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The issue of the strays

Reader Teresa Kahle was puzzled by some early New England records reflecting the handling of stray animals.

“In Suffolk Deeds, I’m seeing many notices regarding the finding of stray animals like cows and horses,” she wrote.

estrays“It says they are ‘cried’ at Boston and Dedham ‘to lawe’ and ‘prized’ at a certain monetary value by other men of the community. What’s going on there? Did a man who found a stray, advertised that he found it, get to keep it and the prized part is an appraisal for tax purposes? Or are the men prizing actually buying the strays from the men who found them? Seems like quite a racket!”

The example that she quoted to The Legal Genealogist is the one you see illustrating this post:

Jno Dwight Constable of dedham: informed me & desired might be Recorded that [ ] fisher of dedham :the 6. 12/mo 55 tooke up a strajed Cowe wch was for Coulor black bodied bobtajle some gray haires on his left flancke was Cryed at Boston & dedha[] to law. & Prised by michael metcalf. & Thomas metcalf at 3lb 10s within a weeke. Edw. Rawson1

These early Massachusetts records were printed in the late 19th century after local lawyers and residents realized that the records were deteriorating due to the passage of time and to exposure to heat and light. This first book, called Liber I, covers some of the very earliest activities of our colonial ancestors.

So… what exactly did it mean that this Dedham resident had taken up a stray cow, that the cow was “cryed” at Boston and Dedham, and that it was “prised”?

The answer, of course, is found in the law.

The very first Massachusetts statute dealing with stray animals was passed by the General Court — the early colonial legislature — on 3 May 1631. it simply provided that the owner of stray beasts would be liable for any damages that they caused to the crops of others.2

In November 1637, the law was changed, and any person taking up a stray animal was required to give notice to the constable of the town within three days.3 By 1647, animals in the colony that were kept in the common areas were required to be branded4 and public pounds were established in some communities for dealing with the problem of stray animals.

But the general system in operation throughout the colony was the one reflected in the Suffolk deeds: a person taking up a stray would give notice to the constable of the town with a description of the animal. The town crier would inform the townspeople that the animal had been taken up and provide a description that would enable the owner to claim it. Finally, the animal would be valued — “prised” — as of that moment and that would help determine who got what portion of the animal’s value if the owner didn’t ever claim it.

That system was fully set out in the laws by the end of the 17th century and you can read the details in the “Act Relating to Strays and Lost Goods” adopted in 1698.5 Here’s what that law required:

• Anybody who took possession of a stray animal had to report a full description to the town clerk within 24 hours.6

• He also had to have the description posted “in some publick place” and “cryed by the constable or public cryer in such town, on three several days, as a publick meeting of the inhabitants thereof”.7

• He also had to report to the local justice of the peace who would appoint two men to value the animal.8

• The owner had a year to claim the stray, and had to pay all the fees for the town cryer, the clerk, the justice of the peace and the appraisal — and “such necessary charges as shall have arisen for the keeping of such strays.”9

• If nobody claimed the stray, then the finder could pay half the value (after expenses were deducted) and keep the beast. The money went to the town treasury.10

It makes perfectly good sense when you think about it.

First, the citizens needed to find a way to deal with the problem of stray animals. On one hand, they didn’t want animals just wandering around. On the other hand, they didn’t want to encourage people to swipe animals owned by others — and they didn’t want fights breaking out over who got to keep any animals that did stray.

The system that they chose — requiring public notice that a stray animal had been found and then a system for taking care of the financial end of things — simply made good sense.

The “crying out” part of the law reflects the reality of life in early America. Most people sure weren’t getting a newspaper. They certainly were getting their news on the Internet either. But they all needed to know what was going on. Sure you could post a notice in some public place, and the law did require that. But what about all the people who couldn’t read? Telling them the news, rather than expecting them to read it, was the way around that problem. Hence, the crying out.

Great question … and it sure points out how important animals were to our early ancestors, doesn’t it…?


  1. Suffolk Deeds: Liber I (Boston: Rockwell & Churchill. 1880), 2-3; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 4 Jan 2015).
  2. Records of the Governor and Company of the Massachusetts Bay in New England: 1628-1641 (Boston: State Printer, 1853) I: 86; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 4 Jan 2015).
  3. Ibid., 211.
  4. Records of the Governor and Company of the Massachusetts Bay in New England: 1642-1649 (Boston: State Printer, 1853) II: 190, 225; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 4 Jan 2015).
  5. Chapter 9, “Act Relating to Strays and Lost Goods,” 15 June 1698, in Acts and Resolves … of the Province of Massachusetts Bay (Boston: State Printers, 1869), I: 326-327; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 4 Jan 2015).
  6. Ibid., §2.
  7. Ibid., §1.
  8. Ibid., §2.
  9. Ibid., §3.
  10. Ibid.
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