Colony Bay TV

Bastardy in the Colonies

May 5, 2011 James Riley

On January 25, 1770, Matthew Patten, a justice of the peace in Bedford, New Hampshire, recorded the following entry in his day book:

“..I went to Mary Riddells in the evening to talk with her about takeing (sic) her examination of Bastardy but
did not do it..”

Over several decades as justice of the peace, Matthew Patten would be involved in the examination of six bastardy cases. His commentary on this and almost everything else is irritatingly terse, more of an accounting record than anything else, but it reveals a picture of the way family life and the responsibilities of the magistrate intersected in the life of pre-Revolutionary War New England. A bastard child had to be cared for and it was the responsibility of the justice of the peace to find the father, if possible, and put the care of the child upon the responsible man. Otherwise, the town itself would be charged with the task of raising funds to assist the unwed mother.

Six cases over some thirty years speaks, of course, to the rarity of the event and some historians have concluded the very fear of a bastardy examination encouraged most couples in this situation to mary. (An examination of the time interval between first born child and marriage date indicates that about 25-35% of brides were pregnant during the 1760-1780 period, up from about 10-15% in the earlier half of the century.)

In an era before blood and DNA testing, colonial legislators put a great deal of trust in the mother’s testimony, and that of the midwife’s. If during the pains of her birth (the “travail”), an unwed mother named the father, (to “swear fatherhood”), the court put great stock in her testimony. Unless a woman had a promiscuous reputation, and appeared to be pinning the child on a well-to-do victim, the need of the township to avoid a case of collective welfare alligned with the mother’s needs, and her version of events.

We have to look no further than John Adams himself for a veritable colonial soap opera in the matter of Gage V. Headley. In 1768, Lydia Gage accused Josiah Headley of being the father of her child. Adams defended Headley. The picture that emerges is one of a troubled woman seeking to assign fatherhood to the one man in town who could come up with the most ready cash. According to Adam’s trial summary of Susannah Gage’s testimony: “…Tis not a Man I can have, but a Man that can pay. .She said that it was Headleys as true as a God in Heaven. That he perswaded her, and promised her Money..”

They say the exception proves the rule, and the rule is fairly simple: our colonial ancestors took care of their children, and families, in a way as ancient, and efficient, as Biblical precedent and English common law would allow. The picture here, clearly, is the exception.

Conception meant marriage, and usually bastardy meant marriage as well.

Next Blog: