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Lesson Plans - Using Probates to Learn About the Lives of Colonial New Englanders


Using Probates to Learn About the Lives of Colonial New Englanders


5 periods (including assessment) of 45 minutes each


Craig Jackson
PRIMARY SALEM in History CORE THEME ADDRESSED: An Industrious People: American Economic History


SALEM in History Topic Addressed: Women and Work in Colonial New England                   

Lesson Summary | Frameworks | Essential Question(s) | Lesson Objectives
Historical Background Essay | Materials List and Pre-Arrangements/Preparations Needed
Vocabulary | Lesson Activities | Student Product or Performance
Assessment Criteria | Possible Modifications | Possible Extension Activities
Cross Curricular/Interdisciplinary Links/Activities | Sources and Resources
Additional Resources for Students and Teachers


There are three main objectives of this lesson: The first is that students begin to understand something about the lives of ordinary people in Colonial New England. The second is to provide students with the opportunity to investigate primary sources and learn how to interpret them. The third objective is for students to become aware of the economic changes that were taking place at the time, specifically changes from a predominantly farm-based economy to the beginning of one in which trade would become predominant.

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  • How were the economic activities of rural communities different from or the same as those of  towns and cities in Colonial New England? How were internal trade networks an important component of both?
  • How are economic activities related to location?

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  • Students will learn what kinds of activities people did in Colonial New England.
  • Students will compare and contrast activities of today with those of Colonial New England.
  • Students will compare and contrast the work of men and women in Colonial New England (the ‘gender-separation’ of labor) and what we can and cannot know about their lives from their work.
  • Students will begin to understand how the activities of people in Colonial New England varied according to where they lived: on the frontier, in rural (settled) areas, or in towns/cities.


  • Students will learn how to use probate inventories to draw conclusions about the activities engaged in by people of a particular time period.
  • Students will learn what we can discover and what we cannot know by analyzing accounts of the objects people used in their everyday life.
  • Students will be able to express their understanding of history in writing.



Grade 3 -- Massachusetts and Its Cities and Towns: Geography and History

Grade 5 -- United States History, Geography, Economics, and Government: Early Exploration to Westward Movement


Grade 3

1. New England and Massachusetts

2. Cities and Towns of Massachusetts

Grade 5

1. The Political, Intellectual, and Economic Growth of the Colonies, 1700-1775


Grade 3

3.4: Explain how the Puritans and Pilgrims differed and identify early leaders in Massachusetts, such as John Winthrop; describe the daily life, education, and work of the Puritans in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

3.5: Explain important political, economic, and military developments leading to and during the American Revolution.

A. the growth of towns and cities in Massachusetts before the Revolution

3.11: Identify when the student’s own town or city was founded, and describe the different groups of people who have settled in the community since its founding.

3.12: Explain how objects or artifacts of everyday life in the past tell us how ordinary people lived and how everyday life has changed.  Draw on the services of the local historical society and local museums as needed.

Grade 5

5.10: On a map of North America, identify the first 13 colonies and describe how regional differences in climate, types of farming, populations, and sources of labor shaped their economies and societies through the 18th century.

5.11: Explain the importance of maritime commerce in the development of the economy of colonial Massachusetts, using historical societies and museums as needed.

            A. the fishing and shipbuilding industries

            B. trans-Atlantic trade

            C. the port cities of New Bedford, Newburyport, Gloucester, Salem and Boston



Grade 3 - History and Geography

Grade 5 - Economics


3.3:   Observe and describe local or regional historic artifacts and sites and generate questions about their function, construction, and significance.

5.12: Define what an entrepreneur is (a person who has started a business seeking a profit) and give examples from colonial history of an entrepreneur (e.g., Peter Faneuil and Benjamin Franklin).

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In Chapter One of the book Engines of Enterprise, Margaret Newell puts forth the thesis that New England’s economy had started changing from farm-based to market-based much earlier than has commonly been thought.

