That Pessimism Which is Really Optimism

The Populist Vision Charles Postel, 2007

Charles Postel won the Bancroft Prize for this book about “how Americans responded to the traumas of technological innovation, expansion of corporate power, and commercial and cultural globalization in the 1880s and 1890s.” (vii) Populists, Postel says, were “influenced by modernity and sought to make America modern.” (vii)  Throughout the book, Postel shows rural people embracing change, and especially technological change that made their work and lives easier and more rewarding.  This view, he says, challenges the dominant strain of thought (especially Hofstadter), that sees rural people and especially populists as cranky victims of change, who looked back nostalgically to an earlier age when the rest of the world shared their agrarian “producer” philosophy.  A key example is the populist approach to railroads. Postel never suggests this new technology didn’t radically improve life in the countryside. The issue was, how should these new technological enterprises be organized, and for whose benefit?

This is a refreshing change, and it reframes the issue in a way that's relevant today. Postel gives regular people a lot of credit for intelligence, political awareness, and active involvement in the key issues of their day. He begins his introduction with a description of how a voluntary association of florists (a coop) “embraced the new technology” of the telegraph, which had “annihilated time and space” (3). They standardized their businesses and products to allow the customer to order uniform products that could be delivered across town or across continents. All by themselves, these scattered florists became FTD. Populists "believed in the transforming power of science and technology,” Postel says. “They believed in economies of scale...they believed in the logic of modernity” (4). Just as important, he shows that they understood these issues perhaps better than we do now. “Populism was known as ‘a reading party’ and a ‘writing and talking party’ ” (4). It is as important to understand what the Populists “were for” as what they were against, says Postel. If they were pessimistic (as Turner and Hofstadter claimed), then Postel says it was with
Hamlin Garland’s “kind of pessimism which is really optimism...that is to say, people who believe the imperfect and unjust can be improved upon” (my italics, 11).

ifeedyouall

Postel also explores the connection between Populists and labor activists. Although the standard story is that they could never get together because farmers were proprietor/employers and wage workers were not, Postel finds many examples of cooperation, especially among rural workers. “Farmers were often part-time coal miners, and coal miners often farmed to supplement their diet and income” (19). This approach shows a greater sensitivity to conditions on the ground than many other historians who stick to the categories. But Postel is also quick to point out problems with the populist vision, such as when it veered toward racism and advocated majoritarian, government/industrial organization on a scale that would later (elsewhere) be called fascist.

If farmers had any antipathy toward universities, Postel says, it was only because rather than catering to rural needs, the schools “seemed to lavish resources on future lawyers, doctors, ministers, and other professionals” (47). So once again, their objection is not to change itself, but to who benefits from the change. Many farmers took their educations into their own hands. It was the “great equalizer in commerce, technology, and social standing,” so they “built lecture circuits across some thirty states, and a network of approximately one thousand weekly newspapers” (49).

I have to pause here a moment. This is jumping out at me right now, as I think about preparing to be a college-level teacher. To a great extent, the early 20th century rise of professionalism and universities in America killed off this 19th century type of local self-education. But today, the web opens a possibility for people to take control of their own educations again. I think I need to spend some quality time thinking about what I’m doing, how I’m doing it, and for whom?

Postel's book is also full of interesting people and things to research someday: Charles Macune, Luna Kellie, Marion Cannon, the National Cordage and the National Union Company (did the 1893 National Cordage bankruptcy precipitate the stock market crash?), the Gulf and Interstate Railway Company (north-south transcontinental), William Peffer, 2nd class postage and RFD, Anna Fader Haskell, who sounds like a 19th century female version of Tyler Durden, and doesn’t even have her own wiki page! Marion Todd (1893,
Railways of Europe and America), Daniel Weaver, a Chartist who tried to organize coal miners in the 1860s, and of course Darrow v. Bryan at the Skopes Monkey Trial (1925), and Eugene V. Debs.

Career Choice and Slavery in 1850

In another of the "Ranney Letters" from the Ashfield Historical Society's archives, twenty-one year old brother Lyman writes to Henry from Van Buren, Arkansas, in January 1850.  Lyman had left Michigan a couple of months earlier, apparently intending to study medicine with his cousin, Paul Sears, in Illinois.  Paul Sears was a well-known doctor in Mt. Carmel, the son of Lyman and Henry’s mother Achsah’s brother Nathan Sears, who had also been a doctor.   When this plan failed (Lyman says it was from a lack of books, which hardly seems likely), Paul sent Lyman to his brother-in-law Ephraim B. Bishop, to work in his store.  (Bishop’s papers, interestingly, are in the manuscript collection at Yale University).

Lyman writes of several relatives from his mother’s side of the family.  "Uncle Henry" was Achsah’s younger brother.  He was a circuit judge in Arkansas before moving to Texas in the mid-1840s.  "Uncle Paul" was another of Achsah’s brothers, who was a real estate speculator trading in soldiers’ claims around Houston Texas, and was said to be wealthy.  He died in New Orleans, but I haven’t been able to determine when or to find out anything about the “affair” Lyman mentions.

Lyman goes on to describe Mr. Bishop’s business a bit, which he knows will be of interest to his merchant brother.  He also remarks on the slaves he has seen in Arkansas.  In his opinion, some have an “easier time than most of hired girls at the north.”  Lyman’s observations of slaves and Indians will continue to be a feature of his letters.  By 1850, Henry was a pretty vocal abolitionist (more on that later), so Lyman’s youthful remarks to his older brother are very interesting.

arkansas-buren-van

Van Buren, Arkansas, 1888
My transcription:

Van Buren Jany 8/50
Dear Brother & Friends

Having written to you from Jonesville Mich. Some time last June and not receiving any answer, thought you must have not rec’d it, and thinking you would like to hear from me once more.  I am residing in Arkansas at present, having been here about one week.  I started from Mich on the 9th day of Nov last for Ills, where I expected to stay through the winter provided I could make any arrangements to get into business of some kind.  I did not know but I might get an opportunity to study Physic with cousin Paul.  But as he had not sufficient books for me to study I thought of returning home.  But Paul said his brother-in-law Mr. Bishop he thought would like help in his store, and therefore advised me to come here and thought I would find Uncle Henry on the way between here and there.  But was disappointed as he and removed to Texas.  He went to Texas about a year since to find out anything in regard to Uncle Paul’s affair and he got married while there, as I learned at the mouth of the Arks. River which is about twenty five miles from where he used to live, and returned to Ark. the last fall to get his little daughter.

Uncle H. Has been married twice before and has had two children but has but one living at present.  I did not learn whether he found out anything about Uncle Paul’s affair or not.  I found our relatives in Ills. all well.  Paul, Uncle Nathan’s son, is a very good Physician and is worth about $20,000 and gets a great ride in his profession.  Uncle Nathan has been dead two years come February.  His widow lives in Ills. also.  They had three children.  One lives in Mt. Carmel Ills. (Paul) and two of them live in Arks.  Clarissa (Mrs. Bishop) and Henry.  Henry is attending school about sixty miles from here.  He is sixteen years of age and a hard case at that.  

I am staying at Van Buren Arks, a town on the Arks. River six hundred miles from its mouth.  I have given up the idea presently of studying Medicine as it will cost so much and I have nothing to get through with.  I am not getting very great wages at present but I think I can command greater wages in the course of six months or a year.  I have been posting books and drawing off accounts the most of the time since I have been here.  Mr. Bishop has a large store, keeping almost everything from Potatoes to Pins.  He has another store in Fayetteville which is sixty miles from here, having in both a stock of about $20,000.  Keeping a large assortment of clothing making fifty to seventy-five per cent on them.

They have plenty of slaves in Arks.  What little I have seen I think they fare better than half of the poor whites at the north.  They have their holidays.  They had the Christmas week, having dances &c.  They have Meetings every Sunday.  The Methodist preacher for this circuit preaches to them by themselves.  But they are permitted to go to any meeting.  Mr. Bishop has one slave only.  She does the cooking &c.  She has an easier time than most of hired girls at the north.  

As it is getting late and I think of nothing more of importance to write, I shall bring my letter to a close hoping that as soon as you receive it you will answer.  I send my love to all our relatives and especially to your wife and children.

Yours with respect Lyman

Please excuse all mistakes as I am in a great hurry and have not time , if there should be any.
P. S.  Direct your letters to Van Buren Arks.  Write soon as it takes a letter four or five weeks to come.

1850-1-8lymantohsr

The "Rural Problem" A Century Ago

The Rural Life Problem of the United States
Sir Horace Plunkett, , 1919 (originally published as a series of articles in Outlook, 1908-9)

horace_plunkett_1923Horace Plunkett was an Anglo-Irish aristocrat. Born at Dunsany Castle, he was the third son of the 16th Baron Dunsany and an uncle of the 18th Baron, the Lord Dunsany who wrote the fantasy classic, The King of Elfland's Daughter. Horace Plunkett became a leading activist for home rule and developed the idea of Irish rural cooperatives.  Plunkett’s thesis in this book, which seems to have influenced a lot of American sociologists and Country Lifers, is that “the city has developed to the neglect of the country,” and that of Theodore Roosevelt’s three pillars of Country Life, “better farming, better business, better living,” the business problems of farmers should be addressed first. (3, 12-13)  Plunkett refers briefly to his experience in rural Ireland and also to Denmark, which has come up so many times in these primary texts that it probably demands some attention.


It's interesting to see what reformers were concerned about a hundred years ago, especially when many of the same issues face us today. Being an aristocrat, Plunkett had access to American leaders like Theodore Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot, and James Jerome Hill.  He portrays these men as being genuinely concerned with “The Future of the United States” (title of a 1906 J.J. Hill speech I need to find a copy of), and especially with soil conservation.  Plunkett argues for continuing the strong connection between what he saw as the two key elements of Roosevelt’s administration, conservation and rural life improvement.

During the first phase of the industrial revolution, Plunkett says “economic science stepped in, and, scrupulously obeying its own law of demand and supply, told the then predominant middle classes just what they wished to be told.” (37) “Social and political science,” he says, “rose up in protest against both the economists and the manufacturers,” but were pushed aside in the rush for progress. (39)  Interestingly for an analysis written a hundred years ago, Plunkett introduces the idea of a “world-market,” (40) and says neglect of rural regions is caused in part by the fact that “reciprocity” between city and country “has not ceased; it has actually increased...But it has become national, and even international, rather than local.” (41)  Plunkett notes that “Forty-two per cent of materials used in manufacture in the United States are from the farm, which also contributes seventy per cent of the country’s exports.” (41-2)  But the complexity of new trade patterns and supply chains has hidden the mutual dependence of city and country. Plunkett concludes “until...the obligations of a common citizenship are realized by the town, we cannot hope for any lasting National progress.”  (42)

If there is specific blame to be laid, Plunkett directs it not at the system, but at what he thinks of as profiteers.  “Excessive middle profits between producer and consumer may largely account for the very serious rise in the price of staple articles of food,” he says. But even though urban middlemen are to blame and the problem impoverishes rural people at the same time it aggravates poor city people, Plunkett says “the remedy...lies with the farmer” rather than with legislative action or government reform. (43) I wonder, given the overwhelming market power today of the retail consumer goods sector (which is what his "profiteers" evolved into) whether there really was a chance a hundred years ago that farmers and their customers could have remedied the situation themselves? Or whether this was the big mistake -- the missed opportunity to intervene and change the direction of the last century of agribusiness consolidation?

But the interesting thing is, like the Country Life advocates who followed him, Plunkett's heart seems to be in the right place. Although he doesn’t explain how the system has managed to marginalize them, Plunkett suggests that excluding rural people from the political sphere has damaged democracy.  Farmers’ experience of the cycles of nature, which Plunkett pictures as slower and less mutable than the commercial and industrial processes city people live within, give them a more balanced political sense.  City dwellers’ “one-sided experience” may account for “that disregard of inconvenient facts, and that impatience of the limits of practicability, which many observers note as a characteristic defect of popular government.” (49) Plunkett also suspects farmers might be less amenable to “the cruder forms of Socialism...perhaps because in the country the question of the divorce of the worker from his raw material by capitalism does not arise.” (50-1) Unlike the British, Plunkett believes most American farmers are not alienated from their means of production because most of them are proprietors rather than tenants.  So farmers aren’t victims of capitalism in the same way urban wage-earners are.  (Plunkett avoids any reference to the ethnic immigrant contribution to American life, with the exception of a subtle nod to the success his countrymen have had infiltrating urban politics)

Plunkett tries to call for “a moral corrective to a too rapidly growing material prosperity,” but he fails to identify the motivation for the “reckless sacrifice of agricultural interests by the legislators of the towns.”  (54)  The issue he avoids confronting directly seems to be the increasing unevenness of the prosperity he cites.  Even in rural areas, the rewards are going disproportionately to the few.  And in most cases, profits are captured by the middlemen, at the expense of both rural producers and urban consumers.

Suggesting that even though they have no public voice, farmers “keep a full stock of grievances in their mental stores,” Plunkett warns of “serious unrest in every part of the United States, even in the most prosperous regions.” (61-2)  Compared to urban people, farmers' “material wealth is unnaturally and unnecessarily restricted; their social life is barren; their political influence is relatively small.  American farmers have been used by politicians, but have still to learn how to use them,” he says.  (63) This is at least partly due, Plunkett believes, to the way the west was settled.

Based on his personal observations of the Middle West in the 1880s, Plunkett says “settlers, knowing that the land must rise rapidly in value, almost invariably purchased much larger farms than they could handle...they invented a system of farming unprecedented in its wastefulness.  The farm was treated as a mine,” and soil fertility was turned into corn crops year after year, without fertilizer or rotation. (67) Though averse to blaming government, Plunkett does recognize the “opening up of the vast new territory by the provision of local traffic for transcontinental lines was an object of national urgency and importance...the policy of rewarding railroad enterprises with unconditional grants of vast areas of agricultural land,” he concludes, is “one of the evidences of urban domination over rural affairs.” (69-70)

“Under modern economic conditions, things must be done in a large way if they are to be done profitably,” Plunkett says, “and this necessitates a resort to combination.”  (89) Corporate organizations have three benefits, he says: economies of scale, elimination of “great middlemen who control exchange and distribution,” and political power. (90) For better or worse, he says, “towns have flourished at the expense of the country by the use of these methods, and the countryman must adopt them if he is to get his own again.” (91) But farmers, Plunkett admits, being “the most conservative and individualistic of human beings,” are unlikely to organize themselves in joint stock companies and hand over control to others. (94)

Plunkett’s solution, the farmers’ cooperative, acknowledges the fact that “when farmers combine, it is a combination not of money only, but of personal effort in relation to the entire business.”  (96) While this description is not exactly accurate (by the early twentieth century farmers produced a fairly standardized product, but there are limits to centralization and scale economies relative to say, steel production, so the economic comparison with industry is complicated), Plunkett is trying to emphasize that the “distinction between the capitalistic basis of joint stock organization and the more human character of cooperative system is fundamentally important.” (97) Compared to Ireland, where Plunkett had been instrumental in developing rural cooperatives, “as things are, the [American] farming interest is at a fatal disadvantage in the purchase of agricultural requirements, in the sale of agricultural produce, and in obtaining proper credit facilities.” (114)  Cooperatives could address each of those needs.

The long-term result of “Better Business,” Plunkett says, are Roosevelt's two other priorities, “Better Farming and Better Living.”  Cooperatives would begin a process of renewing rural social bonds, leading to a new neighborhood culture.  Rather than trying to “bring the advantages of the city” to the country, rural communities would “develop in the country the things of the country, the very existence of which seems to have been forgotten.”  “After all,” he says, “it is the world within us rather than the world without us that matters in the making of society,” once the physical necessities like clean water, medicine, and electricity have been made available by attending to “Better Business.” (127)

Plunkett was well aware that his “subject is rural, my audience urban.”  (143)  This may explain why his final chapter de-emphasizes the establishment of business-oriented cooperatives, and focuses instead on education and socialization.  One point he does make is that existing rural organizations, the Grange, and the Farmers’ Union could all be enlisted into the cause of helping establish and support rural coops.  It would be interesting to read further, and see why the Country Life Movement ignored this advice and stuck with a top-down approach, and if that limited its reach and efficacy.

The Legacy of Railroad Land Grants

“The Railroad Land Grant Legend in American History Texts” Robert S. Henry, 1945

In a 1945 attempt to stem the tide of liberalism in American History textbooks, Robert S. Henry says the public (especially students reading high school and college texts) has been misled by accounts of “huge,” “breath-taking” tracts of land given to railroad companies out of the public domain.  The truth, he says, is that much less land was actually given: only about 9.5% of the continental U.S.. Henry claims the government ultimately got a good return on its land grants in the form of increased value of the rest of the land due to railroads going through them, and also in special government freight rates. And in any case, he says, the social, political, and military benefits of national unity outweigh any costs incurred or opportunity costs.  The old maps, he says, mislead the public by drawing broad swaths across the west, when actually the railroads were only granted half the area drawn, in alternate sections, like a checkerboard, and some of the grants were forfeited because no one built railroads to qualify for them.  In all, only about 131 million acres were ultimately gifted to the railroads, according to Henry.  After the 1884 presidential election, he said, “when the Democratic party issued a campaign poster featuring what purported to be a map of lands granted to railroads,” the issue became a political football and the facts gave way to legend.

Henry’s article appeared in the 1945 Mississippi Valley Historical Review and set off a storm of protests, many of them carried by the same journal, and reprinted in Carstensen,
The Public Lands. David Maldwin Ellis suggested that 49 million acres of land grants by the states were also relevant in the discussion. (145)  And, even if granted lands had been forfeited or released, they still counted as grants and they had still made those lands unavailable to settlers for many years -- in some cases well into the 20th century.  The real extent of the land ultimately granted, according to dissenting historians, was slightly over 223 million acres or nearly 17% of America (146).  Ellis pointed out that “The General Land Office withdrew from public appropriation not only the primary limits [of the land grants] as required by law, but also the lands within the indemnity limits...The railroads sometimes tried to oust genuine homesteaders who had made their selections before the location of the railway route.” (146-7) In other words, the broad swaths drawn across the West were pretty accurate.

il_570xn-699119750_8mk2

Fred A. Shannon called Henry’s article “a piece of special pleading for the current lobby of railroad interests to secure the repeal of clauses in the land-grant acts...for rate concessions on carrying government traffic.” (157) Henry was assistant to the president of the Association of American Railroads when he wrote his article. The big black swaths across the map, Shannon said, should be widened “by 50 per cent so as to show the indemnity zones,” rather than shrunk in the public imagination. “It must not be forgotten,” Shannon said, “that until 1887 settlement was excluded from government sections...and from 50 per cent of their width clear beyond the zones proper.” And what about Henry's claim that ten percent of the nation handed over to corporations wasn't so much? “The railroads got just about one-tenth of the United States and for years restricted settlement in three-tenths of the United States,” Shannon concluded.  “This ratio is much higher in the West, where most of the grants lay.” (158)

I think this series of articles says some interesting things about how history (especially popular history, but really all history) has often been done, and about what we need to be wary of when reading.  In the first place, even taking Henry’s numbers, railroad land grants were breath-taking.  Nearly ten percent of the land area of the nation?  Proportionally more, in unsettled areas, where pioneers were competing for farmlands.  And an area at least double that (or nearly 1/3 of the land in the United States) held back from sale?  That’s pretty extreme.  Second, whether the government got it’s money back is not the question.  Everyone seems to have lost sight of the fact that private, corporate, for-profit railroad development with government handouts wasn’t the only way transportation, or the American West, could have been developed.  And it’s not like there weren’t people saying this at the time (one of the "Peppermint Kings" of my dissertation, A.M. Todd, for example).  We just don’t remember them.  What does that say about the textbooks that are being read by high-schoolers now?

henry

The Religious Backgrounds of Environmentalists

I just listened to Jan Oosthoek's latest podcast, in which he interviews Mark Stoll about Stoll's new book, Inherit the Holy Mountain. I haven't read this book yet, and as an atheist it's not the first book I might naturally be inclined to pick up. But as a historian, I have to be curious about the way religious beliefs, organizations, and thought structures influenced people. And, listening to the podcast, I thought Stoll made some interesting points I'd like to read more about.

Oosthoek begins the interview by citing Lynn White's 1967 essay which Stoll says is overly critical of religion as an anti-environmental force. Oosthoek says religion seems too anthropocentric to be really environmentally focused. Stoll reminds us that Reagan's Secretary of the Interior, James Watt, was an anti-environmentalist and a devout Christian. But that's not the only religious approach toward nature, Stoll says. John Muir was from what we'd now call a fundamentalist tradition.

cole_the_oxbow-1

Stoll wonders how people like Muir "got from A to B." But I wonder, did Muir really leave his background behind? Or just his religious beliefs? Although it was new information to me, I wasn't particularly surprised Muir was from a fundamentalist background. So I wondered whether the real point is that people's early religious exposure teaches them ways of thinking and acting that stick with them when they become environmentalists. Even if they leave the religion behind.

Stoll notes that religion can be cited as a source for both environmentalism and capitalism. Protestantism produces exploitation and also conservation. "You could sort-of tell what sort of environmentalist a person would become by knowing their denomination," he says. But is this a function of their particular affiliation, or of their historical moment? The first group of 19th-century environmentalists were Western New England Congregationalists, and then they vanish at the end of the 19th century. Then the Presbyterians create the National Park System, and dominate environmentalism until the 1960s. But is this causal or just coincidental? Doesn't this development parallel the relative dominance of these denominations, at least among a certain type of intellectual likely to become an environmentalist?

Lynn White blames Calvinists for the worst abuses, Stoll says. Calvinism has a reputation for hostility to nature. But Calvin himself was "more effusive about nature" than he ever was about humans. Passages in Calvin remind Stoll of Emerson. The Calvinist Puritans, Stoll says, were the only people interested in sustainability and social justice. He connects the New England village described by Brian Donahue with religion. The New England village then becomes the prototype for the Conservation movement, Stoll says.

Oosthoek found it interesting that early environmentalists embraced both religion and science. But isn't the question, in a completely religious society, how religious you are
relative to your peers? Is it really relevant that science first existed "within" religion? Everything existed within religion, including the farming styles described by Donahue. But does that mean all these traditions spring from religion? Or just that they coexist with religion during their infancy?

Stoll locates the beginning of religious rejection of science in the 1960s. Oosthoek asks about  global warming denial; Stoll says Creationism paves the way for all this type of fundamentalist rejection of science. Stoll says many environmentalists are hostile to conservative Christianity -- or at least have no idea how to engage with it. But is this the chicken or the egg? In 1972 Southern Baptists released a statement supporting the environment, but Stoll says they were put off by environmentalists' rejection of them and acceptance of neo-paganism and "earth worship." By 1980 there's a split between environmentalists and fundamentalists. And the religious are more connected to libertarianism and suspicious of government, Stoll says. This seems to locate the "fault" for this rift with the hippies and to ignore the big changes in conservative religion that began in the 80s. It almost sounds a bit like the statements you sometimes hear from Christians that they are the persecuted minority in our culture.

The part I thought was most interesting was Stoll's statement that Calvinist tradition relies on a "super-literal interpretation of the Bible." This is a problem, he says, especially in religions that
also value an educated ministry. Seems to me this is because these educated religious folks are more exposed to the conflicts between religion and science than others. But again, the interesting thing for me is how these religious social structures and habits of mind remain relevant in the story. Black Baptist churches become organizing centers for environmentalism. But is this about organizing movements, or about the religion? The church could be an "organizing center" for these issues simply because that's how black communities organize.

Finally, there's the question of upbringing vs. adulthood Stoll mentions near the close of the interview. Most of the environmentalists he cites had lapsed from their religions by the time they become environmentalists. This suggests that there's something they learned while part of the religions that influenced both the causes they later embraced, and the methods they used in their activism. But doesn't it also raise the question of why people who
stayed in the religion didn't become significant environmentalists? There's something complicated and fascinating going on with these folks, and with "bridge" groups like the French Huguenots Stoll mentions. This may be an interesting area for someone coming from my perspective to study -- how people leave religion and use some of the skills and structures they learned there in their later pursuits.

Primary evidence of Rural Population Change

Since I mentioned population change in Early American cities yesterday and suggested there was an untold story about the countryside, I thought I'd say something about that from my own research. During the years I was in New England, I made a lot of trips to Ashfield Massachusetts. First because it was the home of Dr. Charles Knowlton, and then because it was the home of the peppermint oil industry in its first phase of growth. I spent a lot of time looking at population records: census, town tax lists, and the Vital Records book. Here are some observations:

I looked at Ashfield records between the years 1790 and 1840.  Ashfield was established in the 1760s and mostly settled in the late 1760s and 1770s, after the danger of Indian raids diminished.  By the first national census in 1790, there were 257 people counted as heads of household.  The town was nearly full, and the
family* count ranged from 274 to 298 throughout the rest of this half-century.

ashfield-plain-1858

In my first pass through the data, I noticed there weren’t many people present in Ashfield at the end of fifty years who had been there at the beginning.  We start with 257 families and end up with 289.  But although some of the same large, extended families are represented (the Williamses, the Smiths, the Phillipses), only 15 actual heads of households made it across the decades from the first census to the last. In 1840 Ashfield, there were 274 new families who hadn’t been there fifty years earlier, and nearly all of the original families were gone.

Of course, you say.  The old guys died, and their sons took over. This result fits right into the mainstream interpretation of rural America.  And you’d be right, but only to a point.  132 of the old guys did in fact die.  And 181 of the people living in Ashfield over these years were sons who'd stayed in town.  But this is just the tip of the iceberg.

A first-to-last comparison that looks at only the 1790 and 1840 data misses all the action in between.  You'd think, okay, there was an almost complete turnover in families, but what the heck? It was fifty years, and anyway about half those new people are sons.  But when you look at all the census years, it turns out there were people coming and going all the time.  The first-to-last comparison only sees the net change, not the total change.

And this is where it gets interesting. The standard history of New England towns says that after the construction of the Erie Canal, hardscrabble hilltown farms could no longer compete with western commercial agriculture.  The soils were exhausted and young people wanted to live in cities or run bigger farms out West.  So you’d expect a big exodus around the late 1820s and 1830s.  That’s where you’d begin to be surprised.

Between the 1790 census and the 1800, 117 families disappear from the original 257 Ashfield households and 142 new ones arrive in town.  From 1800 to 1810, it happens again.  140 families move out, and are replaced by 157 new families.  Every ten years, roughly half the residents of Ashfield leave, to be replaced by new faces.

In all, between 1790 and 1840, 644 families left Ashfield and 678 families moved in. Twice as many people moved out of Ashfield as ever lived there at one time, and an even larger number arrived from somewhere else, each bringing their own unique heritage, family loyalties, religious and political affiliations, etc. The quiet, isolated, inwardly focused community of the traditional history turns out to be a lot more dynamic than expected.

And this is only half the story.  181 sons carried on their family presence in Ashfield between 1790 and 1840, many of them replacing the 132 old patriarchs who died.  But there are
800 sons recorded in the Ashfield Vital Records.  What happened to the rest?

Actually, there were more than 800, but exactly 800 lived to majority (there were as many girls, but unfortunately, they’re invisible in the data).  181 settled in Ashfield between 1790 and 1840, and either died there or were still present at the end of my study period.  That leaves 619 sons who often married a local girl but then went somewhere else to start their families.  Add these to the families who disappeared from the census data, and you have over 1,200 families leaving a town that never had more than 300  resident families. That's some dramatic churning.

The data for one town don't prove anything about the rest of Early America, of course -- although I've got no reason to believe that Ashfield was particularly unique in its population change. The reason I think these results are significant is that  they suggest a much higher degree of connectedness between places traditionally considered isolated. Many Ashfielders I've studied such as the
Ranneys, Bements, and Beldings moved west to upstate New York and Michigan and retained close ties with family and friends left behind. Others such as John Bement and George Goodwin, moved to cities (Philadelphia and Boston) and became urban businessmen. I think the movement of people suggested by this data suggests a corresponding movement of ideas and mentalities that ought to inform our thinking about the country and the city in Early America.

*
A note about the data: the only thing recorded on early census sheets of this period was the name of a “household head.”  No ages, occupations, incomes, origins.  Worse still, no women, unless they were widows or spinsters (just three in the fifty-year range I looked at), and definitely no children.  That info has to come from somewhere else.  Thankfully, there are Vital Records  books for most Massachusetts towns.  I’m going to call the units I talk about families, because in nearly all cases they are.  You can count on one hand the number of single men whose names made it into the Ashfield census.  So, when I say “289 families,” think “husband, wife, and six kids,” because that’s the typical family the units represent.

Before Origin of Species, Vestiges

5924680-m

Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation appeared anonymously in 1844.  Its author was Robert Chambers, a publisher and philanthropist of Edinburgh.  Vestiges, “alarmingly popular despite a merciless critical pounding, was regarded by the orthodox as pernicious in the very highest degree.”

This quote comes from the Introduction of Milton Millhauser’s Just Before Darwin (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1959).  The other book I’ve found (which I ran across accidentally, because it mentions Charles Bradlaugh) is James A. Secord’s Victorian Sensation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000).  I read these because I was developing an impression, after discovering the Erasmus Darwins of Massachusetts, that ideas of biological evolution were popular among regular people for several decades before Charles Darwin’s publication of On the Origin of Species.  It almost seems that Charles Darwin was merely the figure who forced the scientific establishment (represented by the Royal Society) to consider a topic they’d been studiously avoiding or even repressing ever since Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus published his Zoonomia in 1796!

Millhauser says part of the problem with
Vestiges is that it was in plain English and it was inexpensive.  This made it available and affordable for the masses.  “Once again,” Millhauser says (when he says again is he referring to Erasmus Darwin?), “the public was informed, by a glib pseudo scientist without even Lamarck’s pretensions to authority, that the true Adam of the human race was a baboon” (5).  This sums up the issue nicely: it has to do with public, rather than scientific, understanding of humanity’s origins.  It has to do with the control of scientific information by an elite cadre of authorities, naturally drawn from the upper classes and educated at the best “public” schools.  And it has to do with the inevitable demise of a biblical creation story that few educated Englishmen actually took seriously, but that nearly all believed should be upheld (like Plato’s Noble Lie) for the common people, especially in lieu of an alternative story that maintained the authority of a state-sponsored institution like the established church.

Millhauser dismisses Erasmus Darwin and Charles Lyell in an endnote, saying “they each devote to evolution only a small portion of a work dealing with some other major theme” (191 n. 4).  This is true, and
Vestiges deserves recognition as the first complete book on the subject to achieve wide readership.  But it ignores the relationships between the ideas of Darwin and Lyell and those of Chambers.  Making his case for a serious study of Chambers, Millhauser identifies the issue of synthesis, and especially of synthesis by amateurs.  He says “An early Victorian layman might still feel…that he had perceived a truth that the professionals had somehow managed to ignore or even to hush up, and that this might provide the principle of unification, the frank definition of the central tendency of science, for which the world was waiting” (8).  This is an idea that has particular resonance for me at this point, not least in the political implications such a changed understanding of the world might have on regular people in the early 19th century.

