On April 8, 1799, the Cornwall Board of Selectmen voted to pay John Peck $11.49 for boarding Ann Olcott, “a poor child.” Olcott is one of the hundreds of people listed in a selectmen’s’ account book found in the Cornwall Historical Society vault. Within the book’s pages are individuals who otherwise left no record of their lives in Cornwall. Per state law, Cornwall, like other Connecticut towns, was required to take care of its less fortunate residents. While other towns had poorhouses or “poor farms” where these people could live communally, Cornwall’s poor residents were cared for by individual families for set periods of time. The families were then compensated by the town government for boarding, clothing, and feeding their neighbors who had fallen on hard times.
|Town Records, April 1799.|
(Collection of Cornwall Historical Society)
At the time of the April 1799 town meeting where John Peck was paid by the selectmen, Ann Olcott was about two years old. Ann was the child of John and Hannah Olcott, and soon after her birth, the Olcott family members became wards of the town. It is unknown why exactly Ann’s parents fell on hard times. Her father, a subsistence farmer, may have experienced a series of bad harvests, or could have been injured and unable to provide for his growing family. At the same time that Ann was living with the Pecks, her mother and newborn brother were living with the Judson family, who were compensated at the same town meeting as John Peck for providing a midwife for Hannah. Only months after the birth of Ann’s baby brother, town selectmen found a resident willing to care for Hannah and her infant for the following year—but with the caveat that the volunteer could explore opportunities to “put the child out.”
The “putting out” of children dated to colonial times, and was a common way for impoverished families to have their children cared for. Within the system, young children would be placed with foster families and work as an apprentice for their foster parents during a set amount of time. At only one year of age, Hannah Olcott’s son was bound out to East Cornwall farmer Caleb Andrews, while Hannah moved in with a family on Cream Hill. Ann, her siblings, and her parents, were all similarly shuttled back and forth between local families, until their names gradually disappear from the selectmen’s account book in the 1830s. The Cornwall Selectmen’s book provides an interesting window into the lives of a class of people often overlooked by traditional histories of the community.