As was the practice in England the responsibility for poor relief in Colonial Massachusetts fell upon the local governments. The administrations of the local government was the responsibility of an elected committee of citizens called ‘selectmen’. In instances where town’s decided that the responsibility of poor relief was too time consuming, an Overseers of the Poor were either elected or appointed to focus solely on poor relief.
Because the fiscal responsibility for poor relief fell on the local government, there were many of ‘settlement’ (a residency requirement used to determine which town were financially responsible), resulting in many disputes between towns. Many of these disputes were resolved by court decisions.
The process of ‘warning out’ was modeled after the British system. It centered on the eligibility of transients to receive poor relief from their most recent town of residence. The colonial Massachusetts towns usually denied residency for two reasons: the potential for public dependency and religious differences.
In Massachusetts, ‘warning out’ did not necessarily mean actual removal but rather a simple notification from the town to the transient that he was not eligible for poor relief. As an example, see Request for Removal of Margaret Bourne. If a warned out transient either demonstrated the potential for poor relief and refused to leave town, constables could secure transients by warrants and return them to their original place of legal residence. If possible, the transient was responsible for these travel costs; if not, the legal town of residence was responsible. The costs or transporting transients to destinations beyond Massachusetts fell upon the General Court (or, the colonial legislature).
Transients remained as residents of a town in an extremely vicarious state as their residency was determined by the whim of the town leaders.
The practice of Warning Out was more or less eliminated by The Massachusetts Poor Relief Act, 1794 (123.32 kB).
Support of Indigents
A list of expenses submitted to the Province of Massachusetts Bay by the Boston Selectmen for the support of ‘sundry indigent persons’ who were not inhabitants of any town in the province. These were sick or dying men, mostly soldiers (from Castle William) and sailors.
Reimbursement for Support
This is a fragment of an account of charges for supporting several indigent persons who were not inhabitants of any Massachusetts town. Signed by seven Boston selectmen. Courtesy of the Trustees of Boston Public Library/Rare Books.
Bill for ‘sundry prosecutions’
Bill from Samuel Barrett to Suffolk County for reimbursement of “fees due to him in sundry prosecutions.” August 29 case, Hewes vs. Welsh, concerned someone “leading a vagrant, idle, and disorderly life” (Courtesy of the Trustees of Boston Public Library/Rare Books)
Warrants to Warn Out
Poor Relief in Chelmsford, MA
Parkhurst, E. (1937). Poor Relief in a Massachusetts Village in the Eighteenth Century. Social Service Review, 11(3), 446-464. doi: 10.1086/632064
Research Questions for Thought
Patterns of Warning Out
1. Would the specific season have an influence on the number of people warned out? If so, show evidence.
2. What was the impact on warning out during each of the following wars:
a.) King George’s War
b.) French and Indian War
c.) Revolutionary War
Demographics of Warning Out
1. In your town, what percentage of all people warned out fell into these categories?
a.) Single individuals
e.) Illegitimate children
f.) People over age 60
2. What is the meaning of the term ‘grass widow’?