The World of Credit in Colonial Massachusetts

James Richards and His Daybook, 1692-1711

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Occasionally scholars discover lost primary sources that change our understanding of a place or period. James Richards’s day book is such a find. This 325-year-old ledger had been passed down through generations of a New England family and was stored in a pillowcase in a dusty attic when it was handed to the historian James E. Wadsworth.

For years, James Richards, a prosperous and typical colonial farmer, tracked nearly five thousand transactions, involving more than six hundred individuals and stretching from Charlestown to Barnstable. Richards and his neighbors were bound together in a heterogeneous economy, reliant on networks of credit, barter, and sometimes cash. Richards practiced mixed husbandry farming, shipped goods by cart and by sloop, and produced and sold malt, salt, wool, and timber. The day book also reveals significant social details of Richards and his household, including his diverse trading partners, his extensive family connections, an Indian slave girl, and a well-dressed female servant. Available in both print and electronic editions, fully transcribed, annotated, and introduced by the editor, this record of economic life reinforces and challenges our understanding of colonial America.

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