top of page

Life on the New England Frontier

Dorchester Colonist Roger Clapp wrote this about himself and his fellow-passengers on the Mary and John facing their first brutal New England winter in 1630-31: "In our beginning, many were in great Straits for want of Provision for themselves and their little Ones."

It must have been incredibly difficult and uncomfortable, with the cold Atlantic winds lashing the crude dwellings they had put together as best they could with little expertise and few tools--the rough wooden cabins, lean-tos, wigwams and primitive shelters dug into the sides of the hills overlooking the bay. These were the homes of Dorchester's colonists during that first summer, fall and harsh winter. Having arrived too late to plant sufficient crops and with little preparation, the settlers confronted winter with inadequate shelter and not enough stocks of food. All they had was what they had been able to gather or grow during the too brief summer and fall, along with the salted meat and hard-tack (rock-hard biscuits) left over from the voyage. With barely enough food for their own families, Dorchester's wealthier settlers had to turn loose their employees and indentured servants to fend for themselves.

If they had been fishermen, with the boats and equipment they needed, they would have had more than enough food from a sea teeming with fish, clams, mussels, lobsters, and fresh-water fish from the nearby rivers. If they had been skilled hunters, they would have been able to take what they needed from the abundance of birds, deer and other animals of the forests. But these people were farmers and craftsmen. They were unprepared to survive comfortably in a wilderness. It would take them time to clear land and plant their crops. In addition, they were culturally rigid, lacking the ability to adapt readily and quickly to the new circumstances in which they found themselves. They were naïve, simply trusting in God to provide for them. Even the drastic change in their customary English diet was a big hurdle for them to overcome, so that some of what was available to them they would not eat, some refused lobster, for example, and they conscientiously avoided drinking water whenever possible. Because they were so unprepared, mentally and physically, they were in poor shape to endure a winter much longer and more severe than what they expected or were used to in the mild climate of southwestern England.

In a letter to his father back in England, a local man lamented: "Here [in Dorchester and Boston] is good store of fish if we had boats to go 8 or 10 leagues to sea to [go] fishing. Here are good store of wild fowl, but they are hard to come by. It is harder to get a shot than it is in Old England ...Therefore, loving father, I entreat you that you would send me a firkin [measure] of butter & a hogshead of malt...for we drink nothing but water....We do not know how long we may subsist, for we cannot live here without provisions from Old England."[1] As the historian Samuel Eliot Morison observed “the Englishman of that period considered himself starving without beef, bread and beer."[2]

For many of the Mary and John colonists, one of the available foodstuffs, Indian corn, wreaked havoc with their digestive tracts. There are allusions in the Chronicles of the First Planters [3] to the fact that these people, accustomed to English wheat, rye and barley, disliked the bread made of Indian corn. They probably had not yet learned how to properly prepare and cook it. Cramps and worse bedeviled many settlers forced to rely on the harsh local corn as a staple.

Through the summer and fall of 1630 the colonists must have been busy foraging the area for food, from the Neponset to "The Neck", just trying to scrape enough together for their daily needs. And, as Chronicles of the Planters asserts, "as the winter came on, provisions began to be very scarce....and people were neccessitated to live upon clams and mussels and ground-nuts and acorns, and these got with much difficulty in the winter time. Upon which people were very much tired and discouraged." With hunger came sickness--scurvy and “a contagious fever,” which was probably typhus.

On Christmas Eve, temperatures plummeted below freezing, with icy winds roaring in from the ocean. Snow fell relentlessly upon Dorchester and the nearby settlements. As John Winthrop described, "many of the people were yet inadequately housed, living and dying in bark wigwams or sail-cloth tents, so that almost in every family, lamentation, mourning and woe was heard, and no fresh food to be had to cherish them."

Roger Clapp's words captured the misery and deprivation that these settlers battled every day: "Oh, the Hunger that many suffered, and saw no hope in an Eye of Reason to be supplyed only by Clams, and Muscles, and Fish....Bread was so very scarce that sometimes I tho'ht the very Crusts of my Father's Table would have been very sweet unto me. And when I could have Meal and Water and Salt boiled together, it was so good who could wish better? ... It was accounted a strange thing in those Days to drink Water, and to eat Samp [mush] or Hominie without Butter or Milk. Indeed, it would have been a strange thing to see a piece of Roast Beef, Mutton, or Veal."[4]

The Mary and John settlers faced their hardships with stoicism and solid Puritan religious beliefs, hanging on for dear life as the long winter dragged on. "I took notice of it," Roger Clap wrote in his journal, "as a Favour of God unto me, not only to preserve my Life, but to give me Contentment in all these Straits; insomuch that I do not remember that I ever did wish in my Heart that I had not come unto this Country, or wish myself back again to my Father's House."

By February 1631 their situation was truly desperate. Food stores had dwindled to virtually nothing, and profiteering was rampant—the going rate for a pig was the enormous sum of £5 and £3 for a nearly starved goat.

Finally a relief ship appeared. It was The Lion, out of Bristol, England, laden with supplies procured by John White and other supporters of the colonists. Among the most important items off-loaded from the vessel was lemon juice, "which cured the scurvy." To the delight of the starving colonists the sailors rolled and lugged sacks of grain and "barrelled beef" ashore, as well as peas and other English fare they had so dearly missed.

