Day By Day in a Colonial Town


In those days, when men’s affairs were strictly ordered and wages and prices (or many of them) set by law, town officials were more numerous than they are today. In addition to the governing body of five townsmen (selectmen) there were in Hadley three raters (assessors), two auditors, two constables who doubled as tax collectors and who carried five-foot black staffs tipped with brass, a town clerk, a clerk of the markets (sealer of weights and measures), three commissioners to end small causes (to try civil cases up to forty shillings), a clerk of the writs to grant summonses and attachments in civil actions, four tithing men to keep a watchful eye on liquor sellers, Sabbath breakers, tipplers, and nightwalkers, two measurers of land, two surveyors of highways, one gauger of casks, two fence viewers to perambulate bounds, two haywards and a hogreeve to keep animals out of the mowing, a hog ringer, a cow keeper, a shepherd, a gravedigger, and a sabbath guard to attend church, armed and alert. The less important officers were paid only by the piece, that is, for actual work performed.

In the early days there was no town treasurer and virtually no money. The townsmen kept an account with each inhabitant, crediting him with work done or supplies furnished and debiting him for his taxes. At the end of the year he gave or received produce for the balance, or canceled it out by bartering directly with some other citizen whose balance was on the other side. Judd quotes, as a typical example of how cumbersome a simple transaction can be under a barter economy, the case of Lt. Philip Smith, to whom in 1681 the town of Hadley owed nine pounds, seventeen shillings, and six pence. To discharge this bill, the townsmen first credited his tax as paid, then arranged to have eight other citizens each pay Smith part of their tax in such produce as he could use, and then turned over to him enough peas, wheat, and corn (paid in by other taxpayers) to make up the balance.

At first none but church members could be freemen in Massachusetts, and none but freemen could vote. Because town offices were a burden to people busy in subduing the wilderness, so many church members refused to record themselves as freemen that in 1647 a law was passed compelling such men to serve on penalty of a twenty-shilling fine. Also, every citizen was compelled to work one day a year on the highways plus another day for every acre of meadow he owned.

Town meetings were open to all, but only freemen could vote for officers. Attendance was compulsory, and anyone an hour late, or absent, was fined twelve pence unless excused at the next meeting; nor could anyone depart before the meeting was over, under penalty of a sixpence fine.

Before each meeting a moderator was elected, toward whom all were to direct their speech, “he to value and make answer thereto, until it be ripened for a vote; so that we may avoid personal jangling.” A clerk was also chosen and paid twopence for each order recorded with a penalty of a fourpence forfeit for each order not recorded before the next meeting. Townsmen were elected to transact all public business except admitting new inhabitants, giving lands, laying out highways, levying taxes, and other matters to be decided by a vote of all the citizens. Then, as now, there must have been ranters and idle talkers, for in 1664, the Hadley town meeting voted that “the carriage of Richard Billings at this present meeting is offensive.”


“Have pity on us! Not one in ten hath any money.”

DURING THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY the river towns saw very few of the “Pine Tree” shillings minted in Boston, and taxes, debts, and wages were paid in “provision pay” or produce, with wampum for small change. A minister, for example, might receive eighty pounds a year in provision pay which was figured as equivalent to sixty pounds in money—high pay for the period. Soldiers in King Philip’s War were paid six shillings a week, plus food, which was computed at five shillings. The principal medium of this pseudocurrency was grain, and its price was strictly set—wheat, for example, at three shillings a bushel, corn at two.

This barter economy continued for over half a century and was followed by a half-century of paper economy based on indented bills of credit issued to meet the costs of the Indian wars. Year by year the bills issued exceeded the taxes collected in ever greater amounts, with the inevitable result of a depreciation in the value of money and increase in the cost of labor and goods. In 1736 the issue was called “new tenor,” and it was ordered that one pound of these should be equal to three pounds in the previous bills, now called “old tenor.” Five years later there was another devaluation, and a final one in 1749.