J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, December 01, 2022

Rewards Offered in 1798

As quoted yesterday, in July 1798 David Stoddard Greenough offered a “ONE DOLLAR REWARD” for the return of his teen-aged indentured servant Dick Welsh.

I wanted to know how that compared to rewards other newspaper advertisements announced for other people. So I looked up the word “reward” in Massachusetts newspapers from June and July 1798.

Here’s what advertisements offered for people of different sorts, sorted from smallest reward to largest:
  • John Scofield, 19 years old, indented to John Neat, Boston: 1¢.
  • Eber Potter, 15, indented to Eliel Gilbert, Greenfield: 1¢.
  • Stephen Mulforde, 13, indented to Daniel Pepper, Boston: 1¢.
  • Elisha Roberts, 16, indented to cordwainer Enoch Mower, Lynn: 1¢.
  • Silas Nowell, boy, indented to printer Edmund M. Blunt, Newburyport: 5¢.
  • Jacob Phelps, 16, indented to Jonathan Whitney: 6¢.
  • Joseph Larrabee, 19, indented to John Newhall, Lynn: 20¢.
  • John Sturgis, 16, from the sloop Nancy: $4.
  • Walter Spooner Belcher, 18, indented to carpenter Marlborough Ripley: $5.
  • John Holbrook, 22, and Ebenezer Hollis, 20, soldiers deserting from Castle Island: $8.
  • Prince, 20, enslaved to Joseph Willcox, 2d, Killingworth, Connecticut: $10.
  • Ebenezer Buckling, 19, indented to papermaker Hugh McLean, Milton: $20.
  • John Barton, adult, sailor who had taken $20 advance pay from Capt. Stephen Curtis: $20.
  • John Wilcot, adult, accused of stealing a horse from Caleb Easty: $50 for man and horse, $30 for horse and tackle alone.
  • Frank, 25, sailor enslaved to Elijah Grinnelds of Virginia: $50.
  • Joseph Haslett, adult, suspected forger: $100.
Greenough’s one-dollar reward for Dick Welsh was much more than some masters offered for their missing apprentices, but that probably reflected Greenough’s wish to be seen as a wealthy landed gentleman. He could afford to toss out a dollar where other men offered only a penny.

Nonetheless, Greenough’s message was probably the same as that from Neat, Gilbert, and the other masters at the top of the list above: this runaway is worthless, and I bought this newspaper notice only as a legality and to make life on the run more difficult for the lad.

For pocketbooks, horses, watches, and other property, people offered substantial rewards—sometimes for the goods alone, sometimes more for the goods and the thieves. Greenough himself advertised a $50 reward in May 1791 for thieves who had broken into his house and stolen a lot of gold and silver items. For people who could just walk away again, not so much.

It’s notable that masters were willing to pay far more for enslaved workers than apprentices. After all, those black men had taken many more years of free labor away with them. Not until the case of the slave-child Med in 1836 did Massachusetts law hold that people enslaved in other states became free if their owners brought them into the commonwealth.

One last observation: Ebenezer Buckling must have learned a lot of the valuable trade of papermaking to be worth $20.

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