HST296A: 26-January-2005 Reading Notes
Powell, Sumner Chilton, Puritan Village: The Formation of a New England Town

Central idea: "To emigrate from accustomed social institutions and relationships to a set of unfamiliar communities in the way in which Noyes and Ruddock shifted from England to Sudbury, and the latter from Sudbury to Marlborough, meant a startling transformation. The townsmen had to change or abandon almost every formal institution which they had taken for granted." (p. 142)


The book explores the town of Sudbury in its earliest years. The author suggests that even though the inhabitants came from England with specific presuppositions about how their society should be organized, the fact that they came from several areas (open-field manorial village, incorporated borough, enclosed-farm East Anglian village), each with its own distinct structures, led to the establishment of new societies more complex than previously supposed. Interesting point: the early settlers stated explicitly that they were interested in creating new laws and social structures that did not conform to those they left behind in England. The system was such that they could do this on a town by town basis.

He proposes that the best way to study these towns is through a study of the emigrants, specifically those in administrative areas.

1. The Web of Open-field Life

We begin with Peter Noyes, appointed (and reappointed) to a variety of roles in Sudbury. The laws (1638-1657, 132 town meetings, 650 orders) created by the selectmen indicate what were areas of conflict and decision. Categories:

2. Land Hunger, Borough Rights, and the Power to Tax

Edmund Rice, land acquisitor, representative, dissenter, pursued independent land management/holding as opposed to cooperative system. From Berkhamsted, market town, borough with written charter with specific rights (most of rents and tolls of which were handed over to church wardens - many of whom were the burgesses anyway). Much more involved in national affairs. Church officers also regulated individual's lives.

Taxation systems were ripe for abuse, though access to higher English courts was possible. Of course, in Sudbury, Mass. such access would be unrealistic.

3. The Secrets of the Corporation of this Town of Sudbury

Edmund Brown, first minister, from the Puritan stronghold, Eastern Counties, Sudbury, Suffolk. Also, John and Geoffrey Ruggles, capital burgesses, and founders of Roxbury, Mass. Wool/trades/market town, two parishes, more complex, more proscribed.

Elections: annual, with mayor chosen from/by alderman, rarely chosen more than once, who then chose other officers. Thus, insiders, private, not public, not answerable to public. When wool trade was in decline the orders they made were determined among themselves, not in conference with the people of the town. Ordinances like regulation of hog behavior (!) were common. Usual process: recognize a problem (lack of firewood for poor), determine a cause (brewers using too much), propose a solution (brewers should use sea coal), determine a punishment for infringement (fines), empower someone to investigate/oversee.

(Re: house of correction for "disturbers of peace" (food thieves, fence breakers, unwed mothers, fathers of bastards, runaways, drunkards), corporal punishment, work.)

Conclusion: well-ordered, well-defined, explicit roles, a real sense of those in control and those being controlled

4. "It Is Ordered by the Court"

East Anglians invited by Subdury settlers. Different expectations: farmers were independent landholders managing more in competition than cooperation (p 60). (with some leftover feudal obligations)
Sundry run-ins with church authority prior to decisions to emigrate...

5. Watertown on the Charles

No archdeacons or bishops, no landlords. Many East Anglians already grabbing land, setting up individual (self-sufficient in terms of tools) farms. Wanting to avoid money for support of poor, it was already established that anyone who became a charge on the town could be ordered to leave.(p 75) However, "no taxation without representation" and more possibilities to speak out at town meetings.

Landless newcomers needed allotments of land, but the process by which one obtained same was unorganized and changeable. Noyes, Pendleton (Londoner, recently out of favor Watertown-er) and Brown (minister) "petitioned the General Court of Massachusetts for a town grant below Concord." 9p. 77) The area had plenty of pasture, some clearing already done, some soil and predator challenges, and NE weather.

6. "It Is Ordered and Agreed by This Town"

One respected experienced administrator (Pendleton), 3 open-filed leaders (Noyes, Rice and Walter Haines) and a mixed group of settlers, most used to open-field custom of sharing resources.

