Financial Troubles



 Financial Troubles — Old Tenor and Lawful Money —
Slavery in Bedford — Bill of Sale of a Negro Boy in 1756.


Bedford was incorporated at the time when the currency of the Province was in a very uncertain condition. The General Court had been issuing paper money without an adequate provision to retain its nominal value; hence specie was growing scarce and the “Bills of Credit” were continually depreciating; but as these bills were almost the only medium of exchange, the people clamored for more and the majority of the Legislature seemed ready to gratify them despite the opposition of the Royal Governor, which, in 1740, occasioned a severe quarrel. Each new issue of “Bills of Credit” caused a decline in the value of the currency. In 1730 they had sunk more than

half below their nominal value and the depreciation continued until 1750. The fluctuation in the value of this currency was a source of general embarrassment, and contracts involving annual salaries were fulfilled with difficulty by the most scrupulous.

In agreeing with Rev. Nicholas Bowes, the first minister, the town voted

“that our money shall be in proportion as it is now in valiacon, rising, fallin.” [*1]

The value at that time was eighteen shillings per ounce. The decline was so great that in 1749, the last year of the “Old Tenor” bills, the town voted to give Rev. Mr. Bowes £240 in place of £100, but he returned £20 for the use of the schools. In 1750 voted to give him

“£50 13s. 4d. Lawful money.”

The expectation of having the “Bills” exchanged for specie led many to hoard them, and it became difficult for the collector of taxes to get the dues of the Province, and the time for settling demands was necessarily extended. The following rhyme gives an idea of the change that was anticipated:

“And now Old Tenor, fare you well.
No more such tattered rags we’ll tell.
New dollars pass and are made free,
It is a year of jubilee.
Let us therefore good husbands be,
And good old times we soon shall see.” [*2][*3]

The town paid for their minister’s wood in 1749 35s. per cord “Old Tenor,” and in the following year the price paid per cord was 4s. “Lawful money.”

In 1749 the people worked out their highway “Rates,” and were allowed during three summer months 14s. each man per day, and in the other months 8s. per day; a yoke of oxen with cart 8s. per day, “Old Tenor.” In 1750 the allowance in “Lawful money ” for a man was 2s. per day until the last of September, and in the rest of the year 1s. per day. For oxen and cart the allowance was 1s. 4d. per day. The scarcity of money was felt by the people possessed of property as well as others, and trade was carried on largely by barter. In the list of tax-payers reported in arrears in March, 1753, the names of leading citizens are found. By a law of the General Court the bills of credit were redeemed at a rate that was about one-fifth less than their lowest current value— that is at fifty shillings for an ounce of silver, which was valued at 6s. 8d., or an English crown.

Here originated the “Old Tenor” reckoning. March 31, 1750, marked the era of “Lawful money,” after which date all debts were contracted on the specie basis of 6s. 8d. per ounce of silver and three ounces of silver were equal to £1.

With the currency restored to a metallic basis and to a uniform value the people were free from all such trouble for more than twenty years. The fluctuating state of the currency, dwelt upon at length in the military section, made it difficult to adjust the ministerial rates in the years of the Revolution as it was in the pastorate of Rev. Mr. Bowes. [*4] In May, 1778, the town added to Rev. Mr. Penniman’s salary, for the

[ tipped-in page ]

[ portrait photo ]
Cyrus Page.

[ p 31 ]

year ensuing, £66 13s. 4d. and reimbursed him for bad money paid to him by the collector, principal and interest amounting to £9 10s. In 1780,

“on account of the decline in currency, the town gave him fifty bushels of Rye and fifty bushels of Indian Corn, to be delivered in January, 1781.”

In 1791 the selectmen were authorized to sell the Continental money at their discretion and the treasury was relieved of its burdensome paper for a nominal sum. £1032 9s. 6d. “old tenor” sold for £2 3d. 2f. [*5] A similar difficulty was encountered in the pastorate of Rev. Samuel Stearns. The town gave him a choice at first of $333.33 1/3 as an annual salary or the same amount in beef, pork, rye and Indian corn, but past experience led some of the people to object to an indefinite salary and Mr. Stearns accepted of the definite sum; his letter of acceptance was accompanied with the following:

“Resting assured that the town will not willingly see me suffer by reason of the depreciation of the currency hereafter.”