. . . well before the Revolution New England’s internal economy had begun to change.. . . provincial New England’s domestic economy consisted of much more than the exchange of farm goods and raw materials for foreign “trifles.” . . . the colonists supplemented farm income by engaging in crafts and household manufactures.  Merchants found new trades and exports; some even began to put capital into simple manufacturing.1

How and when did this change in New England’s economy occur?  To answer this question it helps to look back to the initial settlement of New England, the types of people who came here, and the land on which they settled. Following the initial settlement of Boston by the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Company in 1630 there was a huge influx of immigrants into New England.  In the twelve years between 1630 and 1642 it has been estimated that at least 20,000 persons came to New England.2  What is striking about these immigrants, compared to the earlier immigrants to the New World, is that they were mostly families with children. Another interesting fact is that more than 1/2 of the men who came were not farmers but craftsmen, traders or clothiers.4

Many of these immigrants settled in Boston to carry on their trades, while others spread out from there.  Those who left Boston became farmers in outlying communities, taking advantage of the land previously cleared by Native Americans, who by this time had had their numbers reduced by the spread of European diseases.  While Boston was the major port city, some immigrants came instead to Salem (actually settled before Boston in 1629).  Salem also grew, although not as rapidly as Boston, and it became a smaller hub of outlying rural communities populated by family farms.

For immigrants settling outside of Salem, the household became the key unit of economic activity.  Growing grains provided the main source of income (to use in barter), but animal husbandry and dairying were also practiced when the land was rich enough.  Craftsmen-turned-farmers began practicing their crafts again (or never stopped), at first providing products solely for their own household and later seeing these products as an additional source of income to also barter.  Thus, it appears that instead of simply being a community of farmers, New England had internal trade markets almost from the beginning.

Since almost all non-farming manufactures (tools, hardware, cooking utensils) had to be imported from Europe, outlying communities were still closely tied to port cities.  It is likely that craftsmen/farmers traded their crafts to peddlers/shopkeepers, just as they traded their grain and other food products, in return for the housewares they needed.  Need was supplemented by desire for ‘unnecessaries’, and demand for more and more products led to increased trade abroad and the rapid growth of port cities.  By 1700, Salem had become a vibrant port and center of commerce.5  Again, it is useful to quote Newell at length:

New England’s mixed agricultural, fishing, and commercial economy drew upon the efforts and services of many inhabitants living in the port cities and beyond. . . . the success of its import commerce depended on the efforts of peddlers and country shopkeepers, who distributed goods to consumers and collected the cargoes that merchants shipped abroad.6

We can get a closer look at this process by examining two different households of the region during this time period, one in the rural farming community of Newbury, and the other in Salem.  In Good Wives, Laurel Ulrich demonstrated how by examining the probate records of these two households, tentative conclusions could be drawn about the role of the wives in each household. While that is certainly so, the probates are also useful in understanding the household as a whole, as well as the gender-separation of labor within it.

The first probate from 1672 is that of Francis Plummer of Newbury, Massachusetts.  Ulrich tells us that Plummer immigrated to New England in 1653 and listed his occupation as a “linnen weaver.” The probate itself tells us he owned a loom, and although we can’t be sure, it’s likely he brought his loom with him when he came to New England.  Ulrich also tells us Beatrice Plummer was his second wife, while we learn from the probate she had also been previously married and had inherited a house and land in Salem from that earlier marriage. The probate also tells us she had a grandchild living with them, and that he had three older children, who presumably did not live with them. Thus, we can assume neither Francis nor Beatrice were young at the time the probate record was written. These are facts we know.

However, many questions remain: Did Francis and Beatrice meet in Salem? Had they moved together out to Newbury or had she joined him? How long had they been married? Additional questions arise concerning Francis: Did he first live in Salem and weave cloth?  If so, why did he leave? Did he still weave cloth in Newbury? We know from the probate that he possessed a number of smithing and carpentry tools; did he work in these trades or just use them for his own use? We can ask many questions about Beatrice as well.  It appears from the probate that Beatrice made cheese, and probably cider.  Ulrich also suggests that she was a good baker and probably slaughtered pigs as well.10  Did she trade any of the products she produced? Did she barter bread for other goods?  Did she make 28 lbs of cheese just for her own family?11

Although the Plummer probate depicts a rural community household that was fairly self-sufficient, it is clear that they still had to purchase many necessities (pots, pans, etc.), and there are strong indications that at least some of what they produced was traded.

