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2 replies »

  1. Gordon,
    While I don’t live in the area around Ipswich, your blog and stories allow me to feel like I belong. I visited Ipswich two years ago to research my novel and I use your information on a regular basis to give me a feel of the history and the area. I only wish I could figure out where Richard Brabrooke and John Downing’s farms were located!

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