John Fuller of Newton

Town Officers

Every New England town had a large number of officials or “town officers” who were elected to their positions every year.

Constables —chief law enforcement officers of the town; maintain public order, collect taxes when no one else is elected to do so, distribute the town meeting warrants and carry out the orders of the Selectmen and the courts.

Fence Viewers —see that legal fences are built and maintained; may also mediate disputes over fences at boundaries. Legal fences were very important in an agricultural community where loose animals could cause a great deal of damage to crops. The law required each man to surround his fields by strong fences at least four feet high, and the fence viewer was responsible to check the legality of these fences. If an animal broke through a legal fence, the animal’s owner was responsible for any damages; if the fence was illegal, the owner of the field could not claim compensation for lost crops.

Selectmen — were the chief administrative officers of the town. Call town meetings; license hospitals, innkeepers, liquor sellers, entertainment shows; regulate travel during an epidemic, regulate the location of unpleasing trades such as tanning, killing animals for meat, distilling liquors; make out the list of men chosen for jury duty; appoint guardians for those judged lunatics; generally maintain the government between town meetings. In many Massachusetts towns, the Selectmen were also the Overseers of the Poor. Towns were required to elect three, five, seven or nine selectmen.

Surveyors of Highways —supervise the laying out and construction of new roads and the maintenance of old ones. Most towns were divided geographically into Highway Districts, with a supervising Surveyor of Highways for each district.

Surveyors of Lumber —inspect and measure planks, boards and timber put up for sale to ensure that it is properly measured and labeled.

Tax Collector —collects all taxes assessed by the assessors. The job of Tax Collector was an unpopular one. If the Tax Collector failed to collect all the taxes assessed, he was responsible for making up the difference. Because of the risk, few people wanted the position. As an incentive to take the office, towns offered a salary, making the Tax Collector the only town officer who was regularly paid. Because the monies collected were so important to the town, the Tax Collector was also required to “procure sureties” or post a bond. Similar to insurance, this made sure that the town would be compensated if the tax collector did not perform his job properly.

Town Clerk —responsible for keeping records of births, deaths, and marriages; keeps all town records and the minutes of all town meetings.

Townsman – a native or inhabitant of a town.

Town Officers —refers to all the elected officials of a town. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts required that each town meet every year in March or April and elect a Town Clerk, three, five, seven or nine Selectmen, Overseers of the Poor (the Selectmen could fill this role, if the town did not elect Overseers of the Poor), three or more Assessors, two or more Fence Viewers, Surveyors of Highways, Surveyors of Lumber, Wardens, a Treasurer, two or more Hog Reeves, Tythingmen, Sealers of Leather, Measurers of Wood, Clerks of the Market, Constables, “and other usual town officers.” It is interesting to note that some towns did not elect all of the officers named in the law, and elected other officers either from tradition or necessity, which were not specified.

Town Treasurer —is responsible for handling the town’s money. Receives tax payments from the Tax Collector as well as other payments, pays the town’s bills or orders, makes an annual financial report.

The Tithingman was a paid position in a Puritan community who enforced rules related to the Sabbath day. He went from house to house on Sunday making sure everyone was at church. Anyone caught skipping church, or working or traveling on Sunday was fined. The tithing-man also made sure no one fell asleep during the church service. He had a stick he used to bop men and children on the head with who were sleeping or misbehaving; the other end had a feather which was used to tickle women with. He also collected the taxes paid to the church.

John Fuller of Newton served as an elected officer several times in his lifetime:

See: Town Officers



Descriptions are based on Isaac Goodwin, Town Officer: or, Laws of Massachusetts Relative to the Duties of Municipal Officers (Worcester: Dorr and Howland, 1825).