Holliston Census 1790 – Along The Indifferent Road

The first United States Census of Holliston took place in 1790, and the numbers, names and stories appear on the two pages that tabulated all the citizens of this town. A mere list of names on two pages was all that was needed to tell a story about Holliston after the Revolution, when the new nation was still evolving politically. President George Washington had just traveled through Holliston in November 1789, during his New England tour while wending his way toward New York City where, on January 8, 1790, he delivered to Congress the first State of the Union address in American history. George’s experience traversing Holliston on the road that bears his name, albeit not mentioned in his diary, is well-documented by eyewitness accounts of the event. Who were the people who might have seen him pass by this part of his journey along what he described as “an indifferent road”? The U.S. Census of 1790 gives us a fleeting view, as fleeting as Washington’s visit. More comment on that subject later.

The first U. S. Census mentioned the names of the heads of household – mostly men, and a few widowed women. Single women otherwise rarely lived on their own, instead were more often part of extended families, due to their oftentimes limited economic status. We can only imagine what it must have been like to manage alone a home and often a farm. The census categories also tallied the results for each category:

  • Names of Heads of Families – 150
  • Free white Males, of 16 years and upwards – 237
  • Free white males under 16 years – 199
  • Free white Females – 424
  • All other free Persons – 15
  • Slaves – 0

The way persons were enumerated in 1790 is, of course, very different than modern-day counts. In 1790, the new government was apparently very interested in the number of males of all ages and less concerned about females. Their names are often lost to history, as many genealogists can attest to the challenge of finding and identifying women on family trees, but here we find the names of a few women who were on their own, raising families and living in a society that placed little political nor social value on them.

There was Hannah (Hill) Merrifield who had married Joseph on September 15, 1736. They lived in that part of Holliston known as the Old South End, an area that is now part of Medway. There was a Merrifield family that lived on the road now known as Fisher Street.

Was Abigail Knowlton, married in 1781, Daniel’s widow? Or was she Abigail Knowlton, the pauper who died in 1794 – or the widow, wife of Nathan who died at the house of industry (poor house) in 1832? Both are hard luck stories of poor women with little support.

Was Sibbel Johnson the woman married to Benjamin Marshall in 1756, the woman who died of consumption, a widow, in 1796? All the fragments of her life are pieced together from several sources, just as much of the history about women was counted as less important than those of men. Ah, such is history.

And what about “all other free persons?” This category enumerated free African Americans who lived in Holliston. Two families are listed in 1790 – Sambo Freeman and Cato Titus – who, alas, has disappeared beyond the fog of history. We do know a great deal about Sambo Freeman. He was freed from slavery in 1754 by John Adams of Wrentham and enjoyed a reputation as a master carpenter. He raised his family in Holliston and gained fame as one of the signatories on a plea to the Massachusetts General Court in 1773 asking that enslaved persons in this state be allowed to work for their freedom and return to Africa if they desired.  His history has endured long enough to be found today on the internet, a distinction shared by very few other Hollistonians of that era – a concept that would certainly boggle the minds of 18th century citizens. He died in 1797, his last days on earth recorded by Rev. Timothy Dickinson:

  • “Friday September 29, 1797 – I visited and prayed with Sambo Freeman, an old Negro. He talked like a Christian. He said, this is his last sickness.
  • Saturday, September 30, 1797 – In my study. Sambo died at 11 o’clock, AM.
  • Monday, October 2, 1797 – The Negroes have, today, paid great respect to Sambo’s character. They buried him with great decency.”

