Needham History Center & Museum

Warned Out of Needham

A “greeting’ from the Constable was not exactly a visit from the Welcome Wagon. Quite the reverse. In the 18th century, strangers to town were “warned out” as a way of reducing public costs.


September 8, 1779:  To the Constable or Constables of the Town of Needham or to Either of them – –  Greeting:  You are hereby Required in the Name of the Government and People of the State of Massachusetts Bay Forthwith to Notify and warn Lucy Dunton and her Child which she brought into Needham with her forthwith to Depart and leave this Town of Needham.  The time when the said Lucy Dunton came into Needham with her Child was in the month of October in the Year 1778.  The said Lucy with her Child came from Dedham in the above said County.  The time of her and her Child’s abode in our Town of Needham has been from the said Month of October untill the Date hereof.  And make return hereof with your doings hereon to the Clerk of the Court of General Sessions of the Peace in and for the County of Suffolk.

What gives? Is Needham really telling a homeless mother and her baby to hit the road?

Ummmm – yes.  Lucy Dunton and her Child (no name given, baby implied) were visited by the Constables and told to go back to Dedham where she came from.

Detail from document Warning Out Lucy Dunton and her child, 1779.
Detail from document Warning Out Lucy Dunton and her child, 1779.

Lucy had been Warned Out. Warning out was a standard practice in colonial Massachusetts – not just in Needham.  Towns were responsible for the support of the poor and the disabled, a task carried out by the Selectmen or by the Overseers of the Poor.  The resources to support the destitute in a town came out of everyone’s pockets, a practice derived from the old English laws that the colonists brought with them, and the understanding that every member of a community was responsible for the behavior and support of every other member.  It was the common understanding that destitute residents – elderly childless widows that were your neighbors for decades, or a man injured while working on a town project – should be fed and clothed by their neighbors and would become a “charge on the town.”  People were much less happy about paying for newly-arrived strangers.

So the Town tried to minimize the number of people that it had to pay to maintain. There were a number of options, depending upon the condition and age of the individual, including warning out, bidding for paupers, and indentured labor.  “Warning out” meant that a newcomer to town could expect a visit from the Constable bearing an eviction notice.  This was almost always the case if there was reason to believe that the person could not support themselves or their family, but in some towns everyone was warned out.  This did not actually mean that they had to leave, or that they were expelled.  But it was effective notice that they were not eligible for poor relief, and that if they did become a charge on the town or became a public nuisance (begging, drunkenness, etc), that they would receive a warrant requiring them to go back to the town they came from. Warning out became less common after changes in the poor laws in 1794.

Towns were expected to keep a record of the date of any stranger’s arrival, for exactly this purpose.  A bylaw passed by Town Meeting in 1712 required residents to seek permission from the Selectmen before “harboring a stranger”, unless the person was able-bodied and at no risk of becoming a charge on the town. Pretty much anyone arriving in town could expect to be warned out, regardless of status, and they were a frequent occurrence.  In 1771 Constable Josiah Ware was paid for 28 Warnings, in 1774 Constable Ebenezer Fuller was paid for thirteen Warnings, and in 1776 Constable [–] Alden was paid for 42 Warnings. Dr. Joshua Wheat was warned out when he arrived in Needham to practice medicine in 1729, which he went on to do for decades.  Eunice Bartlett was warned out in 1765 when she arrived in town with her small daughter Lois, but went on to be a teacher in town.  Ensign Timothy Cheney was a substantial landowner in Newton when he arrived with his family in 1766, but got warned out nonetheless (he didn’t leave either).

The Needham History Center has several warning out documents, and many more exist in the town’s records. In April 1779, Thomas and Patience Gardner from Dedham and their children Caleb, Elizabeth, Chloe, and David were warned forthwith to Depart and Leave (the language was formulaic, and does not vary from document to document).  In March 1790, Cesar and Patience Cummings from Natick and their children James, Charlotte, George, and Charles were warned out. And Lucy Dunton of Dedham and Child in September 1779, as mentioned above. Little more is known about these three families or their economic situation.  There was a Gardner family in Needham (many named Thomas) in the 1740s and 50s; this Thomas might have been related (…or not). Cesar/Caesar and Patience Cummings were identified as Black, and Caesar’s “classical” first name suggests that he might once have been enslaved. Lucy is traveling alone with a young child.  She is listed in another record as an “unattached woman” and it is hard to avoid the supposition that her child was (gasp!) out of wedlock – if a widow, she would have been noted as such, and would probably have had a family or in-laws to take her in.

To know a name and a single circumstance – a sepia snapshot of a person’s life.  What happened to Lucy and Child? To the Cummings and their many children? Were they consigned to a vagrant life of poverty, welcome nowhere? Or, like Dr Wheat, did they ignore the Warning and settle down to become part of a community? I’d like to think so.

Gloria Polizzotti Greis, Executive Director, Needham History Center & Museum