Walking to Work: Tramps in America, 1790-1935

By Eric H. Monkkonen | Go to book overview

Douglas Lamar Jones


The Strolling Poor. Transiency in Eighteenth-Century Massachusetts

In 1790, William Bentley, the Salem diarist, observed two of the dominant changes occurring in Massachusetts society during the eighteenth century: the transiency of the poor and increased migration of economically diverse segments of the population. 1 Bentley noted that the Salem Selectmen debated "whether [or not] to warn Strangers out of Town in order to save the Town from the charges of the Poor. It is found in fact that the greater part of the whole property is in the hands of persons not Town born, and in the best streets even a majority of freeholders [are newcomers]."2 To Bentley, migration had become a way of life in eighteenth-century Salem, and one result was a realignment of the rules for defining the social order. One could no longer expect that one's neighbors were, in Bentley's felicitous phrase, "Town born," and had grown to adulthood within the same town and presumably with the same set of values.

Bentley's observations of a changing social order were not simply the particularistic sentiments of a local diarist; they were the articulation of the passing of traditional Massachusetts society and the emergence of a more modern one. 3 This process of modernization in Massachusetts was by no means abrupt or dramatic. Indeed, it is more useful to view the middle and late decades of the eighteenth century as a period of transition. During this transitional stage, structural change, social values, and personal behavior fluctuated amidst the demands of passage from the more simple, face-to-face society of the seventeenth century. This essay seeks to examine three aspects of transiency migration during this transitional stage: the magnitude of transiency during the eighteenth century; the social and

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