Roger Clapp also offered thanks to another source of aid to the Dorchester Company: "Yet this I can say to the Praise of God's Glory, that He sent poor raven-nous Indians, who came with their Baskets of corn on their Backs to Trade with us, which was a good supply unto many." Without the help and goodwill of the Indians many more of these settlers may have perished that first year.[5]

After that first winter life became considerably better. Their dwellings were greatly improved, they had the time, land and provisions needed to plant crops and prepare for the next long winter, and most importantly they now knew what to expect and how not only to survive but to prosper in this new land.

Windsor Life for the frontier farmers of Windsor was a matter of surviving from harvest to harvest, and they practiced the same habits of subsistence farming as they had done in Old England. In their “planting fields,” lots were apportioned in uniform units--an average of 5.4 acres for each of the eleven original householders in Plymouth Meadow and 8.3 acres for each of the forty-nine householders in Great Meadow. These were contiguous strips in a large open field farmed on a single-crop pattern and according to a plan agreed upon by the community. It was the community as a whole that decided each spring which crop should be planted and when, and who should be responsible for the fencing needed to keep pigs and cattle out of the fields, and so forth; and in early September they decided when to harvest and when to let the cattle into the fields to feed on the stubble.[6]

Farming in this wilderness was very hard work, though fortunately there was some partially cleared land previously cultivated by the Natives. In a year a settler could clear no more than an acre or two, and in a lifetime he would likely have less than a hundred acres of cleared land and pasture to pass on to a son. To separate their fields and pastures from others, they erected either stone walls made from the many stones cleared from the fields or post-and-rail fences, just as they had done in England, with vertical posts planted in the ground and cross beams nailed to them (despite the fact that nails were expensive) or slipped into mortises as described below.[7] Howard S. Russell describes the construction of a wooden fence:

"For posts, the farmer felled foot-thick straight-grained trees (chestnut or red cedar). These he cut to six-foot lengths and split in half; next with augur and chisel he mortised [cut a hole in] the upper portion every four to six inches. He set them in holes dug nine to ten feet apart. For rails he took much larger oak or ash trees, cut their boles into eleven-foot lengths, and split each length so as to make eight or sixteen rails. Their ends were then slipped into the mortises of one post after another, the holes filled and made solid."[8]

The farmer’s work force was his family, so the more children the better, although he might have an indentured servant or two if able to pay the cost of their passage. White labor prevailed through the seventeenth century; there weren’t many blacks yet in New England. The farmer’s tools limited what he could do. They consisted of shovels, spades, hoes, and mattocks, all generally made of wood with the cutting edges sheathed with a strip of iron. His felling ax was awkward to use and poorly designed, made of brittle iron that often cracked in cold weather. It took a hundred years before the curved-handled, nicely balanced, light-weight and efficient American ax evolved. The same was true of the scythe.[9]

The first generation of settlers worked the land mostly with these hand tools. Plows were uncommon until the 1670s, and even then they were made of wood, usually ash or oak. Consequently, these first farmers were limited to garden husbandry rather then field husbandry. Only when fields had been cleared of stones and boulders, and oxen and horses powerful enough to pull plows had arrived, could a new form of agriculture take shape. In the early years the hoe, the shovel, and the mattock were the tools used to cultivate the land.

By far the most important plant was maize. It was nourishing, immune to most diseases, and easy to raise and harvest, and the yield per acre was high. No part of the plant went unused: the stalks served as winter fodder for cattle, the husks to stuff mattresses, the cobs as jug stoppers, tool handles and the bowls of corncob pipes. Poultry thrived on any kernels dropped on the ground.[10]

The basic corn diet was supplemented with produce from the kitchen garden found behind every farmhouse. They grew the same vegetables as back in England--parsnips, turnips, onions, peas, cabbage, and carrots--and served them in traditional ways. Apple and peach orchards were common everywhere; they were the fruits favored for the production of cider, applejack and brandy. Hogs became the main source of farm-raised meat in everyone’s diet. When the hogs were slaughtered, none of the animal was wasted. The intestines were used for sausage skins, the bladder to hold lard, the long hair from the tail to sew buckskins. The meat from four full-grown hogs salted down in barrels could carry a family through the winter.[11]

They had a great fondness for sweets, and the consequence of that was bad teeth, particularly in the women. It was not uncommon to keep an eight to ten pound “loaf” of sugar in the house. It was a luxury, but not as expensive as in England because of the proximity of and constant trade with the West Indies. But there were also substitutes: molasses, honey, and maple sugar. The Natives taught the English how to tap the maple tree to get the sap, which was then boiled and made into sugar. But this took a lot of labor, and maple sugar and syrup did not become common until the eighteenth century.[12]

The colonists disliked and distrusted water and drank it only when they had no choice. Milk was the principal beverage. In the beginning they had no other kind of beverage. When the orchards they planted on their homelots were mature enough to produced fruit, that fruit could be converted into a beverage. Hard cider and peach brandy were their favorites, and excessive drinking was common despite great efforts by church and town authorities to control it. Once they began producing malt and hops, beer became the favored drink. Breweries appeared early everywhere; Massachusetts had one as early as 1637. Rum was popular and made with imported molasses. In New England in those times there was primarily beer, rum and “hard” cider, the latter “made by exposing the cider to freezing weather, then removing the surface ice as it formed, leaving the remainder of higher alcoholic content.” They also liked mixed drinks, among them cider and rum, cider and mead, and, above all, flip, which was “beer sweetened with sugar, molasses, or dried pumpkin, and strengthened with some spirit, usually rum. Into this mixture a red-hot iron was thrust, which made the liquor foam and gave it a burned, bitter flavor.”[13]

Cattle-raising became one of the first major industries for all American farmers. In New England cattle were fenced in on farms and were tended by cowherds who would take them out to distant pastures during the day. Rustling became a problem, so cattle were branded, usually by notching an ear with a distinguishing mark. These brands were registered with the town clerk.[14]

Farmers had to deal with predators, among which the wolves were the greatest danger, especially to cattle. Bounties were offered to encourage their destruction. In the weeks before harvest time raccoons and flocks of passenger pigeons would invade the maize fields. These latter were the greater threat; they could devour an entire crop in a few minutes. Farmers expected to struggle with nature, but this New England nature was more violent and extreme than they were used to. Besides the wild animals, there were violent thunderstorms, long and frigid winters, three-day northeasters[15], and hurricanes (the first recorded struck Massachusetts in 1635).

