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Unwelcome Americans

Living on the Margin in Early New England

By Ruth Wallis Herndon

Publication Year: 2001

Selected by Choice magazine as an Outstanding Academic Title for 2001

In eighteenth-century America, no centralized system of welfare existed to assist people who found themselves without food, medical care, or shelter. Any poor relief available was provided through local taxes, and these funds were quickly exhausted. By the end of the century, state and national taxes levied to help pay for the Revolutionary War further strained municipal budgets. In order to control homelessness, vagrancy, and poverty, New England towns relied heavily on the "warning out" system inherited from English law. This was a process in which community leaders determined the legitimate hometown of unwanted persons or families in order to force them to leave, ostensibly to return to where they could receive care. The warning-out system alleviated the expense and responsibility for the general welfare of the poor in any community, and placed the burden on each town to look after its own.

But homelessness and poverty were problems as onerous in early America as they are today, and the system of warning out did little to address the fundamental causes of social disorder. Ultimately the warning-out system gave way to the establishment of general poorhouses and other charities. But the documents that recorded details about the lives of those who were warned out provide an extraordinary—and until now forgotten—history of people on the margin.

Unwelcome Americans puts a human face on poverty in early America by recovering the stories of forty New Englanders who were forced to leave various communities in Rhode Island. Rhode Island towns kept better and more complete warning-out records than other areas in New England, and because the official records include those who had migrated to Rhode Island from other places, these documents can be relied upon to describe the experiences of poor people across the region.

The stories are organized from birth to death, beginning with the lives of poor children and young adults, followed by families and single adults, and ending with the testimonies of the elderly and dying. Through meticulous research of historical records, Herndon has managed to recover voices that have not been heard for more than two hundred years, in the process painting a dramatically different picture of family and community life in early New England. These life stories tell us that those who were warned out were predominantly unmarried women with or without children, Native Americans, African Americans, and destitute families. Through this remarkable reconstruction, Herndon provides a corrective to the narratives of the privileged that have dominated the conversation in this crucial period of American history, and the lives she chronicles give greater depth and a richer dimension to our understanding of the growth of American social responsibility.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press

Series: Early American Studies


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Front matter

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xi

PHEBE PERKINS is responsible for this book. The testimony she gave to Hopkinton, Rhode Island, officials in 1785 came to light in 1991 under such unusual circumstances that it forced me to pay attention to her, and it set me on a detective hunt through historical documents to discover everything I could about her. By the time I had...

Abbreviations; maps

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pp. xiii-xv

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Introduction: The World of People on the Margin

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pp. 1-26

IN THE AUTUMN of 1784, a poor, unmarried woman named Phebe Perkins gave birth to a baby in the home of the Cary Clarke family in Hopkinton, Rhode Island. Perkins was not a relative, neighbor, or friend of the Clarkes; rather, the Clarkes had agreed to be her caretakers during this difficult period of her life. They sent someone to fetch...

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1. Birth, Infancy, and Childhood

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pp. 27-47

THE NARRATIVES in this chapter focus on the experience of children caught up in the warning-out process at any time between childbirth and adulthood, defined legally in Rhode Island as eighteen for girls and twenty-one for boys. A majority of warned-out adults had such underage children with them; other removals involved...

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2. Family Life

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pp. 49-84

THE NARRATIVES in this chapter focus on the ways poor transients organized themselves into families, which were sometimes quite ordinary and traditional and other times quite the opposite. Officials frequently were dismayed by "improper" households: men and women lived together without being legally married, women gave birth to children...

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3. Work Life

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pp. 85-120

TRANSIENTS did not have legal inhabitant status, but they provided essential labor for those who did. In every New England town, transient residents worked in kitchens, fields, and shops, enabling legal inhabitants to maintain their households, farms, and businesses; these arrangements often stretched over such long periods...

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4. Reversal of Fortune

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pp. 121-154

WHEN IN 1764 John Bennett asked the Wanvick town council to assist him in the construction of a house for his family, he pleaded that he "has the misfortune to be a very poor man." Many of the transients in this study could have said the same thing, for economic hard times, especially in the 1780s, made life even more difficult for people...

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5. Old Age and Death

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pp. 155-174

ANY PEOPLE in early America faced the frailties of old age. While the mortality rate of infants and children was high, those who lived into adulthood had a good chance of seeing "advanced years." About 15 percent of the transient adults in this study were fifty years of age or older, compared to 21 percent of all adults in the 1782 census, a difference that underscores the younger age of...

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Conclusion: Constructing a Transient's Life

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pp. 175-182

MY GOAL in presenting these narratives has been to recover the experience of people who rarely possessed either the skills or the opportunity to write their own stories. Because of the limitations of the records, all forty tales are fragmentary; none stretch in a satisfactory fashion from cradle to grave, even in those rare cases...

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Appendix: Documentary Evidence and Background Information

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pp. 183-206

THIS APPENDIX presents in two forms the information that can be assembled from the raw materials of this study--the warning-out and other documents--to enable readers to participate in the detective work of writing history. The first part provides transcriptions from some of the documents themselves; the second summarizes in...

Documentary Sources for the Narrative Chapters

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pp. 207-219


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pp. 221-228


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pp. 229-235


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pp. 237-243

E-ISBN-13: 9780812202236
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812217650

Page Count: 264
Publication Year: 2001

Series Title: Early American Studies
Series Editor Byline: Series Editors: Daniel K. Richter, Kathleen M. Brown, Max Cavitch, and David Waldstreicher See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 646329034
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Unwelcome Americans

Research Areas


Subject Headings

  • Poor laws -- New England -- History -- 18th century.
  • Marginality, Social -- New England -- History -- 18th century.
  • New England -- Social conditions -- 18th century.
  • Poor -- New England -- Biography.
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