American History Stories—Volume I - Mara L. Pratt

[Illustration] from American History Stories - I by Mara L. Pratt

Customs in the Colonies

During all these years a gradual change from the early days of struggle and poverty had been taking place in the older colonies, especially in Virginia.

Hearing of the many advantages in the new world, a number of industrious and even wealthy families had come from England to settle in Virginia. They had obtained from the proprietors great tracts of land, had built for themselves elegant mansions, and were cultivating great fields of cotton and tobacco.

These people were not Puritans nor Catholics, they had not been persecuted at all, and were content with the English Church, but had come to America to found new homes, and to trade and grow up with the country.

Now, in these early days it was very difficult to get laborers to work in the fields; so it had become the custom to ship over criminals and poor people from England, and make them work a number of years before they obtained their freedom. After a time negroes began to be sent from Africa, and thus it became quite common in the South for one to own a number of slaves, and even in the Northern colonies slaves were to be occasionally seen; but here in Virginia where it paid to keep a great many laborers to cultivate the corn fields, the planters owned a great many slaves. These slaves did the work of the fields and received no pay except their food and clothes.

Very likely the masters were kind enough to them, and very likely they worked no harder than men and women do everywhere. But there is this great difference between slaves and other people who work: The man or woman who goes out to work as we see them doing to-day, goes at a certain hour, works until a certain hour, and receives pay for it. That man or woman has perfect liberty to do whatever he or she wishes with the pay received, perfect liberty to go to another place to work, perfect liberty to do anything and everything proper without asking permission of the employer. But how is it with a slave? His employer owns him just as he owns his horses or oxen.

The slave takes the master's horses in the morning and goes out to work with them wherever the master bids. No matter how much or how little the slave and the horses have earned for the master,—the master takes it all. He would no more think of giving the slave a part of it than he would of giving a part to his horse. The horse receives his bed and supper for his day's work, and the slave receives the same. So you see a slave has no hope (no matter how hard or how well he may work) of receiving anything for it which he can call his own.

Is it any wonder then, as the years roll on and on, bringing him no reward for his labor, that he grows to be stupid and heavy, without ambition or hope, and becomes, as the slaveholders used to say of him, as dumb as the cattle he works with?

But we must remember people did not think of slavery in those days as we do now. Everybody who could afford it owned slaves, just as to-day everybody who can afford servants has servants; and they thought it no wrong so long as they were kind to them and gave them good food and lodging.

In the early days of the Colonies, the need of money was very much felt. There were various ways tried. In Virginia, which was a great tobacco growing country, the colonists used tobacco for money. This, of course, was just as good; for, if a farmer wanted to buy an article worth fifty cents, he gave fifty cents worth of tobacco for it. The dealer who received the tobacco, packed it away with other tobacco until he had a large amount of it. Then he would send it to England and receive for it goods for his store, which he would sell again for tobacco.

At one time in the early history of this colony, when there were very few white women in America, there were sent over from England about a hundred young women, who were sold to the colonists for a hundred pounds of tobacco each. Each colonist then went to the minister with the woman he had bought with his tobacco, had the marriage ceremony performed, and then led her to his home. This would seem a very strange thing now-a-days; but we must remember there was then no other way for these colonists to obtain wives, unless they were sent to them from the old country—and it was no more than right that the future husband should pay the expense.

There were also some very strange laws as well as customs in those early colonial days.

If a woman was a scold she was ducked in running water three times; if she slandered any one, her husband was obliged to pay five hundred pounds of tobacco to the governor of the colony; a husband had a perfect right in those days to whip his wife whenever he seemed to think she needed it.

They had some good temperance laws. No man was allowed to keep a "tavern" who did not possess an excellent character. The names of all drunkards were posted up in the taverns, and no one was allowed to sell liquor to them. In Connecticut no one under twenty years of age was allowed to use tobacco, and no one, no matter what his age, was allowed to use it more than once a day.

One must dress, too, according to law. No one owning land not valued at two hundred dollars or more could wear gold or silver lace; and only the "gentility" were allowed to use Mr. or Mrs. before their names.

There were very severe laws against those who would not attend church. If a man was absent one Sunday, he would not be given his allowance of provisions for a week; if he was absent a second time, he was whipped; a third time, he was likely even to be hanged.

In Virginia, especially, both men and women were sometimes whipped in sight of the whole colony. For some offenses they were made to stand in the church with white sheets over their heads during the service; or they would be made to stand on the church steps, with the name of their crime pinned upon their breasts.

