Past Events & Activities

Primary Sources


Lesson Plans

Links and Resources

Meet our partners
Staff/Management Plan

Contact Us!

Return to this topic's index page

Visit other sections
in this topic:

Content Session Material
Primary Sources
Resources and Links



Childhood in Colonial America
Primary Sources

Theme: Social Change and Social Reform
Topic: Childhood in Colonial America
Date: 10 July 2006

Primary Sources from Partner Collections
Primary Sources from Local Archives and Collections
Additional Primary Sources Used in Content and Follow-up Sessions

Sources selected and annotated by SALEM in History staff with contributions by Lisa Wilson, Charles J. MacCurdy Professor of American History, Department of History, Connecticut College.

Primary Sources from Partner Collections
*Peabody Essex Museum objects on this page are also online at the Museum's ARTscape feature.

Narbonne House, c. 1670
Salem, MA
Salem Maritime National Historic Site, National Park Service

"The part of the house with the high peaked roof was built by butcher Thomas Ives in 1675. Ives added a lean-to to the south side of the house and a kitchen lean-to to the back of the house. After his death the house was sold to Simon Willard, who around 1740 replaced the southern lean-to with the gambrel-roofed addition that stands today. From 1750 to 1780, the house was owned by Capt. Joseph Hodges, and in 1780 the house was purchased by tanner Jonathan Andrew. The house was lived in by descendents of the Andrew family from 1780 to 1964, when the house was sold to the National Park Service. The Narbonne House (named for Andrew's great-niece Sarah Narbonne, who lived in the house from 1823 to 1890 and her daughter Mary, who lived here until 1905) is a remarkable example of a middle-class home of the 17th and 18th centuries."

Quoted from the Salem Maritime National Historic Site website:


John Ward House, c. 1684
Salem, MA
Peabody Essex Museum

"The John Ward House (Federal Garden area), ca. 1684, is one of the finest surviving seventeenth-century buildings in New England. It originally stood on a one-acre plot with a kitchen garden, an outhouse, and a well—opposite the jail used during the witchcraft trials. The house was moved to the museum campus in 1910. The style of this house is often called First Period or Post-Medieval—characterized by the extremely steep pitch of the gables, large central chimney, asymmetrical façade, batten door, diamond-paned leaded casement windows, and second-story overhang. One of the earliest buildings to be relocated and restored for historic interpretation in the United States, the house is a National Historic Landmark."

Quoted from the Peabody Essex Museum website, "Historic Houses."



Mather, Cotton. A family well-ordered.  Or an essay to render parents and children happy in one another...[excerpts] Boston: B. Green & J. Allen, for Michael Perry... & Benjamin Eliot, 1699. Transcription by Abaigeal Duda. (Phillips Library Card Catalog # 173.5 / M42)

Text from this source as well as other writings by and about Cotton Mather may be found on-line at the Hall of Church History:

In this work, Cotton Mather (1663-1728) relies on fathers to head the goals and initiatives of the family, but he does not exclude mothers and children from responsibility.  All are expected to do what is necessary to fulfill their religious and secular responsibilities to their God and their community. An often-quoted aspect of this charge is “a Good Education, that we should bestow upon our Children; They should Read, and Write, and Cyphar [sic], and be put unto some Agreeable Callings; and not only our Sons, but our Daughters also should be taught such Things, as will afterwards make them Useful in their places.”

Cotton Mather is best known today for his involvement in the witch trials at the end of the seventeenth century.  Born in Boston, Mather was the son of Increase Mather and the grandson of John Cotton and Richard Mather. At age twelve, Cotton Mather entered Harvard, and at age eighteen received his M.A. degree from his father, who was the college president.  Mather went on to become the minister Boston's Old North church, but he was also interested in scientific issues.  He supported vaccination for small pox, for example, and also published (among his 400 published works) Curiosa Americana (1712-24), which won him membership in the Royal Society of London. His account of the inoculation episode was published in the society's transactions. 

In Memorable Providences, Relating to Witchcrafts and Possessions (1689), Mather set forth his belief in the supernatural, which was typical for his day: 

Go tell Mankind, that there are Devils and Witches; and that tho those night-birds least appear where the Day-light of the Gospel comes, yet New-Engl. has had Examples of their Existence and Operation; and that no only the Wigwams of Indians, where the pagan Powwows often raise their masters, in the shapes of Bears and Snakes and Fires, but the House of Christians, where our God has had his constant Worship, have undergone the Annoyance of Evil spirits.

 Go tell the world, What Prays can do beyond all Devils and Witches, and What it is that these Monsters love to do; and through the Demons in the Audience of several standers-by threatened much disgrace to thy Author, if he let thee come abroad, yet venture That, and in this way seek a just Revenge on Them for the Disturbance they have given to such as have called on the Name of God.


