Death in 1854

Lucius writes Henry in mid-June, 1854.  He mentions that he received a letter recently from Henry, but was waiting to write until Harrison came home from the Cherokee Nation.  Harrison is anxiously awaited, Lucius says.  The family’s anxiety would have been heightened because Lyman had died March 7th, 1854 in Van Buren, Arkansas.  None of the letters in the archive discuss or even mention Lyman’s death, which suggests that there were many more letters sent and received between the Ranney brothers than have come down to us.  But as a result of this gap, we have no information on how Lyman died.  Based on earlier letters, we know he had been ill and that epidemic illnesses were not uncommon where he was living, and in a future letter we learn Harrison is delayed returning home because of an outbreak of cholera.  But we also know that from Lyman’s point of view, Van Buren was a pretty rough town.  Lyman could as easily have been killed in a robbery or brawl as by illness.  We’ll probably never know, and this incompleteness of information is typical of this type of archival research.  We work with what we have, and hope the story we can tell using the available information hangs together and makes sense.

In spite of the fact their brother had died only a couple of months earlier, though, the Ranney family had other concerns that get a lot of attention in this letter.  A young neighbor had died, and the neighborhood was taking it hard. Lewis was looking for a new farm, with even less acreage than the reduced parcel he had been working since his illness.  A dramatic rise in land values allowed many of the Ranneys’ friends and neighbors to sell at large profits.  And Lucius wanted his mother to come home, but as always doesn’t want to come right out and say it.

My Transcription:

Allen June 18th 1854
Dear Friends

We received a letter from you about two weeks since & ought to have written to you before this, but have waited for Harrison to come home.  But he has not come & I shall not delay writing a longer on his account.  The last letter that we got from him said that he should start for home in May.  But Henry Coon got a letter from him some 2 or 3 weeks since.  Harrison said to him that he meant to start for home about the first of June but should be at home at any rate by the fourth of July.  We are anxiously awaiting his return.

We are all well & have been since I wrote last.  Lewis & his wife are here & have been for about 3 or 4 weeks, or ever since Sarah Ann came from the state of N.Y.  She was at Franklin’s 3 or 4 days, they were all well.  Ellen had just got over the ague.  Lewis went out to Black River & drove his cow, with the intention of staying.  He did not buy any land.  He stayed two weeks & made up his mind that it was not the place for him.  Priscilla’s health was quite good, Lewis said that he never saw her as fleshy.  Densmore & Edwin were also well.  

Lewis thinks of buying about here somewhere.  He wants somewhere fro twenty to forty acres of land.  Land is a getting very high about here.  It has raised in value one third since you left.  I mean Mother.  Mother you would be surprised if you knew all the sales of land & changes even in this town since you left.  I will just mention a few that you are the most particularly acquainted with.  Mr. Bements have sold to John Baggerly and he has moved out here so that we have got them for neighbors once more.  Mr. Bement’s folks have bought 3 miles south of Hillsdale.  He sold for two thousand dollars & bought for the same 80 acres.  George Martin has sold 60 acres which was all he had to a man by the name of Edwin from Ontario Co. for eighteen hundred dollars.  Mr. Scovill has sold his that joined Holbrook.  Mr. Graves has sold his & has moved a few miles west somewhere.  Richard Aldrich has sold & moved out with his father in law.  Elder Sabin sold last fall & the man that bought him out has sold again.  Daniel Nichols has sold & bought near Jonesville.  There has been a number of small sales on & about the Prairie this spring.  There is a great many many Eastern people through the country a looking this season.  

We got a letter from Lemuel a day or two since.  It was written the 9th of May.  He says that he is well & has been.  He also says that he is a coming home next spring.  He says that he has not made his fortune yet but has been a doing well of late.  He has made the last three moths $500 five hundred dollars.  He is a mining but he says that his claim is a running out a little.  He intends to keep a mining until he comes home.  He got a letter from Lewis & one from Henry a day or two before he wrote.  

Anson is here this summer.  He is a clearing off, intending to put in about seven or eight acres of wheat this fall.  I am also a clearing off 6 acres up on top of the hill by the sugar place.  Wheat is worth two dollars a bushel.  I sold a load the other day for $1.90.  Wheat looks very poor on the ground this summer, poorer than I ever saw it in this country.  Anson’s looks well, it bids fair for two hundred bushels.  Mine looks better than on average, but rather poor.  Other crops looks well.  The weather is fine.  We had a heavy rain yesterday.  

Mr. Brockway’s folks have been sorely afflicted.  They have lost their son George.  He died about five weeks ago.  He was sick just a week.  He died with the inflammation of the bowels.  He suffered a great deal of pain through his sickness, the most I ever knew a person to in sickness.  The family (Mother) you know took it very hard, & the neighborhood feel to mourn the loss of him, for truly it is a great breach of the family & great loss to the neighborhood.  

