Day By Day in a Colonial Town


The fluctuating value of the paper currency and the confusing use of the terms “old tenor,” “middle tenor,” and “last emission” to designate the various issues make it difficult to compute real wages and prices during the first half of the century, but we know, for example, that wheat rose from three to thirty shillings a bushel and then dropped back to three. To enable its citizens to meet the strain of this sharp and sudden increase in the cost of living, Massachusetts loaned the river towns a total of 260,000 pounds at 5 percent interest. The money was passed around to the towns and loaned to deserving citizens by trustees appointed in each town. The town kept 2 percent of the interest, the balance went to the province. The gyrations of paper money were a nightmare to traders, the more stubborn of whom continued doggedly to keep their accounts at old tenor for as much as twenty years after it had been superseded.


Meanwhile, as a result of the wars, the inevitable agony of taxes had become even worse in the country towns. In the seventeenth century taxes were called “rates” and were of four kinds: country rate (equivalent to our state tax), county rate to defray county expenses, town rate for local expenses, and minister’s rate, which the constables collected separately (usually in grain) and turned over to the minister to the extent of his salary.

The customary country rate was a poll tax of one shilling and eightpence on every male over sixteen, plus a penny a pound on real and personal estate. To meet the cost of King Philip’s War, ten country rates were ordered in 1675; that is, the poll of one and eight and the penny a pound assessment had to be paid ten times over. In three years thirty-five taxes were collected. Even single females who earned a livelihood were taxed two shillings. And when it was further ordered that part of the taxes should be paid in silver, which was to be sent to England in payment of the colony’s debts, the cries of distress rose from every village and were embodied in petitions that poured into the General Court. “Our people have not patience to bear such a yoke. Not one in ten of the inhabitants hath any income of money.” “Have pity on us. Have mercy on us. Oh, do not distress us. Do not, for charity’s sake, enjoin us to pay one penny more in money. Let it be enough for us to pay in corn, when we can raise it.” Even the tax collectors were delinquent, and the sheriff complained that it did no good to seize their estates, since no one had the money to buy them.

The country was like a great park

WHEN THE WHITE MEN came to the valley, it was not, as supposed, covered with dense forests. The Indian custom of burning over the land each year to destroy the undergrowth and facilitate hunting had made it like a park where a deer could be seen at forty rods. Pine gradually took the place of oak for building, but all pine trees of two feet or more in diameter were reserved for the king’s navy, a law that produced more discontent than logs. In Northampton, Massachusetts, for example, of 363 logs marked for the king, all but 37 were poached for private use.

During the seventeenth century wheat was the staple crop. Corn, peas, and oats, rye for bread, barley for malt, and flax for cloth were also raised. Horses, cattle, and sheep were pastured in the forest, and hogs and young stock ran wild. To help in sorting them out, each town was required by law to have its own brand mark. Cattle and horses were driven to pasture before the sun was an hour high by the town herdsmen and brought back “seasonably” at night. Sheep were watched by the town shepherd and “folded” at night in hurdles, or movable pens. Geese often wore a shingle with a hole bored in it about their necks to keep them from straying. They splashed and honked in the puddles of the common and slept at night before their owners’ houses, being much esteemed as watchdogs. Four times a year the women of the village plucked them for feather beds, first pulling stockings over the heads of the geese to keep them from biting. Many families kept skeps (hives) of bees, and the only way they knew to get the honey was to kill the bees with brimstone.


In the seventeenth century horses were cheaply raised, little tended, and sold for as low as thirty shillings in barter or twenty in money. Fourteen hands was set by law as the proper height for a horse. They were used only under the saddle and could be hired for a penny and a half a mile or twopence if the horse carried double.