Week 10: Translation


For this week’s challenge, I decided to write about some of the occupations my ancestors had – jobs that no longer exist or job titles that have to be “translated” for us to understand them.  This is a partial list – there are more that I don’t have time to look for this week

Bilboes –  An old word for leg irons.  My 10th great-grandfather Thomas Dexter (1594-1676) was a contentious individual in colonial Saugus (Lynn) Massachusetts.  He had a quarrel with Captain (later Governor) Endicott in 1633.  Endicott was apparently so frustrated with Thomas that he struck him.  Endicott defended himself by saying that “if you had seen the manner of his carriage with . . . me, . . . it would have provoked a very patient man.” Thomas was set in the “bilboes”, disenfranchised, and fined for speaking seditious words against the government.

Chimney Viewer – my 10th great-grandfather Thomas Catlin (1600-1690) and my 10th great-grandfather Benjamin Burr (1602-1681) both held this job in Hartford, Connecticut. Early colonial towns were aware of the great danger from fires and took steps to protect themselves by appointing Chimney Viewers.  The records of Hartford describe this job:

“it is ordred at the same meting that they shall vew the chimnies ffrom the end of September vnto the end of aprill onse euery three weekes. ffrom thense vntell September onse euery six weekes thaie shall giue notes of the time that thaie will go to ueiw & if the be not Cleand thaye shall forfit twellue pense ffor euery sutch defalk yt be the cheefe in habitense in euerie sutch howse & in case they doe neglect to vew as abovesaied thay shall [for] fit ffor uerie [ ] that it be proued [ twe]llue pense”.

Dog-whipper – My 9th great-grandfather George Abbott (1631-1689) held this job, and my 10th great-grandfather Thomas Hartshorn (1614-1683) was part of a group of 20 church members who collected money to pay a dog-whipper,  although George was in Essex County and Thomas was in Middlesex County. in Massachusetts. According to Wikipedia, a dog-whipper was a church official charged with removing unruly dogs from church grounds during services.  This paragraph from Wikipedia lays out the duties of the dog-whipper in more detail than most of us want to know:

Those employed for the position were given a three-foot-long whip and a pair of dog tongs with which to remove the animals. They were given the task of keeping stray animals away from the church and preventing communion bread and priests from being assaulted. The whip was utilized both for enforcement and as a deterrent while the tongs enabled the whipper to clasp a problematic animal from a safe distance.

I like the casual assumption underlying this job – dogs roamed freely and often went to church with their owners. Just don’t assault the communion bread and priests.

Junior and Senior — Edward Walton Sr. and Edward Walton Jr. are my 7th great-grandfather and possibly my 8th great-grandfather in New Kent County, Virginia.  I say “possibly” because although modern usage would identify these men as father and son, in colonial times appending the suffix “Junior” to a man’s name might just acknowledge that there is another, older, man with the same name in the same community.  Edward Senior may be the father of Edward Junior; but he may also be his uncle, older cousin, or unrelated man with the same name in the community.  I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how these men might be father and son before I concluded that they probably weren’t.

Fence Viewer – my 10th great-grandfather James Clark (1608-1674) was a fence viewer in New Haven, Connecticut.  This job designated someone legally appointed to inspect and report on the condition of fences.  In colonial New England, prosperous families had two pieces of land – one away from the village, where they raised herds of livestock and grew corn, wheat, and other grains in large fields, and one in town, where they grew vegetables and kept the small family collection of chickens and goats and such.  These lots were all close to one another, so it was important to everyone that fences were well-maintained so that the sheep weren’t in the vegetables and the cows weren’t in the corn.

Freeman – Many of my ancestors in colonial New England are identified as a “freeman.”  This did not have anything to do with a condition to be contrasted with slavery, but referred to a person’s position in his church and community.  The position of “freeman” had to be earned by those who settled among the New England Puritans.  Becoming a freeman generally (although not always) meant joining the church, paying his debts, and being free of judicial restraints.  To become a “freeman,” a resident had to take the Freeman’s Oath (a loyalty oath).  My 10th great-grandfather John Tripp (1575-1648)  illustrates how this happens.  John was an indentured servant whose indenture was sold several times before he found himself in Portsmouth, Thode Island, and was able to buy out his indenture.  Records show that he was admitted to Portsmouth as an inhabitant (but not a freeman) in 1638.  By 1639, he was sufficiently established in Portsmouth that he was one of the signers of the Compact of Loyalty that year.  This means he was almost certainly a freeman by that time, although I can’t find a record that formally identifies him by this title.

