If You Were a Puritan: What Would Be Your Title?

If you lived in the Massachusetts Bay or Plymouth colonies in the 17th century what would your title have been?  Our early colonial ancestors had traditions in assigning honorific titles that were not based on marital status.

The Puritans and Pilgrims used different standards, and the majority of the early colonists would NOT have been referred to as Mr. or Mrs. A review of the Quarterly Court Records, the Mayflower Compact and many records from the Salem Witchcraft Trials reveal various titles of distinction.

The Mayflower Compact, one of our earliest documents signed by the pilgrims or separatists reveals only eleven of the forty-one signers as Mr. The other thirty used only their first and surnames. As recent arrivals from England, they would have followed the English traditions. Mister is a direct variant of master which was further derived from the Old English meagester, meaning “one having control or authority.” Well-educated and elite Englishmen may have carried royal titles, and those not of royal descent, literate tradesmen, and skilled artisans would have been referred to as Mr. 

In the Plymouth and Massachusetts colonies, Mr. or Master was an honorific title used for gentlemen, professional men and substantial citizens. The person usually held an office of dignity or higher military ran or employed laborers.  Their wives would be referred to as Mrs. or Mistress. Occupation and moral character were often not relevant. Ministers were often referred to as “Mr. Reverend ____”.

The term Goodman and Goodwife or Goody was a designation for the middle class. These were polite and respectful forms of address for persons who were entitled to no other (i.e. a peasant.) In New England, it was respectable but signaled no elevation in social status. At times, even men who were highly respectable and a well to do members of the community were referred to as Goodman. The titles of Goody and Goodman started to fall into disuse and confusion by the 1690’s. In the Salem witchcraft trials, Sarah Good, a woman of low status, was referred to as Goody Good.

The Salem witch trial documents show much variance and inconsistency in the use of titles. Thomas Putnam, a man of significant influence and some wealth is referred to as Mr. Thomas Putnam and Thomas Putnam. Ann Putnam Sr., his wife, was usually referred to as the wife of Thomas Putnam, Goody Putnam or Mrs. Putnam.

The title of Goody or Goodman started to fall into disuse and confusion by the late 1690’s. In the Salem trials, we see Sarah Good, a woman of low status referred to as both Goody Good and Sarah Good.

The Ten Prisoners of Ipswich Letter, written by ten women who were imprisoned in Ipswich and accused of witchcraft,  shows several female titles.

  • Three widows refer to themselves as Widow___
  • Four called themselves Goodwife _______
  • One was wife of ____
  • Two women used only their first and surname.

Mehitabel Downing, my 9th great grandmother, used only her first and surname and was married. In her accusation document, Mehitabel is listed to as Goody Downing.

Another of the accused was Rachel Hatfield, a destitute woman who was in “limbo.” She was married to a man living with another woman, and he fathered three children out of wedlock with his live in servant. The courts refused her a divorce. With her confused status, she wasn’t considered a goodwife or “wife of ___.”

The Records of the Essex Quarterly Courts reveal the desire to use honorifics for the more educated and socially prosperous. The court magistrates were often the most elite with the title of Capt., Gov. Col. Lt Col, Esq or Mr. The men listed as jurors were most often not titled with just a few noted as Mr. The title of Goodman rarely surfaces in the jury pool.

In the early years of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, we find a man consistently referred to as “The worshipful John Humphreys.” He was a well-educated and wealthy Puritan who became disenchanted with his fellow colonists’ strong religious beliefs. He returned to England and left his young daughters in the care of a servant causing quite a scandal with charges of the servant’s abuse. It does not appear that Humphreys served as a clergy man, so this title is a mystery.

Emanuel Downing is my tenth great grandfather. Emanuel was a well to do barrister from England who held positions of prominence in the colonies. He sat as a court magistrate and was also referred to at least once as the worshipful Em. Downing. His titles reveal the inconsistent pattern of honorific titles and spelling:

Emanuell Downing

Emanuel Downing

Emanuel Downinge

Mr.Emanuell Downing, Esq

Mr. Emal Downinge

Mr. Emanuell Downing

The Worshipful Em. Downing

We don’t know for certain what titles were used in social conversations and greetings. It seems logical that social protocol required the middle and lower class people to use the titles of their social superiors. The records of trials reveal many inconsistencies, but they usually referred to women by just their first and last names or Goody ____. The teen aged girls who were the accusers in the Salem witchcraft trials are referred to by their first and last names. Mary Warren refers to Elizabeth Procter as Mistress Procter because she was a servant in the Procter home. All other references to Elizabeth are Goody Procter.

In a private conversation between friends, it seems likely that the people would have used only first names. If referring to their friend in conversation with others, they likely would have used the honorific title.

So, back to the original question: What would do you suppose you would be called?

Would I be Goodwife Gawell, Goody Gawell or Mistress Gawell?

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