In New England they had an odd way of taking offenders out into a public place and putting them in the stocks or in the pillory, where they were kept until sundown, the subject of the laughter and jokes of every passer by.

[Illustration] from American History Stories - I by Mara L. Pratt


Such punishments would seem unchristian now, but they were very common in those days.

The New England people were also very strict regarding the Sabbath. As soon as the sun went down on Saturday evening their Sabbath began. From that time until sunset on Sunday night no manner of work was allowed to be done; no visiting, no playing, no gayety of any kind was permitted; one man, it is said, was brought to trial and fined for kissing his wife on a Sabbath morning.

Public worship took place in what was called the meeting house, the place where all meetings for attending to the town's business were held.

Slowly and solemnly the families all walked to church, coming sometimes for miles from the country around.

[Illustration] from American History Stories - I by Mara L. Pratt


On reaching the church the men took their places on one side of the aisle, and the women took theirs on the other. The children, too, sat all by themselves, and there was a man appointed to keep them quiet.

This man carried a long stick with a hard knob at one end and a little feather brush on the other.

With the knob he knocked the heads of the men if they chanced to grow sleepy, and with the feather tickled the faces of the women.

I shouldn't wonder if he had to use this rod pretty often on men, women, and children all; for the sermons were very long, sometimes lasting whole hours, and they were timed by an hour-glass which stood upon the high pulpit and not until it had been turned three or four times was a sermon considered at all of the proper length. And the singing! For many years it was the custom for the people all to rise and sing. There were few hymn-books; therefore the minister, or some one of the deacons, would read a line of the hymn, the people would sing it, then wait for another line to be read. But, by and by, singing schools began to come into fashion, the "queristers," as the singers were called, began to sit together during the church service, leading the singing, the whole congregation joining with them in rolling out the grand old tunes that were the fashion then.

There were not many tunes that the people knew, but such as they did know they poured forth vigorously and were quite content with them for years and years. The first hymn-book published in the colonies contained twenty-eight tunes.

"Twenty-eight tunes!" cried the people. "We can never learn so many!"

"This book is a sin and a snare," preached one minister from his pulpit. "This new solfa singing is wicked. Singing schools will lead to mischief. Let us have no more of this foolish vanity."

But the "foolish vanity" some way would not go. The young people had begun to learn to sing, and sing they would, until in the course of time both people and ministers became reconciled to it, wicked as it was; and when, in 1764, Josiah Flagg published a book containing one hundred and sixty hymns, no one thought of objecting. On the contrary, every singing youth and maiden hastened to own the book, and it was not long before the churches throughout the colonies rang out the whole hundred and sixty grand old tunes, happy enough that there were so many to sing.

As to the men, as you read in the "Indian Stories," they brought their muskets to the meeting-houses, that they might have them in case of attack.

The meeting-houses were not warmed even in very cold weather; the people had an idea that some way they were better Christians if they bore all these discomforts, without a murmur.

But soon the people began carrying hot bricks and stones to keep their feet and hands from freezing; and, by and by, they carried little foot stoves. These stoves were little tin boxes, with holes in the sides, a cover, a door, and handles with which to carry them. In these boxes were put live coals, and so the fire would last during the whole sermon.

As books were very scarce, the minister read off one line of the hymn, which the people would sing to some old tune; then another line would be read and sung, then another and another, until the whole hymn was sung.

When the service was over, all walked solemnly home again. The fathers and mothers were very strict on this Sabbath day, and I fear many and many a little boy and girl dreaded to have this long, dreary day come, and were very glad when it was over; for you remember there were no beautiful books and magazines in those days; and if there had been, the children would not have been allowed to read anything but the little New England Primer which contained quaint pictures, a few terrible verses, and the Catechism.

I am sure we are glad people have got over the idea that Sunday should be such a dismal, sober day. I am sure the Heavenly Father is much more pleased to see the children spending His day happily in their homes with their fathers and mothers and little sisters and brothers.

Of all the men of rank or office in the colony, none were looked upon with such reverence and respect as the ministers. Though the Puritans hated titles of all kinds, considering them vain inventions, they were willing to honor the minister with "Parson," or "Elder," or "Teacher," and were ready to humble themselves before him. I am afraid, however, that these ministers sometimes received little else than reverence; for their salaries were generally very small; sometimes they had none at all, and depended wholly upon the gifts of the parishioners who supplied them with whatever they had or could spare. "Alas," said one pastor, "my people are very poor; and I am very poor. I have received for salary this year only turnips, there being a generous harvest of that vegetable; but I do not complain. I have always been able to sell them or exchange them, and thus I have been supplied with the necessary things of life."