I sent some money to Franklin by Harrison Baggerly about three or four weeks ago, & out of it there would be about 26 or 28 dollars more than was a going to him which I told him that he might send the whole or a part of to you.  Probably you have received it before this time.  As regards your coming home, I will say in this as I have said in my previous letters, you can act your own pleasure about coming home.  We would all be glad to see you, but just do as you think best & you will please us.  We do not want you should give yourself any uneasiness one way nor the other about us.  I would also say that we get along well.  I do not know how long Lewis’ folks will stay here.  Lewis’ goods are in the house across the road.

We shall write again when Harrison comes home or we hear from him again.  I have nothing more in particular to write at this time.  Clarissa says that she will not write any this time.  She is a writing to her folks.  It is nearly night.  We have been to the Prairy to meeting today.  Clarissa & Sarah Ann send their love to you all.  Wealthy Ann Howard was married to Andrew Winchester about 4 weeks since.  Write soon.

Yours in Haste
Lucius Ranney

[Notes written upside down in the margins:]

We have sheared our sheep & have sold wool for thirty five cts a lb.  
Caroline as the old saying is, is tougher than a bear.  She wants to be on the move from morning till night.  She is all over the farm & wants to know all that is a going on & she asks as many questions as her Grandmother Ranney has ever thought of.   
We raised about 30 lambs this year which I would like to sell for $1.50 a piece. 

Impressions of a First-time Peddler

This Ranney letter wasn't strictly written by a Ranney. But extended family was very important. Eldad F. Goodwin, Henry’s brother-in-law, writes from a peddling trip. In addition to being family, Henry is Eldad’s supplier and creditor, hence the double greeting of “Brother Henry” and “Dear Sir.” Eldad writes about visiting a Dr. Bemis to try to collect on a promissory note for his father, Henry’s father-in-law, Anson Goodwin (Anson made surgical splints, so the physician’s involvement may have been due to prior business). Bemis had apparently bought the note from a third party to whom Goodwin had endorsed it.

Eldad is apparently new to peddling, but he thinks business is good and he has sold out of several items he’d like Henry to resupply.  Eldad was peddling on foot, probably carrying a tin trunk and one or more baskets.  He mentions he is going to meet “Cross” (a brother of his wife, Julia) in Spencer in a few days. Peddlers often traveled together, but they split up to sell their wares, so despite being new to the business, Eldad would have spent most of his time on his own.

Peddling is an interesting topic, and Henry Ranney was deeply involved, so I’ll have more to say about it soon.

My Transcription:

Hubbardston Dec 21 1853

Brother Henry Dear Sir

Agreeably to my promise, I drop a few lines to let you know of the whereabouts of the pedlar.  We staid over Sunday at Barre, eight miles from here, and I have been these three days in getting here.  I should think from what little I tried it that the peddling business was very good, but can tell better when I get my hand in.
You can tell Father that I called on Dr. Bemis and had quite a confab with him about the lost note.  He told me precisely the same story about it that he wrote to Father.  I watched him close and could get nothing new.  He showed me the note, which is genuine as it has Father’s name on the back in his own handwriting.  We went together to the P.Master and I looked his papers over.  No such letter was on his books.  And I do not think that he ever saw the note.  He appears to be honest and I think he is.  

Bemis says the note was not due when he paid it, says he told the man he would give him Thirty Three Dollars for it (35) and the man made no objection to taking that.  He borrowed a part of the money from Howard and paid it.  Says he told Howard that this was the first time in his life that he ever shaved his own note &c.  I have his statement on paper, will show when I get home.  He has the reputation of being a horse jockey here.  I fear that father will have to lose that note.  But something may turn up yet.

I have sold all out of a number of little things and pretty near of several others.  If you have that N. York order, wish you to send it to Henry H. and get such things as you are not supplied with immediately as I shall want a small bill of goods before many days.  Get something to please the children, of course.  
Cross thinks he shall go home the last of next week and I may come too as we shall be within a days drive of home, but can’t say certain.  At any rate get the goods ready and I will take if I can make a live of it.  

Have you any Hot Drops, Tape, Worsted, Braid, Harmonicas, Corking, Pins, Velvet Ribband, Ounce Pins, Coats, Spools Thread Large Size, Bayliss Needles N. 7 & 8?  My health has been good.  So has the weather, but am some afraid of a snow storm.  

I expect to meet Cross at Spencer next Saturday.  If you have anything to communicate please direct there and I shall be sure to get it, as I will leave word to have it forwarded in case we leave before a letter could get there.  

Respects to all, In Haste Yours
E. F. Goodwin

Shall write to my wife tomorrow or next day.

"My Wife is Quite a Rugged Woman"

Lewis writes to Henry in the fall of 1853, for the first time after a serious illness. He has recovered, and can almost walk normally, but he is a changed man. Lewis says he is “Able to do a good fair days works.  But not the nerve I carried in former years.” He has reduced his farm to forty acres, which he can manage comfortably, and his wife has taken over much of the farmwork. Lewis says she "is quite a rugged woman and very ambitious and helps me a great deal from choice."

As usual, Lewis reports on the health and doings of the brothers. Lucius is now clearly the most driven farmer of the family, and younger brother Anson is working with him rather than out on his own for wages. Harrison and Lyman are in Arkansas, and Lemuel is out of touch. Henry has semi-retired from his mercantile business and become an innkeeper and gentleman farmer, and Lewis pokes a little fun at him, asking whether he has done any heavy work himself or does he just watch others do it.

