What Really Happened to Sarah Poor (1671-1687)

Too many of JOHN BROWN’s (~1595-1686) early descendants are nothing but names and dates marking the brief span of time they lived. How they may have experienced the world can be surmised in part from the historical context in which they lived, but ultimately it’s speculation. Their stories are gone.

Even when details of their lives can be found that distinguish them from all of the other names and dates, as in the case of John Brown’s two Sarahs (his eldest daughter and his granddaughter), these details only represent lost stories crying out to be told:

Mother dead from smallpox, 17-year-old daughter gives birth to bastard child, died in prison?

I had to find out more.

As a shot in the dark, I went to Google Books and entered the search string, “Sarah Poor Prison.” This brought me to a 2013 work of scholarship, Under Household Government: Sex and Family in Puritan Massachusetts, by M. Michelle Jarrett Morris. Chapter 7, “Rebels, Traitors, and Slaves,” relates the details of what happened to a Sarah Poor after her mother, Sarah Brown Poor, died of smallpox in 1677.

In her introduction, Morris identifies the source of her information about Sarah Poor as original Massachusetts court records:

This book, which covers the period 1660 to 1700, grew out of more than five hundred cases located in the Suffolk and Middlesex County Court records and the records of the Court of Assistants (after 1692, the Superior Court of Judicature).1

Morris’s information about Sarah’s parents and where they lived is consistent with Asa’s account:

Sarah Poor was born to John Poor, a mariner, and Sarah Brown Poor, his wife, in Charlestown in April of 1671. Sarah’s life was not destined to be an easy one. Her parents had moved from Hampton, New Hampshire, to Charlestown, Massachusetts, in 1662, and they do not appear to have had much family in the area.2

The next year [1678] his oldest daughter, Mrs. Sarah Poor, was one of the victims to the smallpox in Charlestown, as which time 10 persons died. She left seven small children. The oldest, Sarah, was 17, and being left without a mother’s watchful care, she was shortly after in difficulty, being brought before Court for having a child. She was sentenced to be whipped and imprisoned. She afterwards died in jail, Feb. 9th, 1688.3

However, there is a big discrepancy between the two accounts as to how old Sarah was when her mother died of smallpox. Asa has her seventeen years old, whereas Morris gives her age as six:   “When Sarah was six years old, her mother died of smallpox.”4

My copy of the Brown genealogy doesn’t trace the matrilineal line, so I have names and dates for John Brown’s daughters and their spouses’ names, but not the children born of these unions. According to the information I have, SARAH POOR [BROWN] lived from 1643-1678. She married JOHN POOR on March 16, 1661.5

I set out to see if I could find any corroborating evidence that the Sarah Poor in Under Household Government was the same Sarah Poor as the one in Asa’s history, whose mother died of  smallpox. I believe I’ve found enough information to make that connection. (Sarah would be my first cousin eight times removed.)

According to the “New Hampshire Marriage Records, 1637-1947,” database on Family Search, Sarah Brown married John Poor on January 13, 1660 in Hampton, New Hampshire.6

The record of marriage provides scant information, but the names and place align, and the year is close to my date of 1661. Morris indicates that the family moved from Hampton, New Hampshire to Charlestown, Massachusetts in 1662, which is also consistent with the information I have.7

Morris states that Sarah was born to John and Sarah Brown Poor in April of 1671.8 The following birth record from the “Massachusetts, Town Clerk, Vital and Town Records, 1626-2001” shows that a child named Sarah was born to John and Sarah Poore on April 3, 1671 in Charlestown, Massachusetts.9

The next significant event is Sarah Brown Poor’s death from smallpox. Asa gives the date of death as 1678.10 Morris’s account has it happening when young Sarah was six, which would make it around 1677. The following death record from the “Massachusetts, Town Clerk, Vital and Town Records, 1626-2001” aligns with both Asa’s account and Morris’s in terms of names, date, location, and cause of death.11

According to Morris’s sources, Sarah Poor died in prison in February of 1687 at the age of fifteen.12 The Massachusetts Death Records list a Sarah Poor’s death on February 9, 1687 in Cambridge Gaole.13

It would appear, then, that Cousin Asa got Cousin Sarah’s date of birth wrong. It would also appear that he jumped to the conclusion that Sarah just ran wild after her mother died and got herself pregnant, which Morris’s meticulous scholarship shows couldn’t have been further from the truth:

Since John’s work would have taken him away from home for long periods, it is likely that Sarah was sent out to service at an early age [after her mother’s death]. By 1682, Sarah was almost certainly working in the home of Stephen Garey. On June 20 of that year, Sarah accused Garey, a thirty-one-year-old married man, of being the father of her bastard child. She was eleven years old. Since the age of consent was ten in Massachusetts Bay, Stephen Garey, presumably, missed being charged with statutory rape by only a few months. It is curious—and exceedingly unfortunate—that no one removed Sarah from the Garey  house hold after her conviction for fornication. Since there is no record stating that the court had ruled Stephen Garey to be the reputed father of Sarah’s bastard, perhaps the courts refused to believe the child. Three years later, at the age of fourteen, Sarah found herself once again pregnant. This time she refused to name the father of her child. When one of the women attending her delivery asked her that all-important question, Sarah replied, “It would doe no good for her nor to them to tell; and It would not pardon her sin to tell whose it  were.”  If the courts had not believed Sarah three years before, why would they believe her now? After her baby was delivered, seventy-five-year-old Martha Collins, an older and more experienced woman, arrived on the scene. Once again, Sarah Poor repeated that “It would doe no good to tell” who the father of her baby was. Martha then asked her, “could you as in the presence of god truly say that the man of the  house [(]where she then was) was not the father of her child.” Sarah “gave no Answer to the question.”

