Colonial Development of Municipal Clerks Profession

When the early colonists came to America they set up forms of local government to which they had been accustomed, and the office of clerk was one of the first to be established. When the colonists first settled in Plymouth, Massachusetts, they quickly appointed a person to act as recorder. That person kept all the vital records for birth, marriages and deaths for the church, as well as various other records of appointments, deeds, meetings, and the election of officers at the annual town meeting.

Indeed, in Massachusetts, the town clerk was one of the earliest offices established in colonial towns. The settlers were well aware of the importance of keeping accurate written records of their agreements and actions including grants of land, regulations governing animals, the collection of taxes and the expenditure of town funds.

The person given the responsibility for recording these orders was also often given other duties, such as sweeping the meeting-house and selling the seats, ringing the bell, and paying the bounty for jays and blackbirds whose heads were presented to him by the citizens. By the middle of the 17th century, the title town clerk appears in town records and this title has continued to the present.

One of the earliest statutory duties imposed by the Massachusetts General Court on town clerks was recording births, deaths and marriages. Since that time, the General Court has formalized by statute many of the duties first delegated by vote of the town and has added others. By 1692, the town clerk was required to enter and record divisions of land and orders of the selectmen as well as all town votes, orders and grants. Warrants directed to the constable for the collection of taxes were to be signed by the assessors or the town clerk. Between 1742 and 1756, the General Court made the town clerk responsible for maintaining a list showing each inhabitant's property value and for producing it, if necessary, to substantiate a person's voting rights. The town clerk was required to administer and record the oath of office taken by town officials. By 1776, the town clerk was empowered to call town meetings to elect selectmen if a majority of the selectmen had moved from the town or were absent in the service of the country.

The office of town clerk of Wethersfield, Connecticut, was established in 1639 and that person was to "keep a record of every man's house and land," and to present "a fairly written" copy of such to every General Court to be recorded by the secretary of the colony. In the first municipal election in New York City in 1689, the offices of Sheriff, Mayor and City Clerk were on the ballot.

The Puritan town of Woodstock, Massachusetts, appointed a town clerk in 1693 to record deeds and mortgages and to record the books. Because the town's people wanted to keep him on a permanent basis, he was given 20 acres of land and a fee of 12 pence for each town meeting plus 6 pence for each grant filed. The Town Clerk of Middleboro, Massachusetts, on the other hand was compensated with "one load of fish taken at the herring-weir and delivered to his house." Three centuries later, one of his seventh-great-grandchildren is serving as City Recorder of the city of Newport, Oregon.