Urban Migration was the Tip of the Iceberg

“Men in Motion: Some Data and Speculations about Urban Population Mobility in Nineteenth- Century America”
Stephan Thernstrom and Peter R. Knights, Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Autumn, 1970)

Thernstrom (UCLA, later Harvard) and Knights (Illinois, later York) agree with
Joseph C. G. Kennedy, one of the leading statisticians of the nineteenth century and the Superintendent of the Census, that “the roving tendency of our people” is given too little attention by historians (7, quoting "Report of the Superintendent of the Census," 1852). Rural mobility, they say, has been studied by Malin (1935), Curti 1959, and Coleman 1962. But the point they make about urban population change may apply equally to rural populations, and to movement between city and countryside. Recorded “net population changes from census to census,” they say, “though often dramatic, pale into insignificance by comparison with the actual gross volume of in and out movement.” (10) “Even in the most stable small or medium size community which has yet been examined approximately half of the population was transient within a relatively brief span of years.” (11)

So even in places where dramatic growth is noticed, the real story may be more about movement patterns that aren't captured by the net numbers reported every ten years. To illustrate their point, the authors examined Boston documents to dig beneath the apparent fact that “the proportion of the city’s 1890 residents who had moved into Boston in the preceding decade [when the city’s population rose from 363,000 to 448,000] was...fully one third.” At first glance, the increase in population might be attributed to births and immigration exceeding deaths. In fact, they say, because people were constantly leaving the city throughout the decade, “Nearly 800,000 people moved into Boston between 1880 and 1890 to produce the net migration increase of 65,179.” (17) The turnover of the Boston population means that just about 700,000 people left the city in ten years. (18) The interesting point, for me, is that these 700.000 people all went somewhere.

city

The 1880s were not unique in this regard, the authors continue. Between 1830 and 1890, when population increased from 61,000 to 448,000, “the number of migrants entering Boston...was an amazing 3,325,000, eight and a half times the net population increase.” (22) Again, that means nearly three million people left Boston and went someplace else. Where did they go, and when they got to that next place, did they settle down and stop moving about? There’s apparently no reason to suppose they did.

“Returning to the same dwelling after the passage of only 365 days, the city directory canvasser had less than a fifty-fifty chance of finding its former inhabitants living there,” the authors say. Of course people who owned businesses and real estate, were much more persistent than the poor. So the rich, in a sense weighed down by their possessions, tended to become less mobile. Thernstrom and Knights even speculate that the transience they've uncovered might be even higher than they can measure, because many poor workers may not have stayed long enough to be counted. Poor people also tend to have more reasons to deliberately evade census canvassers.

A political consequence of short tenancy was disenfranchisement. This may have led, the authors speculate, to a widespread feeling of alienation from the political process and a corresponding inability to organize effective dissident organizations. It may also have contributed to the growth of regional voluntary organizations (possibly even the Knights of Labor) that could offer people some continuity in spite of their movements. Bruce Laurie mentions Thernstrom several times in
Artisans into Workers, but the extreme mobility of poor people and unskilled workers probably doesn’t impact his story of the skilled tradesmen unionized by the A.F. of L. as much as it would a story of unskilled factory workers or migrant farm hands. It might help explain the “ruralization” of the Knights of Labor Laurie notes, though.

If accurate (which it certainly seems to be), the existence of a high-mobility “floating proletariat” (31) challenges Robert Wiebe’s image of “a nation of loosely connected islands,” (32, quoting Search for Order) because these invisible migrants would have been moving constantly between these islands. Or, more interesting to me, between the urban islands and the rural sea. Taking ideas and attitudes with them as they travelled from place to place. This hidden migration could have huge implications for popular culture. It could also support the idea that's been forming in my head recently, that the separation of city and country is much greater now than it was in the past, and that we tend to project the current alienation of these regions from each other back onto an era when it was less true.

Although this article made an impact, the people who've picked up this thread seem to have been mostly interested in urban populations. Howard Chudacoff paraphrased and cited it as the first note in his article, “A Reconsideration of Geographical Mobility in American Urban History,” (1994) taking Thernstrom and Knight’s thesis pretty much as proven. David Ward, writing on American ethnic ghettos in the 1982
Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, also cited this article as evidence that Irish immigrants were highly mobile. Edward Pessen cited the article in 1972 to explain why the poor did not become involved in antebellum urban politics. That's all very interesting, but I think the implications for rural history and for the interactions of city and countryside in the nineteenth century might be even more important.

Walsh deserves more consideration

The Rise of the Midwestern Meat Packing Industry
Margaret Walsh, 1982

Margaret Walsh follows up on her 1972 book,
The Manufacturing Frontier, with a look at the transition (between 1840-1870 more or less) of pig butchering from a local, part-time activity to a major processing industry.  She says “pork packing is a good tool of analysis because agricultural processing early disseminated an industrial experience to newly settled farming country.” (ix)  I think this is an interesting claim, but it's not one I'm prepared to accept without some evidence. Sure, butchering a 400-pound animal and preserving the meat with salt is a strenuous process. But not much moreso than, say, butchering a bison and processing the meat into jerky. Would we call plains Indian practices industrial? Or are we just tempted to call early pork processing that because we know the end of the story?  Even so, I wonder if similar work could been done on flour milling, lumber, tanning, cooperage, and especially brewing and distilling?  By 1870, Walsh says, the Midwest was already “responsible for 27 percent of the nation’s value added.” (3)  William Cronon notwithstanding, a lot of that took place outside Chicago, and the things that made Chicago an interesting subject for Nature's Metropolis might also make its example less applicable to smaller, more "regular" places.

Early packers, Walsh says, were usually merchants in towns like Chillicothe, Hamilton, Circleville, Ripley, and Maysville Ohio, Terre Haute and Lafayette Indiana. (17)  Although she doesn’t elaborate much on the farmers raising these swine, Walsh says by the 1840s they had moved past semi-wild “razorbacks” to “foreign pigs, such as the Suffolk, Berkshire, Yorkshire, Irish Grazier, Poland, Essex, Chinese, and Chester Whites...They debated the merits of the different breeds...[and knew] the defects of particular strains could be countered by crossbreeding, a practice that most farmers quickly advocated” (19, sources for this include Towne and Wentworth, Clemen, H.D. Emery, Arny, and
The Prairie Farmer). But the same thing could be said about the breeding enthusiasm of the chicken fanciers who launched the "Hen Fever" of the 1840s. Most of them were not big producers or industrial in any sense of the word (I'll have more to say about chickens in a later post).

pork_packing_in_cincinnati_1873

A closer look at the supply side of  pork packing would help explain what was happening on farms during this period.  Walsh shows farmers were making business decisions about the market by the 1840s, calculating “the value of corn when sold in the form of pork” to determine whether to fatten hogs or sell their grain. (23)  This calculation required knowledge of feeding yields and prices, but also of transportation costs and risks. And it involved either knowledge of or guesswork about demand in faraway markets.  So, farmers needed to be aware of the wider world even before the railroads came to town. But as I've seen reading the Ranney brothers' letters to each other, farmers in Western New York and Michigan had ready sources of information. And at least some of them had access to markets and even financing through relatives left behind.

The operational costs Walsh reports for even a medium-scale packing operation were substantial.  Fixed costs were low, especially relative to “machinery plants or textile factories;” but the cost of hogs meant that a “country pork merchant in the Middle Ohio Valley in the mid-1840s might need $45,000 to process 6,000 hogs.” (27) The “city capitalist in Cincinnati, Louisville, or Madison might process 15,000 hogs...[and] needed between $100,000 and $125,000 to carry out his season’s work in the mid-1840s.”  (28)  This suggests two things.  City packers had the backing of capitalists (Walsh traces several of these formal and informal relationships), and rural packers had extensive networks of trust and credit.  Assuming the average general store owner could not raise the money to do a cash business, his ability to pack hogs testified to extremely solid relationships between farmers, packers, and possibly retailers in remote cities.

So while I don't accept her claims and conclusion uncritically, I think
The Rise of the Midwestern Meat Packing Industry explores a great topic and asks questions that deserve more consideration.

1859 Letter - Going to Pike's Peak, Kansas!

In addition to book reviews, I like to post and comment on some of the primary material that I come across. One big source, which I've dipped into before, is the series of Ranney Letters I transcribed at the Ashfield Historical Society. They often throw spotlights on ideas and issues that aren't part of the mainstream history of their period. Here's another example of that.

In this letter, Harrison Ranney writes older brother Henry in January 1859.  This letter contains a lot of interesting clues about life in 1859.  Harrison mentions that their seventy-year old mother, Achsah, is busy churning seven pounds of butter a week from her cow.  He describes the situation on his farm and on his brothers’ nearby farms in Southwestern Michigan, and he gives Henry a little news and gossip about local people, many of whom are also originally from Ashfield Massachusetts, where Henry continues to live.

The big news, however, is that another brother, Lemuel, and many other local men are talking about going west to join the new gold rush in Kansas.  As odd as it sounds, ten years after the California Gold Rush, the Kansas Territory was the hot new place to make your fortune.  This is because the territory of Kansas was much larger than the state it became in 1861.  The Kansas and Nebraska territories established in 1854 extended to the Continental Divide and included Pikes Peak and much of what is now Colorado and Wyoming.

Kansas in the 1850s is usually remembered as “Bleeding Kansas,” a battleground where the issue of whether to extend slavery into the new western states exploded into a savage war along the Missouri border.  For the most part, we’ve forgotten that in 1859, both Kansas and Nebraska were part of
The West in a way they no longer are. Fort Laramie, the site of the 1868 Treaty between the U.S. and the Lakota, Dakota, and Arapaho nations, was originally in the Nebraska Territory.  Pikes Peak, now 100 miles south of Denver and 30 miles west of Colorado Springs, was in Kansas.

“How did I miss this?” I thought with some alarm when I came across this letter. When I flipped through the pages of books from the “Western” part of my library, such as
The Legacy of Conquest, I found Kansas and Nebraska embroiled in Stephen Douglas’s expansionism.  Similarly, on my “Impending Crisis” shelf, David Potter’s book of that name devotes many pages to the 1854 Act and to the Lecompton Constitution.  But Lecompton is in the northeastern corner of present-day Kansas, and Stephen Douglas was from Illinois.  The free-state revolutionaries of Topeka and the Bleeding Kansas border war with Missouri were likewise situated on the eastern borders of the present state. So, no help there.

On the pages of the
Kansas Historical Society’s website, I learned that the people of Kansas were apparently divided in 1859 over whether their state should be a “Big Kansas” including the western gold region, or a “Little Kansas” without it.  Kansas actually entered the Union in January, 1861, during the (extremely) lame-duck session between Abraham Lincoln’s election and his inauguration, with a population of 107,206.  William Seward had introduced a bill in the Senate in February, 1860, to admit “Little Kansas” under its free-state Wyandotte Constitution, which fixed the border at 102 degrees west longitude, excluding the Rockies. Seward's bill was defeated by Democrats who opposed Kansas as a free state; but they also objected to the “Little Kansas” borders, saying the Wyandotte convention had exceeded its authority in changing the territorial boundaries.  Were they afraid that the country around Pikes Peak would soon have sufficient population (the target was 93,000) to become yet another free state?

It just goes to show, I guess, how much complex and interesting detail lies just under the surface of the broad brushstrokes we use to integrate local and regional histories into American History.  The Kansas State Historical Society’s site includes a reprint of a 1967 article from their journal written by Calvin A. Gower of St. Cloud (MN) State University, titled “‘
Big Kansas’ or ‘Little Kansas’,” which describes the Pikes Peak gold rush and the controversy over Kansas’ borders.  We’re lucky to have more and more of these resources online at our fingertips.  Does their availability obligate us to rethink the relationship between the broad strokes and the details – at least for the regions where we live, write, and teach?

kansas

My Transcription:

Hillsdale Jan 16th /59
Dear Brother

Yours of the 10th came to hand last night.  We are enjoying usual good health this winter.  LGs and Ansons people are well, also Lucius family.  Mother is making seven lbs Butter per week from her cow this winter.  You saw this cow probably when you were here.  We have not heard anything from R. Densmores folks for some time past.  Are looking for them out here this winter.  Lem is not doing anything this winter, but thinks or talks of going to Pikes Peak in the spring.  

There is quite an excitement here about the gold in Kansas.  There are more than two hundred persons in this county say they are going to Pikes Peak next season.  I do not suppose there will be more than half that number go.  I heard Lucius speaking about your sending Anson some fifty dollars last fall.  I asked him some two months since if he had written you to let you know that the money was recd.  He said not but would write you in a few days.  That is the last I had heard or thought of it until I read your letter last night.  He said the money came so thats all right.  

We have had quite an open winter thus far.  No cold weather to speak of.  Have had only about ten days of sleighing the fore part of Dec or last of Nov.  We milk two cows & make butter to sell this winter & keep two fine hogs & one span of horses.  We will probably milk 3 or 4 cows next summer.  Our wheat looks well.  We have on the ground eighteen acres, ten acres new ground & eight of corn ground, all of which we put in before the fourth of September last.  Our new ground we broke up in June and cross plowed in August.  So you can judge from that we expect a good crop of wheat if the season is favorable.

I intend to plant some ten or twelve acres of corn in the spring and sow four or five to millet.  We raised eight acres of corn last summer and fatted six hogs.  Ours were larger than your Pig.  But not so large according to the age.  One of ours weighed 420 lbs, the others were not so heavy.  

I paid Rowlson for the Standard for one year in advance to be sent to you.  I think it was about one year ago now.  He may perhaps keep on sending it after the year is up. I know there is not much in it but advertisements.  Still I thought perhaps you might like to see what was a going on out here if it was not much, as we did not write you very often, and that you might see something in the paper that would interest you.  Therefore if you would like to read it another year, just let me know and I will have it sent to you.  All it will cost you will be the postage.  

I recd a Greenfield newspaper from you last week.  We have not heard from Harry Lawrence nor have we seen any of the St. Jo people down here.  Lem is not married, nor have Lucius folks any children.  But Fox and his wife have had another fight!  He has sold off everything but the House Hold Goods and wanted to give his wife one third of the farm.  But she would not divide the property that way.  Consequently he lets her and the Boys remain on the land while he goes to Kansas.  He sold two horses, harness, wagon, two plows, one drag for two hundred twenty five dollars on two years time.  Lucius bought his sheep.  Fox says he goes dish time certain.  But folks think they will make up again as usual.

The last we heard from Frank he was trying to get in Deputy Sheriff under Wm Hildreth.  Have not heard from him direct since last fall.  L.G. saw Powell Lound at Coldwater in the fall.  He said he would sell his place for thirty dollars per acre.  And that other place was about five dollars per acre cheaper than when you were out there.  About here it is Hurah for MO or Kansas, don’t care much which.

It is dinner time and I must stop blowing.  Helen joins in sending Love to all.

Yours Truly
H. J. Ranney

Rural History shows our food issues aren't new

First Majority-Last Minority
John L. Shover, 1976

In his history of American agriculture and rural life in the three decades following World War II, John L. Shover identifies a change he calls the “Great Disjuncture.” Although his name for the change didn’t stick, his observations have become widely-accepted truisms.  And yet, thirty-five years after its publication, many of the issues Shover calls our attention to in
First Majority are farther from resolution than they were when he wrote.

Shover begins by observing that “emigration from country to city in the years following the Great Depression has been greater in numbers than the entire immigration from foreign shores to the United States in the 100 years between 1820 and 1920.” (xvi)  Shover says rural exodus was enabled—actually forced—by increases in agricultural productivity.  In 1820, he says “one farm worker was required to supply subsistence for four people; in 1945 the ratio was 1 for 14.6; in 1969 the estimate was 1 for 45.3.” (5)  The first improvement was brought about by tractors and nitrogen fertilizers, Shover says; the second by pesticides, herbicides, and hybrid crops and livestock.  Along with these productivity increases went “consolidation.  Nine-hundred thousand fewer farms operated in 1970 than in 1960, but virtually all the land except that diverted by government policy, remained in production.” (6) Fewer but bigger farms; the beginnings of agribusiness as we now know it.

A lot of the information Shover provides will be well-known to the contemporary reader of agricultural or rural history.  But it’s interesting to see how much of the material publicized by others in the last few decades was already being discussed in the 1960s.  Shover says, for example, that “rural America has traditionally been on the move,” (38) and he notes that “surprisingly few studies of American farms and villages have given attention to their ethnic makeup.  This lack has produced a myopic view of rural politics, overlooking often intense and deep-seated ethnic and religious rivalries.” (48)  Both these observations are still quite relevant for historians and sociologists, especially in places where agribusiness has brought large numbers of migrant workers or low-paid semi-legals to work in meat packing and other ag-related industries.  Shover also notes that “the major market for motor vehicles shifted between 1905 and 1908, from the big city to the country town.”  (116)

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of First Majority, which is fascinating precisely because the book is a generation old, is Shover’s coverage of agribusiness.  Recent bestsellers like Michael Pollan’s
Omnivore’s Dilemma, documentaries like Food, Inc. and King Corn, and Justice Department/USDA probes of Walmart’s “stranglehold” on rural communities, have sensitized us to problems facing food producers and rural Americans, but may also have created an impression that these issues and crises are recent.  In fact, Shover was calling attention to the same problems 35 years ago.  In 1968, he says, “the 1 percent of the feedlots that have a capacity greater than 1,000 fed 47 percent of the cattle marketed.” (160)  Poultry consumption, which had been stable at about 16 pounds per person in the first half of the twentieth century, rose to 50 pounds per person in the early 1970s. (146)  And even then, the industry was already dominated by “producer corporations” that paid the “farmer-caretaker in 1972…fifty dollars for every 1,000 chickens he raised.” (146) I'm going to make a point of mentioning this timeline of development when I talk about agribusiness next time I teach that unit. Maybe the Delmarva chicken industry after WWII would be a good illustration.

By 1970, the declining power of farm operators relative to their corporate overlords was already apparent.  In a 1970 report, the USDA declared that “poultry growers were working at an average wage of minus fourteen cents hourly.” (147)  “Us folks in the chicken business are the only slaves left in the country,” Shover quotes an Alabama striker saying.  “They call all the shots—they give you a contract for as many or as few chickens as they want and then they pay you whatever they want.” (147)  Shover also called attention to the environmental cost of agribusiness.  “In 1969,” he says, the nation’s 107 million cattle, 57 million hogs, 21 million sheep, and 2.1 billion chickens produced approximately ten times more biological waste than the entire human population.” (161)  And the factory farms were just getting going!

While the producer’s share of the food dollar “pie” wasn’t as low in the 1960s as it has become, the growing slice taken by manufacturers and marketers was already a concern.  “Thus in 1969,” Shover says, “farmers received 67 cents of every consumer dollar spent on eggs…50 cents for milk; 22 cents for fresh oranges; 14 cents for two loaves of bread…Producers of wheat and cotton could give away their entire crop free without creating more than a minor effect on the price of bread or shirts.” (177)  The fact that these problems have been known for decades, and during that time the situation has only gotten worse, should concern today’s activists.

batthens10_300_1

Shover shows some of the changes rural historians were beginning to explore in the mid-1970s, in the decade before the election of Ronald Reagan and the political sea-change it brought about (or reflected). I suspect it's important to locate these changes appropriately in time. They're not really recent effects of globalization and hyper-capitalism, as we often see them portrayed. Actually, they're part of the story of the middle of the twentieth century, along with the baby-boom, suburbia, and the wonder years.

The Manufacturing Frontier

The Manufacturing Frontier: Pioneer Industry in Antebellum Wisconsin, 1830-1860
Margaret Walsh, 1972

This is an interesting book which isn't read enough by American Environmental Historians, possibly because the author is neither an American nor an Environmental Historian. In her introduction, British Economic Historian Margaret Walsh says resource-frontiers such as farming, mining, lumbering, “even the military frontier” have been well covered by historians, but the “development of an urban and a manufacturing frontier...begun contemporaneously with the cultivation of land” has not. Exceptions she notes are Richard C. Wade,
The Urban Frontier and James D. Norris, Frontier Iron (v). The industries she's talking about on the manufacturing frontier were mainly “primary processing industries -- lumber planed and sawed, flour and grist milling, brewing, leather tanned and curried, and meat packing -- industries whose existence have been ignored, or have been dismissed as being merely ʻpre-industrial,ʼ even though they were of major importance” (vii). She notes:

There was no clearcut dichotomy between an industrial East and an agrarian West. The existence of new and relatively quick modes of access to other parts of the country, using first the seasonal water routes and then the year-round railroad, meant that the frontier no longer needed to be a series of self-sufficient communities, nor did it have to go through cumulative stages of growth. A more complex process of economic growth ensured the co-existence of several kinds of economic activity. (viii)

burmeister_og_wain_1885_painting

For example, Grant County lead mining began 1826; peaked in 1845 at 54.5 million pounds. (2) Grant County "was settled at an earlier date than other parts of Wisconsin, and often by Southerners traveling up the [Mississippi] river.” (70) "Crops cultivated in Wisconsin -- corn, oats, barley, wool, and tobacco -- served mainly for local consumption either directly or indirectly, as did the small amount of dairy and cattle production.” (5) “In 1840 those counties south of a line drawn from Green Bay to the Mississippi River contained 85.2 percent of the...population...in 1850 the percentage was 93.1...and in 1860 it was 82.7 percent.” (7) So apparently the growth in German population in the northern part of the state (see Gannett maps from 1910 census) happens after the Civil War. Importantly, rivers and the lake meant that “even before the construction of railroads in the 1850s, most settled areas of Wisconsin were able to reach outside markets.” (8)

immigrants1900

Jefferson County, located in the heavy wheat-growing region of southeastern Wisconsin, might be regarded as typical of many western pre-railroad counties. The main resource was land, the main occupation was farming. Yet there also developed a remarkable range of small-scale manufacturing (in a note on her selection of counties, Walsh summarizes central place theory, 31). Wheat production “provided a basis for industrial development...in the stimulus given to the primary processing industries, notably flour milling and, to a lesser extent, tanning, meatpacking, brewing, and wool carding. But agriculture also functioned as a market as well as a source of inputs.” (38) Farming quickly became commercial, meaning farmers needed specialized tools and the things they no longer made at home.

The market remained relatively local, Walsh says, and “Even when the railroad came, it merely brought merchandise manufactured in other places” (39). I'm not sure this distinction makes sense to me. Manufactured elsewhere but sold by a local merchant still seems significant. But maybe the question she's pointing at has to do with how did the Jefferson County farmers pay for this merchandise? Unless sheʼs saying they sold agricultural products outside the county, but not manufactures. “There was little room for the development of even a rudimentary kind of division of labor. Most firms in Jefferson County were very small operations, employing one or two skilled artisans.” (42) “Within [the] processing group flour milling contributed the largest share -- almost 40 percent of the value added -- and lumber planed and sawed furnished 20.6 percent. Jefferson County was concentrating on processing its local products.” (46) ...for local consumption... Manufacturers like furniture-makers worked “often in exchange for lumber or farmersʼ produce. But cabinetmakers...did not enjoy a monopoly, for by 1847, retail merchants...were advertising ready-made goods at competitive prices.” (63) Did the difference between cash and farmersʼ-produce markets keep some of these little guys in business?

Racine and Milwaukee became urban and industrial very quickly, in Walsh's story. By 1850, Racine, “well- placed for the development of...[an] industry focused on the prosperous wheat-growing region,” was making a third of the stateʼs farm machinery. (150, 142) The market expanded, and “By the mid-1850ʼs [J.I. Case] threshers were known throughout the West, especially in Iowa and Minnesota, and in 1860 he even shipped six machines to California.” (155) This was bad news for blacksmiths, who “in Racine County...were ceasing to be regarded as manufacturers. They either took on general service and repair functions or began to specialize...the more ambitious turned to other craft trades, such as making plows or wagons.” (169)

Milwaukeeʼs population was “20,061 in 1850 and 45,286 in 1860.” (171) Its industry was uncharacteristically (for Wisconsin) diversified. “In 1850 six branches of manufacturing -- flour milling, clothing, construction materials, iron, furniture, and boots and shoes -- were responsible for half the countyʼs value added.” (172) “Several large firms...employed from fifty to eighty workers, often using machinery to fabricate articles for mass consumption. But at the other extreme there was a proliferation of shops run by owner-operators or craftsmen and their one apprentice.” (176)

“The...manufacture of lager beer, was the third leading processing industry in the county in the antebellum years and indeed was the fourth-leading industry in Wisconsin. Its origin and steady growth lay not so much in the accessibility of agricultural crops...but rather in the presence of an ethnic group -- the Germans -- both as producers and consumers.” (185-6) “Consumption...was high among the working class of Milwaukee, and especially among the German element, which formed about one third of the cityʼs population...Most of the successful brewers were German [and] were experienced in the business.” (187)

Lots to think about here. Given that Walsh wrote well ahead of others such as Cronon and Steinberg (William Cronon cites her work pretty extensively in
Nature's Metropolis, as a matter of fact), it's too bad Walsh's books aren't more widely read by Environmental Historians.

What Turner got wrong and right

William Cronon
“Revisiting the Vanishing Frontier: The Legacy of Frederick Jackson Turner”
The Western Historical Quarterly
18:2, April 1987


In this article written about a century after Turner, Cronon reviews the historiographical impact of the frontier thesis and reevaluates its implications.  He suggests that the flaws in Turner’s ideas can be ignored or forgiven, and a core set of ideas remain that inform new (especially environmental) approaches to American history.


Cronon defines the frontier thesis using Turner’s words: “The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development.”  Turner combined Darwin's ideas about evolution and Haekel's evocative but largely incorrect idea that "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny" to narrate “an evolution which recapitulated the development of civilization itself, tracing the path from hunter to trader to farmer to town,” and forming “a special American character...marked by fierce individualism, pragmatism, and egalitarianism.” (157)  This formulation is problematic, Cronon says, because its “fuzzy language conferred on Turner’s argument the illusion of great analytical power only because his central terms...were so broad and so ill-defined.” (158)  I’d also suggest that the scientific metaphor is not a perfect fit for historical development, recapitulation is attractive but ultimately false. And that even if the frontier experience fostered individualism, pragmatism, and egalitarianism generally, it’s crucial to understand how these traits were expressed and distributed.  Clearly everyone didn’t have them all in equal quantities.  How and why some people became radically egalitarian while others became oppressive or radically libertarian seems like it should be a central concern in western histories.


Cronon says Turner’s critics have pointed out that “westerners looked to the East,” and that “Among the eastern institutions dominating western life have been the Federal government, the corporation, and the city.”  (I'd add Banks, but I'll say more about that when I've written that chapter of my dissertation, 158)  He calls attention to the “urban character of much western settlement,” (169) especially in “rising urban centers whose growth was central to frontier expansion itself.” (like Chicago in
Nature's Metropolis, 173) The impact of these points, for me, is that they break the smooth flow of the westward teleology, just as they break the static von Thünen model. Western (or any regional) history should challenge the idea that the story “of any given American place could be written in terms of a progressive sequence of different economic and social activities [and] embodied in representative figures who might serve as ‘types’.” (166) Cronon suggests that in place of Turner’s narrative arc, which he admits “set American space in motion and gave it a plot,” (166), historians could focus on changes in “People’s notions of abundance and scarcity--of wealth and poverty.” (172) “Among the deepest struggles in American western history,” he says, are “those among peoples who have defined abundance--and the ‘good life’--in conflicting ways.” (Or, less kindly put, among those who have tried to scoop up all the abundance for themselves and those who resisted, 175) New histories might “discover a subtler periodization...[and] create a finer-grained sense of movement that will reflect interconnections between regional diversity and the shifting dialectic of scarcity and abundance.” (174)


Historians these days appreciate tightly-focused, evidence-based, bottom-up narratives. But we seem to miss the big, sweeping histories of the nineteenth century.  In a recent book, Alan Kulikoff says he’s planning on bringing back the master narrative (we’ll see).  My question is, how do we put together histories that will drill down into the details of specific people’s experiences in particular places and times, and at the same time suggest (if not prove) a “big” point about the relationship between country and city?  Turner’s use of “great men” as representative “types” was limited and nineteenth-century, but it highlights the problem of believing any particular story can claim to be a general, representative view.  Maybe a series of well-chosen microhistories could be sewn together into something that resembles a wide view.  Doing my rural history project, I might look more closely at the idea of cores and peripheries, which may show unexpected interactions between east and west.  I might find cycles of growth and decline that follow different trajectories from Turner’s.  Cronon has already told a story of the simultaneous growth of a center and periphery, but more might be said about the people living in the shadow of a “Chicago” (or maybe a Minneapolis).  There must be ways rural people crearted change rather than reacting to it; also ways their lives remained unaffected, just as there are ways they were never free of the fact of the city’s existence.  And Cronon’s final question is a good one to keep in mind: “To what extent
has the peculiar nature of American class consciousness and republican government been shaped by the shifting resource base of our economic and social life?  How do nature and humanity transform each other?” (175) This question might help break an exclusive attention to the city-country binary, to focus on the changing ways rural areas relate to their environments in American history, and how that can be much different from the way cities do.  This might go a long way toward a story of how culture, class consciousness, and politics developed the way they did in rural America.  Comparing these to the stories city-Americans have always wanted to tell themselves about the character and qualities of their rural neighbors, might help explain how we got to where we are.

Seeing Like a State in America, with Dust

51rrfztrql-_sl250_
Red Earth
Bonnie Lynn-Sherow, 2004

Oklahoma is most frequently portrayed by environmental historians as the site of the 1930s Dust Bowl. Popular memory, if it extends far enough, conjures images like the one I use in my lecturesor Dorothea Lange's portraits of refugees. There's the anger of Steinbeck’s
Grapes of Wrath, but also a kind of human spirit thing mixed in with it.  Donald Worster wrote his classic tale of ecological mismanagement in the same year that Paul Bonnifield wrote a story of the triumph of Oklahoman spirit in the face of natural disaster (1979, The Dust Bowl and Dust Bowl, respectively).  William Cronon used the 180 degree disparity between these histories to comment on the incredibly subjective nature of (even environmental) history, finally threading a way (after four rewrites, he says) through post-modern concerns regarding narrative and cognition, to embrace history as a more-or-less moral fiction, aiming at but never quite reaching truth (“A Place for Stories,” JAH March 1992).

dust-storm-texas-1935

In contrast to these tales of declension and progress, Bonnie Lynn-Sherow writes about the settlement of Dust Bowl Oklahoma a generation earlier, and wonders what might have been.  “Of all the ways in which history can be written and remembered,” she says, “human based environmental change is often a ‘winner’s’ history told by the people who remain” (145).  Through a variety of influences including chance, culture (including racism), and environment, “in less than one generation, the collective farming practices of the Kiowas [tribe] and the mixed-use practices of African American settlers were swept aside” (147).  In their place, “an elite group of native-born white farmers were eventually triumphant” and a “highly diverse ecology of native plants, animals, and people” became “a more simplified ecology centered on a scientifically approved list of domesticated crops and animals.”

dust-bowl-refugees-by-dor-014

The white farmers who came to what had been the Indian Territory embraced large-scale agriculture and turned for advice to experts at Ag. Extension offices rather than the farmers who had worked those lands for generations. In a sense, the same preference for central authority over indigenous wisdom James Scott described in Seeing Like a State. This turned out to be a fatal error. And, ironically, an error we may have made again, as much of the are that blew away in the Dust Bowl has been reoccupied by farmers using deep-well irrigation. But the Ogallala Aquifer, the lifeline of this remade farm region, is drying up.  Lynn-Sherow's conclusion, that “white farmers’ acceptance and enthusiasm for mechanized agriculture…initiated and sustained the simplification of the territory” seems like a moral declension, in the sense Cronon said Worster’s book was.  Or is it?  A more simplified ecological system like the one modern agriculture has implemented in Oklahoma is more fragile and subject to disturbances like drought.  So she’s using Cronon’s "second set of narrative constraints" (making "ecological sense") to get past the subjectivity of her judgment that monoracial commercialized monoculture is bad.  Cool.

City Money vs. Country Money

images-1
A Nation of Counterfeiters: Capitalists, Con Men, and the Making of the United States
Stephen Mihm, 2007

Mihm’s argument is actually a little wider than the sensational title suggests. Basically, he says the monetary chaos of the antebellum years prevented Americans from feeling confident in their currency, and by extension, in their economy and nation.  “The Civil War, and the search for national unity it fostered, compelled the federal government to secure the right to make money.”  The nation’s fight against counterfeiters (including the establishment of the Secret Service by near-criminal William Patrick Wood) and nationalization of the currency were necessary steps in the United States becoming “a genuine nation...[with] confidence in both our country and its currency.” (374)  In my opinion, this argument is anachronistic. I think it's nearly impossible for American historians to imagine an America without a single, national currency, and this shows in the way we talk about the period before the Lincoln administration consolidated the money supply. Most of Mihm's narrative, however, covers the colorful lives of the counterfeiters themselves, and doesn’t advance his thesis; which in the end seems like an afterthought, used to justify Mihm’s interest in the story of counterfeiting -- which is interesting enough on its own, it didn’t need justification.

For my purposes, the interesting bits are the glimpses into the chaotic but legally legitimate world of antebellum state banking -- although I have to admit, Waterman Ormsby, founder of the Continental Banknote Company, is a really attractive character that I’d love to read more about.  By the 1850s, Mihm says, “with so many entities commissioning bank notes of their own design...the money supply became a great confluence of more than ten thousand different kinds of paper that continually changed hands, baffled the uninitiated, and fluctuated in value according to the whims of the market.” (3) Not only was some of the money phony, says Mihm; a lot of the paper circulating in remote areas was “the floating issue of broken banks.” (quoting Maine storekeeper John Neal from
Wandering Recollections of a Somewhat Busy Life, 1869. 6) I think the situation was chaotic, but also an attempt by people in rural communities and even Western cities to achieve economic independence from the Eastern money center-- and that this self-determination was squashed by the Lincoln administration's banking and currency policy.

“It was a popular remark among men of business at this time,” Mihm quotes Allan Pinkerton saying in his 1884 memoir, “that they preferred a good counterfeit on a solid bank to any genuine bill upon [a] shyster institution.” (10) The Maine storekeeper agreed: “In
our establishment, all such moneys, whether counterfeit, or only questionable, were always put back into the till.” (10) The willingness of people to pass on suspect notes reveals not only a decision not to be a martyr for the sake of “good” money, but what I see as an already well-developed, fairly sophisticated understanding that the money itself was only a symbol.  Mihm quotes a Michigan resident’s recollection that “counterfeiting and issuing worthless ‘bank notes’...was not looked upon as a felony as it would be today.  Of course it was taken for granted that it was a ‘little crooked,’ but the scarcity of real money, together with the necessity for a medium of exchange, made almost anything that looked like money answer the purpose.” (Mihm quotes from Mevis, Pioneer Recollections: Semi-Historic Side Lights on the Early Days of Lansing, 1911, 33-4. 159) “Money” doesn’t have to have intrinsic value, as long as it represents value -- which it would continue to do, until someone took it to a bank and had it refused.  Not wanting to be that person, anyone who received a note would pass it on, and so bogus notes would tend to stay in circulation, boosting the money supply.  An 1857 newspaper reported “it is a favorite maxim with some to ‘keep bad money in circulation,‘ for they say it makes no difference whether a bill is counterfeit or not, as long as it will pass around freely.” (from The Weekly Pantagraph, 233)  I wonder to what degree shaky local banks benefited from the note reluctance of holders to find out their circulating currency was worthless?

Counterfeiting seemed to some critics to highlight the deficiency of paper money. To many hard-money enthusiasts, paper currency wasn’t payment, it was the “
promise to pay, which, by universal understanding, is meant to signify the promise to pay on condition of not being required to do so.” (quoting United States Magazine and Democratic Review, 1839, emphasis in original. 9) Any paper issue not 100% backed by specie was in their opinion, a swindle on somebody.  Of course, the biggest enthusiasts of hard money were the holders of specie. Paper money was just a little too…democratic.

Even in states with sophisticated regulatory arrangements, like New York (which had an insurance pool, but also had free banking), the authorities clearly recognized that even legitimate banks might be tempted to print more notes than they “should.”  “In an attempt to prevent these ‘genuine counterfeiters,’ New York passed a law in 1843 requiring that banks deposit their plates with the state’s comptroller of the currency.” (283)  By the time the guys I’m researching became bankers (in Western New York in the early 1860s), there was a semi-governmental printing office that they would write to, for more notes.

Another character who seems to demand a closer look is John Thompson.  Originally a counterfeit detector, Thompson founded the First National Bank of New York in 1863, when other New York bankers were resisting LIncoln’s consolidation of National Banking.  Thompson was forced out in 1873, but went on to found Chase National bank in 1878, named after his good friend Salmon P. Chase (Mihm quotes from Thompson's  “
Sixty Years in Wall Street,” in The American Banker, 25 April 1891)  Thompson was born in 1802 on a farm in Peru, Berkshire County, Mass. So there's probably a good story to be found there. All in all, even though Mihm’s interest in the counterfeiters doesn’t line up completely with my interest in the “legitimate” but still quite sketchy free state banks, I got a lot out of A Nation of Counterfeiters.

Social History and Contingency in Rural America

images3
The Roots of Rural Capitalism
Christopher Clark, 1990
 
Christopher Clark’s account of the transition from a “subsistence-surplus” economy to “rural capitalism” in Western Massachusetts argues it was not an ideological shift, but “the search for livelihoods and security” (318). Clark's story is very contingent, involving five elements: “Demography, land shortage, the ‘market,’ household strategies, [and] capital accumulation [which] came together, taking different forms at different periods” and places. The result was a slow, uneven change; and changes in the meaning and significance of relationships and activities, in places where the basic organization of society didn’t change.
 
Widespread freehold property ownership and the lack of an exportable staple “cash” crop, after the “blast” and soil exhaustion killed off the wheat, Clark says, prevented the growth of a strong New England elite. Shire towns like Northampton that had been influential in the eighteenth century under the “River Gods” lost their status as central places, while households and local communities became the cores of social and economic life. The household economy expected a lot from women and children, and Clark suggests that women may have led the shift toward a cash economy by producing for the market so they could buy textiles rather than spin and weave homespun cloth. Clark’s stress on the importance of household strategies in this transition makes sense makes sense to me, although my own research on the growth of the peppermint oil market in the hills above the Pioneer Valley complicates the narrative of decline (more on that when I finish writing the dissertation!).
 
But Clark's points are well-taken. “It is no longer acceptable,” Clark says, “to portray rural people simply as passive victims of ‘the extension of the market’ that ‘broke down family-based household structures’” (323). While rural people were certainly not omniscient, and unintended consequences happened everywhere, Clark shows there was fairly widespread awareness that “a clash between two ethics” was taking place (324). This clash was felt especially during economic downturns like the one preceding Shays’s Rebellion in 1786. Against the standard interpretation’s emphasis on individualism and the profit motive, Clark insists “Family and household concerns indeed played a central role in capitalist development; perhaps it was only after family security had been achieved that thoughts of profits and individual interests could develop in the minds of members of the successful middle classes” (326). The success of the household strategy helped create this middle class and enabled the next phase of capitalist development.
 
Historiographically, Clark attributes the standard view that urban markets and transportation improvements led to rural capitalism to historians like Richard Hofstadter (The Age of Reform, 1955, ch. 1), D.C. North (“Location Theory and Regional Economic Growth” 1955), and George Rogers Taylor (The Transportation Revolution, 1951). More recently, objections have been raised by Winifred B. Rothenberg (1979-88), and James A. Henretta (“Families and Farms: Mentalité in Pre-Industrial America” 1978) and Michael Merrill (“Cash is Good to Eat: Self-Sufficiency and Exchange in the Rural Economy of the United States” 1977); and by Clark himself (1979). In this book, Clark suggests “a synthesis between ‘market’ and ‘social’ interpretations, based on the observation that ‘markets’ are not determinant but are created in and derived from social circumstances” (See also Allan Kulikoff, 1989, and Gregory Nobles, 1988. 13)
 
Along the way, he makes several observations that are very interesting for my purposes. “The diffused economic power of rural households and their commitment to independence,” he says, “posed a potential problem for ministers and political leaders seeking to impose a concept of authority in the countryside” (23). This is especially interesting in light of Ashfield events I’m researching. The distinction between household and personal independence is also suggestive. “The methods [households] adopted were not individualistic but rested on cooperation and a division of labor. ‘Independence’ required ‘interdependence’ within households and between them” (24). Nor did independence imply self-sufficiency (27). “By 1800, households spent as much as 25 percent of their disposable incomes on goods obtained outside their localities” (28). Of course, “disposable” is the operative word here: these goods were luxuries, just as “products exported beyond the Valley were necessities extra to the requirements of local households or by-products of their production.” Market exchange was happening very early in the story, but it was not relied upon for household livelihood. I think this is an important distinction that is too often passed over.
 
Clark quotes European travelers in 1787, remarking on the “large variety of exchanges which would not be done in Europe other than with a considerable quantity of money” (33) Cash, he says, “implies abstraction - a social distance” different from the “complex webs [and] networks of obligation” created by local exchange. These webs and networks are exactly what I’m running into as I read the letters of upstate New York merchant-millers trying to create a cash economy. Are they unique, or is there an intermediate story waiting to be told about how these guys tried to adapt the “local” economic model of trust, relationships, and complex webs of exchange and credit, to the wider commercial world?
 
In his discussion of the elites and debt, Clark says New England lacked a landed gentry because there was no staple crop and no slavery. But there was also the issue of the River Gods being on the “wrong” side during the Revolution. And the debt crisis that leads to Shays’s “regulation” has a lot to do with “rural resources...being overwhelmed by the speed with which repayment of debts was sought” (45). This begs the question, how did the social climate change so dramatically, that Bostonians felt they could demand immediate payment on rural debts that had accumulated over long periods? What moral force could bring the word “embarrassed” so quickly into common usage as a synonym for indebted?  
 
Clark shows that rural people understood what was happening to them. “‘We are sencable...that a great debt is justly brought upon us by the war,’ declared the town of Greenwich in 1786, ‘and we are as willing to pay our shares towards itt as we are to injoy our shars in independancy and constatutional priviledges in the Commonwealth.’ If only ‘prudant mesuers were taken and a moderate quantety of medium to circulate so that our property might sel for the real value,’ the petition concluded, ‘we mite in proper time pay said debt’” (47). This is a great passage, and I think it hints at another change we don't talk about nearly enough: the consolidation of banking in eastern cities like Boston and New York. I'll have more to say about that, too, soon.
 
Clark says “The ‘local’ ethic valued the longer-term reciprocity between dealers embedded in a network of social connections; morality lay in accepting obligations and discharging them over time. The ‘market’ ethic emphasized quick payment and assumed a formal equality between individual dealers at the point of exchange; morality lay in the quick discharge of obligation” (196). But the seeming equality of market exchange hides an imbalance: the merchant is assumed to be the exclusive provider of “goods,” while the “consumer” no longer exchanges household products, but pays in cash. Household products are no longer good enough. Furthermore, the inequality in the “local” ethic implied by the “formal equality” of the market was mitigated by the long-term nature of the relationships: over time, everything balances and everyone is morally equal. 
 
The money supply (221), bankruptcies and debt suits hold a lot of information, although I wonder if they don’t push the focus a little too far to the downside? I find myself wondering what conditions were like and how people reacted to them, when the economy was growing. If long-distance commerce was a new system being tried out in these communities, how did people feel about it when it was working well? Similarly, when William Stoddard implemented his one-price policy in 1856, was this a symbolic gesture of his superiority in the exchange transaction? (223) Was there ever really that much multi-pricing? Wouldn’t keeping a variety of prices for different customers have been extremely difficult to manage, over any reasonable breadth of customers and time?
 
The final sequence of Clark’s story is especially interesting, where rhetoric and reality completely diverge. On one hand, “public speakers and editorial writers...continued to celebrate the republican simplicity and virtue of ‘yeoman freeholders’” (276).  On the other, court decisions showed “the social structure of a diversified rural economy no longer left room for assumptions that private and public interests would coincide” (reminiscent of Steinberg in Nature Incorporated, published a year later. 310).  What accounts for this disconnect? How does it come about that the “public interest” becomes synonymous with private profits at precisely this time and place, while the rural yeoman simultaneously becomes a creature of nostalgic myth? There’s something really big happening here, that The Roots of Rural Capitalism points at. 

Yankee Migrations into Michigan

51u2sexdxal-_sl250_
The Yankee West: Community Life on the Michigan Frontier
Susan E. Gray, 1996

I thought after the previous longish criticism of
Carolyn Merchant's Ecological Revolutions, I'd give an counter-example of a book I thought did a good job trying to get at the mentalities of rural people. I don't want to give the impression I don't like mentalities. I'd love to know what (especially rural) people were thinking in the past. But actual people, not so much "The People." So here's an example.

Gray’s story of three townships in the neighborhood of Kalamazoo Michigan could have been told as “the mundane march of the farm boy who collects the herd in the back forty and drives it resolutely toward the barn,” she says, except that “the circumstances under which the townships were settled were by no means mundane, and the settlers saw themselves as anything but plodders” (1).  Gray draws on many of the texts I’ve read lately that describe the market transition and migration, as well as important old regional sources like the many memorial atlases and Lois K. Mathews’ 1909
Expansion of New England.  The historiography of the Yankee migrations, she says, is complicated by the story they created for themselves “coeval” with settlement, and “an interpretation that reigned from the 1890s to about 1950, to which the works of Frederick Jackson Turner are central” (3).  Even early accounts like James Lanman’s 1839 History of Michigan, Gray says, struggle to define the “third New England’s” response to the “two congeries of Yankee cultural markers: the market and morality” (5).

Gray describes the typical “Yankee migration” pattern as “chain migration, usually, but not always, in family groups” (11).  The two important elements of this type of migration are that there are familiar faces waiting for immigrants, after the first settlers arrive; and that there are family members still back in the old New England and New York communities, who are a source of not only ongoing migrants, but ongoing access to eastern capital.  This is why both migration and “capitalism for Yankees seemed to promise not the destruction but the intensification of familial and community ties” (12).  The primary sources I’ve been reading (especially letters from migrants to siblings “back home”) seem to support Gray’s argument.

Although she spends quite a lot of time on the religious conflicts of these frontier communities, Gray acknowledges that although “organized settlements in Michigan, such as the one at Vermontville, near Lansing, involved relocations of entire congregations...they were not usual.  Most settlements--no less Yankee--were founded by groups of families” (18).  In fact, Richland township’s largest landholder, John F. Gilkey, was “ ‘Behind none’ in contributing barrels of flour to the poor, he was known for his benevolence, but he belonged to no church” (176).  Gray reminds us there were “two New Englands--one coastal, commercial, and Congregational; the other, agrarian, democratic, and pluralistic” (8).  I might amend that statement in two ways, to suggest that western Massachusetts and Vermont were also quite commercial, and to suggest that many Vermont deists and New York/New England freethinkers were still alive and well in the 1830s, when southern Michigan was first settled.

Michigan’s growth in the 1830s was driven in part by land sales at the Kalamazoo District Land Office.  Although “open only 169 days in 1836...it took in $2,043,866.87.” (44)  Michigan’s “General Banking Law of March 15, 1837, enabled any twelve landowners to form a banking association on application to the county treasurer or clerk” (45). The Specie Circular slowed but did not stop land sales, Gray says; but the Panic of 1837-9 crushed the bankers, ruined rail and canal companies, and slowed population growth for decades.  “The legislature stopped construction of the southern [rail] line at Hillsdale in 1843 and funded the central line only to Kalamazoo, which the line reached in 1846.”  The “panic and ensuing years of depression--was to arrest Michigan’s economic development until the Civil War” (47).

Gray’s discussion of Kalamazoo politics seems to draw heavily on Formisano, who she seems to think provides a fairly accurate description of conditions around Kalamazoo.  She observes that “although Kalamazoo was an intensely anti-Democratic county, it supported continuously only a Democratic paper, the
Kalamazoo Gazette” (152). In 1849, she says, “Democrats simply gave up the fight,” allowing the Whigs to “elect unanimously Uriah Upjohn...as supervisor” (154). Upjohn was a British-born Doctor, and father of famous industrialist W.E. Upjohn.  Gray calls him “the sole known antislavery man who compiled a winning record in township elections... [as] a Whig who ran as a Free-Soil candidate for state senator in 1848” (157). “The formation of rural elites,” Gray suggests, “is a relatively understudied aspect of the transition to capitalism in the countryside” (159). The politics of Kalamazoo’s civic leaders is also problematic, since Gray suggests it represents ethnic, religious, and social antagonisms from the home regions of these immigrant elites (167-8).

Gray's monograph on Michigan Yankees is probably unknown by most historians not particularly interested in Yankee migrations or the region. That's unfortunate, because Gray's approach balances historiographical consciousness, a theory of the
mentalities of her subjects, and a ton of actual evidence. Citing primary sources, you might argue, is easier when you restrict the scope of your study the way Gray did. It might be harder for Carolyn Merchant to assemble a convincing display of primary material that would be specific enough to anchor her narrative but general enough to support her much more global claims. But maybe that's the point.

Merchant's Ecological Revolutions

images1
Ecological Revolutions: Nature, Gender & Science in New England
 Carolyn Merchant, 1989

This is a longer-than-usual post, because Merchant is an important figure in the field, so I feel I should address the issues that make her approach less effective for me. Ecological Revolutions followed nine years after Merchant's extremely well-received The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution, which focused on the period of Francis Bacon (1561-1626).  Merchant mentions in the preface that her manuscript was completed before Cronon’s Changes in the Land came out; and that it “pushed me to expand and differentiate my approach from his.” (xiv) She’s much more theoretical, which is a little ironic, since in the early chapters her sympathies seem to be with the more “Dionysian” (she calls them Homeric) natives as opposed to the “Apollonian” (she calls them Platonic) whites, even during the colonial period before the capitalist ecological revolution.

Merchant’s thesis is that “ecological revolutions are major transformations in human relations with nonhuman nature.  They arise from changes, tensions, and contradictions that develop between a society’s mode of production and its ecology, and between its modes of production and reproduction.  These dynamics in turn support the acceptance of new forms of consciousness, ideas, images, and worldviews.”  She posits two major ecological revolutions in the period under study: the first surrounding the change from a native pattern of settlement/agriculture to a colonial style; the second when subsistence agriculture gave way to commerce.

In 1985, presumably while planning or writing
Ecological Revolutions, Merchant wrote a review for Isis of Peter Lopston’s edition of Anne Conway’s The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy.  Conway was a friend of Francis Mercury van Helmont (now obscure, but a big name in seventeenth-century cabalistic/alchemical mysticism) and a forerunner of Leibniz.  Merchant’s interest in the interplay between holistic mysticism and early modern science is evident in her ideas about the mentalities behind the colonial ecological revolutions.

There are four layers to Merchant’s colonial ecological revolution, ranging through what she calls “ecology, production, reproduction, and consciousness.”  Although she describes these at length, and includes a diagram, this is difficult area of Merchant’s discussion.  She combines a very general economic discussion, where subsistence production and barter give way to commoditization and markets with a nod to Marx and Engels, with a new “dynamic approach [that] views systems as dialectical interactions.”  The implication seems to be that in the later chapters, pre-modern animistic approaches to nature will be reconciled with “open systems” and Ilya Prigogine’s dissipative, chaotic structures, to model radical, rapidly changing, new ecological organizations.  Something like this approach has led to controversy in the discipline; one 2001 article charges that “Deep ecologists, in particular, aspire to ground environmental ethics and politics in premodern modes of life and thought. This move fails to account for the myriad important connections between Enlightenment themes and those of contemporary ecophilosophy.” (Hinchman and Hinchman, “Should Environmentalists Reject the Enlightenment?”
Review of Politics Autumn 2001, 663-692)

The treatment of ecological change from a cultural/intellectual history perspective is an interesting challenge.  While others have focused more on the actual changes in the New England environment, trying to unravel the networks of influences and interactions, Merchant has tried to focus on what she calls “consciousness.”  This term seems similar to but not synonymous with
mentalities, as it incorporates both the intellectual and emotional attitudes of the people involved, at both a conscious and unconscious level.

Part one is a discussion of Merchant’s theory of ecological revolutions, and of the generalized consciousnesses she attributes to the period and to members of the various groups that populated colonial New England.  The first revolution “resulted in the collapse of indigenous Indian ecologies and the incorporation of a European ecological complex of animals, plants, pathogens, and people.”  The details of the material, economic, and social changes are thoroughly covered by Cronon and others; Merchant’s interest is on how this revolution “substituted a visual for an oral consciousness and an image of nature as female and subservient to a transcendent male God for the Indians’ animistic fabric of symbolic exchanges between people and nature.”  The second, capitalist, ecological revolution, “split human consciousness into a disembodied analytical mind and a romantic emotional sensibility.”

Readers looking for specific evidence of how Indian and British colonial consciousness changed in response to settlement, trade, conflict, disease, missionary work, etc. will be frustrated.  Merchant sets up a fascinating analytical structure, but it is too lightly anchored in evidence from the period.  It’s difficult, but not impossible, to retrieve traces of the thoughts and attitudes of common people.  Merchant’s argument would have benefited from more data about the populations she was describing. Merchant says “ideological frameworks or worldviews ‘secrete’ behavioral norms,” and she goes on to observe that “their related values are not accidental.”  This is a profound insight.  It would be exciting to see it demonstrated with references to events, records, or writings from the colonial era.

Instead of telling a story of Indians and colonists, based on sources from the period, Merchant narrates a legend of the fall.  She describes a native American culture of “mimetic consciousness,” where “the primal gaze of locking eyes between hunter and hunted initiated the moment of ordained killing when the animal gave itself up so that the Indian could survive.”  Tragically, in a declension from this state of nature, “the primal gaze of the Indian was submerged by the objectifying scrutiny of fur trader, lumber merchant, and banker who viewed nature as resource and commodity.”

“The rise of an analytic, quantitative consciousness was a feature of the capitalist ecological revolution.”  Merchant says this after a discussion of Plato, Homer, and the “imposition of visually oriented consciousness," so it’s unclear whether she’s speaking globally, or about New England colonial experience.  Non-Western scholars might dispute the implied inevitable association of Greek rationality with market capitalism.  Although Merchant’s discussion of subjects and objects opens interesting doors, she fails to conclusively locate these issues in the minds of colonial New Englanders.  “Animals, plants, and rocks were alive [for Indians] and could be communicated with directly.  For…farmers, nature was an animate mother carrying out God’s dictates in the mundane world.”  Who held these thoughts and beliefs? How did these thoughts inform the rest of their world-view and their actions?  Is this difference in myths actually responsible for the history of the Indians and colonists in New England?

Discussing the transition from “Animals into Resources,” Merchant briefly describes the New England habitat and gives a table of tribal populations.  But she quickly returns to the intellectual, to focus on the “polar opposites” of “wildness” and “civilization;” “animality” and “humanity.”  Her discussion touches briefly on the Greeks, Romans, Hebrews and Christians, before addressing sexual crime.  The “totemic world…of symbiotic participatory consciousness” is set against “Transcendence [which] undermines the epistemological equality of the senses, through its emphasis on the visual.”  In their “struggle to set humans apart from nature, Puritans, like Europeans, soon outlawed human sex with animals, making ‘besitality’ (or buggery) a capital crime for males.”  She says “the erotic relations between Indians and animals and the lack of sharp distinctions between them reinforced the colonists’ own separation between the human and animal worlds.”  There’s a core idea here that makes sense and seems intuitively correct.  Unfortunately, Merchant buries it beneath broad generalizations and sensational, minimally documented claims that may confuse gender preference with species preference.  I was left wondering whether farmers were really having that much sex with their livestock; and more importantly whether the intuitive sensibility of Merchant’s conclusions is legitimate, or just resonates with our contemporary beliefs and biases?

Land ownership, permanent farmsteads, and disease are a few of the factors that seem to undermine Merchant's focus on consciousness.  Epidemics that wiped out from fifty to ninety percent of Indian communities must have affected both the Indians’ ability to resist white intrusion onto their ancestral lands, and their ability to work their farming, hunting and fishing resources well enough to support themselves.  Was the Indian way of life already fatally compromised by loss of population, before the objectifying, commoditizing, approach of the whites gained the upper hand?  Merchant’s conclusion, that “critical processes at each structural level destroyed the Indians’ productive-reproductive balance and brought about the collapse of Corn Mother cultivation,” may be too general to shed light on the actual changes that shook colonial New England.

Merchant continues her discussion of consciousness by contrasting the “writings of Puritan divines and merchants [which] record ideas about the nature of literate elites,” with “folklore [which] offers clues to the culture of ordinary people.”  She alludes to medieval paganism, maypole frolics and Puritan anxiety over witchcraft, concluding that the “patriarchal homes” thrust into the “open, shifting homeland” of the Indians, “were constricted domains mapped onto space as private property.”  The colonists brought Calvinism, “Cartesian grids,” and “the legacy of the Platonic mode of thinking and knowing…ultimately transform[ing] American Indian mimetic consciousness.”  The long-term effect on consciousness was that “being dragged out of the becoming of story recollection into the being of arithmetic and science, the psyche itself must emerge and clothe itself in new garments.”  Again, this conclusion is intuitively appealing, but without evidence that the people involved experienced these thoughts and feelings, the reader has no “reality check” against anachronism.

In a later chapter, Merchant qualifies her argument, saying “Like the consciousness of the Indians, the consciousness of most rural farmers was participatory and mimetic.”  Colonial rural consciousness, however, was “a participatory consciousness dominated by vision.”  Merchant describes a “hierarchical cosmos” that “ascended” through the great chain of being, to “God the creator.”  The alchemical unity of microcosm and macrocosm and “Egyptian and Greek views based on the circular cosmos…mingled with Judaic and Christian schemes” and “informed farmers’ continuing efforts to predict weather” as well as their image of their place in the world.

Merchant’s claim that farmers understood their “macrocosmic role was to mediate between… the heavens and the fertilizing salts produced in the bowels of Mother Earth,” hinges on almanacs.  She traces a lineage, from ancient mystic and folk traditions, through Aristotle and Ptolemy, Copernicus and Renaissance neo-Platonists, to the Harvard-educated authors of early almanacs; suggesting that “the planetary influences were not physical causes…but meditative vehicles through which the human spirit merged with God’s spirit in a connective fabric that clothed the soul.”  But, as Merchant notes, there were two different types of almanacs: “by the end of the seventeenth century, almanacs containing information specifically for farmers had begun to appear, and by the early eighteenth century they had replaced those of the Harvard scholars.”  So, although the almanac may have “served as a set of mediating symbols that connected the individual to the larger cosmos,” it’s extremely unclear to what degree colonial farmers were aware of this intellectual tradition.

Merchant cites the Abbé de Vallemont’s 1707
Curiosities of Nature and Art in Husbandry and Gardening as a source of ideas “representative of the eighteenth-century belief system,” after admitting that the book “may not have found its way to the American colonies.”  The New England farmer may have considered himself a “link and mediator between earth and heavens,” but the word of a French Abbé is inconclusive evidence at best.  Vallemont was neither a farmer nor an American, and Merchant didn't convince me that his interests, including a fascination with the alchemical properties of “niter,” were shared by rural New Englanders.

Finally, Merchant addresses “The Mechanical Philosophy,” through which “humans increasingly appropriated [Nature’s] restorative functions for the purpose of increasing yields and profits.”  Francis Bacon’s view that “the objective of the human race was to recover it’s right to the garden lost in the fall” is an expression of a “modern” movement to purge nature of animism and set men as “masters of its processes.”  Descartes, Newton and Boyle contribute to this movement, and it emerges in Calvinist New England, where “the orderly life of the merchant exemplified the logic of market trade.”  Merchant briefly mentions New England religious development, saying “the emergence of Unitarianism in Boston was rooted in the primacy of matter over spirit.”  In contrast, Jonathan “Edwards’ beneficent universe was infused with light, sun, and spirit, reminiscent of the Neoplatonism of the Renaissance.”  In the end, “a literate populace became a calculating populace, nature a calculable order of forces.”  This objectification and systematization of what had once been a pure, unmediated experience of nature, is at the heart of Merchant’s theory of New England’s ecological revolutions.

For readers familiar with the shifting boundary between holistic/mystical and reductive/materialist early modern thought, or with eco-feminism, or even with new age paganism, Merchant’s themes will strike familiar chords and seem intuitively right.  Merchant has taken a different approach to explaining the causes of ecological change.  I found her suggestion that the
mentalities of common rural people may have led them to resist the structures of society very compelling, especially in light of the ongoing defection of early colonial people who went off to live with the Indians.  But, given the lack of evidence regarding the thoughts and attitudes of the people involved, I was left wondering whether the generalizations can be sustained.  Merchant's attribution of changes in New England ecology to a shifting consciousness of humanity’s role in nature is interesting, but could have been more deeply grounded in evidence.

Dissertating

Over the last couple of days we've had our first hard frost, started up the woodstove, and I've started writing my dissertation.

Yep. That.

It wasn't exactly Environmental History when I first thought it up. Or rather it was, but I didn't exactly realize it. In the meantime, though, I've replaced my original Committee Chair with an actual Environmental Historian. So in that sense, the delay was a good thing.

liber

I found this illustration in the primary material I processed today. I'm starting with my narrative, thinking the boatload of historiography I've already done while pitching the prospectus will stand me in good stead. We'll see how that works out for me. In the meantime, I had some fun today because there are a bunch of new sources available for my introduction that I didn't get to see before. But it was slow going--partly because the sources were in Latin and Hochdeutsch. Hopefully once I get to the primary material I've already processed, I'll speed up.

Incidentally, the illustration below is what the story is all about, more or less.

mentha

Hornborg's Power of the Machine

51-mrkgrpvl-_sl250_

The Power of the Machine: Global Inequalities of Economy, Technology, and Environment
Alf Hornborg, 2001

“Like all power structures,” Hornborg begins, “the machine will continue to reign only as long as it is not unmasked as a species of power.”  If only it was so easy.  We may realize that the emperor is naked, and he may be embarrassed. But that doesn’t stop him from being the emperor.

This isn't Environmental History, despite the title. It's more a cross between economics and philosophy. And the argument is not backed up by any historical claims or evidence, it's completely theoretical. But Hornborg went on to write and collaborate on books that do call themselves EnvHist, so I thought I'd look at his argument. Turns out, Hornborg’s analysis is built on two big ideas. The first is his definition of power as “a social relation built on an asymmetrical distribution of resources and risks” (1). When I read this, the image that came to my mind was Beowulf. Risks can either be taken or imposed. When you take a risk, you accumulate honor and become a hero. When you impose a risk on someone else, you accumulate power.

The second is the idea that beyond the cultural construction or idea of “the machine,” there are
actual machines. And Hornborg says “the actual machine contradicts our everyday image of it.” Hornborg believes “the foundation of machine technology is not primarily know-how but unequal exchange in the world system, which generates an increasing, global polarization of wealth and impoverishment” (2). We believe machines embody progress and an escape from Malthusian disaster. But they don't feed themselves: “We do not recognize that what ultimately keep our machines running are global terms of trade. The power of the machine is not of the machine, but of the asymmetric structures of exchange of which it is an expression” (3).

The way machines concentrate resources from the periphery into the center while seeming to be making something out of nothing, is by keeping our attention firmly focused on the spinning gears and flashing lights in that center. To prove his point, Hornborg cites the Second Law of Thermodynamics and Ilya Prigogine’s elaboration of it in his theory of Dissipative Structures. Increases in order, which Hornborg calls negative entropy or negentropy, are only possible locally, and are fueled by energy  taken out of the wider environment. “Any local accretion of order,” Hornborg says, “can occur only at the expense of the total sum of order in the universe” (123). In the case of biomass, the energy to create this order is taken from sunlight by photosynthesis. This isn’t a completely efficient process, but it hardly matters on a human scale (so far). Where the entropy law becomes really important, though, is in the creation of what Hornborg calls “technomass” out of non-renewable resources. This is not only a zero-sum game, Hornborg says, but it has distributional implications that are “systematically concealed from view by the hegemonic, economic vocabulary” (3).

“Industrial technology,” Hornborg says, “depends for its existence on not being accessible to everyone.” Industry presupposes cheap energy and “raw material” inputs and high-value outputs. Entropy insures that there isn’t enough to go around. “The idea of distributing [technology] evenly among all the peoples of the world would be as contradictory as trying to keep a beef cow alive while restoring its molecules to all the tufts of grass from which it has sprung” (125).

What are the historical implications of this bleak argument? Well for one thing, once machines and the exchange relationships they represent “assumed the appearance of natural law…the delegation of work from human bodies to machines introduced historically new possibilities for maintaining a discrepancy between exchange value and productive potential, which in other words means encouraging new strategies for underpayment and accumulation” (13). Why? Because while it is relatively easy to recognize the basic justice that an individual owns his own work, it’s harder to say who should own the work of the machines built with (cheap) resources and (cheap) labor bought far from the high-priced central markets.

This was the thing that Marx missed, either because it was harder to see in his time, or because (as Hornborg suggests) he “fetishized” machines and expected them to solve the historic problem of the proletariat (there’s a whole chapter redefining Marx’s theory of fetishism and applying it, but I'll save that for another time). At some point, Hornborg says (I'd say pretty early on), global growth became primarily based on “
underpayment for resources, including raw materials and other forms of energy than labor.” Hornborg replaces Marx’s labor exploitation with resource exploitation as the central factor in capitalist accumulation. This change is a great bridge from a traditional Marxist critique of capitalism, to a “green” critique. Money values may increase and the illusion of global economic growth may temporarily hide the zero-sum nature of the game, but in the long run “what locally appears as an expansion of resources” turns out to be “an asymmetric social transfer implying a [hidden] loss of resources elsewhere” (59).

Another implication is that, historically and “still today, industrial capitalism is very far from the universal condition of humankind, but rather a privileged activity, the existence of which would be unthinkable without various other modes of transferring…resources from peripheral sectors to centers” (60). This should impact discussions of the “market transition” in history just as it affects our understanding of contemporary economic development.

The other major implication, for me, is that locality is key. In nature, systems tend to regulate themselves. “As long as a unit of biomass is directly dependent on its local niche for survival, there will tend to be constraints on overexploitation and a long-term (if oscillating) balance. Industrial growth, however, entails a
supra-local appropriation of negentropy” (123). The concept of mobile, impersonal capital breaks this local ecology, and creates what Hornborg calls “a recursive (positive feedback) relationship between some kind of technological infrastructure and some kind of symbolic capacity to make claims on other people’s resources” (61). When capital can begin to be accumulated far from its source, we’re on our way to a world where “the 225 richest individuals in the world own assets equal to the purchasing power of the 47 poorest percent of the planet’s population.”

But one could also respond to this by saying Hornborg takes the thermodynamic argument too far. It's a compelling metaphor, but it needs some measurement attached to it. Sure, all order is temporary and a battle against entropy. But we have a more benign name for that than the ones Hornborg uses. We call that life.

Like The Country and the City, but with History

images

Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West
William Cronon, 1991

The basic thrust of most of Cronon’s writing is that dualities like nature and humanity, ecology and economy, country and city are not merely two sides of the same coin, but are parts of a complex whole that has been obscured by both market and anti-market (romantic) forces. Nature’s Metropolis uses the history of Chicago to illustrate this point. Beginning and ending with his personal memory of a childhood journey from New England to Wisconsin that took him through the city, Cronon concludes “We fool ourselves if we think we can choose between [country and city], for the green lake and the orange cloud are creatures of the same landscape” (385). The text is a series of increasingly fine-grained illustrations of this point.

Cronon uses several interpretive frames to explore Chicago’s history, and he points out some of their limitations. Frederick Jackson Turner’s idea that the frontier “recapitulated the social evolution of human civilization” and provided the “source of American energy, individualism, and political democracy” (31) fails to account for the rapid, booster-driven growth of Chicago as an urban center. Turner did not give enough credit, Cronon says, to the market as an agent of both rural and urban change. “Urban-rural commerce,” he says, “was the motor of frontier change, a fact that the boosters understood better than Turner” (48). Of course, you could argue that Turner
had to ignore the role of capital, precisely because it undermined his evolutionary, democratic vision of the frontier and America.

Cronon uses Johann Heinrich von Thünen’s Isolated State theory and more recent central place theory to complicate and partially correct Turner’s perspective. Von Thünen’s idealized economy creates a series of concentric rings drawn primarily on the basis of transportation cost. While acknowledging the heavy qualifications necessary to apply this model in the real world, Cronon says it fits Chicago to a certain degree. By focusing attention on the growth of rail transport, which not only lowered costs but more importantly eliminated risk and smoothed seasonality, the model explains some of the features of Chicago’s western “hinterland.” But, as Cronon says, both theories are “profoundly static and ahistorical.” Worse, like Turner, a model of Chicago based on the Isolated State is simply untrue. “Far from being a gradual, bottom-up process...nearly the opposite was true," Cronon says. "The highest-ranking regional metropolis consolidated its role at a very early date, and promoted the communities in its hinterland as much as they promoted it” (282). Since the west is the result of  symbiotic, simultaneous growth of city and country, neither can claim historic precedence as a basis for moral or social superiority. The arguments of Jefferson and Jackson don’t apply -- at least not in the straightforward ways their proponents had hoped they would.

Throughout the book, Cronon uses an idea of “‘first nature’ (original, prehuman nature) and ‘second nature’ (the artificial nature that people erect atop first nature)” that he attributes to Hegel and Marx (xiv). Cronon’s use of this distinction is complicated by his recognition of the complexity surrounding the term nature -- "Traced most subtly,” he says, “in the work of Raymond Williams.” So he keeps it on a relatively allusive level. In several places, he conflates these ideas with the commonplace sense of a way of thinking becoming “second nature” -- and this connection seems to make sense and work.

As readers familiar with Cronon would expect, he is always quick to point out ecological and historical backgrounds often ignored by others. The Western Frontier was not “free” as Turner said, Cronon reminds. It was taken in conquest from the previous residents. Nor was it pristine. Western prairies were the product of Indian burning and hunting practices, as demonstrated by the incursion of oak and hemlock on ranches and homesteads once whites suppressed fire. Similarly, Cronon regularly begins descriptions of regions like Wisconsin timberlands or western rangelands with surveys of their ecological histories going back to the ice age. This nod to “big history” not only helps reinforce the ecological sensibility underpinning his argument, it serves as an antidote to the alienation Cronon says is produced by separating economic production from consumption.

Chicago, says Cronon, cannot attribute its rapid growth in the last third of the nineteenth century simply to being a central place. Chicago is a central place now (albeit of a much smaller hinterland than it possessed in its heyday), but it grew as a gateway. Beginning with a typically Crononesque description of the many ways Chicago stood at the boundaries of ecosystems, continental watersheds, glacial termini, rural and urban society, railroad “trunk and fan” (90), and “natural and cultural landscapes” (25), he shows Chicago growing by bridging the gap between the east (primarily New York) and the west (all the way to the Rockies). In Chicago, eastern capital met western raw materials and consumers. Railroads, finance, and information gave Chicago temporary, “second natural” advantages. Boosterism, the Civil War, and momentum added to Chicago’s lead, which the city held until newer technologies, population changes, and the problems of success ended its predominance.

Along the way, Cronon tells fascinating stories about the standardization of time (74-8), the growth of organization and capitalism in the railroads (80), the abstraction of commodities into currency (116), the conversion of food production into industry (246-56), and the creation of the familiar consumer world (338-40). Each successive story highlights the market’s increasing and ironic tendency to “obscure the connections between Chicago’s trade and its earthly roots (264)" The "geography of capital,” Cronon says, “produced a landscape of obscured connections” (340). But he doesn’t really explain the process behind this progressive attenuation of producers from consumers, so it’s unclear whether it is unique to Chicago, or a symptom of a more universal alienation.

I think
Nature’s Metropolis makes its case with only occasional reservations. Perhaps Cronon de-emphasizes the temporary nature of Chicago’s advantages to some degree. The Civil War trade (which allowed Chicago to pull ahead of Cincinnati in meat packing) and the closing of New Orleans (which devastated rival St. Louis) may have been given less credit than they are due, for Chicago’s rapid rise to preeminence. Agrarian resistance is mentioned primarily in the context of the Granger Laws, with a few suggestive references to Chicago-published papers like the Prairie Farmer. And once or twice, Cronon seems to reach too far into an allusive moralizing, such as when he describes the Chicago Board of Trade as “boxes within boxes within boxes, all mediating between the commodified world inside and the physical world outside” (146). The most important feature of Nature’s Metropolis is Cronon’s story of the actual historical development of the middle west, rather than an abstract or theorized rural and urban world, as a single, interdependent process. While earlier Eastern settlement may have followed a different path, the growth of the middle west as a single unit is crucially important; especially when evaluating the politics and cultural construction of rural/urban relations in the Populist and Progressive eras.

California and Chile are Complementary and Connected

Strangers on Familiar Soil: Rediscovering the Chile-California Connection
Edward Dallam Melillo, 2015

Fueron las cordilleras, begins the Introduction to Ted Melillo's new book, using the words of Pablo Neruda. Cordillera is what Spanish speakers to our south call the sharp backbone of the Americas that stretches north to south, connecting the two Mediterranean regions of Melillo's study. In Chile, the cordillera is more visible than in much of America. At its widest, the country is only about 110 miles east to west--so the Andes are always over your shoulder, delaying the sunrise. The tallest mountain outside Asia, Aconcagua, is sometimes visible through the smog of the capital, Santiago.

Melillo's book, drawn from his dissertation, basically argues that Chile and California are connected by a shared history, which has largely been erased by a commitment (in both places) to exceptionalism. Melillo says the two places are "complementary zones," and that cultural "links between complementary zones are likely to produce profound ecological effects because these sites offer elevated potential for long-term integration" (6). He also suggests that the cultures of the two places are very similar. For example, "neither Chile nor California has ever functioned as a self-contained entity." Rather, "such assertions of autonomy conceal the ecological and cultural border crossings that have historically linked both places to countless displacements, exchanges, and influences from beyond their boundaries" (183). Displacements, exchanges, and influences are three analytical categories Melillo employs to trace contacts that (respectively) affect one party but not the other, affect both parties, or represent the deliberate attempt of one party to alter the other. He shows ample examples of each of these types of contact, in both directions, between Chile and California from the late eighteenth to the early twenty-first century.

One of the things I admire about good histories is that in addition to arguing a new interpretation of known events or re-framing a debate, they uncover new material and tell us things we didn't know about the past. Melillo does this several times. I didn't know, for example, that the ubiquitous fodder plant, alfalfa, entered American through California. Known for decades as "Chili clover," alfalfa was introduced by Chileans around 1849. This fact illustrates two of the important themes of
Strangers. That we see something different if we look at American history from West to East. And that the connections between Chile and California that would have seemed so obvious to people 150 years ago have become largely invisible today.

Strangers isn't really a history of either place. It's a revelation of the connections between Chile and California that are missing in the histories of either place. These connections include the fleet of Chilean merchant ships that form the foundation of the San Francisco waterfront. The experienced Chilean prospectors and miners who taught many greenhorn Forty-niners how to get gold out of the Sierras, and then were harassed and frequently lynched by jealous Yankees. The Chilean wheat that fed both San Francisco and the gold country before commercial agriculture was established in California. The Chilean nitrate that fed California's citrus groves at the beginning of the twentieth century. The plantations of Monterey pine that replaced native Chilean forests.

The book touched on many topics I'd like to read more about. For example, Melillo devotes considerable attention to the career of Henry Meiggs, whose activities in San Francisco and Chile contributed much to the development of both places. Discussing the predominantly east-west character of Chile's early, extractive railroads, he calls them
venas abiertas (after Eduardo Galeano's famous history). It would be interesting to contrast the organization of these lines, designed to carry raw materials to ports, with some other development scheme. Melillo suggests there's an environmental history of railroads waiting to be written; I agree. Similarly, the passages on the wine industry mentioned names it would have been interesting to follow. I realize the book seeks to look less at the people than at the environment, but Chile more than most places is a land of elite families. So when you mention names like Errázuriz or Larraín, you're opening big storybooks.

The one topic I thought would have improved
Strangers is copper. Melillo told me he had a chapter on copper, but it ended on the cutting room floor. I think a little more attention to the early copper industry would have helped explain how Chileans journeying to California happened to be so experienced in prospecting, mining, and smelting metals. A description of the differences between Spanish and Anglo ideas about ownership of mineral resources would have been valuable. And the post-Pinochet copper boom would have offered an opportunity to reinforce the Chilean-Chinese connection -- but maybe that would have expanded the book's scope to a trans-Pacific triangle rather than a trans-equatorial duality.

Melillo introduces topics that will certainly be expanded on by himself and others. He produces an interpretive frame others can use to explore the Pacific world and transnational interactions. And he uncovers things we didn't know, but should, about the past.

Radkau's right on Environmentalism, wrong on J.S. Mill

Joachim Radkau, Thomas Dunlap tr.
Nature and Power: A Global History of the Environment, 2002, 2008 tr.

There are too few global environmental history books in English that function well as textbooks. This is one of the better ones. Joachim Radkau says he was painfully aware of the pitfalls faced by authors of big histories when he chose to write a global history of the environment. But he believed several themes including European exceptionalism, the dialog between the ideals of wilderness and sustainability, the effects of state, local, and individual control on environmental engagement, regulation of sexuality and xenophobia deserved greater attention. His decision to have
Nature and Power translated into English was motivated by these issues, and also by a belief that “Old World” experience was key to 21st century environmentalism. American textbooks have already forgotten Chernobyl, Radkau says, and “continental Europeans have rarely lived with the illusion of unlimited resources” (xv, xvi). Both good points. The result is a book that surveys several fascinating ways people have interacted with their environments, acknowledges the particularity and contingency inherent in these accounts, and tries to draw some tentative conclusions and lessons for the future from them.

In his 2002 Preface to the German edition, Radkau wonders what the “ecological and economic disaster of the communist bloc mean for that kind of environmental history whose basic assumptions would have led one to assume that a socialist state-run economy would be able to undo the environmental damage caused by the private profit motive?” (xi) Radkau examines several ancient and modern societies, including Maoist China and Nazi Germany, and ultimately concludes that “effective environmental protection requires” neither strict laissez faire capitalism nor top-down, totalitarian central planning, but rather “a spirited civil society, the courage of one’s convictions, citizen initiatives, and a critical public” (308). Environmentalists looking to the past for a definitive answer on how to move forward may be frustrated, he says, but history seems to suggest that environmental failure or success has little direct connection to the particular political and economic forms a society chooses. While “in the end, the apparatus of the state remains the only - at least potential - counterweight to the omnipotence of private capital interests,” Radkau adds that even though its environmental policy was slightly less totalitarian than its social theory, national socialism “wrecked” any chance for idealistic Hegelians to believe “that the state by its very nature embodies the common good and higher reason above all human selfishness” (300, 306).

That this should be a surprise may illustrate the most challenging element of
Nature and Power. Radkau dips one foot into the ecological experience of several ancient cultures, including some like Egypt whose history extends to the present. But he keeps the other foot firmly in the present, both in his analysis of ancient social/environmental interactions as they may relate to present problems, and in his narrative of the history of modern environmentalism (and the somewhat parallel historiography of environmental history, especially in Europe). Of course, major environmental changes are happening in the present, and environmental awareness has changed dramatically in the immediate past. Radkau himself is politically active in a region of the world that actually has a viable green party, and is known in Europe as both a biographer of Max Weber and an anti-nuclear power activist.

“Sometimes the problems become worse if one strives for a grand solution,” Radkau frequently warns (93). His analysis of ancient China, Egypt, and the Inca empire improves on K. A. Wittfogel’s theory of the “hydraulic society” (most familiar to Americans through Donald Worster’s
Rivers of Empire). Ancient public forest and water projects were not motivated solely to consolidate the elite’s power, Radkau says, but even so, “ecological necessities often go hand in hand with opportunities for the exercise of power” (86). This is a general human tendency, Radkau reminds us: even German environmentalism tends to devolve “from a movement into a bureaucracy” (307). In the end, Radkau agrees with Max Weber that “many historical experiences suggest that powerful historical movements require both a solid foundation of material interests and a vision that transcends daily life, that inspires and arouses passionate emotions. The strongest impulses,” he concludes, “are often generated by a fusion of selfishness and selflessness” (329). The same might be said about powerful historical explanations.

The population problem, and the “Epochal...development of effective contraceptives,” is a recurring theme (258). “The potato and coitus interruptus are key innovations of the eighteenth century that are environmentally relevant,” Radkau says, in a memorable line that suggests a useful widening of the traditional definition of environment (6). When the “Bhutanese ecotopia” is shown to be sustainable only through the expulsion of 100,000 Nepalese refugees along the Indian border, population control in democratic societies becomes a visible issue (285-6). Not only is “Bhutan ecology...intertwined with the preservation of the political system,” but so is the country’s culture and existence, as shown by “the fate of neighboring Sikkim, which lost its independence when Nepalese immigrants had grown into the majority of the population.” If environmental disasters force large-scale migrations in the future, what does Radkau’s skepticism of “Bhutanese exceptionalism” suggest about the tension between local identity and global governance?

“After the collapse of socialism,” Radkau says, “environmentalism is left as the only ideological alternative to the absolute hegemony of the quest for private profit and consumption” (299). This is an interesting idea, and one that might provide a common ground for far left and far right opponents of the status quo. But even if we agree that environmentalism’s role is to take on Neo-liberal economics, Radkau seems to assume a unity of outlook and purpose on the part of the “bad guys” that is not demonstrated by his historical examples. This is the point where
Nature and Power’s tension between Radkau the historian and Radkau the environmentalist reaches its peak (and I congratulate him for pushing it that far). Although Radkau argues that “Not in every situation are the nature protectors the ‘good guys’ and their adversaries the ‘bad guys’,” (especially in the third world where colonialism and tourism motivates approaches that may exclude locals from the environment altogether); the real issue is that in history, unlike environmental politics, there aren’t always clear good guys or bad guys. Often there’s just a bunch of guys (borrowed from the movie The Zero Effect 308). This is especially true because throughout the history Radkau covers, the people making environmental policy were almost never ecologists. They were national leaders or village elders or farmers, making political or social or agricultural decisions. Their awareness, their motivations, and their goals may have had a vaguely, more-or-less environmental element. But their attention was almost always dominated by other considerations.

Throughout
Nature and Power, Radkau provides valuable glimpses into distant cultures, from the unfamiliar angle of their relationship to their environments. These perspectives improve the reader’s understanding of these cultures, and widen the scope of many environmental issues we may have believed were recent developments. In some cases, his interpretation may be undermined by inadequate context. Radkau mentions, for example, John Stuart Mill’s “belief that the discomfort every sensitive person felt about a world in which every scrap of land was cultivated” suggests an instinctive realization by Englishmen that “it was dangerous to live without reserves” (324). The actual context of Mill’s statement (which, based on the secondary source he cites, Radkau may have been unaware of), however, was a political argument over compulsory cultivation of thousands of acres of “waste” land held by aristocrats as game reserves. Mill was (as usual) a middle-of-the-road land reformer, facing pressure from a much more radical “Land and Labour League” led by working people and their champions. Radkau may be right on the interpretation, if we privilege the subset of Englishmen represented by Mill. But he’d probably prefer the complete context of Mill’s statement, which underlines a class element of environmentalism Radkau would appreciate. On the whole, Radkau avoids easy, monocausal explanations like Jared Diamond’s Collapse thesis, on the basis of data as well as interpretation. According to pollen evidence, Radkau says, Easter Island was “nearly treeless” for a millennium before the Dutch discovered “a flourishing agriculture with a rich variety of fruit” in 1722. Far from eco-suicide, the culture’s destruction was “completed in 1862 when the majority of the population was dragged off by Peruvian slave traders and the island was transformed into a large sheep ranch” (166). So much for blaming the natives.

Institutional Blindness, Weapons of the Weak, and Highlanders

A few words about two books by Political Scientist James C. Scott.

Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, 1998
The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia, 2009

“Nomads and pastoralists…hunter-gatherers, Gypsies, vagrants, homeless people, itinerants, runaway slaves, and serfs have always been a thorn in the side of states,” begins Scott (1). Primitive premodern states, he continues, had great difficulty “seeing” their people, and this interfered with “the classic state functions of taxation, conscription, and prevention of rebellion” (2). Some less primitive premodern states, such as the Egyptians and the Incas, had some success seeing their people, as shown by the pyramids and the Mita labor system. But it’s probably fair to say that increasing “civilization” leads to increased “visibility.” Efforts to render populations more “legible” included “processes as disparate as the creation of permanent last names, the standardization of weights and measures, the invention of freehold tenure…language and legal discourse.” Interesting to think of freehold land ownership--the very centerpiece of America's yeoman Free Soil idealism--as a process that allows states to keep closer tabs on their citizens. These “simplification” practices of early modern states, Scott says, paved the way for “huge development fiascoes” of the modern era like China’s Great Leap Forward. (which killed at least 45 million people, 3)

These modern-day state disasters, Scott says, rest on four elements: 1.) the administrative ordering of nature and society, 2.) a high-modernist ideology that puts undue confidence in technicians’ ability to reorganize the world through top-down planning, 3.) an authoritarian state that can enforce the technicians’ plans, and 4.) a prostrate population that cannot resist these plans (4,5). I wonder what it would look like if someone wrote an American Environmental History survey course based on these principles? I don't think I'll go quite that far, but I do think I'll build this into the next syllabus I use for my course.

“Designed or planned social order,” Scott reminds us, “is necessarily schematic; it always ignores essential features of any real, functioning social order." Scott doesn’t really specify whether this ignorance is natural (the map always fails to faithfully represent the territory) or deliberate (malcontents are left out so they can be dealt with). The failure of the schematic, Scott says, is best illustrated in a work-to-rule strike, which turns on the fact that any production process depends on a host of informal practices and improvisations that could never be codified.” It’s the unacknowledged, unpaid, invisible contributions of the workers, creatively fixing problems that arise, that actually makes systems work, Scott argues. “By merely following the rules meticulously, the workforce can virtually halt production” (6).

To support his point, Scott describes early modern forests, modern city-builders, Bolsheviks, African villages, and modern agriculture. Comparing modern monoculture to shifting and polycultural farming styles, Scott calls attention to the difference between experimental findings and real-world results. He describes the “Blind Spots,” “Weak Peripheral Vision,” and “Shortsightedness” of industrial agriculture, as well as the fact that “Some Yields are More Equal than Others” (290-306). Again, the problem is that we’re seeing, talking about, and making policy based on maps and mental schematics, and the experimental answers to narrowly-framed questions, rather than on what’s really happening on the ground.

The missing link, Scott says, is local, practical knowledge, which he calls “Mētis” (309). Interestingly, Scott says that many early technocrats, including Frederick Taylor (founder of the Efficiency Movement and author of
The Principles of Scientific Management), were aware that “under scientific management…the managers assume…the burden of gathering together all of the traditional knowledge which in the past has been possessed by the workmen…” (Taylor, quoted in Marglin, Dominating Knowledge, 336). The objective, from the manager’s perspective, is to eliminate the possibility of a work-to-rule strike by owning all the knowledge. This idea has interesting implications for contemporary intellectual property theory.

In
The Art of Not Being Governed, Scott continues the story of organizations and their discontents, from the perspective of the “runaway, fugitive, maroon communities who have, over the course of two millennia, been fleeing the oppressions of state-making projects in the valleys—slavery, conscription, taxes, corvée labor, epidemics, and warfare” (ix). “Civilizational discourses,” Scott points out, “never entertain the possibility of people voluntarily going over to the barbarians,” and often even have difficulty understanding why the outsiders on the hilltops resist the civilizing influences of the valley cities. And of course, most of our Histories come from these valley civilizations.

This has interesting resonance in Early America, where English colonists had a continuing problem with people from the lower end of the social order running off to live with the Indians. And I've just been listening to the audiobook version of Mann's
1493, which is full of descriptions of Maroon communities hidden in the hills--often until really recently (more on that soon). The region Scott looks at in this book is called the Zomia, which is a new name for all the territory located more than 300 meters above sea level in Southeast Asia. It covers 2.5 million square kilometers and includes about 100 million people from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds. The common feature of all these hill people is that they are relatively out-of-reach of the nation-states that nominally include them in their territories. And that the authorities of these nation-states consider them upland barbarians.

But “the valley imagination” of the authorities that considers these highlanders premodern, Scott says, “has its history wrong. Hill people are not pre-anything. In fact, they are better understood as post-irrigated rice, postsedentary, postsubject, and perhaps even postliterate. They represent, in the longue durée, a reactive and purposeful statelessness of peoples who have adapted to a world of states while remaining outside their firm grasp” (337). In other words, a sort-of global, off-the-grid rebel population, that tries to live on its own terms by going far away from the centers of power. Whether these “post-civilization” hill people will be more resilient, if anything goes catastrophically wrong with the civilizations at the center, may be the big question lurking behind Scott’s stories.

The 112 Erasmus Darwins of Massachusetts

While I was doing research in Ashfield a few years ago, I transcribed the Vital Records of the town onto 3x5 note-cards. Yeah, all of the names. I still have the stack of cards, and I can compress it to about four inches if I lean on it hard. It struck me as odd, as I was writing them all down, how many people had been given the name Darwin, especially since published Vital Records birth records end at 1849. In all, six Ashfield children were named “Darwin” or “Erasmus Darwin” between 1803 and 1847. Erasmus Darwin was Charles Darwin’s grandfather. He lived from 1730-1802 and was a prominent physician, poet, inventor, friend of Benjamin Franklin, and proponent of evolution by natural selection.

That’s right. Erasmus Darwin published idea that all life on earth was descended from a single microscopic ancestor in 1770. In 1796, Darwin published the first volume of his
Zoonomia, which was heralded as the Principia of the medical profession, and which discusses his ideas on evolution. And in 1803, the posthumous publication of Darwin’s poem The Temple of Nature elaborated his position even more explicitly. Erasmus Darwin wasn't just some country doctor with an idea, though. He founded Birmingham’s Lunar Society, translated Linnaeus, and was a member of the Royal Society, the Linnean Society, and the American Philosophical Society. When his grandson Charles published On the Origin of Species, the younger Darwin's critics thought they’d be able to silence him by quoting verbatim from tracts written against his grandfather’s theories.

Erasmus Darwin never visited America, although he was a political radical and a supporter of American independence and critic of the Pitt government’s repressions in the 1790s. So I was surprised to discover he was so well-known in a remote western-Massachusetts hill-town like Ashfield. But maybe Ashfield was unusual, I thought. Looking a little farther, I uncovered sixty-three other towns in Massachusetts where children were apparently named for Erasmus Darwin before 1849! I also found 96 towns where there is no record of a child named “Erasmus” or “Darwin” in the
Vital Records. These two groups represent all the towns whose records I was able to find online, so it might be fair to suspect the ratio would be similar for the other towns. But even if there were no more Darwins, sixty-three towns!

It’s possible, of course, that a few of the children named “Erasmus” may have been named for the fifteenth-century humanist, or for remote family members (close ones would have shown up in the records I was searching). But I think most of them were named for the scientist, especially because in most cases they’re actually named “Erasmus Darwin.”  Also, I found no record of “Darwin” being a common family name in these Massachusetts towns, and Charles Darwin’s only significant publication before 1849 was his
The Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle, published in 5 parts, 1838-1843. So I think it's a pretty good bet that these children born in the early nineteenth century a continent away were named for the British scientist.

In all, I found
112 children named “Erasmus,” “Erasmus Darwin,” “Darwin,” or, in a couple of cases, “Erastus Darwin.”  But this initial search of Vital Record books available online missed 187 towns, whose records are not yet available electronically.  So the odds are high that there are many more Erasmus Darwins I never discovered! As bizarre as the mere fact of all these young Darwins in early nineteenth-century Massachusetts towns, is where the towns were (here's the Environmental/Cultural History angle). If people were going to be naming their children after a British scientist (obscure or famous), you’d expect them to live in cities, close to institutions of higher learning like Harvard, wouldn’t you?  Well, you’d be dead wrong.

Most of the people who named their children after the scientist lived in central or western Massachusetts. I found most of the birth records in Worcester, Hampshire, and Franklin Counties. Though they weren’t completely absent from the Boston area, there were more towns close to the coast without a Darwin than with one. The towns marked in green on the map below had at least one “Darwin.” Several had more than one. Two towns, Ashfield and Leominster, had six. The browns had none.

darwins
I began looking into the histories of these towns, to see who these “Darwins” were. And, perhaps more important, who their parents were. In looking at the first dozen or so, it seemed that some of them were educated people, ministers or physicians, as you'd expect. But many others were farmers, shoemakers, and tavern-keepers. The whole surprising episode suggests that people in some of the remotest parts of Massachusetts were thinking about issues and reading books I would never have expected, reading the standard historiography of Early America. And it's a completely different picture of the intellectual life of regular people in the early 19th century than you get in popular American History!

I considered trying to write little sketches of the lives of of these "Darwin" people, because I thought they might turn up interesting insights. Then I got busy pursuing the much more mainstream topics that became my fields and dissertation proposal. It's a shame. Maybe I'll return to this mystery someday. I think there are still surprises lurking in this material…