Painted Cradle, 1710-1740
Essex County, Mass.
Wood, paint
Gift of Mrs. Jacob C.R., Peabody
Peabody Essex Museum

"In the colonial period, rocking was deemed an essential activity to establish a newborn baby's sleeping pattern. In a harsh world with a high infant mortality rate, sleep was key to survival. A hooded cradle with high sides also provided protection from drafts."

Quoted from ARTscape at, (from: Kevill-Davies, Yesterday's Children, 106-110; Dean Fales, American Painted Furniture, 78).


Portrait of Sarah Caroll Moses (1738-1835)  and her
daughter Betsy (b. 1780.), ca. 1781
Benjamin Blyth (1746-1811)
Salem, MA
Oil on Canvas
Peabody Essex Museum

"Blyth was born in Salem, Massachusetts, and is known chiefly for his finely drawn pastel portraits dating from the Revolutionary War period.  Although he later advertised that he did "limning in Oil, Crayon, and Miniature," only a few of his oil portraits are known. He left the Salem area for Virginia in the early 1780's and died in Ohio.  Sarah Carroll (1738-1835) married Benjamin Moses in 1761.  She is shown here with her ninth child, Betsy (b. 1780), who is clasping a silver and coral whistle."

Quoted from  In the American Spirit: United States History as Seen by Contemporaries, Volume I: to 1877. David Kennedy & Thomas Bailey, Eds. Houghton Mifflin: NY, 2006.



"Colonial Laws of Massachusetts and Plymouth." In The Common School Journal. Edited by Horace Mann. Boston: March, Capen, Lyon and Webb, 1839. Education Collection, Salem State College Archives, Salem State College.

In this article in The Common School Journal, Horace Mann reprints two excerpts from colonial laws about how teenagers are expected to behave towards their parents: they are to be executed if they "curse or smite" their parents. That is, the law notes, unless parents have failed to properly educate their children. Mann used these laws to argue that parents and the greater society were obligated to provide education for all children in the state. For the purposes of the Colonial Childhood topic, it is interesting to note the strict expectations of children and the description of 16-year-olds as still "children," yet subject to corporal punishment.

|return to top of page|

Primary Sources from Local Archives and Collections



Cotton, Josiah.  Diary, 5 February 1723-1724. Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston, MA: 162-168.

Josiah Cotton (1769/80-1756) was the son of Reverend John Cotton (A.B. 1657) and a nephew of Cotton Mather (1663-1728).  Josiah Cotton worked as a schoolmaster, Indian missionary, and he held public offices. These excerpts from his sketch of his life, or diary, outline rules for his family that Cotton wrote in 1723-4, and 1726-7.  Cotton was father to fourteen children with his wife Hannah (Sturtevant) Cotton.


|return to top of page|

Additional Primary Sources Used in Content and Follow-up Sessions


Unidentified artist
Elizabeth Clarke Freake (Mrs. John Freake) and Baby Mary, about 1671 and 1674
Worcester Art Museum

This is a portrait of a prominent colonial woman and her child. It depicts the infant, Mary, in a stiff position that was typical for the period. This restricted posture also harmonizes with expectations for parents to raise children in a disciplined environment. As Cotton Mather wrote in 1699, " Parents, With a Sweet Authority over your Children,Rebuke them for, and Restrain them from, every thing that my prove prejudicial unto their Salvation."



Mayhew, Experience. Indian Converts:  London: Printed for Samuel Gerrish, Boston, 1728.  Reprinted by University Microfilms International, 1992: 219-275.

Experience Mayhew (1673-1758) was the son and grandson of Indian missionaries who owned land in Nantucket and on the Elizabeth Islands (located off of Cape Cod).  Experience Mayhew likewise preached to Native American Indians on Martha’s Vineyard (then Gay’s Head).  His book recounts 129 Native Americans who converted to Christianity. 

A copy of this book and a number of other writings by white missionaries to Native American Indians is held in the archives of the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center (for information about the center, see their website at



Henry Pelham (Boy with a Squirrel), 1765
John Singleton Copley, American, 1738–1815
Oil on canvas
Gift of the artist's great-granddaughter
Musuem of Fine Arts, Boston 1978.297

Copley (1738-1815) painted this portrait of his half-brother when Henry Pelham was 14 years old. Copley was the region's premier artist, and he created this portrait to demonstrate his remarkable, largely self-taught, abilities. It is useful to compare the style and skill of this work with the early Elizabeth Freake and Baby Mary (1670s) and the Benjamin Blyth portrait (above) of Sarah Carol Moses and her daughter Betsy, from about 1786. Blyth, a Salem-born artist, does not portray the same modelling and sensitivity to the figure that Copley's work suggests. By comparing all three works, it is evident that there is no one "colonial" style of portraiture.

Copley's portrait depicts Henry as dexterous, responsible (taming and caring for his pet), thoughtful, and of an "elevated" or moral nature (suggested by Henry's eyes which seem to stare ahead and slightly toward the horizon, or heaven).

|return to top of page|