The Baby Found on the Doorstep

col-gilbert-freetown-maIllustration of a home in Freetown, Massachusetts, circa 1895

While researching residents of color in the lower part of Bristol County, Massachusetts before the Civil War, I came across something peculiar. Within Freetown was a single resident of color in the 1850 census: 5-year-old Avis Stone.

Avis Stone census record

Avis, described as “mulatto” in the census, lived in a household with four other people, none of whom shared her last name or race. Their names were Job and Polly Pierce, a couple in their fifties, and John and Betsey Wilson, a couple in their thirties.1 No other children were enumerated in the household.

It occurred to me that Avis could be the adopted daughter of John and Betsey. I wondered, though, how she did she come to live with them? I decided to dig deeper.

Locating Avis’s birth record was easy—it is recorded with Freetown’s vital records. It states that she was born on 4 January 1845, which matched the information from the census record. However, in the space for birth location, it states:

“Not known. Found on the door step of Levi N. Baker. Dr. Sturtevant gave as his opinion that it had been born 2 hours.”2

I was stunned. I can recall stories about babies left on doorsteps from the movies, but I was saddened to find an actual record of this event. Both Avis’s mother and father are listed as “unknown” in the record, so we likely won’t be able to determine more about her biological family.

Avis Stone birth recordAvis Stone’s birth record.

Still, I continued to research Avis and her adopted family. I learned that Betsey was the only daughter of Job and Polly. Job Pierce served as a Freetown selectman and treasurer at various times, and his family can be traced to Abraham Peirce, an early settler of Plymouth Colony.3 According to census records, Avis lived with the Wilsons until their deaths. In some censuses she is described as their ward, while in others, she is listed as a servant. It does not appear that John and Betsey had any children of their own.

Avis’s will and obituary provide a clearer picture of her life. Avis Stone died on 26 April 1912; she never married and had no children. She did, however, have a community of friends that she clearly valued. In her will, she bequeathed money and many of her personal belongings to several friends. She also left money to several local organizations, including the First Christian Church of Assonet, the Ladies Sewing Circle, and the Guilford Hathaway Library of Assonet.4

She also described her relationship with the Wilsons, writing:

“I remember and acknowledge with increasing gratitude the fostering care and kindness bestowed upon me from infancy and continued unremittingly through childhood and adult life, by John D. Wilson Esquire and his wife Betsey, now deceased, to whom and the grace of God, I owe most of the happiness that has come into my life and has abided with me these long years. Nothing that I can do or say will ever compensate for what they have done for me.”5

Despite being listed as their servant or ward in census records, it appears that she truly considered them her parents.

Finally, Avis’s obituary describes the flowers donated in her honor, demonstrating how beloved she was in the community:

“The flowers were beautiful. There was a basket of white carnations, sweet peas and roses, from the church Sunday school and Christian Endeavor; a spray of pink carnations from the Ladies’ circle and a handsome wreath of galax leaves and pink rose buds and spray of Easter lilies from Henry Earl of Fall River; also sprays of carnations from friends.”6

I came across Avis Stone’s story by happenstance, but I found it endearing and worth telling. She is only one of many examples of unexpected stories that deserve to be told.


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1 1850 U.S. Census, Freetown, Bristol Co., Massachusetts, p. 141b, Job Pierce household.

2 Avis Stone birth, Freetown Register of Births 1843-1855, Book 9, p. 3.

3 Ebenezer W. Peirce, The Peirce Family of the Old Colony (Boston: David Clapp & Son, 1870), 404.

4 Assonet, Massachusetts is one of two villages within Freetown. The other village is East Freetown.

5 Avis Stone will, Bristol County, Mass. Probate, case no. 31709.

6 Avis Stone obituary, The Evening Herald (Fall River, Mass.), 29 April 1912, p. 8.