Similarly, examining the Grafton Probate we can also learn many things and ask many questions.  It appears Joshua Grafton, a mariner, and his wife Hannah were a relatively young couple -- their oldest of three children was eight years old.12  Did he die at sea?  Large numbers of chairs and a punch bowl indicate the couple often had numbers of guests.  Did they have social gatherings?  If so, what were their social connections?  If not social gatherings, why did so many people meet together at their house?

An interesting part of the Grafton probate tells what was in their shop: tools, sewing materials, types of cloth and clothing, and hardware of different kinds.13  Clearly, the Graftons ran a small retail shop.  Did Hannah run it alone, or just in Joshua’s absences at sea?  Did Joshua use his canoe (cited in the probate) to paddle out to ships to purchase goods before they were unloaded at the docks?  Even more interesting is that there was a “parcell of Saffron” found not in the store, but in the cellar stored with barrels and jugs.  Since Saffron was a very expensive item to import, why is it in the cellar?  Was it an item listed in the Navigation Acts and had it been smuggled into port illegally?  Were Joshua Grafton and/or his wife operating a ‘black market’?15 

Some of the questions raised for the two probates can be answered with further research and thus, may lead students, especially older ones, to seek out the answers.   Others can’t be researched at present, or perhaps they require that a future historian will find ‘keys’ similar to the ones Ulrich found.  Nevertheless, the study of these documents can entice students to look at history in a different way, in part through the lens of their own lives, in part through the lens of those who lived before them.

1 Margaret Newell, Chapter 1 “The Birth of New England in the Atlantic Economy: From Its Beginnings to 1770.”  In Peter Temin, ed. Engines of Enterprise: An Economic History of New England.  Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2000, 16.

2 Jacqueline Jones, et al.,  Created Equal: A Social and Political History of the United States.  New York:  Pearson Longman, 2005, 48; Newell,  24-25.

3 Jones et al., 48.  Nearly 3/4 of all immigrants who came during this period consisted of families, and 1/2 of all these immigrants were children.

4 Newell, 25.

5 Newell, 39, 50.

6 Newell, 54.

7 Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Chapter 1 of Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650-1750 , New York: Knopf, 1980. Reprint, New York: Vintage Books, 1991.

8 Ulrich, 18. [All personal details about the Plummers attributed to Ulrich are found on this page].

9  The Probate Records of Essex County, Volume II:1665-1674 , Salem, MA: Essex Institute, 1917, 322. [All references to the Plummer probate itself can be found in this book (p.319-322)]

10 Ulrich, 22-23.

11  The Probate Records of Essex County, Volume II:1665-1674 , 320 .

12 Ulrich, 25. 

13 Emerson Baker, transcription of Joshua Grafton Probate Inventory, 1699, Essex County Records, Massachusetts Archives, Probate records:18 October 1700 , 1. [All references to the Grafton Probate have been taken from this transcription].

14 Less interesting explanations could be that it was stored in the cellar to keep it fresher or to prevent theft.

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Sufficient copies as indicated above have to be made of all materials, as well as overheads of the materials (and laminating the copies of the originals). The teacher needs to type the homework assignment (the contents of the students’ rooms), and make overheads of those -- putting several on each page.

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Included with the lesson plan is a sheet in which unusual words used in the probates are defined.  Thus, it does not seem useful to repeat them here.  However, there are some words that may need to be explained that are not on the list:

gender roles/division of labor


Lesson 1:

The teacher will begin by asking the students to think back to what they learned in fourth grade about Ancient Egypt.  Through the discussion the teacher will help them to understand how archaeologists have reconstructed the past using objects found in tombs, drawings on walls, and their ability to decipher the hieroglyphics that they have found.  The teacher will also make sure that they understand that although we have learned much about Ancient Egypt, there are still many things we do not know about it -- things we cannot know by examining artifacts and writing left behind.

