The Poor and Needy in Early Portsmouth: “Parish Children” and Indenture

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The residents of colonial Portsmouth were well aware of scriptures that asked them to take care of the poor among them. Deuteronomy 15:11 is a good example: “You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.” How did the townspeople of Portsmouth provide for their neediest residents? The Portsmouth Historical Society has documents that shed light on how the town cared for the poor and needy.

This blog will focus on the lot of “parish children” or pauper children. They were children who were either orphans or their families had no means of caring for them. Their care was given over to the Town Council. One way provision was made was to make them indentured servants. Their servitude would end – usually when they were twenty-four years old, but they were servants none the less. The Portsmouth town fathers modeled their practices on the laws of Great Britain. The Poor Law Act of 1601 provided that the overseers of the poor and the churchwardens, with the approval of two Justices of the Peace, could apprentice any children under 14 whose parents could not take care of them. In the case of Portsmouth, Rhode Island it was the Town Council that held the responsibility for these poor boys and girls. Signing them into indenture was thought of as a way to keep the children fed, clothed and housed.

From the documents in the archives of the Portsmouth Historical Society we have three cases of “parish child” indenture to explore.

1750 – Philip Gusteen to John Cory to North Kingston for fifteen years.

1753 – Aaron who was indentured to Captain John Lawton for seventeen years. Aaron was under seven years old.

1763 – Joseph Pelig (alias Anthony) who was indentured to David and Abigail Anthony for thirteen years.

The indenture documents for these three children are very similar. Some indentures were even printed with blanks to fill in the names and dates.

  1. The children were bound to their masters and their heirs. If the master died, they would continue on with whomever inherited the master’s property.
  2. The child pledges to keep the master’s secrets, obey lawful commands, not to damage the master or his property or the property of others and not to run away or leave without permission
  3. The servants are to stay chaste and not to marry without permission.
  4. The servants are to stay away from Ale-Houses, Taverns, playhouses and unlawful games.

In return the children receive:

  1. Good and sufficient meat, drink, apparel, washing and lodging.
  2. Care in sickness and in health.
  3. Some are promised to be taught to read. Others are to learn a trade like farming.

In the end they will receive a new suit of apparel and their wearing clothes.

I have only been able to trace what might have happened to one of the children. Philip Gusteen is a name found in the Providence census after 1800 as a freeman with a household of his own. What became of Aaron or Joseph is a mystery.

The Town Council was taking care of these children in a customary way. Later laws in England would curb the practice by setting the minimum age to 14 and requiring the children to agree to the indenture. Poor Aaron was not even seven years old when his indenture was signed. We may be horrified at such arrangements, but there were no institutions like orphanages or state churches to care for these children. They were wards of the town and the town at least provided a way for them to be fed, clothed and housed.

In the archives of the Portsmouth Historical Society there are other indenture arrangements for children, but these are situations where a parent agrees to indenture their child. This was a legal process and there are even records of disputes being handled by the town. A third party would consider the situation and the master and parent would have to agree to go by the decision made.

Servitude for children who are wards of the town seems like a harsh fate. It is difficult for us to judge because even our modern methods of foster homes and state run facilities can be sad situations as well.


Philip Gusteen pdf of transcription

Joseph Peleg – image of document

Indenture of Aaron to Captain LawtonI

Wampanoag Thanksgivings

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As I approach Thanksgiving I am thinking about the Wampanoag heritage of Aquidneck Island. I have just finished reading Mayflower by Philbrick for a Portsmouth Historical Society book club, so I guess that has me thinking about the roots of our Thanksgiving feast. Often our focus is on the Pilgrims, but maybe we forget about the Native American traditions of thanksgiving.

The Pilgrims did not introduce the concept of a harvest celebration. Wampanoag culture celebrated at least five thanksgivings – some believe there was one for each full moon. I came across the celebrations when I was a librarian at Elmhurst School. There were beautiful picture books about “Strawberry Thanksgiving” and the origins of the Cranberry Thanksgiving. Strawberry Thanksgiving is a summer celebration when the first berry ripens. Green Bean and Green Corn Harvest come in mid summer. Cranberry Thanksgiving celebrates the ripening of the last wild berry. Some Wampanoag traditions list a maple syrup harvest celebration in the late winter/early spring. There was definitely a Thanksgiving celebration when the last crops were harvested and that would include singing, dancing and sharing food.