As noted earlier, in New England the fields were edged by stone walls as well as by post-and-rail fences. The stone walls were effective in keeping out the roaming hogs, in marking borders, and as a neat way to dispose of rocks taken out of the fields. The fences were needed to keep in (or keep out) cattle and other large animals.

In the early years there was little choice in the crop to plant, it was normally maize. It was done as the Natives had taught them, by poking holes in the ground with mattocks and planting seeds five or six feet apart. In May the shoots were protected by hummocks of earth fertilized by fish caught as they migrated up the river to spawn. In June the patches between the corn stalks were weeded and planted with squashes, pumpkins and beans trained to run up the stalks. Many Natives in the Americas still plant beans and squashes along with corn in their gardens.

Maize was by far the most prolific crop. It was used to feed the cattle and, ground into meal, for cooking in pots and skillets. However, by the early 1640s the planters had introduced English grains, especially spring wheat, and some oats and rye. They were now able to produce malt for the beer which, along with cider, was the universal beverage, and the pea crop was almost as important as wheat.

Since these English crops needed more than the simple mattock and hoe, plows were imported. These were made of wood with iron shares and coulters. Inventories of the time show that about half the planters had these plows. They were pulled by oxen or neutered steers trained as draft animals. These teams of oxen or steers were also needed to clear the “upland” (a term for higher uncleared ground away from the river). The people living along Main Street in Windsor held around 20 acres in the nearest upland, called Northwest Field. There were even larger grants further out, chiefly towards Poquonnock (where Thomas and later his son John held some land) and Pine Meadow. In the early years the settlers must have lived largely on the proceeds of their home and meadow lots, using their upland to graze livestock and for wood.

Horses were a problem. They didn’t weather well the Atlantic crossing and they were expensive to purchase and to keep. They were used chiefly for riding. Carriages needed decent roads, which were almost nonexistent on the frontier, and wagons needed the stronger draft animals for the few terrible roads that did exist. Inventories indicate that only half the early settlers kept horses. They cost between £9 and £18, and with few exceptions belonged to more affluent settlers.[16]

The crops were vital for subsistence; any income produced was chiefly from the cattle the settlers raised. Most Windsor folk were from parts of the West Country (Somerset, Dorset and Devon) where the rural economy was based on mixed farming with a strong element of dairying and livestock. They had brought their own cattle with them on the voyage and it was largely their need for grazing land that had attracted them to Windsor. Fortunately for them, the red Devon cattle proved well able to survive the predators and the New England winters in the open.

Most families had their own milking cows and often a calf or two along with goats and hens that were kept on the homelots for protection and convenience, either in the open during good weather or in the shelter of the barn in bad. Milking, making butter and cheese, and looking after the poultry were domestic jobs done by the women and younger children. After the disastrous first winters, the cattle proliferated. They were herded to and from their pastures morning and evening by the town cowherd, and after the fall harvest they fattened up by being let into the meadow to graze on the stubble. When winter began they were sheltered under cover, often near the homestead, and fed hay.[17]

The English archbacked hogs were important to the economy and adapted well to New England; they were tough, used to rooting for themselves in the woods and fierce enough to fend off most predators. But their habit of breaking down fences to forage among the crops made them a nuisance and their owners liable for heavy fines, which is one reason, as we’ve seen, for the heavy stone fencing that’s still a feature of the New England landscape today. Most families had their hogs and sows to be killed and salted down in the late fall to provide pork and hams through the long winter.

Unfortunately, sheep were much harder to maintain since they were more liable to disease and easy prey for wolves. This presented a problem for the settlers. By the early 1640s the sturdy woolen clothing they had brought with them ten years before was wearing out and an attempt at using cloth imported from the West Indies was a failure. Linen and canvas worked better for them. So most of the settlers grew flax and hemp and spun thread, and some started cottage industries with looms for weaving cloth.

The fur trade was also a disappointment for the Windsor people. The establishment of Springfield upstream cut them off from the beaver trade with the Natives, and over time the access to the supply of furs kept moving further away toward the north and west. Nor did minerals become important to the economy of the settlement. The more important products were from the forests: oak, elm, hickory and walnut provided timber for houses, fencing and barrels, sumac provided dyes for tanning and yellow pine and candlewood provided resins for the pitch, tar and turpentine used in ship and house building. The Windsor settlers pioneered a process for distilling pitch and tar and extracting turpentine. Unfortunately, this new industry raised concerns about the destruction of the environment; at one point the Natives burned their supplies and destroyed their instruments, and neighbors complained about the smell and the smoke.[18]