The teacher will then tell the students that in much the same way that we can learn about what people did in Ancient Egypt, we can also learn similar things about what people did in colonial New England by examining objects and structures that we find.  The teacher will mention archaeological digs that were done during the Big Dig and others as examples.  The teacher will also say that some historic buildings have been preserved and/or restored from that era.   The teacher will then ask the students if they know of any in the area, and if so, discuss what they know about them.

The teacher will then say that as in Ancient Egypt, we also have written records from Colonial New England, but many more of them and of different types.  The teacher will then brainstorm with the students to make a list of the types of written records that may have been kept then, which we can use today to learn more about Colonial New England.   If after brainstorming the students have not mentioned wills, the teacher will introduce them and the term “probate.”  The teacher will then explain that probates in New England were very complete, listing every item that was in the house and other property, when the person died.

Finally, the teacher will say that as a class the students are going to examine several probate records from the late 1600s to see what they can discover from them about the lives of the people who lived in those houses.  The teacher will emphasize that in examining these probates they are to understand that although these records can tell us much about the people who lived in those houses, there is much they cannot tell.  The teacher will also point out that the copies they are going to analyze are transcripts of probates, that spelling differences have been changed for easier reading, and that some of the records are incomplete and/or have been left out.  The teacher will point out that each group will also have a copy of the original document to compare if they wish.

The teacher will then divide the class into groups of 5-7 students each.  The teacher will give each group one copy of the original Grafton Probate and copies of the Grafton House Contents Probate.   The teacher will also give them the Grafton House Guiding Questions.  Each student will also be given a folder titled Probates of Colonial New England and told they are to keep all individual copies they are given inside it, since they will be referring to these copies when doing the Assessment Essay at the end of the lesson.  [Dependent on classroom procedure, the teacher may/may not collect these folders at the end of each class period].

The students will be asked to work as a group to answer the guiding questions and told that afterward they will discuss the questions ‘using the Jigsaw discussion method.’  The students will also be reminded that the probates are an indication of gender roles in the household, and the teacher will emphasize that they are one of the best ways that historians can analyze the role of women in Colonial New England.  Therefore, differentiating items from the probates as male/female could help to understand these roles better.  While the students are discussing the probates, the teacher will circulate around the room helping groups if needed.  After the students have mostly done the first question, the teacher will write the few unusual vocabulary words from the Grafton Probate and some of their meanings on the board to help the students do the assignment.

When groups have finished the teacher will then discuss their answers using a ‘Jigsaw’ format, while projecting an overhead of the Grafton House Contents Probate on the wall, to clarify points.  The teacher will again emphasize in this discussion that although we cannot be totally sure, it appears that women and men did do different things, to a degree at least.  The class will then have a general discussion about the other degrees of certainty/uncertainty which these conclusions have.

Homework assignment: The students will be told that at the end of the lesson they will have a chance to try their hand at a similar analysis.  To provide the ‘probates’ the students will be asked to make a list of 25 items that are in the room in which they sleep.  They should print the items on a piece of paper and not sign it.

Lesson 2:

Today, after again forming groups, the teacher will hand out a copy of the original Plummer Probate to each table.  The teacher will also give each student a copy of the Plummer House Contents  Probate and the Plummer House Guiding Questions.  As they did the day before, the students will be asked to work together as a group to fill out the questions, again keeping in mind the gender division of labor.  While they are working, the teacher will again circulate among the groups to help if needed.

When the groups have finished the teacher will again discuss their answers using a ‘jigsaw’ format, again with an overhead of the Plummer House Contents Probate projected on the wall.  The class will then have a general discussion about the degree of certainty/uncertainty which these conclusions have, again with the suspected difference of gender roles that is indicated by the probates.    Since there are many more unusual words in this probate, there might be greater uncertainty.  Thus, at this point the teacher will hand out to each student the unusual vocabulary sheet.  The class will then discuss whether or not this helps to better understand the probate.

For the rest of the period, the teacher will then give every student a copy of the Shop Probates (Room A of each house) and a copy of the Comparison of Shop Inventories. With an overhead copy of the Comparison of Shop Inventories projected on the wall, the teacher will help the students categorize the items in each shop, filling in the tables.  If this has not been completed by the end of the period, the students will be assigned finishing it for homework.