Giving thanks daily was part of Wampanoag culture and it should be part of our life, too. Giving thanks helps us to concentrate on our blessings even in days of struggle.

Remembering Our Veterans: Major General James Parker – Awarded Congressional Medal of Honor

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Major General James Parker retired to Greenvale Farm in Portsmouth after a forty-two year career in the military. His service record is extraordinary.

West Point Graduate 1876

Indian Territory campaigns 1876-7

Mexican Border disturbances in Texas 1878-79

Campaign in Colorado 1879-80

Geronimo Apache campaign in Arizona 1885-6

Spanish American War and Philippines Insurrection 1898-1901 – He was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for distinguished gallantry in the Philippines.

Cuban Army of Pacification 1906-9

Command of troops in Brownsville Texas 1916

World War I active duty in France 1917 – Armentieres and St. Quentin and Chemen des Dames.

General Parker retired in February 1918 and he and his wife Charlotte took a real interest in Greenvale Farm off of Wapping Road. The farm had been in Mrs. Parker’s family and had been neglected. The Parkers resolved to make Greenvale their home and restore the property as a working farm. They began to work on the stick style Barstow house to make it livable and bright for the family. They hired a farmer and re-established a working farm with fields, chickens, pigs, geese, turkeys and a dairy herd.

James Parker’s two sons were also military men – James and Cortlandt Parker. Cortlandt also retired to Greenvale Farm. Greenvale is still in the hands of his family. The land is being preserved as a successful vineyard today under the guidance of Nancy Parker Wilson.

In 1934 when Major General James Parker died, he was buried with full military honors at St. Mary’s Churchyard.

Remembering our Veterans: Lt. Raymond Ayler Serves in a Black Unit during WWI

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“Negroes Selected for Service Entertained by Club” read a Newport Mercury headline on November 2, 1917. The article calls them “selected for service” but we might use the term “drafted.” As the United States entered World War I, the standing army didn’t have enough soldiers to mount the effort. The Selective Service Act was passed by Congress in May of 1917 to supply the necessary troops. While some Southern politicians were opposed to drafting African Americans, the War Department decided to draft them anyway into segregated units. Among those “selected for service” was Raymond Hazard Ayler of Portsmouth. He was one of the eighteen men celebrated by the Aquidneck Island black community. The men were told that the community would support them by taking care of those they would be leaving at home. According to the Newport Mercury article – “The purpose of the banquet was to show the esteem which the colored men of this city have for their boys, to encourage them and wish them godspeed and assure them that the entire city was behind them.”

Aquidneck Black Men Honored as They Prepared to Serve

Raymond Ayler’s draft registration card gives us some background on the soldier. He is listed as 24 years old, single and a farmer at Freeborn Street in Portsmouth. Raymond grew up on the farm of his father, Edward Ayler. His father and grandfather came to Portsmouth after the Civil War. Before 1870 Quaker Joseph Macomber brought 16 former slaves to Aquidneck Island. The 1870 census shows the Ayler family living on Macomber’s farm at the bottom of Quaker Hill. Gradually the Ayler family was able to purchase their own farmland and became prominent farmers winning awards for their produce.

Raymond’s Draft Card

The Ayler family was very active in the Friends Meeting House community, so Raymond’s military service was surprising. Raymond’s older brother Osceola was granted an exemption as a conscientious objector because of his Quaker faith. The draft registration cards of both Raymond and his brother have the corner’s cut. This was a way to quickly signify black registrants and make sure they were assigned to segregated units. In August of 1917 armed black soldiers fired on Houston police and civilians ( the Houston Riot) and the War Department assigned most black soldiers to labor jobs such as road building or freight handling. Only two black combat units were established – the 92nd Artillery Division and the 93rd Infantry Division.