The town government was administered by seven “townsmen” elected annually at a town meeting of all the inhabitants. These seven met every month as a court of first instance to try civil actions (mainly debt and trespass) and to exercise the other functions of town government such as managing the common lands, maintaining the ferry, roads and bridges, policing livestock, registering land grants, wills and inventories. There were many other office holders. These included the rating commission to determine the value of land for tax purposes, the bound viewers to review the boundary with the Hartford plantation, a committee of way wardens to survey the highways and another to inspect the fences and ensure they were in good repair, haywards charged with impounding stray hogs (among other things), a committee to decide which cows should be put to the bulls for breeding, herders of livestock, a chimney viewer (fire marshal) to prevent houses catching fire, a clerk of weights and measures, a sealer of leather (to regulate the quality of yarn), and a customs officer to clear ships’ cargoes.[19]

The General Court and each town exercised a considerable degree of social control. In 1644 the court recognized the needs of travelers by setting up an “ordinary” (an inn providing a complete fix-price meal) in each town, whose innkeeper must be approved by the magistrates. Drunkenness was a problem and the authorities acted to control excessive drinking with fines. No one was allowed to sell wine or “strong waters” without a license and in the inns and taverns (the “ordinaries”) only half a pint of wine might be drunk at a time, and only a half hour was allowed to drink it--but not after nine o’clock at night. No one under twenty years of age was allowed to smoke or chew tobacco without permission, and then only at dinner time in the privacy of the home. Cards, dice and other games of chance were prohibited on penalty of a substantial fine.[20] The settlers in this close-knit Puritan community must have been accustomed to a lot of government intervention in their lives.

The community recognized its responsibility toward needy people and provisions were made for poor widows and orphans. Schooling was a concern, and parents were expected to teach their children and apprentices to read, to know the laws, and some simple catechism. If a parent failed to raise a child properly, the townsmen could take the child away to be fostered by someone more appropriate. A difficult or rebellious child could be put into a house of correction. Once a town had 50 or more families, as Windsor did, it was obliged to appoint a schoolmaster to teach the children of those who chose to pay the fees to read and write.

There were strict rules for the discipline of apprentices and indentured servants out of a concern that the behavior of these people, many of them young and/or bachelors, should not be appropriate. As in England, strangers were not allowed to stay overnight in the town or become inhabitants without permission and the proper credentials. The townsmen must approve a family taking in a lodger. (Thomas was approved on two occasions for this purpose.) There was a nine o’clock curfew and the constable or the watch could arrest anyone for “night walking” without a good reason. Prying into personal and family life was encouraged in the interest of public morality. It’s not surprising, therefore, that the greatest number of criminal offenses was for family misbehavior, including violence and sexual offenses. The penalty for adultery was death by hanging, usually commuted to a public whipping, which was also the normal punishment for fornication. The most serious cases were sodomy and bestiality. One eighteen-year-old boy, a member of a prominent family in Windsor, was convicted of buggery in 1647 and was hanged.[21]

There were two cases of witchcraft in Windsor in this period. In the spring of 1647 Alse Young was tried as a witch, found guilty and hanged. In the fall of 1654 Lydia Gilbert was found guilty of “conspiring with the devil to cause the death of Henry Stiles” and she, too, was sentenced to death.

These Windsor people were as litigious as are Americans today, and were constantly suing their neighbors in civil actions and being sued in return. Mostly the court was occupied with petty crime, with penalties ranging from hard labor and a course diet in Hartford’s house of correction to a public whipping and/or a spell in the pillory or the stocks. Belittling authority was considered a serious crime (and was not uncommon), and a person could be fined or imprisoned for being late for a public function or absent from a turn at the watch or from church. Only the General Court could absolve a man from militia training.

Some of the most severe penalties were meted out for offenses against religion and the church. Profanity could earn a public whipping and prison for a month, and contempt for God’s word or the minister’s made one liable for a £5 fine and the pillory.[22] Note that a sum of £5 in 1650 is the equivalent of about $500 today (about £335), so such a fine was substantial.[23]

Life among the English planters of New England in the seventeenth century was hard, but it was not particularly short or brutal for these times. Although one in five women died from causes related to childbirth and infant mortality was one in ten, these are figures that are actually low for that period. Life in New England was generally healthy, men and women usually lived long lives, infant mortality was relatively low, and most children lived to maturity. (Three of Thomas’s five children survived infancy and eventually produced children of their own.) It was not unusual for people to live 70 or more years. (Thomas was about 76 years of age at his death.) Early marriages were uncommon; men typically married in their mid-twenties and women in their early twenties. (Thomas must have been about 29 when he married his wife.) Husbands and wives were dependent upon each other, sharing each other’s life and work. The average family size was about six or seven.

Their food was dull and tasteless, especially in households that stayed close to traditional English ways of preparing food. They were not adventuresome cooks. They rejected the native sweet potato and the white potato (even though it was a New World vegetable) did not come into the menu until the Scotch-Irish arrived in the eighteenth century. They disliked vegetables and were convinced they were unhealthy when eaten raw. They planted familiar root crops--parsnips, turnips, carrots, and onions--and then cooked them mercilessly into a tasteless pulp. Except for salt and pepper, most of the condiments also came from the garden--parsley, hyssop, thyme, and marjoram. For breakfast they might have had some kind of mush diluted with milk or molasses and something similar for supper or dinner, the main meal was served anytime between noon and three o’clock. It consisted usually of a stew or pottage whose contents varied with the season. It required only a single pot and little tending. However, they did take from the Natives all they grew and the recipes for making it palatable. Boston baked beans, for example, came from the Natives, who taught the English how to cook beans in earthen pots. Pumpkin was popular, and was boiled, mashed and served with butter, made into pies, or dried in slices. Corn became central to the diet. It was pounded into powder and called samp, and was eaten hot or cold for breakfast with milk and butter. Corn cooked with beans was called succotash, and was served for supper. Of course they had corn on the cob in August and in the fall and winter they had parched corn, cooked in hot ashes and eaten like peanuts.