Lesson 3

After again forming groups, the teacher will give each student the Guiding Questions on the Grafton/Plummer Shop Probates.  Each group will work independently to answer the questions, while the teacher again circulates around the room helping when necessary.  Since the objects in each shop have already been categorized the day before, this should take less time to do.  Again, the teacher will have a brief discussion of their answers at the end.

Following this, the teacher will then hand out the Probate Comparison Guiding Questions.  With an overhead of the same on the wall, the teacher will discuss the answers to these guiding questions with the class, writing the class’ answers on the overhead.  Again, the class will discuss the certainty/uncertainty of these conclusions, how they might/might not be verified, and other records that might contain additional information.  Finally, the teacher will emphasize that although we think of households in Colonial New England as being almost entirely self-sufficient, these records indicate that even during colonial times there was a significant amount of trade in goods and services.  Furthermore, the move from rural to more urban environments led to increasing specialization of these activities.

Lesson 4

After first cautioning students not to give away their own inventories but to note carefully the class’ assumptions based on them, the teacher will project on the wall previously prepared overheads of the class members’ room contents.  The class will be encouraged to briefly discuss each, and draw some conclusions about the person whose room it is -- whether boy or girl, their favorite activities, interests, etc.

Following these brief discussions the teacher will then ask for students to indicate by a show of hands how many of the descriptions of them based on their room contents were in their opinion:

1.  at least 50 per cent accurate

2.  somewhat accurate

3.  not at all accurate

Based on the response, the teacher will lead a discussion about problems that historians might face when doing analysis of this kind, citing some of the class’ inventories, as well as what might be in the teacher’s bedroom/or other room.  Following this discussion of the contents of the students’ own rooms and what can/cannot be learned from them, the teacher should have the students again refer to their Probate Comparison Guiding Questions.  As they again discuss the answers they arrived at, the teacher should state to them what other facts we know about these two households, namely: (Information taken from Good Wives p. 18,19; 25,27).

  • Francis Plummer was a weaver as well as farmer and lived with his wife Beatrice and her grandchild by another marriage.  His house appears to have had two rooms downstairs, two above them, and an attached room (which appears to have been used as a kitchen.  There was also a ‘shop’ on his property in which he apparently practiced his various crafts, and his houselot and property totaled 36 acres -- 16 acres farmed and 20 acres for forage for his livestock.
  • Joshua Grafton was a mariner who lived with his wife Hannah.  When he died they had three children living with them -- Hannah, age 8; Joshua, age 6; and a baby, Priscilla, age 10 months.  Their house too had two stories, with two major rooms on the first floor and a room above each.  They too had a ‘shop’ attached to the house, which appeared to be a retail shop.  Their houselot and property was one acre.

Lesson 5 -- Assessment (See below)

The teacher will hand out to the students the Lesson Assessment Product, explain it to the students, and give them the rest of the period to complete the Assessment Essay using all the materials in their folder on Probates of Colonial New England.  The teacher may also opt to give certain students extra time to complete the Assessment Essay, if needed.

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The students will be handed both the Lesson Assessment Product (explanation and rubric) and Assessment Essay.  They will then write four paragraphs showing their understanding of the lesson.

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The Assessment Essay will be graded according to the rubric on the Lesson Assessment Product.  Additionally, class participation will be taken into account.

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The teacher may want to form groups such that ELL’s (English Language Learners) and/or SPED students are integrated in groups with other students who can help them.  Alternatively, the teacher may opt to have them in one group that s/he sits down with and helps discuss the Guiding Questions for each lesson.

In addition to the modification of extra time, already mentioned above, a teacher could opt to have some students or all students only write two paragraphs of the four.

Although the lesson plan suggests using the “jigsaw” method of discussion, the teacher could opt to use whatever discussion method she/he normally uses to allow equal participation.