Raymond Ayler was assigned to the 92nd division of the National Army. He went to Fort Dix in New Jersey for boot camp and then to Fort Upton in Long Island for further training. He became part of the 349th Field Artillery Regiment. The regiment was trained on 75 mm guns and it had a machine gun battalion. The division was transported to Brest, France in July of 1918 to be part of the American Expeditionary Force. Raymond and his unit were moved to St. Nazaire for further training and were affiliated with a French division. They worked with British and French armies in the Meuse Argonne offensive of the American First Army and the allies were able to stop a German offensive. By May of 1919 Lt. Raymond Ayler was discharged and returned home to his father’s farm in Portsmouth.

Lt. Raymond Ayler

As late as 1927 he was active in the Portsmouth Post of the American Legion and he served on the executive committee alongside William H. Vanderbilt. By 1930 Raymond is listed as living in Westchester County, New York. Both Raymond and his brother Osceola lived out their lives as self-employed carpenters in New York State.

Remembering Our Veterans: Mary E. Lopes Clark – World War I

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Mary Lopes was a Portsmouth girl who volunteered for service during World War I. Many Portsmouth women helped with the war effort. As I researched the local suffragists I learned that many women aided the cause with clerical duties or providing hospitality for troops. Mary went further, she enlisted in the military service.

The Naval Reserve Act of 1916 permitted qualified “persons” for service and the Secretary of the Navy began enlisting women as “Yeoman (F). Over 11,000 women answered the call. They served in a variety of jobs: clerical, bookkeeping, inventory control, telephone operators, radio operators, pharmacists, photographers, torpedo assemblers and other positions. The women did not go to boot camp, but they were in uniform. They had some of the same responsibilities and benefits as the men. Like the men they earned about $28 a month. They were treated as veterans after the war.

What do we know about Mary? Her parents were Manuel Lopes and Georgina Lopes. Their farm seemed to be on Middle Road close to School House Lane but there are listings for East Main Road also. In 1918 newspaper clippings show she won the dance contest at the Newport County Fair. The town directory of 1919 lists her as a “Yeowoman” in the United States Navy and living at home.

After the war the women were quickly released from service, but Mary stayed very active in the Portsmouth Post 18 of the American Legion. She was later Post Commander of the Rhode Island Women’s American Legion Post. Mary even returned to service as a nurses’ aide with the American Red Cross during World War II.

Mary married Alfred Clark and went on to live in East Providence until her death. When she died in 1946 she received full military honors.

Remembering our Veterans: Thomas Julian – Beirut Bombing

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On the front grounds of the Portsmouth Historical Society is a stone that commemorates Rhode Island Marines who were killed in the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon on October 23, 1983. Since 1984 there has been a ceremony on October 23rd to honor these soldiers who were killed in a terrorist attack. Among those we honor is Lance Corporal Thomas Julian of Portsmouth, Rhode Island. Thomas Julian was very familiar with the Portsmouth Historical Society grounds. As a teenager he cut the lawn there.

Thomas Julian was an active teenager in Portsmouth. Newspaper accounts for the time list his awards earned while he was a Boy Scout with Troop 82 at St. Mary’s Church. In 1974 he earned the God and Country Award at that church. He was a 1979 graduate of Portsmouth High School.

In 1982 Thomas went through boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina. As a private he was an Intelligence Specialist and was trained at the Expeditionary Warfare Training Group Atlantic Fleet, Little Creek Virginia. He became a Private First Class when he was stationed at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.

By 1983 he was stationed in Beirut, Lebanon as part of the Multinational Force in Lebanon and served as a peacekeeper during the Lebanese Civil War. A terrorist organization used truck bombs to target American and French troops at their barracks. It is estimated that the bombs were equivalent to 21,000 pounds of TNT. The death toll was staggering. Americans lost over two hundred and forty troops. The French lost soldiers as well.

As you pass by the Portsmouth Historical Society, remember Thomas and the others whose promising lives were cut so short. Thomas was just twenty-one years old when he died.