Fortunately, the settlers also had fish, wild birds and animals from the forest to supplement their overcooked vegetables. But the free-roaming hog became the preferred source of protein. Once smoked, salted, or pickled it was easily preserved.

Family was important, and came to embrace all blood relations within a day’s travel by horse or boat--about a fifty-mile radius. This was a community that tended to stay together and to provide for its own--the orphans, the ill, the incapacitated.

The Puritans The Puritans endeavored to live a “smooth, honest, civil life,” as they rigidly interpreted it, and tried to force everyone within their power to do the same. Where they differed most from others was not so much a matter of religion as a matter of behavior. They wrote hundreds of books explaining the exact conduct demanded by God in every conceivable situation. “They had, in fact, complete blueprints for a smooth, honest, civil life in family, church, and state, and they were willing to live in the wilderness in order to build a society according to those blueprints.”[24] They came to New England not to save their souls, but to create a society in which people would live according to their view of God’s laws.

They believed that those who were chosen by God would be visible saints. “The sanctified man was obedient [to God’s laws] because the Holy Spirit had disposed him to be so.”[25] Good works were not the means to salvation, but were evidence of saving faith. A “civil” life was, therefore, not necessarily a sign of salvation, it could be produced by education and social restraints rather than faith, but an uncivil life was a sure sign of damnation. All good Puritans wanted to be seen to be visible saints. Of course, they did their best to exclude all but visible saints from their churches.

For similar reasons they felt compelled to enforce good behavior on others. Thomas Hooker explained why Puritans seek to destroy all sin: “What ever sins come within his reach, he labors the removal of them, out of the familyes where he dwells, out of the plantations where he lives, out of the companies and occasions, with whom he hath occasion to meet and meddle at any time.”[26]. Moreover, they believed that God rewarded with prosperity those people obedient to His laws, and He rewarded them not individually but as a people. Since the whole group had promised obedience to God, the whole group would suffer for the sins of any delinquent member, unless that member were punished. “By publicly punishing [the delinquent] the group testified to their disapproval of his actions and so escaped responsibility for them. Incessant vigilance, however, was essential in order to prevent any sin from going unpunished.”[27]

The Puritans were not ascetic; they sought prosperity and the “good life”, and were willing to work very hard for it. But the good life was not the objective for them; the objective was always and in all things to serve God.

Though all men were equal before God at the moment of birth and of death, they were not equal among themselves during their lives. There was order in God’s earthly kingdom, and so social class and the orders, offices, positions, and perquisites of social rank were seen by them natural to the divine plan. Human relationships were governed by a pattern of superiority and inferiority: “old men were superior to young, educated to uneducated, rich to poor, craftsmen to common laborers, highborn to lowborn, and so on. God demanded respect for order--in the family, in the church and in the state. In the family the husband was superior to the wife, parents to the children, and masters to servants; in the church ministers and elders were superior to the congregation; and in the state rulers were superior to the subjects. Those who were in the superior position naturally held authority over those in an inferior position.

The Household on a Frontier Farm Given the estate Thomas left at the end of his life, worth £349, a substantial sum in those days, we know the family was neither poor nor wealthy. They were “the middling sort” who were typical church members and freeholders of the Puritan settlements in which they lived (Windsor and Westfield). Thomas’s substantial land holdings must have provided a comfortable living for his family. The homes they built in Windsor and then in Westfield must have looked something like surviving dwellings from 17th century New England, with two rooms, a “hall” and a “parlor” on the ground floor and two “chambers” above. A space we might call the kitchen, holding the pots, kettles, dripping pans, trays, buckets, and earthenware would probably have been a sort of lean-to at the back of the house. The upstairs chambers were simply storage rooms for foodstuffs and out-of-season equipment. The best bed, with its bolster, pillows, blanket, and coverlet stood in the parlor; a second bed occupied one corner of the kitchen, while a cupboard, a “great chest”, a table, and a backless bench called a “form” furnished the hall. More food was found in the “cellar” and in the “dairy house”, a room which may have stood at the coolest end of the kitchen lean-to.[28] These early New England structures show strong English and even medieval influence, with steep roofs, unpainted clapboard or shingle walls, very little decoration and a massive chimney.

This tradition is one of “organic” building, using natural materials locally found, and a design determined by need rather than by any idea of style. Unpainted wood predominated; paint, plaster and masonry didn’t become common until the 18th century. These houses were simple, small and rather crude, so very few remain; the few that do have been restored and preserved as historic sites. The most humble have only one room with a fireplace and chimney at one end. More frequent is the two room plan, as described above, with the chimney centered behind the entrance and a stair leading to a loft or second story storage (or sometime sleeping) rooms. Massive fireplaces face into the first floor rooms. If means allowed, a room, or rooms, would later be added across the back and the rear roof extended to create the familiar "saltbox" look. This new back room usually became the kitchen, and a fireplace and flue were added to the center chimney. Even in the earliest days, the one room plan, the two room (Cape Cod), lean-to or "saltbox" and full two story plans were known because all had been developed earlier in England.