Several names listed on the 1790 census do conjure up local history and a few have found their way to the internet. Most significant is Staples Chamberlain. He has secured a place in Holliston’s history as the man who traveled to Valley Forge with a wagonload of supplies for the soldiers during that grim winter where the cause for American independence hung in the balance. He was born in 1730, was the Captain of the Militia Company of Foot in Holliston in Captain Samuel Bullard’s Regiment “who did in consequence of the alarm on April 19, 1775 march to Roxbury.” (Time of service from three to eleven days)

Under his command was his brother Enoch – a man who would go down in local history as a curmudgeon – a complainer and notorious troublemaker. Somehow, Staples kept him in line and managed to at least enlist him in the cause for American independence that bequeathed to him a modicum of dignity – or at least kept him out of trouble for a few days.  Many of Chamberlain’s militiamen are listed in the 1790 census.  The names from the heads of household list are still familiar – Bullard, Chamberlain, Fisk, Merrifield, Adams, Hill, Wheelock, Leland. Alas, some of those names today are only now found on street signs.

Many of the persons on the 1790 census also died during the decade. Deacon Aaron Phipps (3 males over the age of 16 and 3 females) died in 1792. Although a few lived to an advanced age, many died of diseases that we have little experience with, such as smallpox in the case of Mr. Phipps, all those unspecified fevers, and consumption – tuberculosis and other lung ailments. Staples Chamberlain, age 65, died May 25, 1796 “by a fall, in Roxbury as he was going to Boston. He fell down a flight of stairs in the night and was found in the morning dead!” (Holliston Vital Records, to the Year 1850).  Asa Bullard, a private with the Militia in 1775, and listed on the 1790 census, died in 1803, at the age of 73, “of a cancer under his ear.”

Deacon Aaron Phipps, died 1792, Central Burying Ground

“The Smallpox, in the natural way, usually carried off 8 out of 100. By inoculation, one dies, nearly out of 300. It is observed that more girls than boys die of the smallpox in the natural way.”  – Essex Journal and New Hampshire Packet, October 17, 1792.

The population count that was of the utmost interest to enumerators was the “free white males of 16 years old, and upwards” a total of 237. The final count of all citizens regardless of age, sex, or “other” was 875. Maps of Holliston of this time were few. There is one for 1794 which shows that Holliston once stretched from a northern border with Framingham – there was no Ashland yet – and the southern town line extended all the way to Bellingham. The only road shown is the County Road (today’s Washington Street). The map, difficult to read, does show a few locations of persons – but is mostly a rough drawing of one road and bodies of water – several brooks (County, Chicken, Cedar Swamp, Northerly Branch Charles River, Cold Spring, and Dopping). Lake Winthrop was once divided in half sharing its southern end with Medway, and the corner of today’s Washington and Underwood streets was once within the boundary of Medway. Not until 1850 did Holliston look like today’s map.

And that brings us to up to today’s history. Author Nathaniel Philbrick visited Holliston in 2019 while researching his latest book, Travels with George. Philbrick re-traced the route that Washington took on his New England tour in 1789. In a way, George took the scenic route considered to be at the time the most direct route between Boston and New York. Lucky us! Although Washington did not mention his experiences in Holliston in his diary of the trip, Mr. Philbrick followed the route and stopped at each town George traveled through, gathering any history or legends that may have survived. Although George did not sleep here – that honor goes to the Samuel Taft house in Uxbridge – there seems to have been a bit of fun and frivolity here in Holliston that he considered unworthy to mention in his diary. Perhaps he needed a break when he traveled through Holliston. He had left Watertown in a cranky mood, the weather was threatening rain or snow, and he complained about the roads as crooked and directions received along the way, such as lodgings, were less than helpful, If George had time traveled to the 20th century and been hired by TripAdvisor, he might have written a scathing report about his experience along this “indifferent road.”

Joanne Hulbert


  1. Peter Eagan on September 5, 2021 at 8:06 am

    Thoroughly enjoyable and interesting article. Well done, Joanne!

  2. Herb Krauss on September 5, 2021 at 2:03 pm

    And rumor has it that old George tried to tip over Balancing Rock. Probably had too much ale.

  3. Paul Saulnier on September 5, 2021 at 7:18 pm


    Did Holliston have an historian before you?

  4. John Shannahan on September 9, 2021 at 8:42 pm

    Joanne, you are simply the best!!

  5. Kate Connors on September 14, 2021 at 2:01 pm

    A delightful read! Thanks!

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