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UMass Amherst Libraries

Researching the Early History of Black Lives in the Connecticut River Valley

Introduction

Town records, generally housed in town halls (though sometimes older records have been transferred to local historical societies), can be valuable sources for African American history at the local level.  

To understand town government, generally the best place to begin are the records of the selectboard, and especially the records of town meetings, as they provide an overview of town business from year to year.  But in addition to town meeting minutes, the records of subcommittees that took on particular roles in town government can be illuminating. For instance, because African American residents were confined to the margins of local economies, people of color are often found in two key sets of local records: the Overseers of the Poor, and warnings out. 

Overseers of the Poor records contain entries documenting support offered town residents; this includes people of color who lived in poverty, though in some cases, free Black residents acted as the providers of town-funded support to other residents of color.  Records related to “warning out” relate to a process by which local officials warn individuals not born in a given town who seem to town leaders at risk for needing public support that they are not eligible for public support, and should move on.  This process was especially problematic for formerly enslaved people who were often removed from the place of their birth by sale.  Warning out could make it difficult for Black families to reunite after the era of enslavement.

Town records are generally housed in town halls; while in some cases town records have been transferred to local historical societies, the best way to begin is contacting the office of the Town Clerk.  Records associated with the Selectboard can contain references to people of color in the community; records of the Overseers of the Poor can include minutes, receipts, and ledgers.

Recommended Reading

Dayton, Cornelia H. and Sharon V. Salinger, Robert Love's Warnings: Searching for Strangers in Colonial Boston. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014.