This project is inspired by a collective interest of several institutions in the Boston area to teach and learn about the poor using The Eighteenth Century Records of the Boston Overseers of the Poor, edited by Eric G. Nellis and Anne Decker Cecere. According to John Tyler in his Forward, “The manuscript records of the Boston Overseers of the Poor, which the Massachusetts Historical Society obtained from the City of Boston in 1957, cover the period 1735–1925 and run to eighty-five volumes. Most of the original boards were lost along with the titles and descriptions of most of the contents. The manuscripts were subsequently microfilmed in 15 reels as part of the MHS program of document preservation. In 1988 the MHS produced a Guide to the microfilmed and catalogued manuscripts.” (see Boston Overseers of the Poor Records, 1733-1925. Guide to the Microfilm Edition )
Nellis calls his research “a review of the documentary record of the most comprehensive public approach to the relief of poverty in colonial and revolutionary America.” It is drawn largely from the several hundred pages of manuscript records generated by the Boston Overseers of the Poor during the period 1735–1800. Although the Overseers had operated from 1692, the 1735 date marks the earliest surviving manuscript of their record keeping (a manuscript copy of the “The Boston Workhouse Act” which had been authorized to be built), and any history of the Overseers prior to 1735 has to be drawn from town, legislative, and court records.12 A major legislative reaffirmation of the Overseers’ authority in 1793–94 serves as evidence of a consistent system of bureaucracy that began in the Puritan Commonwealth and ran through the inclusion of Massachusetts in the new republic without major substantive change to the office (see appendixes 1 and 2). The transcriptions take the documentary record to 1800 to complete the eighteenth-century setting for this volume.”
Our goal is to make these and related valuable documents accessible and appealing to a broad spectrum of students and educators, and to spark their intellectual curiosity. We hope to inspire students to begin similar investigations in their own hometowns.
There is a growing list of partners in the project, including the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Historical Society, the New England Historic Genealogical Society, and the Massachusetts State Archives. Initial work on the project was done by W. Dean Eastman and Kevin McGrath.