Warnings out

William Burgis, “Detail from a south east view of ye great town of Boston in New England in America,” ca. 1722-23. Courtesy of the Boston Public Library

The practice of “warning out” individuals from New England communities can be traced to the mid-seventeenth century, and served as a method of pressuring (potentially troublesome) outsiders to leave town and settle elsewhere. In his Warnings Out in New England, Josiah Henry Benton explained that the roots of this practice could be found in English law. As he put it, New England settlers “necessarily brought with them the ancient and fundamental principles of the English law, one of which was that the inhabitants of a municipality were responsible for the conduct and support of each other, each for all and all for each.”[1]

To their core, New Englanders were practical, and warning out newcomers served as a way to avoid becoming responsible for potential public charges. Throughout New England, the practice, and its enforcement, differed from state to state and from community to community.

But why are these records useful? They serve as a tool for tracking the movements of individuals, particularly women and those who lived on the fringes of society. Warning out records often mention the previous community in which the individual lived, other family members, and where they were residing at present. Many of our ancestors do not appear in land, tax, vital, and probate records, and tracking their movements can be difficult. In these instances, warning out records can be particularly useful, helping us to piece together the lives of our forebears.

Most warning out records can be found within town and court records; many have been transcribed and published according to geography. Be sure to check the catalog of your local state archives, as well as the archives at your local town hall.

Here is a short list to aid you in your research!

  • Alicia Crane Williams, Plymouth County, Massachusetts Warnings Out, The Mayflower Descendant, Volumes 46,  48, 49, 50.
  • Alden M. Rollins, Vermont Warnings Out, Vol 1: Northern Vermont and Vol 2: Southern Vermont (Camden, Me. : Picton Press, 1995).
  • Ruth Ann Wilder Sherman, Robert M. Sherman, Robert S. Wakefield, An Index to Plymouth County, Massachusetts Warnings Out from the Plymouth Court Records, 1686-1859 (Plymouth, Mass. : General Society of Mayflower Descendants, 2003).
  • Warnings Out of Town, New Hampshire, microform (Concord, N.H.: Division of Records Management and Archives). Available at NEHGS Library.
  • Worcester County, Massachusetts, Warnings, 1737-1788 (Worcester: Franklin P. Rice, 1899).
  • Ruth Wallis Herndon, Unwelcome Americans: Living on the Margin in Early New England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001).
  • Cornelia Hughes Dayton, Sharon V. Salinger, Robert Love’s Warnings: Searching for Strangers in Colonial Boston (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014).
  • Josiah Henry Benton, Warning Out in New England, 1656–1818 (Boston: W.B. Clarke Company, 1911).
  • Warning out Book, 1745-1770, Boston Overseers of the Poor Records. Massachusetts Historical Society , Boston, Ms. N-1879.


[1] Josiah Henry Benton, Warning Out in New England, 1656–1818 (Boston: W.B. Clarke Company, 1911), 4–5.

About Sheilagh Doerfler

Sheilagh, a native of Chelmsford, Massachusetts, received her B.A. in History and Communication from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Her research interests include New England, Norway, Sweden, Ireland, Westward Migration, and adoptions.

9 thoughts on “Warnings out

  1. I was shocked and saddened when I learned a 4th great-grandmother, widowed and living in Gorham, ME in the early 1800s, Elizabeth (Warren) Parker, was issued a warning out. Then I learned it wasn’t necessarily as disgraceful as it first sounded, as it protected the town from having to support the individual should that become necessary. In this case, my dear great-
    grandmother Elizabeth Parker then moved to Durham, Maine, and lived for more than 40 years at the home of her son, Nathaniel Parker. What upset me the most about Elizabeth’s Warning Out was that Elizabeth’s husband John Parker, a Gorham, Maine resident, was a Revolutionary War private who enlisted in Gorham and was very active in multiple campaigns during the war including the famous Bagaduce Expedition in Castine Maine in 1779, the year he and Elizabeth married. Pvt John Parker as a civilian eventually died many years later, lost at sea in a fishing expedition.

    1. Barb, thank you for these links! I’m a big fan of Google Books for all the scanning they’ve done of these old books…not that you can always take every “fact” in them without scrutiny, but I find them very helpful.

  2. Do read the Dayton / Salinger book, *Robert Love’s Warnings,* as it clears up a number of misconceptions from earlier books. “Warned out” did not mean expelled from the town, only notified that one would not qualify for town support in the case of indigency–and there was a state system which would kick in instead. It’s really about jurisdiction, rather than New England civic hard-heartedness.

    1. Thank you for the clear explanation as the article assumed we knew what a warning out was.

  3. My ancestor was warned out in 1836 in Geauga County, Ohio. Town Records (p. 173) for Leroy Township, Geauga/Lake County, Ohio, show he was “warned out” of town by the constable on 10 May 1836 (to avoid any legal responsibility by the Township for his financial maintenance). He and his wife had a young baby, and his parents and family lived nearby. What a surprise to find that in the records!

  4. A lot of Bristol County, Mass., warnings out are in my transcription of Bristol County Court of General Sessions of the Peace records, online here at AmericanAncestors.org.

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