What all these forms have in common is the heavy oak frame which supports the house. Hand-hewn logs of 8 to 12 inches square were used for posts and beams. These interlocked at joints and were secured with pegs. Walls were infilled with wattle (sticks and twigs) and daub (mud and clay) and sheathed with clapboards or shingles to give some protection from the severe New England weather. Because the framing was so substantial, it was visible in the finished rooms. The heavy braced frame continued to be used for all types of building from the first settlements until the 1850s in New England and even longer in agricultural buildings. 17th century houses are generally asymmetrical; size and placement of windows and doors follow no pattern. Roofs are steep and without an overhang. All joints are pegged; no nails are used.

The chimney is massive, in stone or sometimes with decorated brickwork. In larger examples, the second floor may overhang the first by 6 to 18 inches, and the attic may overhang the second story a bit on the very largest houses. Doors, small by today’s standards, are composed of vertical boards on the exterior nailed to horizontal boards on the inside. Windows are casements, set in pairs or triples, glazed with diamond-shaped panes (quarels) set in lead strips (cames) and hinged with strips of wrought iron. In the 18th century, the same house forms were continued, but houses tended to be a little larger with higher ceilings. See the Fairbanks House, built in 1636. Thomas had a 95 acre farm and a homelot in Westfield, composed of “plow land”, meadow and woods, which provided hay and forage for a small herd of cows and sheep, wood from which he would haul firewood with a yoke of oxen to his home with its large fireplace, and a comfortable living for his family. The Westfield house must have looked not very different from surviving dwellings of 17th century New England as described above.

Here is the description of the contents of a farm in Newbury, MA, belonging to a family of the same level of wealth as Thomas: “On this winter morning the dairy house held four and a half “flitches” or sides of bacon, a quarter of a barrel of salt pork, twenty-eight pounds of cheese, and four pounds of butter. Upstairs in a chamber were more than twenty-five bushels of “English” grain—-barley, oats, wheat, and rye. (Thomas may also have had Indian corn which he fed to his animals.) When made into malt by a village specialist, barley would become the basis for beer. Two bushels of malt were already stored in the house. The oats might appear in a variety of dishes, from plain breakfast porridge to “flummery,” a gelatinous dish flavored with spices and dried fruit. But the wheat and rye were almost certainly reserved for bread and pies. A bushel of peas and beans and a full barrel of cider were stored in the cellar, with some small quantities of pickles, preserves, and dried herbs. Almost certainly, the family would have added variety to their diet by trading some of their abundant supply of grain for cabbages, turnips, sugar, molasses, and spices.

“Even without additions they had the basic components of the yeoman diet described in English agriculture literature of the seventeenth century. Although the eighteenth century would add a little chocolate or tea as well as increasing quantities of tiny “petators” to the New England farmer’s diet, the bread, cider, and boiled meat which fed Thomas’s family also fed their descendants a century later.[29]

The Good Wife In English tradition the woman’s domain was the family dwelling and the surrounding yard. It included the kitchen and its appendages--the cellers, pantries, brewhouses, milkhouses, washhouses, and butteries. It would include the pigpen, vegetable and herb gardens, milkyard, well, henhouse, and possibly the orchard. Her role was defined by a set of tasks (cooking, washing, sewing, milking, spinning, cleaning, gardening), and a limited area of authority (the internal economy of the family).[30]

A woman was legally subordinate to her husband, the obvious indication of which was the loss of her name. A wife could neither own nor acquire property, nor could she enter into a contract or write a will. Upon the death of her husband a woman became a relict [synonym for widow]. The death of a mother did not mean the dissolution of a family, but the death of a father did. When a father died there was a redistribution of roles and resources, overseen by trusted neighbors. By law, a widow usually inherited at least a third of the household goods, and she was entitled to use or to receive income from a third of the real estate until she died or remarried. If she had minor children, she might retain control of the entire estate until her sons came of age, but the final disposition of family property would not be determined by her but by court order or her husband’s will. A widow was ensured maintenance at whatever level the estate allowed, but only rarely did she retain full control of her house and yard or even the assembly of pots, beds, and cows which had once been her domain.[31]

Since wives were involved in early morning milking, breakfast of necessity featured prepared foods or leftovers—-toasted bread, cheese, and perhaps meat and turnips kept from the day before--any of this washed down with cider or beer in winter, with milk in summer. Only on special occasions would there be pie or doughnuts. Dinner was the main meal of the day. … After the fall harvest [a housewife] might serve roast pork or goose with apples, in spring an eel pie flavored with parsley and winter savory, and in summer a leek soup or goose-berry cream; but for ordinary days the most common menu was boiled meat with whatever vegetables the season provided—-dried peas or beans, parsnips, turnips, onions, cabbage, or garden greens. A heavy pudding stuffed into a cloth bag could steam atop the vegetables and meat. The broth from this boiled dinner might reappear at supper as “pottage” with the addition of minced herbs and some oatmeal or barley for thickening. Supper, like breakfast, was a simple meal. Bread, cheese, and beer, welcomed at any meal. In summer, egg dishes and fruit tarts provided more varied fare.[32]

The most basic but critical of a housewife’s skills was building and regulating fires. Whatever the time of day or year, she kept a few coals smoldering, ready to stir into flame as needed. The cavernous fireplaces of early New England were not very different from the open fires of medieval houses, and they retained some of their characteristics. They were large enough to stand inside and to see the sky above, and unlike the smaller fireplaces we know today they were used more as accessible work surfaces upon which a number of small fires could be built. Preparing several dishes simultaneously, a cook could move from one fire to another, turning a spit, checking the state of the embers under a skillet, adjusting the height of a pot hung from the lugpole by its adjustable trammel. It was a complex task that encouraged the one-pot meal so typical of the time.[33]

A proper housewife would be adept not only at roasting, frying, and boiling but also at baking, the most difficult sort of cookery. Often the bread baked was “maslin,” a common type made from a mixture of wheat and other grains, usually rye. To make bread she began with the sieves, carefully sifting out the coarser pieces of grain and bran. Soon after supper she would mixed the “sponge”, a thin dough made from warm water, yeast, and flour. Her yeast might have come from the foamy “barm” found on top of fermenting ale or beer or from a piece of dough saved from an earlier baking. Like fire-building, bread-making was based upon a self-perpetuating chain, an organic sequence which if interrupted was difficult to start again. Warmth from the banked fire would raise the sponge by morning, when the housewife could work in more flour, knead the finished dough, and shape the loaves, leaving them to rise again. Bread-making was a craft requiring considerable skill. Not the least of the problem was regulating the fire so that the oven was ready at the same time as the risen loaves.

