Bastard children in 18th century New England, what would happen to them? What would be the future of the mother?

+6 votes

I was updating the profile of one of my ancestors today, Sarah Brown Potter (Brown-1427), using Stillwell's Historical and Genealogical Miscellany, when I came upon the reference to her daughter Anne (Potter-4708), who had the misfortune to have a child out of wedlock with one Robert Edmond in 1712.

The child, named Nicholas, was apparently taken from the mother by consent of the father and placed with one Cornelius Lain, as the court put it, as an apprentice to Mr. Lain until he attained the age of twenty-one.  

Would the child then become a member of the Lain family?  Or, as the record seems to indicate, a ward of the family to be brought up and apprenticed in a trade?  If the parents were to marry at a later date, would they be able to regain custody of the child?

And nothing more is heard of about the mother.  Would she be unable to find a suitable husband?  Would she be banned?  The family she came from were Quakers.  Were they more tolerant of transgressions by their members?  What about the community at large?  Would it be a "Scarlett Letter" kind of existence for her?  Just curious.

I've updated Anne's profile with the pertinent sources and links to them.  If anyone has any insight into this, I'd appreciate some pointers.  It might be interesting research to track down this child and mother, if possible.

Is it possible to find the child in later records under his birth name?  If so, what name would you look for, Potter or Edmonds, or even Lain?

There's no further reference for either Anne, the child or Robert Edmonds in all five volumes of Stillwell.



in Genealogy Help by Debbie Barrett G2G2 (2.1k points)
retagged by Ellen Smith

3 Answers

+4 votes
Best answer
by Susan Smith G2G6 Pilot (413k points)
selected by Debbie Barrett
Wow, I plowed through your light reading (wink, wink).  All I can say is wow.  The child definitely paid for the sins of the parents.  To be a complete non-entity.  To be farmed out to a "guardian" (a very genteel way of saying "master") until you are 21 years of age.  Even passage to this country was only 7 years service.  And there really didn't seem to be any system in place to monitor the treatment these children received from their appointed guardians.

If I'm reading what I think I'm reading, it didn't matter if the parents married after the fact, they didn't get the child back, no matter the circumstances.  And the child went through life not being allowed to use his surname?  Am I reading that right?  The child is stripped completely of his/her identity and birthright?

Comparatively, the fine the parents might have to pay, even with the few lashes they might have to endure, after that, they walk away.  And they could take off and leave their responsibility to support the child completely behind if they so chose.

They discussed infanticide, and how difficult it was to prosecute so if an unwed parent decided to dispose of their little bundle, they might only spend a year in jail.

And the instances where the woman, pressured into giving the name of the father would, instead, name an innocent man to protect her paramour.

With this information, I don't even know how I would start to locate this child.  No surname, no parents, no rights.  Again, wow.

Just unbelievable.  I'm glad I was born into that situation in the 1950s, not the 1750s.

Thanks so much for taking the time to find those for me.

Well it has its parallels in the modern systems recorded since then and the times before then ... times were when in Europe parents would feed the strongest child and starve the weakest on the basis the strongest one would be their "old age pension" --  

AND there's more lit where those came from  NC has a lot online and so do the New England states
+2 votes
The woman was not necessarily marked forever as unmarriable. I have found a number of early New England women who bore a child out of wedlock who later married and had large families.
by Stu Bloom G2G6 Mach 5 (54.1k points)

Very true in the Quaker community.  It seems that if you begged forgiveness at the monthly meeting they would let almost anything slide wink

+2 votes

I wouldn't be surprised if the child removal was done with her reluctant approval.  A single-mother may have trouble finding a husband whereas an unattached woman may still find a husband.  It is possible that after the child was removed they hushed up the whole affair so that her reputation may be intact for marriage.  

I'm only speculating but as recently as a decade or two ago, and quite common 50 years ago, young women went away for a year, had a baby, and came back, no one in the community the wiser.  The child given for adoption and the young woman continued her life as if she never had a child.

Sad thing for the baby, to be without its mother and father, raised by strangers.

by SJ Baty G2G Astronaut (1.0m points)
That's what happened when my great-grandmother, six month pregnant, married my great-grandfather in Massachusetts, then three months later gave birth to a son in Washington, D. C., and then returned to Massachusetts. I discovered this a few years ago, by accident, when I was looking for something else. I don't know whether my grandmother, born 11 months later, ever knew she had an older brother; she left extensive family history notes, with no mention of him. I have no doubt she would have kept the secret had she known—but I'm equally sure that my mother would not have kept it a secret, had she known about her uncle.

The child's name does not appear in the birth record, and I assumed he had either died young or been adopted out, but a couple of years ago I came up with a second-cousin-level DNA match with one of his descendants. The strange thing is that he was raised with the family name. Whether he ever had any contact with his birth parents I do not know. His descendants trace their ancestry to the birth parents, but I don't know if they discovered that the same way I did, matching his birth date and place to the birth record, or whether it was part of their family lore.

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