This is the story of Lucy Nichols Barrett, a women deserted by her husband at age 32 with her six children and thrown on the mercy of the town and her neighbors. The scanty records that exist document the desertion and the support of her husband’s family and their neighbors. It also illustrates the town’s treatment of its poor. The story may even have had a happy ending.
An affidavit, found in the Nelson Archives, that deals with John Barrett’s desertion of his wife is unusual in Nelson Town Records. It documents a domestic matter that became a rare matter of public record and it offers an unusual glimpse of one of the circumstances of the town’s early poor. Early paupers leave few “tracks” in town records other than their cost; they did not own homes and they do not have markers in Nelson cemeteries, though the town paid their burial expenses. The affidavit is also unusual because John Barrett’s parents attested to their son’s desertion of his wife and family.
The Barrett family had had an inauspicious beginning in Packersfield. (Nelson was called Packersfield from its incorporation in 1774 until 1814 when it was renamed Nelson by act of the legislature.) The family moved to the town’s northeast corner in 1779 joining other families from Amherst. Almost immediately Nelson’s constable served them with a warrant requiring that they leave. What follows is part of a charge from the selectmen to the town constable:
“To Nathaniel Breed JR, constable:
You are authorized and required to warn the following persons to depart out of the town of Packersfield Viz. Mr. Nathaniel Barrett and his wife and Nathaniel Barrett JR and Hannah Barrett and Abigail Barrett.”
New Hampshire law required that towns support “settled” citizens unable to support themselves. “Settled” meant those born in Packersfield, those who owned land and paid their taxes for four years, those married to a settled person and town officials. Newcomers were routinely “warned out of town” lest they become “settled” and a town obligation. Constable Breed warned three other families out of town that same cold November day.
Nathaniel’s wife, Mercy, was likely pregnant with John, born in Packersfield the following year. Like most families, the Barretts didn’t actually move, but they were on notice that the town considered them a risk and no public assistance would be available. Nathanial and Mercy raised their family on the farm marked by an old cellar hole on the north side of the Old Stoddard Road where Marcus Bailey lived much later. His son, also Nathaniel, built a home further down the road just over the line in Stoddard in 1802.
John Barrett married Lucy Nichols of Stoddard in 1802. She bore him five children and was pregnant with their sixth when John abandoned his family and, perhaps with money settled on Lucy by her parents at her marriage, departed for places unknown. Pregnant and with children from ages one to nine, she was thrown on the mercy of the town for the support of herself and her children. She is an example of how people came to be in need of public assistance and the many ways her community supported her in her time of difficulty.
She applied to the town for assistance. From the record of the 1813 town meeting:
“Voted that the selectmen see to taking care of Mrs. Barrett and her children as they shall think best.” The selectmen may have felt she didn’t qualify for assistance as there is no record of the family receiving any support until Jonathan Hunting bid for her keep in 1816 at 46 cents per week.
The following affidavit was written by the Barretts’ long time neighbor and friend, John White, in support of Lucy’s case for public support:
I John White do testify that I have lived near Neighbor to Nathaniel Barrett Father to John Barrett for the term of forty years have ever been acquainted with the said John Barrett until the said John Barrett left his family and went to parts unknown. That the said John Barrett (as I have understood and as I firmly believe) married to Lucy Nichols as much as eighteen or twenty years since and that he the said John Barrett did to my certain knowledge bring his said wife into the neighborhood in which I live. That his said wife was well furnished with household furniture by her parents and that sometime afterwards the said John did receive something like two hundred dollars as the portion of his said wife, and that the said John Barrett did ever behave in a very unkind manner toward his said wife and that something like eight or ten years since he the said John Barrett did leave his wife and family and went to parts unknown and has wholly forsook his family and has never done anything toward the support of or comfort of his said family, but they have been supported and taken are of by the town of Nelson.
Nathaniel Barrett and his wife, Mercy, added their testimony:
I Nathaniel Barrett of lawful age do testify and say that my son John Barrett was (as I firmly believe) married to Lucy Nichols some time in the month of April 1802 and that they lived together as husband and wife until the year 1812. That the said John some time in the later part of said year of 1812 did leave his said wife and went to parts unknown and wholly forsaken his wife and family ever since.
Nathaniel Barrett, his mark
I Mercy Barrett mother to the above named John Barrett do testify and say the foregoing is the truth.
Mercy Barrett, her mark
The records of the years following the disappearance of John Barrett show that Lucy was “bid out” at town meeting. The process was a reverse auction in which citizens, deemed to be the town’s responsibility and unable to support themselves, were auctioned to the person who would take them in for the least cost to the town. The pauper was provided with room and board. Their host was paid the amount of their bid by the town and they were due any labor the pauper could reasonably provide. Judging from the low amounts hosts received to board Lucy, her labor was valued by her hosts. The record does not mention the care of her children; they may have resided in the custody of their fraternal grandparents.
Jonathan Hunting bid 46 cents per week for the care of Lucy Barrett. He agreed to do her washing and laundering and mending. The town provided her clothing and doctoring. This was the standard form of the “bid off” arrangement and didn’t indicate that Lucy didn’t do her own laundry or needed medical services. Joel Sawyer, a young farmer and long time neighbor with a growing family of his own took Lucy the next year for 26 cents per week. She stayed on with the Sawyers for a number of years.
In 1826 the neighbors stepped in to help Lucy and her family again. Another neighbor, Nathaniel Davis, and his family sold her three acres off the Old Stoddard Road between her father-in-law and the Sawyer house. The location is marked by a cellar hole near the Hanchett’s driveway today. I assume that the purchase was secured with a mortgage for the whole amount. The purchase price of $150 would have been hard to meet for someone in her circumstances. This kindness and the growing usefulness of her children apparently allowed Lucy to become self-supporting; she was no longer bid out at town meeting. Or had John returned? John is listed in the 1826 tax rolls as a resident without taxable possessions. There is no concrete evidence that they reconciled. (Lucy is described as a “spinster” on her deed), but the purchase by a single woman of real property was unusual in that era. Could it be the neighbors wanted to support the reunited family, but did not trust John Barrett given his history?
Lucy leaves the town’s welfare rolls at this point. Little is known of her life afterwards. It does seem probable that she and John reconciled. The US census records from Mason, NH in 1850 have a household comprised of John and Lucy N. Barrett. A John Barrett died in Mason in 1852 and the 1860 census lists Lucy Barrett, then aged 80 living with Luther Barrett, age 52, his wife and a number of children. A happy outcome at the end of a long and difficult life?