The Stories Behind the Objects: The Horse-drawn Hearse

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As we approach Halloween it might be fitting to tell you the story behind our horse-drawn hearse. Visitors to the Old Town Hall exhibits at the Portsmouth Historical Society either love the hearse or back away from it with dread.

At first glance people remark that the hearse looks short and therefore people must have been shorter a hundred and fifty years ago. If you look closer you can see that the coffin would fit under the coachman’s seat. There are spikes that can be raised to hold the coffin in place and rollers to make it easier to slide. Our hearse looks grey, but we have determined that it was originally black – the traditional color. On top of the carriage there are six “urns” with carved wood flames that can be removed so that black feathers could be inserted instead. The more important the deceased the more feathers would be on display.

How did we come to have a hearse? At first we thought it had belonged to the Christian Union Church that now is the Portsmouth Historical Society headquarters. Indeed, church records say they bought one in 1871. Later church records show that hearse was disposed of in 1903. So whose hearse did we have? Newspaper clippings from the 1940s about the donation of the hearse led to the discovery that it had belonged to Asa Anthony, the Portsmouth Town Coroner in the 1880s. He used it to transport the deceased to his home until a funeral was arranged. Ironically, his home is today the Connor’s Funeral Home. When the Society received the hearse there was no place to store it, so it was housed at the Breaker’s Stables. A fire there in 1970 forced it to be moved to and stored by the Little Compton Historical Society. When Old Town Hall became available as an exhibit space, we moved it here in 2009.

The hearse has let us to explore Victorian mourning customs and aspects of Portsmouth history. We are still looking for photos of the hearse in 1943 when it won prizes in a parade. No doubt it will lead us to more stories.

This is the first of a series of blog entries on items in our Old Town Hall collection. We were not able to open the Old Town Hall exhibits this summer, so these blogs can serve as a virtual tour as well. If you learn more about the stories behind the items you might appreciate them and what they can teach you about Portsmouth history.

Why Local History is Important

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Sometimes I wonder why I spend so much time researching local history. I enjoy doing the research, but does it really matter? Does our local historical society have a role to play in Portsmouth culture? I am going to share some of my personal struggles with these questions.

Does local history matter? When I was a college history major there was a new wave of interest. Historians had been placing a great deal of emphasis on political and economic history. Wars, explorations, nation building, etc. had been the dominating topics for historians. In the 1960s there began to be more interest in social history, how people actually lived. This is what interested me. What was daily life like in families, in the workplace, in the schools, in local organizations? These are the topics that a local historian and local history museum can share with our town.

Does our local historical society have a role to play in Portsmouth culture? Some people may see the collection of the historical society as “grandma’s attic.” I see it as a touch stone to the past. As a historian I value “primary sources” – the photos, documents, diaries, maps and objects that were created at a past time. A local history collection is meant to visually illustrate the past. What did people wear? What tools did they use? How did they cook? The objects lead us to a story and those stories from the past help us to understand our common heritage as people of Portsmouth. Our horse drawn hearse, for example, led us to stories about the town coroner and his role in town. As we tried to understand its ornamentation, it lead us to research how people mourned in the past. As people we have so much in common with those our ancestors. We struggle with the same core human issues. These stories can actually unite us in a time when there is much that divides us.

So why am I struggling with these questions? I always wonder about how I spend my time so that will be a continuing question for me. I struggle with the questions about the historical museum because I hear too many voices who don’t value what a small town history collection can provide for a town. Perhaps I am too old fashioned – just like the history collection that inspires me as a local historian.

Cordelia Holman Lawrence’s Sketchbook: Portsmouth Art 1865


Items in the Portsmouth Historical Society collection lead us to uncover stories about our past. A few years ago Portsmouth Historical Society curator, Nancy Crawford, discovered a sketchbook while we were doing an inventory. The members of the curator’s committee enjoyed the brightly colored sketches and I was asked to scan the images so we might use them in the future. I am researching the arts in Portsmouth for a display next year and I thought of those sketches. Who was the artist? What is her story?

