Town Government

History of Suffolk County


At the early town meetings punctual attendance of all the members of the colony was desired. When the work of the town meeting was impeded by the tardiness or non-attendance of some it was deemed necessary to establish some punishment to remedy or prevent difficulty on this score. Accordingly on the first of December 1659 the town meeting ordered a forfeit of two shillings six pence for such delinquency where a sufficient excuse could not be given. The same desire to stimulate promptness in attendance seems to have taken hold upon the trustees, for they about 1695 ordered a fine of a pint of rum to be paid by any one of their members who did not appear at the time and place appointed for an official meeting. In the compilation of the town records that have been printed the compiler remarks in a footnote that the records do not show that the fine had ever been collected. To this may be suggested the probability that such fine may have been many times collected but disposed of in some other way than being " spread upon the minutes." An amendment seems to have been made to this in 1702, when the fine for delinquency was fixed at three shillings for being even an hour late. This was reduced in 1702 to two shillings, and in 1704 one " bitt " for being an hour late, or two " bitis " for not attending at all. In 1710 the fine for not attending was raised to three shillings. The regulation no doubt soon became a dead letter.

The character of men was closely watched by the setters. Moral irregularities were often severely dealt with. At a court held December 8th 1663 William Poole was fined ten shillings for cursing, and William Fancy and Henry Rogers were each found guilty of lying and fined ten shillings. Actions for defamation were frequent in the courts, and the plaintiff generally laid his claim for heavy damages; but a small part ever being allowed, however. These defamation cases were not confined to the male members of the community, but we have startling reminders that the bane of a slanderous tongue frequently fastened itself upon the fair sex as well.

Corporal punishment in some form-though not to the rigid extent that it was practiced in some towns-was in vogue here. May 11th 1696 Jonathan Owen was em-ployed to make a pair of stocks for the town, in connection with certain work of repairing the meeting-house. May 2nd 1716 the town meeting voted a pair of stocks for the use of justice Brewster at Fireplace.

Wolves were more or less common when the European settlers commenced their work here. The town meeting March 10th 1667 voted a premium of sixpence a head for every wolf killed ; the head to be brought to the constable, who was to pay the premium. As late as 1806 the town meeting voted a bounty of fifty cents a head for every fox caught within the town limits. Again in 1833 the town voted to raise a bounty for the destruction of foxes.

Among the most curious of the early town regulations we quote the following:

" Orders and constatutions maed by the Athoaty of this towne 8th July 1674, to be duly cept and obsarved.
"1. Whereas there have beane much abuese a prophaneing of the lord's day by the younger sort of people in discourssing of vaine things and Runing of Raesses. Therefore we make an order that whoesoever shall doe the lieke againe notis shall be taken of them, and be pre-sented to the nex court, there to answer for ther falts and to Reseve such punishment as thay desarve.

"2. Whereas It have bene two coman in this towne for young men ard maieds to be out of ther father's and mother's house at unsesonable tiems of niete, It is there fore ordered that whoesoever of the younger sort shall be out of there father's or mother's house past nien of the clock at niet shall be sunionsed in to the next court, and ther to pay cort charges with what punishment the cort shall se cause to lay upon thern, ecksept thay can give suffissient Reson of there being out late.

" 3. Whereas god have bene much dishonered, much pressious tyme misspent and men Impovershed by drink-ing and tipling, ether in ordnery or other privet houses, therefor, we maek this order that whoe soe ever shall thus transgres or sett drinking above two houres shall Pay 5s. and the man of the house for letting of them have it after the tyme perfixed shall pay ios., exsept strangers onely.

"4. that whosoever shall run any Rases or Run other-wise a hors back in the streets or within the towne platt shall forfet 10s. to thee use of the towne.
"These above sayed orders is sett tip and mad knowne the day and daete above written."

That the town fathers were considerably disposed to make use of strong drinks, and from that down to the use of cider, may be seen 'from the above regulation. which seemed necessary at that early period, as well as by the item that An " ordnary " was licensed July 12th 1670 to sell strong drinks at retail. The instructions of the town to its committee August 22nd 1671 to take " likers " with them when they went to purchase the south meadows of the Indians show to some extent the

value they placed upon strong drinks. Then we have reason to believe that the settlers were strongly attached to cider, and began making preparations for its produc-tion very soon after their arrival. In 1667-only ten or twelve years after their cooling-the regular fee for the services of arbitrators in settling disputes between neighbors was a "gallant of sider."

In line with the matter just referred to the following extract from the records is more worthy of preservation as a curiosity than for any practical value.
"Memorandum upon the 4th day of January 1699.
" it was agreed by the majority of all those that weare present at the Raising of the frame of the towne's well that on Condition that Moses Owen would treate all those that weare present at the saide raising aforesaide, then he the saide Moses Owen shall have privilidge of drawing water att the aforesaide well, provided that hee the said Moses doe beare an Equall proportion of the charge of providing and mainetaining buckitts & well ropes for the drawing of water thereat, which bee the aforesaide Moses accordingly performed."

" Entered per Timothy Brewster, Clerk."
Now that the subject of wells is suggested it may be remarked that the construction of a well was in those days an undertaking of considerable magnitude, and the town occasionally interested itself in the matter, as in the case above. May 4th 1701 the trustees allowed David Edwards liberty to dig a well in the highway against his house, and to have the use of it himself for seven years, but he was required to give security for any damage that might be done by cattle falling into it. January 14th 1722 the trustees ordered the payment of fifteen pounds to Nathaniel Brewster for " Repairing the Well and the Towne house." The fact that the well is the first mentioned admits the inference that it was the principal item in the combination. The fact that a frame and ropes and buckets (plural) are spoken of may suggest that the method of drawing water from these primitive wells was by the pulley. If so the old " crotch and pole " system may have been a later invention, though that is supposed to be an ancient one. It may still have been in use at the same time.

It has already been hinted that the trades of shoemaker, weaver and blacksmith were especially encouraged by the primitive townspeople. This was more emphatically true with regard to the blacksmith. That tradesman was probably a much more important factor in the town at that time than either of the others. The settlers had to depend upon him for a large part of their farming implements, their nails for building, and a hundred other articles of every day use or convenience which in these days are furnished by the foundries and machine shops, then unknown, and by processes of manufacture then undiscovered. Accordingly, December 10th 1686, the people in town meeting voted " that Christofer Swaine be admitted and incouraged as a smith for this town, and that a shop shall be built for ye sd Christofer about May next, he paying the workmen by work at his trade." In January 1699 the town gave an old shop-perhaps this one-to David Edwards, to be his as long as he should do the town's work.

Dogs began to be a nuisance at an early period. December 18th 1728 the trustees recite that no care is taken to prevent dogs running about without their masters, and that great damage has been done by them to flocks of sheep; therefore the trustees enact that any person shall be at liberty to kill any dog found more than a quarter of a mile away from home without being with his master, and in case of suit this act to be shown in defense.

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