Maltster – my 10th great-grandfather Andrew Warner (1599-1684) was a maltster in Hadley, Massachusetts, in the 1660s.  A maltster is someone who prepares barley for use in brewing.  In addition to using barley to produce beer and whiskey, Andrew also ran a still that was used to distill cordials, sweet waters, and medicinal waters from herbs, flowers, and spices.  My 12th great-grandfather Thomas Lynde (1594-1671) was also a maltster, but he lived in Malden, Massachusetts.

Moderator – my 4th great-grandfather Joseph Botts (1790-1880) was identified as a “moderator” in the Baptist History published about Boone County, Kentucky. This was a lay position created to help run church meetings.  Joseph’s name appears in virtually every set of church minutes for five years, until he moved with his family to Illinois.  The modern equivalent might be something like a chairman of the church Board or an Elder in the church.

Processioner – my 7th great-grandfather Richard Simpson (1692-1762) held this position in Truro Parish, Fairfax County, Virginia.  Land ownership and maintenance were very important to the agricultural colony of Virginia in the 17th century.  In 1662, the Virginia Assembly passed an act declaring that once every four years, the vestries of the Established church were to appoint people to examine and renew boundary markers.  This is what the 1743 Vestry Book of the parish instructed:

The Richard Simpson and Thomas Ford procession all the patented lands that lye between Occoquan and Pohick on the upper side of the Ox rad, and between that and Occoquan as far up as Popes Head, and that they perform the same in the month of October or November next, and report their proceedings according to law.

The Vestry Book went on to describe this process as “perambulating” – literally, “walking around.”  Richard’s sons George and Moses appeared on later lists of processioners.  In a land ownership system based on metes and bounds rather than on latitude and longitude, the location of geographic features like big rocks, trees, and stream beds were important descriptors in land records.

Redemptioner – my 9th great-grandfather William Sponner (1621-1684) was identified as a redemptioner in Plymouth, Massachusetts.  This label was applied to people that the ship captain took on board without prepayment of passage, and on their arrival sold them by auction for the lowest term of years for which anyone would take them and pay the passage money. William served an indenture of six years upon his arrival in Massachusetts

Tender – according to the 1930 census, my great-grandfather Warner Lismond Arnold was a tender at Oakwood Cemetery in Hamilton, Hancock County, Illinois. This was some sort of grave-keeping job, probably something like what a sexton might do.  He was 74 years old when he held this job, so it must not have been too physically demanding.  His previous jobs were as a store clerk and a general laborer.

Turner and joiner – these were two related but distinct carpentry specialties in colonial America.  A turner worked with a lathe to make things like axles and spindles.  A joiner took sawn wood and produced the interior finished work for buildings, including doors, windows, shutters, and cupboards.   My 10th great-grandfather Nicholas Holt (1602-1685) was a turner in Essex County, Massachusetts.  My 7th great-grandfather William Enoch Manley (1703-1788), my 8th  great-grandfather Clement Jean Meservey (1655-1721), and my 8th great-grandfather Robert Cross (1642-1710) were all joiners in colonial New England.  William was in Hartford, Connecticut; Clement was in Rockingham, New Hampshire; and Robert was in Essex County, Massachusetts.

Wall builder – my 10th great-grandfather Clement Weaver (1591-1683) is identified in the records of Weymouth, Massachusetts, as a “wall-builder.”  I thought there had to be some quaint and obscure meaning to this term, but I was wrong.  It apparently doesn’t mean much more than what it says; Clement built walls of some sort – maybe the rock wall that edged farmland in this rocky soil. 

Water Bailey – My 8th great-grandfather Thomas Brownell (1608-1664) held his job in colonial Portsmouth, Rhode Island (on the northern half of Aquidneck Island, across Narraganset Bay from Providence).  This is a derivation of the office of “water bailiff,” defined by Wikipedia as a “low-enforcement officer responsible for the policing of bodies of water, such as a river, lake, or coast.” They appear to have been involved in a variety of civic functions, including inspection of imported goods, selecting crews for official vessels, and patrolling the waterways. In a community such as Portsmouth, whose existence on an island was made possible only by predictable and safe water transport, the water bailey would have been an important figure.


Author: iseekdeadpeopleblog

I am a retired high school history and government teacher. I've been doing genealogy research since I retired in 2012. I define what I do as "constructing a plausible narrative about the past." I don't claim to know everything about the ancestors whose stories I tell, but I try to imagine myself in their lives. I sometimes call it "creative non-fiction." I try to differentiate between what I know for sure and what I "think" I know.

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