The Continent’s First Ethnic Charity

  • Prosperity
  • 1657

When 28 “Scottish men” signed the “Laws, Rules, and Order of the Poor Boxes Society” in Boston on January 6, 1657, they formed one of America’s first charities, and one that still exists in its fourth century. Their Scots’ Charitable Society aimed at relieving fellow countrymen who were struggling in America, particularly those who had been captured by Oliver Cromwell in battles in 1650 and 1651 and sold as indentured servants to labor in iron works and other production facilities in the American colonies. Some of these Scots fell into bad straits after their indentures expired.

The Scots’ Charitable Society prefigured many future American philanthropic efforts that built their benevolence on a foundation of ethnic ties. Within a few years the society faced mismanagement and declining membership, but a reorganization in 1684 turned matters around with reforms like the careful investment of assets, and financial controls (a lockbox that required two keys). The group also suffered a crisis during the Revolutionary War because of divided political loyalties, but it has never wavered from its aim of serving the poor and having a minimum of administrative expenses. It currently focuses on “providing academic scholarships and limited financial support for individuals and families in need.”