When Frederick S. Allis became editor of publications of the Colonial Society following the death of Walter Muir Whitehill in 1978, there were eleven different manuscripts (in varying states of readiness) awaiting publication. Some had already been set in galleys, some were found in the back of desk drawers, and some were little more than an idea that had received Whitehill’s magisterial blessing. Fritz Allis spent a good part of his twelve years as editor working down this backlog; of the fourteen titles published by Allis, only three were projects he had been able to approve at their inception: Law in Colonial Massachusetts, 1630–1800, Seventeenth Century New England, and The Glorious Revolution in Massachusetts, 1689–1692.
By contrast, in 1990 when ill health made it necessary for Fritz Allis to retire, I inherited only two projects already underway: Shays’s Rebellion: the Bicentennial of an Agrarian Revolution and the Society’s Centennial Hand Book, eventually published in 1992. This left the Publications Committee (at that time, William M. Fowler Jr., chairman; Frederick D. Ballou, the Society’s peerless Treasurer; Malcolm Freiberg; Harley Peirce Holden; and Conrad Edick Wright) the very pleasant task of casting about for things to do. In a paper given at a recent conference at the Massachusetts Historical Society, fellow member Thomas O’Connor had called attention to the institutional records of the Boston Overseers of the Poor as a rich resource for the city’s nineteenth-century social history. What more appropriate project for the Colonial Society could there be than to make the eighteenth-century records of this group more widely available to scholars? There was a particular aptness to the project, since Stephen T. Riley, a longtime vice-president of the Colonial Society, had, while serving as director of the Massachusetts Historical Society, retrieved these records from Boston’s City Hall just shortly before they were thrown in the trash.
All that remained to be resolved was the not insignificant question of who would do the work? Who would transcribe the records from the original eighteenth-century handwriting and who could set these invaluable records in their appropriate historical context? At that point, I recalled Eric Nellis, whom I met long ago working at a nearby table at the Massachusetts Historical Society reading room when I was doing research for my dissertation on Boston merchants in the Revolutionary period. It was Nellis who explained to me William Molineux’s efforts to revive the town Linen Manufactory during the political turmoil of the nonimportation movement. No one understood eighteenth-century Boston’s efforts at public charity better. In the intervening years, Nellis had written a number of well-regarded articles on poverty and labor in colonial New England. He was a natural choice.
Once the invitation was extended, Eric accepted with alacrity, although I think it safe to say that none of us at the time understood just how extensive the project would be or how long it would take. We came close to publishing the work in 1997, even going so far as to assign it a volume number and listing it in the University of Virginia Press fall catalogue, but then we became leery of the accuracy of our transcription. Robert Dunkle, who had done much similar work for the New England Historic Genealogical Society, was brought in to help with a new transcription, and Anne Decker Cecere came on board as Assistant Editor of the Colonial Society. During her time as Assistant Editor, nearly all of Anne’s attention was devoted to this manuscript. Those who have not seen the original documents will have difficulty understanding how painstaking a process it was to collate the transcription with the originals. Different clerks working for the Overseers had different ways of recording information, as well as different ways of spelling the same names. The financial records imposed a need for special care to make sure the long lists of pounds, shillings and pence were all accurately transcribed and added up. Only someone with Anne’s diligence, care, and attention to detail could have brought the project successfully through to its conclusion.
The manuscript records of the Boston Overseers of the Poor, which the Massachusetts Historical Society obtained from the City of Boston in 1957, cover the period 1735–1925 and run to eighty-five volumes. Most of the original boards were lost along with the titles and descriptions of most of the contents. The manuscripts were subsequently microfilmed in 15 reels as part of the MHS program of document preservation. In 1988 the MHS produced a Guide to the microfilmed and catalogued manuscripts. The eighteenth-century records represent approximately ten per cent of the entire collection, or at least ten per cent of what survives. The only parts of the eighteenth-century records not transcribed are the Warning Out Lists (which would have nearly doubled the size of this volume) and the Workhouse pay lists, which are both summarized in the Introduction; the Lists of Overseers, which appears as an appendix, was independently produced for this volume. Two documents that are not part of the collection are included as significant parts of the Overseers records: the 1756 Almshouse Census (in the Boston Public Library), and Samuel Whitwell’s Accounts (in the MHS). Every effort has been made to retain the integrity of the originals and to present them in a logical order. The introduction, notes, appendices, and commentary are by Eric Nellis. Eric Nellis and Anne Decker Cecere edited the material for presentation in its final form.
John W. Tyler
Editor of Publications