The position of ‘Overseer of the Poor’ was created by England’s Poor Laws around the turn of the seventeenth century. These laws required that each parish elect two overseers. They were responsible for administering to the needs of the poor. This included managing a budget by collecting the poor tax from parish members, helping to distribute ‘outdoor relief’ (usually money or food), and supervising the local parish poorhouse.
Nellis points out that the Boston Overseers of the Poor “allow us to observe the influence of English institutional traditions and practices on the settlement of Massachusetts, as well as the way those practices were adapted to Boston’s particular conditions and developments.”
From 1630 to 1692, poor relief was the direct responsibility of Town Selectmen. In 1692 the responsibility shifted to a The Massachusetts Township Act, 1692 (124.89 kB)). In Boston’s case, the Overseers of the Poor were chosen by the Selectmen until 1708, after which they were chosen through the Town Meeting. Originally, there were four overseers, but in 1713 the board was expanded to eight overseers, one for each ward. In 1735 as the number of Boston wards increased to twelve, so did the number of overseers. Even though we know that Boston’s first board was established in 1692, 1735 is the date of the earliest surviving records.(see
According to Nellis, “the responsibilities and duties of Boston’s Overseers were quite demanding. The Overseers met monthly as a group and often weekly in subcommittee sessions discussing issues such as budget, transiency, health and crime. Each overseer was in charge of distributing in-home relief to deserving poor residents in his ward. The Overseers patrolled their wards to identify which residents would be sent to the almshouse, or workhouse and to remove children from homes that were not beneficial for the child’s health, safety and well being. The Overseers also helped in the process of “warning out” newcomers. By 1772, the Boston Overseers had also been given the “primary control over the distribution of all individual charitable donations for relief of the poor.”
The Overseers also provided support during Boston’s smallpox epidemics of 1721, 1730, 1752 and 1792. The Overseers ran a “Well House” on Spectacle Island, where smallpox victims were quarantined and restored back to health. During the epidemic of 1752 the Overseers helped in the inoculation of the residents and organized the burial of the dead.
Most of the Overseers were among Boston’s wealthiest ten percent. Many were long serving, including Edward Proctor and William Phillips, Jr. who each served for over 30 years (35 and 34, respectfully). [See Overseers 1895-1900]
The records of the Boston Overseers of the Poor provide “a useful example of the cultural intentions of earlier Puritan communal and civic values and the blending over time of Puritan charitable intentions and the eventual public responsibility for the management of the poor in Boston.” (Nellis)
The records of overseer Samuel Whitwell (1769-1792) are particularly useful. Out of his twenty-one years of public service as overseer, all but two were in Ward Ten (south of Long Wharf in the area of Fort Hill). His records show detailed accounts of outdoor relief (see sample pages from Samuel Whitwell Outdoor Relief records) away from the poorhouse, focusing on poor relief such as wood, cash for food, schooling, and funerals.
The American colonies were not the only place in North America to take an institutional approach toward relief of the poor. Silvia Marina Arrom in her book Containing the Poor: The Mexico City Poor House 1774-1871 notes that the Mexico City Poor House experiment which began in 1774 was the only such relief approach in 18th century Latin America.
The Mexico City Poor House was founded as part of an effort to sweep beggars and vagrants off the street of the capital. The plan was to classify the paupers according to their ‘worthiness’. The undeserving vagrants and employable beggars would be put to work in the private sector or sentenced to military service or public works; the deserving beggars would be confined in the brand new asylum. There they would be sheltered and simultaneously trained to be good Christians, productive workers, and responsible citizens. They would lose their liberty, too. Whether they entered voluntarily or by force, they were to remain institutionalized until they were claimed by a relative or friend or could support themselves withouth soliciting alms. The Poor House was therefore designed as a homeless shelter, workhouse, catechism school, reformatory, and — for some — a prison as well.
Chapter of ‘The Eighteenth-Century Records of the Boston Overseers of the Poor’, edited by Eric Nellis and Anne Decker Cecere.
Elegy addressed to Governour Belcher on the death of his brother-in-law, Daniel Oliver (1682-1732).