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  • The teacher could arrange a trip to the John Ward House (preferably after the lesson), or to some similar colonial structure.
  • Students could investigate where saffron came from then/comes from today, and  its use then and now.
  • Students could investigate their own family history/records and/or do an oral history of their family and family tree by interviewing parents, grandparents, etc.


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  • The teacher could combine this activity with reading historical fiction that takes place in Colonial New England.  This could either be teacher-read or done as part of the students’ reading program. 
  • The students could write a story (their own historical fiction) about one of the members of the two households.


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Francis Plummer Will and Inventory, 1672.  Essex County Records, Massachusetts Archives, Probate Records: 24 January 1672

Francis and Beatrice Plummer lived in Newbury, Massachusetts in the seventeenth century, and suggest a modest household supported by his work as a linen weaver, a smith, a carpenter and a farmer of a sixteen-acre plot with an additional twenty acres for his animals.  Beatrice was his second wife. In Good Wives (1982), Laurel Thatcher Ulrich writes of Beatrice that, “the contents of her inventory suggest that Beatrice Plummer was adept not only at roasting, frying, and boiling but also at baking, the most difficult branch of cookery.”

Estate of Francis Plummer of Newbury.  The Probate Records of  Essex County, Volume II, Essex Institute, Salem, MA: 1917 (Partial transcription by Craig Jackson).

Although the students are given a copy of the original document to consult, the lesson only uses partial transcripts of the Plummer Probate.  These include the contents of only some of the rooms, the shop, and of the yard.  They purposely do not include the other biographical information included in the probate.  The spelling of some items has also been changed to the current English spelling of the words.

Joshua Grafton Probate Inventory, 1699.  Essex County Records, Massachusetts Archives, Probate Records: 18 October 1700. 

This probate is discussed at length in chapter one of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s Good Wives (1982) and provides an interesting contrast to the domestic economy suggested by the probate records for Francis Plummer, which Ulrich also addresses in the same chapter.  Joshua and Hanna Grafton resided in Salem and had three children at the time of Joshua’s death.  He worked as a mariner, and the couple also kept a small shop attached to their home.  Ulrich notes that the presence of the shop indicates that Hanna, unlike many other women in Salem, Massachusetts, would have served as the shopkeeper because of her husband’s absences at sea.


Baker, Emerson.   Transcription of the Joshua Grafton Probate Inventory, 1699.  Essex County Records, Massachusetts Archives, Probate Records: 18 October 1700.

This is the copy from which I took my partial excerpts and to which I refer to in my historical background essay.

Estate of Francis Plummer of Newbury.  The Probate Records of  Essex County, Volume II,1665-1674.  Essex Institute, Salem, MA: 1917

This is the copy from which I made the partial excerpts cited above and from which I cite in the historical background essay.

Jones, Jacqueline, et al. “The Puritan Experiment,” a section of Chapter 2 (p.45-51) “European Footholds on the Fringes of North America, 1600-1660. In Created Equal: A Social and Political History of the United States.  New York: Pearson Longman, 2005.

This part of the chapter gives information (numbers/occupations) about the immigrants who first came to New England

Newell, Margaret Ellen. “The Birth of New England in the Atlantic Economy: From Its Beginning to 1770.”  In Peter Temin, ed. Engines of Enterprise: An Economic History of New England. Cambridge, MA and London.  Harvard University Press, 2000.

This chapter, especially the section titled ‘The Domestic Economy,’ helps to explain and put into context the extra economic activities practiced by the Plummer and Grafton households, namely the craftwork of Francis Plummer (in addition to his farming), Beatrice Plummer’s possible trade in cheese, etc., and the small shop that was run by the Graftons in Salem, which took advantage of the importing of European goods into the port city.

Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher.  “The Ways of Her Household,” Chapter 1 of Good Wives: Image and reality in Northern New England, 1650-1750.  New York: Knopf, 1980.  Reprint, New York: Vintage Books, 1991.

In this chapter, Ulrich analyzes both the Plummer and Grafton probates extensively.  She shows how as historians we can examine probate documents to glean many facts about the people involved.  She emphasizes that indeed these are some of the few records from Colonial New England from which we can gain great information about activities of the women of the period, as this information is seldom recorded.       

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