25 March 2013

Freemen and Massachusetts town meetings

Massachusetts Bay Colony seal
In many Massachusetts towns, our ancestors attended town meetings just like we do today. Each town was self-governed, in that the citizens elected the officials, decided tax matters, and determined how to protect and improve the community, through the building of roads, structures, and public buildings.

In the Massachusetts Bay Colony, only freemen—landowning inhabitants of the town who were members of the Puritan church—could participate and vote in town meetings. That’s why you’ll find lists of freemen in colonial town records, much like registered voter lists. If your ancestor was listed as a freeman, you know he was a full-fledged member of the Puritan church who had a certain amount of property.

If your ancestor held a town position such as tything man (tax collector), watchman, “clarkes for ye markitt,” or fence viewer, he had to be a freeman. Some men held the positions repeatedly, which could help you determine if a name’s-the-same man is yours or what his occupation was. For instance, William Gibson the Scotsman (1638?-1702) was a cordwainer or shoemaker. He’s listed in Boston town records as a sealer of leather in 1665 and 1671. He also may have served as sealer of leather in 1678, 1685, and 1686, but since another William Gibson became a freeman in 1678, it’s unclear who is referenced without knowing the second William's occupation. At the April 1702 meeting, John Jepson received a month’s pay as a watchman. The following month, the town records say he lost the note for payment as watchman. On 13 March 1709/10, Benjamin Gibson was chosen constable of Boston, and he refused the position.

In 1684, the first Massachusetts Charter was revoked by King Charles II of England. In 1691/2, a new charter by joint rulers William and Mary came into effect, creating the new Province of Massachusetts Bay and including Plymouth Colony, the Province of Maine, Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick. (Wars and witcheries happened in the interim, causing all sorts of political and judicial anxieties.) The new charter increased the number of eligible voters by removing the religious qualification and replacing it with a property requirement instead. The rule of the freeman was over.

See also:

The Freemen of Massachusetts Bay 1630-1636

List of Freemen, Massachusetts Bay Colony from 1630 to 1691