Through the depreciation that soon followed, Mr. Stearns was obliged to sell land and went in debt for about five hundred dollars before he appealed to the town.

November 16, 1801, the town voted to lend him one thousand dollars, without interest, so long as he should supply the desk. In 1808 the town voted

“to add the sum of three hundred dollars to his salary in semi-annual payments of fifty dollars each.”

They also added two cords of wood to his annual portion. This was both just and generous, and occasioned by the change in cost of supplies and the increase of the pastor’s family. A fragmentary journal kept by Rev. Samuel Stearns in the first year of his ministry in Bedford shows one hundred and twenty-eight donations of family supplies during eight months. [*6] This shows how the minister was able to bring up and educate his large family.

Slavery existed in Bedford, as elsewhere, though not attended with the evils that accompanied the inhuman system in many parts of the country. The atmosphere of New England, especially of Massachusetts, was not favorable to its growth. Long before the spirit of liberty manifested itself in resistance to the mother country, and long before the adoption of the Constitution of 1780, individuals of Bedford had freed their slaves, who in the main were held as family servants, but were regarded as property, and in some families bought and sold like cattle. The extreme caution taken by towns in general, and this in particular, to prevent the settlement of paupers, obliged a person who desired to free his slaves, to give bonds that the freed persons should not become public charges. This requirement, no doubt, deterred some from giving freedom to their slaves, who were fully conscious of the injustice.

“To Mr. Harrison gray, treasurer for the province of the Massachusetts bay, sir, be pleased to give Mr. Moses Abbott, the bearer hereof, all the wages that is due to me for my negroman, torrey more, being in the county service in the year 1757, under capte peaser till he got to the cascel, and then went to Crown point under Capt. elinglesh, or give me an order to Mr. Moses abbott, consteble of bedford, and this receipt shall be your discharge, and you will oblige your humble servant,

John Lane.”

It is evident that slaves had been kept in the Lane family, as well as in others, from their earliest settlement in this territory, and that Torrey was a family name for the colored race in their possession, as appears from the following copy of the original:

“This may certify to all persons that I, Mary Lynden, of Boston, do sell all my right in a boy called Torrey, to John Lane, given to me according to a county court record 1676.

Mary Lynden.”

The following is copied from the original bill now filed in the town:

“Nathaniel Tay sold his negro to Mr. John Page for twenty pound in money and six pound in bill.

Nathaniel Tay, 1691.”

In 1764, Captain James Lane gave a bond freeing his slave. The records furnish other instances of slaves being set free by the voluntary action of the citizens of this town. Although treated as property, the colored people were permitted to enjoy many privileges with their masters. They had seats assigned them in the meeting-house. The rite of baptism was administered, and they were admitted to full membership in the church, upon “owning the covenant.” [*7] The church records furnish proof like the following:

“Baptized, Ishmael, a negro (adult), July ye 4th, 1736.”  “Baptized, Quimbo, a negro man who confessed, etc., July ye 30, 1751.”  “Baptized, Torrey, a negro man, January ye 12, 1751–52”  “Baptized, Abraham, son of Jack, negro, Nov. ye 11, 1753.”  “Admitted into full communion, Hannah Drury, wife of Zebedee Drury and Lois Burdo (a negro), Sept. ye 5th, 1742.”

The register of deaths kept by Rev. Mr. Bowes has entries as follows, which suggest ownership:

“Nov. ye 2, 1737, Cuff, a negro child belonging to Mr. Zacheus Whitney.”  “Aug. 3, 1749. Domire, a negro boy, who belonged to Mr. John Lane.”

There is evidence that slaves were retained by some families until 1780, when the Constitution adopted by the State declared in Article I,

“All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential and inalienable rights,” etc.

When the articles of the Constitution were acted upon by the town, there were three opposing votes to Article I, and the military records show that three slaves were serving in the army, while by the treasurer’s returns of those years it is seen that Captain Moore collected bounty and pay for services of Cambridge (a negro man). Other similar records are found.

