Date of Completion


Embargo Period



Disability; Impairment; Colonial; New England

Major Advisor

Cornelia H. Dayton

Associate Advisor

Chris Clark

Associate Advisor

Nancy Shoemaker

Field of Study



Doctor of Philosophy

Open Access

Campus Access


The dissertation examines the distinction between impairment—long-term physical conditions experienced by people as the result of illnesses, accidents, and birth anomalies—and disabilities in New England between 1690 and 1820. Through the examination of 1700 runaway advertisements of bound laborers and the biographies of Harvard College graduates in the eighteenth century, I examine how wealth affected impairment. I study the language of impairment to show that New Englanders’ used adjectives rather than nouns to discuss the anomalous body. This indicates that they did not see disability as a defining personal characteristic. Impairment was one of many physical attributes. In my conceptual schema, all disabilities are impairments, but not all impairments became disabilities.

Disabilities occurred when physical impairments prevented men from operating fully as a male head of household. New Englanders believed that men should strive for economic sufficiency in which they had enough to provide for themselves and their families. Men should avoid dependency. Disabilities occurred when men became dependent on others. Through a variety of adaptations, men, their families, and their communities attempted to prevent impairments from becoming disabilities by preserving men’s economic viability and their abilities to act as husbands, fathers, and community members. The types of adaptions New Englanders employed depended on the age at which men first became impaired and the financial resources of their families. Sometimes impairments were so severe that men could not adapt to them; other times, men lost the ability to adapt over time. Therefore, some impairments became disabilities. Through a detailed investigation of disabled veterans’ petitions to Massachusetts and the papers of elite disabled men, I argue that men could be more or less disabled than others and move between the categories of impairment and disability as they aged. By examining hundreds of men’s experiences, the study shows that New Englanders used ad hoc methods to care for impaired and disabled men. Impaired men were not stigmatized by the community. Because New Englanders used varied adaptations and types of care, they were flexible in the ways they responded to and cared for men with impairments and disabilities.

Available for download on Monday, August 06, 2029