Unwelcome Americans: Living on the Margin in Early New England

Unwelcome Americans: Living on the Margin in Early New England

Unwelcome Americans: Living on the Margin in Early New England

Unwelcome Americans: Living on the Margin in Early New England


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.


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 pieced together fragments of information and had seen the shape of her life, I was fiercely determined that her poignant story—and others like it—should be published.

In 1991, I was in the midst of researching twelve Rhode Island towns in the revolutionary era, a project that required that I essentially camp out in one town hall after another for weeks at a stretch, reading through historic documents that enabled me to see in my mind’s eye the town of two hundred years ago. Hopkinton—Phebe Perkins’s town—had served as my prototype, and I had spent a solid six months in 1990 working through every eighteenth-century document housed at the town hall. Town clerk Jenarita Aldrich shared my passion for her town records, and she scouted for old documents in odd places during rare free moments. in April 1991, she made a startling discovery: a cache of eighteenth-century papers housed in old boxes in the town hall attic. the local news media were most interested in a 1776 manuscript copy of the Declaration of Independence found among the papers, but what set my heart racing was the rough draft notes of the council meeting at which Phebe Perkins had given her testimony some two hundred years before.

Until then, I had paid little attention to Phebe Perkins. She was mentioned only briefly in the town council minutes of that meeting in January 1785, for town clerk Abel Tanner had not considered her testimony worth including when he copied his notes into the official town books. As I read her compelling testimony, I found myself mentally berating Tanner for obscuring this story. By excluding her testimony from the final record, he had veiled the splash her story made in Hopkinton in 1784 and 1785. When I went back to the official council minutes for another look, I found a trail . . .

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