Life as a Puritan woman in 1670s Boston

Using records, general histories, and literature to glimpse your ancestors’ context

Speaking personally, my family history research has a definite weak spot, since I often fail to imagine what can’t be known of specific people’s lives. Since the records about her life are scarce, I want to study the societal climate Temperance Wills Stedman knew as a Puritan woman in 1670s Boston, Massachusetts.

I am not a experienced researcher of colonial times, and I’m not going to pretend to be. I initially chose the 1670s because one source gave her death date as 1678; however, I later found a reference to her in the 1690s as her husband’s widow. Evidently, he was the one who died in 1678. This perfectly illustrates my decision to focus on women’s lives in this post. Histories written by and about men, even in the context of family history, often mute our female ancestors’ perspectives. In this case, his death overshadowed her life.

What the Record Books Say

In the Massachusetts, Town and Vital Records, 1620-1988 database on Ancestry, I found this entry under 1648, First Church:

Temperance of Michael Wills member of Ch. Of Dorchester — 9 day 2 mo.

I’m uncertain whether this is a birth record or a baptism record. The index on this version lists Temperance Wills’ birth date as February 9, 1648 at Boston, Mass., and the image appears to be the same as the previous record.

First Church in Boston, John Winthrop’s Puritan settlement founded in 1630, records Temperance’s birth-or-baptism. However, the record notes that Michael Wills’ belonged to the Church of Dorchester, founded the following year in 1631. The original log cabin meeting house formed a community hub—a fort, storehouse, schoolhouse, and town hall. If I ever make another trip to Boston, I’ll definitely add these records to my wish list of things to see.

Michael Wills lived when Massachusetts Bay Colony Governor John Winthrop (1587/8-1649), early American poet Anne Dudley Bradstreet (1612-1672), and religious dissenter Anne Marbury Hutchinson (1591-1643) did.

Their society shaped Temperance Wills’ life from birth.

She married Nathaniel Stedman around 1667-1669. This confusing index indicates that she was his second wife—but the details included are so sketchy that I hesitate to lean on them.

The Stowell genealogy cites the 1690s mention of Temperance I alluded to earlier, and I viewed the index entry and deed itself on FamilySearch. (…Insert awed silence here…)

The deed explicitly mentions Temperance as Nathaniel Stedman’s “relict widow” and Administratrix in 1693/4. By that time, she would have been about 45.

Realities of Life as a Puritan Woman

What was the social context of life in colonial America? I found The American Past: A Survey of American History (3rd ed.) by Joseph R. Conlin a great refresher. I’ve credited the insights gleaned from it with page numbers below.

It’s an easy guess that, like any typical Puritan woman, Temperance worked hard all her life. In colonial times, child labor was a norm, and according to a 1630 letter by Francis Higginson, children in Salem, Mass. could more than earn their keep by setting corn (43). It’s very likely that such work characterized Temperance’s childhood. Furthermore, in a subsistence economy such as those of the early American colonies, women worked as hard as men for their personal and communal survival (46).

Blue Laws

However, the Puritans’ faith demanded respite, and they codified Sabbath observance. A partial list of activities not to be indulged on the Lord’s Day offers an interesting peek at daily life on the other six: playing games, idle chatter, singing, whistling, running, and even walking in a garden were verboten (42).

The Puritans’ goal: creating a society pleasing to God. Because the Massachusetts Bay Company’s shareholders were the colonists themselves and not investors in England, they were able to establish and maintain self-government (40)—and in their congregation/community, Blue Laws were a fact of life. Some interesting examples and violations (42-43):

  • A Puritan woman deemed a “scold” might spend a few hours in the stocks on market day for humiliation and ridicule.
  • They did not tolerate wife beating and punished offenders by flogging.
  • They employed a terrifying headpiece called a brank (think iron muzzle for humans) for corrections in tongue-wagging, whether in the form of nagging, gossiping, or lying.
  • Because they believed social position was divinely ordained, the law forbid lower class people to dress above their station. Indeed, 38 Connecticut women were arrested in 1675 for dressing in silk.

Women had household authority over children and servants, but were obligated to obey their husbands–just as the men were responsible for instructing all members of their household in righteousness and representing them within the community (46).

A Voice Across Time

Anne Bradstreet laces further insight to daily life in the losses cited in her lamentation, “Here Follows Some Verses upon the Burning of Our House, July 10th, 1666,” quoted from The Norton Anthology: American Literature (Shorter 5th ed.), pages 143-144:

Puritan woman and poet Anne Bradstreet

Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

My pleasant things in ashes lie,
And them behold no more shall I.
Under thy roof no guest shall sit,
Nor at thy table eat a bit.
No pleasant tale shall e’er be told,
Nor things recounted done of old.
No candle e’er shall shine in thee,
Nor bridegroom’s voice e’er heard shall be.

-Anne Bradstreet

As for Temperance…

There’s so much we’ll never know.

Did she live up to the virtue of her name? What did she look like? Did she thrive within the social mores of her time as poetess Anne Bradstreet, or did she chafe against them as dissident Anne Hutchinson? Could she read—and would the words of her contemporary’s verses have resonated with her?

The world no longer let me love,
My hope and treasure lies above.

-Anne Bradstreet

#52Ancestors: Temperance Wills Stedman: a peek at life as a Puritan woman

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