The first page of the sketch book provided the answer of the artist’s identity. In a beautiful handwriting is the name Cordelia Holman Lawrence. It was clear that the Lawrence was written at a different time with a different writing implement. The date was recorded as 1865 with Portsmouth, Rhode Island as the location.

Who was Cordelia? She was the daughter of Thomas Holman and Mary Durfee Sherman. I already knew Thomas’ story. He came to Portsmouth from Cornwall and worked his way to the position of Superintendent of the Coal Mines in Portsmouth. In 1843 he married Mary Sherman who came from old established Portsmouth families. Cordelia, the youngest of their four children, was born in 1852. Her mother died when she was only four. ┬áCordelia was only 13 when she did her sketchbook drawings.

Thomas Holman wanted to move away from mining and into farming. He first bought farms close to the mines, but by 1860 he resided on his farm which is now known as the “Seameadow”area today. I uncovered Thomas’ story as I researched a murder that took place in the coal mines housing. In June of 1875 Elizabeth Holman Casey was murdered by her husband and Thomas was a witness at the murder trial. As I researched the story I was surprised to find that Thomas Holman was the uncle of Elizabeth Casey. Cordelia would have been the victim’s cousin!

Cordelia married Albert T. Lawrence in 1870. Albert grew up in Portsmouth, but left home to be a sailor on ships to China and the East Indies. In 1869 he gave up his seafaring life and returned home to farm with his father. He was known as a successful farmer who specialized in market gardening and fruit raising.

Cordelia settled into the life as wife and mother. She would have lived on the farm known even today as “Lawrence Farm.” She was active in the Friends Meeting House with the Ladies Mission Society. In the records of the Society of Friends in 1912 you can read this obituary.

“Cordelia Lawrence, a beloved member and elder of Rhode Island Monthly Meeting, died of heart failure at Portsmouth, R.I., December 20, 1912, aged sixty years. She leaves a husband, son and daughter and a host of friends to mourn her loss. Converted in early life, her later years were an exemplification of the “life hid with Christ in God” with a “heart of leisure from itself to sooth and sympathize.”

Cordelia is an excellent example of Portsmouth’s amateur artists who enjoy painting as a hobby. Her work is colorful and lovely.


Portsmouth Artist Bessie T. Cram (1875-1966)

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Bessie Thompson Cram was a Portsmouth summer resident and painter for almost 70 years. Bessie was born in Middleboro, Massachusetts, but her ties to Portsmouth were deep. She was the cousin of Gertrude Macomber Hammond and spent the last 12 years of her life in the home of her cousin on Quaker Hill. Around 1900 she established a studio at a cottage on the Sakonnet shore down from the Macomber home. She called it “Sakonnet Studio – Summer School of Arts and Crafts.”

Bessie’s obituary in the Newport Daily News (July 30,1966) calls her a “Craftsman.” Her artistry went beyond painting and she was adept at many mediums. She was a graduate of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and Craft. In the 1920s she became a master craftsman of the Boston Society of Arts and Crafts and Dean of its Leather Workers Guild. Bessie was a teacher who shared her skills with Portsmouth students. She taught jewelry design with precious metals and stones, leather tooling and molding and patching of pewter and other metals.

She was a “craftsman” but she never neglected her painting. Her style of work evolved over the years. Between 1912 and 1924 her work became more abstract and more colorful in design. From 1940 to 1959 her painting became even more abstract. Her last project was an impressionistic series with the Sakonnet River as a subject.

Steven Olszewski named his own “Sakonnet Studio” after Bessie and held an exhibit of her work in 1974. He used the weathered walls of Bessie’s cabin when he built his studio on East Main Road. The Sakonnet Times of June 20, 1974 describes this exhibit and was a great source of information on Bessie. A special thank you goes to the Portsmouth Free Public Library for providing that newspaper clipping to me.

I am grateful to Joan Macomber for sending images of her painting. Phone conversations with Joan and Bill Macomber introduced me to Bessie and her work. Bessie’s work deserves to be recognized.

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