Chronicles of America 

The People and Their Customs

The New Englander of the seventeenth century, courageous as he was and loyal to his religious convictions, was in a majority of cases gifted with but a meager mental outfit. The unknown world frightened and appalled him; Satan warring with the righteous was an ever-present menace to his soul; the will of God controlled the events of his daily life, whether for good or ill. The book of nature and the physiology and ailments of his own body he comprehended with the mind of a child. He believed that the planet upon which he lived was the center of the universe, that the stars were burning vapors, and the moon and comets agencies controlling human destinies. Strange portents presaged disaster or wrought evil works. Many a New Englander's life was governed according to the supposed influence of the heavenly bodies; Bradford believed that there was a connection between a cyclone and an eclipse; and Morton defined an earthquake as a movement of wind shut up in the pores and bowels of the earth.

Of medicine the Puritans knew little and practiced less. They swallowed doses of weird and repelling concoctions, wore charms and amulets, found comfort and relief in internal and external remedies that could have had no possible influence upon the cause of the trouble, and when all else failed they fell back upon the mercy and will of God. Surgery was a matter of tooth-pulling and bone-setting, and though post-mortems were performed, we have no knowledge of the skill of the practitioner. The healing art, as well as nursing and midwifery, was frequently in the hands of women, one of whom deposed: "I was able to live by my chirurgery, but now I am blind and cannot see a wound, much less dress it or make salves"; and Jane Hawkins of Boston, the "bosom friend" of Mrs. Hutchinson, was forbidden by the general courts "to meddle in surgery or physic, drink, plaisters or oils," as well as religion. The men who practiced physic were generally homebred, making the greater part of their living at farming or agriculture. Some were ministers as well as physicians, and one of them (Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes is sorry to say) "took to drink and tumbled into the Connecticut River, and so ended." There were a number of regularly trained doctors, such as John Clark of Newbury, Fuller of Plymouth, Rossiter of Guilford, and others; and the younger Winthrop, though not a physician, had mere than a smattering of medicine.


Photograph taken about 1855. In the collection of the Essex Institute, Salem, Massachusetts.


In the grounds of the Essex Institute, Salem, Massachusetts.

The mass of the New Englanders of the seventeenth century had but little education and but few opportunities for travel. As early as 1642, Massachusetts required that every child should be taught to read, and in 1647 enacted a law ordaining that every township should appoint a schoolmaster, and that the larger towns should each set up a grammar school. This well-known and much praised enactment, which made education the handmaid of religion and was designed to stem the tide of religious indifference rising over the colony, was better in intention than in execution. It had little effect at first, and even when under its provisions the common school gradually took root in New England, the education given was of a very primitive variety. Harvard College itself, chartered in 1636, was a seat of but a moderate amount of learning and at its best had only the training of the clergy in view. In Hartford and New Haven, grammar schools were founded under the bequest of Governor Hopkins, but came to little in the seventeenth century. In 1674, one Robert Bartlett left money for the setting up of a free school in New London, for the teaching of Latin to poor children, but the hope was richer than the fulfillment. In truth, of education for the laity at this time in New England there was scarcely more than the rudiments of reading, writing, and arithmetic. The frugal townspeople of New England generally deemed education an unnecessary expense; the school laws were evaded, and when complied with were more honored in the breach than in the observance. Even when honestly carried out, they produced but slender results. Probably most people could sign their names after a fashion, though many extant wills and depositions bear only the marks of their signers. Schoolmasters and town clerks had difficulties with spelling and grammar, and the rural population were too much engrossed by their farm labors to find much time for the improvement of the mind. Except in the homes of the clergy and the leading men of the larger towns there were few books, and those chiefly of a religious character. The English Bible and Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, printed in Boston in 1681, were most frequently read, and in the houses of the farmers the British Almanac was occasionally found. There were no newspapers, and printing had as yet made little progress.

The daily routine of clearing the soil, tilling the arable land, raising corn, rye, wheat, oats, and flax, of gathering iron ore from bogs and turpentine from pine trees, and in other ways of providing the means of existence, rendered life essentially stationary and isolated, and the mind was but slightly quickened by association with the larger world. A little journeying was done on foot, on horseback, or by water, but the trip from colony to colony was rarely undertaken; and even within the colony itself but few went far beyond the borders of their own townships, except those who sat as deputies in the assembly or engaged in hunting, trading, fishing, or in wars with the Indians. A Connecticut man could speak of "going abroad" to Rhode Island. Though in the larger towns good houses were built, generally of wood and sometimes of brick, in the remoter districts the buildings were crude, with rooms on one floor and a ladder to the chamber above, where corn was frequently stored. Along the Pawcatuck River, families lived in cellars along with their pigs. Clapboards and shingles came in slowly as sawmills increased, but at first nails and glass were rare luxuries. Conditions in such seaports as Boston, where ships came and went and higher standards of living prevailed, must not be taken as typical of the whole country. The buildings of Boston in 1683 were spoken of as "handsome, joining one to another as in London, with many large streets, most of them paved with pebble stone." Money in the country towns was merchantable wheat, peas, pork, and beef at prices current. Time was reckoned by the farmers according to the seasons, not according to the calendar, and men dated events by "sweet corn time," "at the beginning of last hog time," "since Indian harvest," and " the latter part of seed time for winter wheat."

New England was a frontier land far removed from the older civilizations, and its people were always restive under restraint and convention. They were in the main men and women of good sense, sobriety, and thrift, who worked hard, squandered nothing, feared God, and honored the King, but the equipment they brought with them to America was insufficient at best and had to be replaced, as the years wore on, from resources developed on New England soil.

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