When Sarah appeared in court on July 7, 1685, she still refused to name the father of her child. Or was it children? The entry in the Middlesex County minute book stated that Sarah had been convicted of fornication “she having had two bastards borne of her body successively.” It is possible that the first of those two “successive” bastards was the child she had borne three years before in 1682. However, since the justices demanded that Sarah name the father of her “children” (and she had already named Stephen Garey as the father of her child born in 1682), it seems likely that Sarah had had another child who had gone unnoticed for a time by the authorities. For her obstinacy, the Middlesex County Court sentenced Sarah to be whipped “severely,” to be imprisoned and kept at hard labor for a year, and to be whipped once a month until she named the father of her children. A month later, Sarah, again, named Stephen Garey. Garey appeared in court, denied the charge, and posted bond. Although Sarah had fulfilled her obligation by naming Garey, she had no one to post her bond or pay her prison expenses. She remained in jail. Two months later, perhaps when her youngest child was thought to be old enough to wean, the Middlesex County Court ordered the Charlestown selectmen to see to the care of Sarah Poor’s children. Stephen Garey entered a bond guaranteeing that he would be responsible for paying for the care of Poor’s children. Sarah’s father may have been at sea during the final round of her troubles, or he may simply have lacked the resources to give bond and pay her prison expenses. When he died in May of 1686, Sarah’s chances of ever being freed probably died as well. The final record of Sarah’s life is dated March 6, 1687. On that date the prison keeper requested a reimbursement of one pound, six shillings, for tending Sarah in her illness, and providing a shroud and a grave. Sarah had died in February. Had she lived two more months, she would have been sixteen years old.14

I’m grateful to Morris for setting the record straight about what happened to young Cousin Sarah, even if it did come over 300 years too late.

 1M. Michelle Jarrett Morris, Introduction to Under Household Government : Sex and Family in Puritan Massachusetts, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2013, eBook Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost (accessed June 4, 2017), 2.

2Morris, Under Household Government, 223.

3Asa Warren Brown, “From the Exeter News Letter, October 27, 1851: The Hampton Brown Family” (unpublished manuscript, Personal Papers of Ronald Dalrymple Brown, n.d.), 4.

4Morris, Under Household Government, 223.

5Katharine Brown Gauffreau, The Ancestry of Ronald Dalrymple Brown (unpublished manuscript, 2012), 16.

6“New Hampshire Marriage Records, 1637-1947,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:FLXD-HSV : 12 December 2014), John Poore and Sarah Browne, 13 Jan 1660; citing Hampton Rockingham , New Hampshire, Bureau of Vital Records and Health Statistics, Concord; FHL microfilm 1,001, 292.

7Morris, Under Household Government, 223.

8Morris, Under Household Government, 223.

9“Massachusetts, Town Clerk, Vital and Town Records, 1626-2001,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:F46P-QVL : 13 July 2016), Sarah Poore, 03 Apr 1671; citing Birth, Charlestown, Suffolk, Massachusetts, United States, , town clerk offices, Massachusetts; FHL microfilm 740, 995.

10Brown, “Hampton Brown Family,” 4.

11“Massachusetts, Town Clerk, Vital and Town Records, 1626-2001,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:FH2W-HJD : 13 July 2016), Sarah Poore, 28 Dec 1677; citing Death, Charlestown, Suffolk, Massachusetts, United States, , town clerk offices, Massachusetts; FHL microfilm 740,995.

12Morris, Under Household Government, 225.

13“Massachusetts, Town Clerk, Vital and Town Records, 1626-2001,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:FH2W-FYM : 13 July 2016), Sarah Poore, 09 Feb 1687; citing Death, Charlestown, Suffolk, Massachusetts, United States, , town clerk offices, Massachusetts; FHL microfilm 740, 995.

14Morris, Under Household Government, 223-225.

12 thoughts on “What Really Happened to Sarah Poor (1671-1687)

  1. Excellent sleuthing on your part to discover which details were correct or not. However, it’s a very sad story and hard to believe the age of consent in the 1600s was 10!!! It makes one wonder what was going on in those times.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Linda. I was appalled by what happened to Sarah to the point of having a hard time even wrapping my mind around it. Not only was she raped, she was brutalized by the courts.


    • Thank you for your comment, Wendy. What I found particularly hard to stomach was that from all appearances, no one offered Sarah any kind of help or protection. She was just a child.


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