Small cakes or biscuits could be baked in a skillet or directly on the hearth under an upside-down pot covered with coals. But to produce bread in any quantity required an oven. Before 1650 these were frequently constructed in dooryards, but in the last decades of the century they were built into the rear of the kitchen fireplace. The oven would have no flue, so the housewife would leave the door open once she kindled the fire inside, allowing the smoke to escape through the chimney. She would rake the coals occasionally to distribute the heat evenly, testing periodically with her hand to see if the oven had reached the right temperature. When she determined it had, she would scrape out the coals and put in the bread.[34]

In addition to the day-by-day routines there were seasonal tasks which allowed a housewife to bridge the scarcity of one period with the bounty of another. Tasks related to dairying was high on the list, beginning with the first calves of early spring. In colonial New England cows were raised for meat as well as for milk. Even in a new settlement they could survive by browsing on rough land and their meat was a hedge against famine. But only in areas with abundant meadow, and even there only in certain lush months of the year, would they produce milk with sufficient butterfat for serious dairying.[35]

Some mornings in early summer the milk would be processed into cheese, a way to preserve this important source of nutrition for use in the winter. The housewife would slowly heat several gallons with rennet. Rennet is a complex of enzymes produced in any mammalian stomach to digest the mother's milk, and is often used in the production of cheese.] dried and saved from the autumn’s slaughtering. Within an hour or two the curd would be formed. She would break it and drain off the whey, then work in a little of her own fresh butter. Packing this rich mixture into a mold, she would turn it in her wooden press for an hour or more, changing and washing the cheesecloth frequently as the whey dripped out. Repacking it in dry cloth, she would leave it in the press for another thirty to forty hours before washing it once more with whey, drying it, and placing it in the cellar or dairy house to age. As a young girl she would have learned the importance of thorough pressing and the virtues of cleanliness.

The season of gardening and gathering followed quickly upon the dairying months. Then came autumn, the season of slaughtering. The housewife could well have killed the smaller pigs herself, holding their “hinder parts between her legs,” as one observer described the process, “and taking the snout in her left hand” while she stuck the animal through the heart with a long knife. Once the bleeding stopped, she would have submerged the pig in boiling water for a few minutes, then rubbed it with rosin, stripped off the hair, and disemboweled it. Nothing was lost. She reserved the organ meats for immediate use, then cleaned the intestines for later use as sausage casings. Stuffed with meat scraps and herbs and smoked, these “links” were a treasured delicacy. The larger cuts could be roasted at once or preserved in several ways. With wine, ginger, mace, and nutmeg, pork could be rolled into a cloth and pickled as “souse.” But this was an expensive and risky method. So she might instead have relied upon more common techniques. She might submerge some of her pork in brine, trusting the high salt concentration and the low temperature in the dairy house to keep it untainted and processed the rest as bacon. Each “flitch” of bacon stood in salt for two or three weeks before she hung it from the lugpole of her chimney for smoking. In the Gunn house “hanging bacon” must have been a recurring ritual of early winter.[36]

Autumn was also the season for cider-making. The mildly alcoholic beverage produced by natural fermentation of apple juice was a staple of the New England diet and was practically the only method of preserving the fruit harvest. With the addition of sugar, the alcoholic content could be raised from five to about seven percent, as it usually was in taverns and for export. The cider in the Gunn house was probably the common farm variety.[37]

Homemade beer was even more important to the New England family’s diet. Although some housewives brewed a winter’s supply of strong beer in October, storing it in the cellar, many seem to have been content with “small beer”, a mild beverage usually brewed weekly or bi-weekly and used almost at once. The housewife would start with cracked malt or grist and process her beer in three stages. “Mashing” required slow steeping at just below the boiling point, a sensitive and smelly but important process. Experienced brewers knew by taste whether the brew was working. If it was too hot, acetic acid developed which would sour the finished product. The “brewing” stage was relatively simple. Herbs and hops were boiled with the malted liquid. In the final stage the liquid was cooled and mixed with yeast saved from an earlier batch of beer or bread. Within twenty-four hours, if all went well, the beer would be bubbling actively.[38]

A wife who knew how to manage the ticklish chemical processes which changed milk into cheese, meal into bread, malt into beer, and flesh into bacon was a valuable asset to a man. Choosing a good wife was important.

