How Welfare Worked in the Early United States: Five Microhistories

My goal in this book is to tell five compelling stories. Taken together, these five stories tell us a lot about what poor relief was like in the early United States. It was expensive and extensive. It included everything from firewood to healthcare to housing. But it could also be controlling, intervening, and discriminatory. Different people’s experiences could be quite different.

To get at these different experiences, I chose to follow five people through the archives…

William Larned was a father of 16, who spent the last few decades of his life as an “overseer of the poor” of Providence, Rhode Island. It was his job to arrange care for all those from Providence who needed it, while “warning out” people who might need care but did not “belong” to Providence.

Cuff Roberts was one of the people William Larned warned out, repeatedly. A long-serving veteran of the American Revolution, and the child of an enslaved father, Roberts made a better life for his children than he had. But overseers of the poor tried to stop him living where he wanted to live.

“One-Eyed” Sarah was one of the people William Larned hired to care for those in need. Sarah, an Indigenous woman whose last name and nation are still not clear to me, was a nurse. Credited with saving lives, Sarah was paid by the town to help the ill.

Lydia Bates was a hard-working young woman, who spent some of her life as a “pauper,” someone her town’s overseers of the poor were supposed to care for. In Bates’s case, she did a lot of different work in different neighbors’ houses. Then, when she became pregnant, the overseers intervened even more, prosecuting baby Rhoda’s father and ultimately separating mother and child.

William Fales was born the same year as baby Rhoda. It was as a young man, though, that illness forced him into a poorhouse. There, he continued an intense spiritual journey and wrote accounts of what life in the poorhouse was like.

Together, these stories teach us a lot! Read all the twists and turns in the book.

You can buy it anywhere you find books, including,,, and the Oxford University Press website. The official list price is $35.00. Enjoy!

To hear more, check out this podcast on the book: it is a conversation with Matt and Tony of Running on MT. Or listen to a conversation with Kathryn Horrigan of the Rhode Island Historical Society.

Or read this interview at John Fea’s The Way of Improvement Leads Home page at Current.

%d bloggers like this: