One of the main functions of town government in the 1700s and 1800s on Martha’s Vineyard, or anywhere in the commonwealth, was caring for those in need. The selectmen of the town of Tisbury, for instance, also carried the second title of “Overseers of the Poor” until it was split off as its own elected position just before the Civil War. Funds for the poor were the single biggest line item in Tisbury’s annual budget — typically two or three times the funds allocated for schools or highways, for instance.
After John Rogers of Tisbury died in 1780, a meeting was called “to See what Method the Town will take to provide for two of John Rogerses Children that is now on the Towns Cost at the Rate of two Silver Dollars per week. Either to Vandue them off at the Lowest bidder or to provide for them Some other way …” (The word “vendue” is an old-fashioned term for a public auction.)
When new families arrived and fell on hard times, the bill for their care was sent to their legal town of residence. Selectmen were regularly entangled in lawsuits in which the residence of a destitute family was in question, as the Rogers family’s was with the town of Middleborough. By 1794, the length of time required to establish residency in any Massachusetts town was lengthened to a full 10 years (except for the rich and the well-connected).
Towns sometimes acted to remove new arrivals before they became legal residents — either because they were at risk of becoming a liability to the town, or for other unwanted traits. They were said to be “warned out.”
In 1790 the constable of Tisbury warned Abigail Allen, widow, and Sarah Allen, spinstress, to “Depart the Limmits of the Town of Tisbury within fifteen Days.” In 1791, Abisha Pease Jr. and his family were warned “to depart out of the town of Tisbury,” as was mariner Elijah Daggett, his wife Peggy, and their kids. (The Daggetts evidently soon returned; in 1799 the town voted to pay the doctor’s bill for Elijah’s final illness and for the support of his widow Peggy and their seven young children.)
Immigrants who fell into need but had no “settlement” (legal residence) were considered “state paupers” rather than “town paupers.” By the mid-1800s, this usually meant being taken to an off-Island poorhouse or the state orphanage. The “Laws of Settlement” were complex. Slaves were originally given the settlement of their master, but after slavery was abolished in Massachusetts in 1780, the children of former slaves sometimes found themselves without any legal residence at all, and were left to the responsibility of the state. Native Americans, considered wards of the state, also usually found themselves “unsettled.”
In 1883, Eunice Rocker, an impoverished woman of both Native and African-American descent, lived in her Cottage City home with her eight children. Her husband Antone, a Chilean seaman and fish peddler, had died two years earlier. Although her family had lived on the Island for generations (if not millennia), Rocker and her family were declared “unsettled,” and Cottage City’s Overseers of the Poor issued warrants for their removal to the Tewksbury Almshouse. Two constables were sent to their home to transport them, but the Rockers held their ground with “irons, hot water, and hot fat,” according to the Boston Globe, and as the violence escalated, with a hammer and an axe as well. Both constables were seriously injured, and several members of the Rocker family were charged with assault. The authorities finally succeeded in removing the family to Tewksbury, but they were soon discharged and were able to return to their Vineyard home.
Chris Baer teaches photography and graphic design at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. He’s been collecting vintage photographs for many years.