Marriage and Divorce Among the Puritans celibacy was not viewed as a holier condition than marriage. Marriage was encouraged, but was a civil act and not a religious sacrament. Couples joined in marriage by announcing their intention to do so at three successive public meetings, or by attaching a notice to the meetinghouse door for two consecutive weeks. This was required before the actual marriage could take place. The wedding itself was a civil ceremony performed by the local magistrate, after which the new husband had 30 days to report the marriage to the town clerk. Though the church forbade dancing and merrymaking, feasting and drinking after the marriage ceremony were considered appropriate. From 1686, when royal government had been established in New England, ministers were also empowered to perform marriage ceremonies.[39]

In New England, divorce like marriage fell under the jurisdiction of the state and the civil courts. Though they did not allow separation, they did allow divorce and the right to remarry when either party to the marriage could prove the other had committed incest, or adultery, or in some other way neglected a fundamental duty. Divorce could be granted for the following:

1. A natural incapacity or insufficiency which utterly disappoints the ends of marriage. If this were found to be the case, the marriage was annulled 2. One of the couple was found to be already married. 3. Married persons “convicted of such criminal uncleannesses as render them one flesh with another object than that unto which their marriage has united them…” (Adultery) 4. Incest 5. Fornication before marriage with a person related to the current spouse (considered a form of incest). 6. Malicious desertion 7. After a long absence (the government would specify the length of time) a spouse may be presumed dead, and the surviving spouse may remarry.[40]

Following Leviticus 20, the Laws and Liberties of 1648 established the penalty of death for adultery, and the legal system of early colonial Massachusetts relied upon Mosaic law. Actually, however, because adultery was such a heinous crime in the Bay Colony convictions were rare. Married folk of either sex were usually punished more or less equally for the lesser crimes of “attempted adultery,” “uncleanness,” or “lascivious carriage.”[41].

In cases of severe marital conflict divorce was a possibility. For Puritans marriage was not a sacrament but a civil contract between two individuals, and, like other contracts it could be broken. In the seventeenth century, county and general courts in Massachusetts (and Connecticut) dissolved marriages on grounds of adultery, desertion, neglect, and cruelty.

Women seem to have sued more frequently and more successfully than men. When a divorce was granted, the marriage was treated as though it had never happened. Each would go their way with the property they brought into the marriage, except that the wife would be entitled to a third of her husband’s estate. Massachusetts granted at least twenty-seven divorces between 1639 and 1692.[42] One of these was granted to Mehitable Gunn, who divorced her first husband, David Ensign, for his “ill conduct” as well as for adultery.


1. Stevens, Peter. Dorchester Reporter: “It Happened Here” (November 21, 2001).

2. Samuel Eliot Morison. Builders of the Bay Colony: A Gallery of Our Intellectual Ancestors (1930).

3. Young, Alexander. Chronicles of the First Planters of the Colony of Massachusetts Bay, from 1623 to 1636 (Boston: Charles C. Little and James Brown, 1846).

5. Stevens, Peter. Dorchester Reporter: “It Happened Here” (November 21, 2001).

6. Thistlethwaite, Frank. Dorset Pilgrims: The Story of Westcountry Pilgrims Who Went to New England in the 17th Century (Interlaken, New York: Heart of the Lakes Publishing, 1993), p. 150.

7. Hawke, David Freeman. Everyday Life in Early America (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1988), pp. 32-34.

8. Hawke, p. 35.

9. Hawke, p. 36.

10. Hawke, p. 37.

11. Hawke, p. 38.

12. Hawke, pp. 77-78.

13. Hawke, p 80.

14. Hawke, p 30.

15. Nor'easters can occur at any time of the year but are mostly known for their presence in the winter season. They can be devastating and damaging, especially in the winter months, when most damage and deaths are cold related.

16. Thistlethwaite, p 151.

17. Thistlethwaite, p 152.

18. Thistlethwaite.

19. Thistlethwaite, pp. 161-62.

20. Thistlethwaite, p. 163.

21. Thistlethwaite, p 164.

22. Thistlethwaite, p 165.

24. Morgan, Edmund S. The Puritan Family: Religion and Domestic Relations in Seventeenth-Century New England (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1966), p 2.

25. Morgan, p 4.

26. Hooker, Thomas. The Application of Redemption (London, 1659), p 684.

27. Morgan, p 10.

28. Morgan, 18, original source: Cummings, Abbot Lowell. The Framed Houses of Massachusetts Bay, 1625-1725 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1979), pp. 31-32 and 29-31.

29. Morgan, p 19.

30. Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650-1750 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982), p 9.

31. Ulrich, p 7.

32. Ulrich, pp 19-20.

33. Ulrich, p 20.

34. Ulrich, pp 20-21.

35. Ulrich, p 20.

36. Ulrich, pp 22-23.

37. Ulrich, p 23.

38. Ulrich, p 23.

39. Morgan, pp 31-33.

40. Morgan, p 35.

41. Ulrich, p 94.

42. Morgan, pp 36-37.

62 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

The 8th Generation

Irwin Simpson Gunn, b. 1888 Dustin Lake, Michigan; d. 1968 Three Rivers, Michigan Blanche Estelle Bowen, b. 1886 Dayton, Tennessee; d. 1955 Plainwell, Michigan Children: Viola Robena Gunn, b. 1910 Kal

The Alfords

Some time ago, in consultation with others looking into this lineage, Benedict Alford (b. 1756 Windsor, CT-d. 1838 Troy, Geauga, OH) and Hulda Hickock (b. 1757, Norwalk, CT – d. 1839 Troy, Geauga, OH)

The 7th Generation

Christopher Conrad Gunn: Civil War and the Move to Michigan Christopher Gunn b. 1 Feb 1848 Wayne, Ohio; d. 2 Aug 1922 Watervliet, Michigan Helen Alford b. 7 Jun 1847 Alamo, Michigan; d. 15 Dec 1924, K


Get the Conversation Started
Be the first to post in this category.
bottom of page