Robert Love's Warnings: Searching for Strangers in Colonial Boston

Robert Love's Warnings: Searching for Strangers in Colonial Boston

Robert Love's Warnings: Searching for Strangers in Colonial Boston

Robert Love's Warnings: Searching for Strangers in Colonial Boston


In colonial America, the system of "warning out" was distinctive to New England, a way for a community to regulate those to whom it would extend welfare. Robert Love's Warnings animates this nearly forgotten aspect of colonial life, richly detailing the moral and legal basis of the practice and the religious and humanistic vision of those who enforced it.

Historians Cornelia H. Dayton and Sharon V. Salinger follow one otherwise obscure town clerk, Robert Love, as he walked through Boston's streets to tell sojourners, "in His Majesty's Name," that they were warned to depart the town in fourteen days. This declaration meant not that newcomers literally had to leave, but that they could not claim legal settlement or rely on town poor relief. Warned youths and adults could reside, work, marry, or buy a house in the city. If they became needy, their relief was paid for by the province treasurer. Warning thus functioned as a registration system, encouraging the flow of labor and protecting town coffers.

Between 1765 and 1774, Robert Love warned four thousand itinerants, including youthful migrant workers, demobilized British soldiers, recently exiled Acadians, and women following the redcoats who occupied Boston in 1768. Appointed warner at age sixty-eight owing to his unusual capacity for remembering faces, Love kept meticulous records of the sojourners he spoke to, including where they lodged and whether they were lame, ragged, drunk, impudent, homeless, or begging. Through these documents, Dayton and Salinger reconstruct the biographies of travelers, exploring why so many people were on the move throughout the British Atlantic and why they came to Boston. With a fresh interpretation of the role that warning played in Boston's civic structure and street life, Robert Love's Warnings reveals the complex legal, social, and political landscape of New England in the decade before the Revolution.


Late in the morning of Wednesday, July 9, 1766, Robert Love pushed his chair back from his mahogany desk; tucked notepaper, quill, and inkwell into the pouch attached to his belt; and stuck his head outside to assess when the approaching thunderstorm might arrive. Deciding to delay no longer, he put on his hat; alerted his wife, Rachel, that he was heading out on his rounds; and stepped out of his house into the shadow of the Hollis Street Church.

For the past eighteen months, Love had walked the streets of Boston a few days each week to warn strangers. Now in his sixties, he had recently been hired by the town to visit “all such Houses & Families as he apprehends Entertains Inmates or Strangers.” On this particular summer day, Love intended to call first on housewright Joseph Scott, who lived a few blocks to the south. He knew that Scott often boarded apprentices and employees.

As Love rounded the corner onto Orange Street, he nearly collided with Patrick Bonner, a lame and almost blind stranger. Bonner was plodding slowly north, begging as he went, with a written brief hung around his neck explaining his circumstances. Love called to Bonner to approach so that he might ask a series of questions. the stranger reported that he had arrived the previous day, having come all the way on foot from Londonderry in New Hampshire, and that he had no regular place of residence. Love wrote down the information and then verbally warned Bonner, in his Majesty’s name, to depart the town in fourteen days.

Love continued south, covering the two short blocks from Hollis to Pleasant Street and turned right toward the commodious house owned by Scott. Eighteen months earlier, the man had gone bankrupt, but now his . . .

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