There is no evidence that any of the slaves of this town were permitted to accompany their masters to Concord on April 19, 1775, or that they were then enrolled as liable to do military duty; but when it be-

[ p 32 ]

came apparent that war had really begun, and calls for men followed each other in rapid succession, the slaves were pressed into the service. Cambridge Moore, Caesar Prescott and Caesar Jones were early recorded as doing military duty, to the credit of their masters. When one campaign or tour was over, they were put into another, and so continued in the service until 1780. In December of that year they entered the army as free men, and received bounty and pay like their white neighbors. May 11, 1782, Caesar Jones signed, by “his X mark,” a receipt for

“sixty pound, E. money, [??] as a bounty, to serve in the Continental Army for the term of three years.”

“A free negro,” is the note appended. The following document is treasured in the town:

”Know all men by these Presents— That I, Joseph Fitch, of Bedford, in the County of Middlesex, in the Province of the massachusetts bay in New England, Gentleman, for and in consideration of the Sum of Twenty-Four Pounds, Lawful money of New England, to me in hand Paid at and before the Sealing & Delivery of these Presents, by Joseph Hartwell, of Bedford abovesaid, Yeoman, the Receipt whereof I Do hereby acknowledge, Have bargained & Sold & by these Presents Do Bargain & Sell unto the Said Joseph Hartwell, a Negro boy about Five years old, Called Jefferree, now living at the said Joseph Hartwells, to have & to hold the Said Negro boy by these presents Bargained the Sold unto the said Joseph Hartwell, his Executors & Administrators & assigns for Ever. & I, the said Joseph Fitch, for my Self, my Executors and Administrator’s do warrant the above S^d Negro boy unto the Said Joseph Hartwell, his Executors, Administrators & Assigns, against me, and said Joseph Fitch my Executors, Administrators & Assigns, & against all & every other Person and Persons What so ever, Shall and Will warrant & Defend by these Presents of which Negro boy, I, the said Joseph Fitch, have put the S^d Joseph Hartwell in full Possession by Delivering S^d Negro at the Sealing hereof unto the S^d Joseph Hartwell. In Witness Whereof I have hereunto Set my Hand & Seal this Sixth Day of July, Anno Domini, One thousand Seven Hundred & Fifty Six, & in the twenty-Ninth year of his majisties Reign, &c.

Signed, Sealed and Delivered in Presence of

Humphrey Pierce,
Sarah X Pierce,

Joseph Fitch.”

It is doubtful if slaves set at liberty in advanced age, entirely inexperienced in caring for themselves, were benefited thereby. The records show that several of them became dependent upon public charity. They were treated with as much consideration by those in charge of the poor as were their white companions in misfortune. In 1820

“The Selectmen sold at vendue the wearing apparel of Dinah, a woman of color, deceased, amounting to $7.84; [*8] also bought a Baise gown for the use of Violet, a colored pauper, for $1.60, leaving a balance of $6.24.”

Violet was the last freed slave who died in this town. She was supposed to have lived a full century, and died in 1842. John Moore, a prominent citizen of the town, had slaves of both sexes, and Violet is thought to have been the one for whom he made provision in his will in the year 1807, thus:

“to daughters Mary Fitch and Lydia Bowers, the net of my personal estate, on condition that they support my negro girl in sickness and health, through life, and give her a decent burial.”

Violet’s unusually long life may account for the violation of the provision made by her master.

The only memorial-stone bearing evidence that this race lived, served and died in Bedford was erected in Shawshine Cemetery by Josiah A. Stearns, A.M., in memory of Peter, an honored family servant, who was buried in the “African reservation” in the old burial ground. [*9]



  1. “valiacon”: valuation
  2. “husbands”: (money) managers
  3. cf. Felt’s Historical account of Massachusetts currency (1839) p 128
  4. cf. (in this volume) pp 26-28
  5. “f.”: farthings
  6. cf. Brown’s “The journal of the minister of Bedford” (December 1898)
    in The New England Magazine: Vol 19 (pp 434-442)
  7. “owning”: consenting to
  8. “vendue”: public auction
  9. “the old burial ground”: the Old Burying Ground: 7 Springs Road
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