"...not enough attention has been paid to the fact that both the Bay government and the town government were accomplishing a virtual revolution in the systems of social and economic status of each community. For the first time in their lives, the inhabitants of an English town were assuming that each adult male would be granted some land free and clear. . . Under the radical new social philosophy [Noyes] was free to grant land either according to the number of persons in  a family, or according to an assessment of the wealth and property each family had brought with them..." (p. 83)

Indication of desire for orderliness: large fine for straying hogs.

The people quickly moved to become a town. Land grants were not sustained for those who would not settle in the town (absentee landlords and speculators), taxes were to be determined and collected by the town, decisions were to be made as a town, and common lands/practices were to continue.

7. "All Liberties as Other Towns Have"

The town government's development was an amalgamation of the experiences of those elected to be in charge, with contributions from all landholders through town meetings. Topics included (as above):
8. "We Shall be Judged by Men of  Our Own Choosing"

At its base the crisis was over power: old vs. young, conservative vs. liberal. In its form it was about a building: would the meeting house be enlarged or would a new one be built. If town land was opened up to sons and others (and the young demanded such without regard to rank and age) there would be enough to tax to build a new meeting house. They packed town meeting to shift the vote. The two-mile grants. But they wanted to build it on minister Brown's land. Was it his or theirs? Meanwhile the youngers forced the vote for equal size land grants. The elders acquiesced but then decided to "size the commons" which would leave many youngers, who were without meadow land, no way to graze their animals. Also Brown: his meadow had been reduced and sizing commons would limit his cattle, but he didn't want young Ruddock to split town between young and old. He tried to take back his land. Led to split vote.  Brown called in outside help. The town accused him of being too secular.  Ministers from other towns got involved. Ruddock insisted it was a town matter only - not a church matter.  Ministers censure Ruddock. He petitions for new land grant and starts new community to the west. So it begins.

9. "Interest in this Town of Marlborough"

 Ruddock and his townsmen were granted land that was still in Indian control. After that was resolved they divided it up fairly equally. Those with larger lots had larger responsibility to the town. No one could get land if they did not also contribute to the town's welfare.

10. The Origin and Stability of a New England Town

Powell reiterates that, while specific origins are impossible to determine and a single model of NE towns is overly simplistic, exploring the social and cultural antecedents of the towns is worthwhile. He admires their intrepidity in forming new social models and sees the towns they created, at least initially, as bordering on revolutionary. Second and subsequent generations did return to more traditional forms: use of calendar, invocation of King's name, reference to Common Law, are provided as examples.

"To emigrate from accustomed social institutions and relationships to a set of unfamiliar communities in the way in which Noyes and Ruddock shifted from England to Sudbury, and the latter from Sudbury to Marlborough, meant a startling transformation. The townsmen had to change or abandon almost every formal institution which they had taken for granted." (p. 142)

"Bold leaders, the tacit and sometimes actual approval by the General Court, concern for every inhabitant, and a deep faith were sufficient for the first generation of Sudbury townsmen. One can argue that three institutions gave a structure and a harmony to the community: the open-field system of farming, the town meeting, and the town church." (p. 144)


Jackie proposes the following questions (e-mail, 24-Jan-2005)

As far as the discussion on Puritan Village - here are some ideas to get us started. As we build our body of material during the course of the semester, obviously discussion will become easier. Please also come with your own questions and comments about the book (or related material) that you would like to discuss.

1. What are the similarities and/or differences in the English communities Powell covers?

2. Try to imagine not knowing anything about these towns and think about the town/village layouts. If you only look at the maps what types of things might you determine or hypothesize about these communities?

3. We can discuss the role of local government and the church in peoples lives? How did or didn't this carry over into the New England colonies?

4. What happened to the idea, function, and shape of "the community" when its authority structure, spiritual institutions, and land and goods distribution when people had the chance to start all over again (i.e. in Sudbury MA)?

5. What was transferred intact and what was not?

hope.greenberg@uvm.edu, created/updated: 24-Jan-2005
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