Their mother Achsah has decided to spend her winter in Phelps and Ashfield, Lewis reports. Henry’s wife Marie is ill (she dies in 1855), so Achsah will be coming to Ashfield to help look after the children. Lewis says he encouraged her to go, and that Lucius agrees it is a good idea, but would never say, “for fear she would think they wanted to get rid of her.”

The season was dry and the harvest light, Lewis says. But he planted five acres of Peppermint, and he has seen in the papers that the oil is selling for $4.25 per pound. Lewis asks Henry for a price because he would prefer to deal with family, but he makes sure Henry knows he is aware of the oil’s value in New York.

Hillsdale Sept 11th 1853
Dear Brother

It having been a long time since writing you, I have concluded to lay everything else aside and write you.  Yet I had rather work a day than write a letter.  I am unused to letter writing of late (of which you are probably aware of) and it seems quite a job.  I read a letter a week or two ago of yours at Lucius’s, stating that Marie’s health was very poor.  I think I am prepared to sympathize with you in your afflictions, yet we had no children to look after or care for.  But we cannot expect our days all sunshine.

Our relations’ healths are all quite good at present here.  Lucius is a driving away as usual at farming.  Anson is with him.  Harrison and Lyman are yet in Arkansas, expect doing well.  Lemuel we know but little about.  Lyman wrote that he received a letter from him in July.  He did not mention how he was doing or when he was coming back.  But advised his Friends not to take the overland route to California. 

My health is quite good this summer.  Leg become about straight so as not to be observed in my common walk.  Therefore you will calculate that I have not got the Blues as had when I wrote you last.  My health in the main is quite good.  Able to do good fair days works.  But not the nerve I carried in former years.  I do not work very hard nor do not intend to.  I now have only 40 acres of land, 28 improved, which I can work myself with a boy in the summer season very comfortably.  My wife is quite a rugged woman and very ambitious and helps me a great deal from choice. 

Mother I believe has concluded to spend the coming winter at Phelps and Ashfield.  I have mentioned it to her several times the past summer that there was nothing to hinder her from visiting her friends East again.  But her head is full of cares and so much to do & Lucius has a very kind woman and would like to have her go if she could enjoy herself better.  But Lucius would not recommend her to go for fear she would think they wanted to get rid of her.  But Frank has invited her and you in your last wanted her, therefore she has concluded to go, probably in October. 

We have had a very dry season.  Wheat and corn came in fair.  But most other crops were light.  Wheat is worth 8/6 per.  But I had only 85 bushes.  Sowed only five acres last year.  What is Pept Oil worth?  I planted five acres last spring.  It has been too dry for it, shall probably get about 30 or 35 lbs.  I see it quoted at about four twenty-five in N.Y. Papers.   
How does farming go?  Have you split any rails yet or made stone wall?  Or do you as an old saying is, keep tally while others do it?  Ralph I suppose is company for you if nothing more.  It hardly seems possible that he is a boy eight or nine years old.  We are not remarkably fond of very small children at our house.  But one of that age we should think worth fussing with. 

Sept 12th

I must close as I am going to town and have not time to write any more.  Please write soon.  I am much obliged for papers I am receiving from you and intend favoring you with the expense sometime. 

My respects to you and yours.  
L.G. Ranney

I can send Hillsdale papers to you occasionally if of any account.  Densmore’s people we have not heard from in several months.  Probably well or we should have heard.

Firsthand View of the Gold Rush

In November, 1852, Henry Ranney in Ashfield receives a transcript from his brothers in Allen, Michigan, of a letter they have received from younger brother Lemuel, who has gone west in search of gold. Lemuel had been planning on trying his luck in Oregon, but too many people were heading that way, so he went to northern California instead. The party he was traveling with lost a horse, and then traded the remaining horses for cattle at Salt Lake City, which means Lemuel probably traveled the final 750 miles on foot. He says the journey overland was “an awful hard trip and one that I would not advise any of my Friends to undertake.”

Lemuel writes a little about the mining prospects and the high cost of living in the camps. He says he imagines they’d like to hear all the details, but “I hope I shall see you all again,” and it would be easier to tell the tale in person. It’s interesting that Lemuel is aware there’s a chance he will not see the family again, and yet this possibility does not cause even an independent, free-spirited person such as Lemuel to be less concerned about the people back home. Write soon, he says, “for I am anxious to know how you are all getting along in that far off country.”

My Transcription:

Allen Nov 24th /52 Dear Brother

I here send you a true copy of Lemuel’s letter that we received from him, Dated Sept 25 1852.

Shasta City Sept 25th /52 Dear Brother & Friends

I am happy to inform you that I have once more reached the pale of civilization.  I arrived here about ten days ago perfectly well & hearty.  I wrote you a letter at Fort Larima which you have probably received long ago.  I stated in that or the one before it that it was my intention to go to Oregon and it was at that time.  But there was such a flood of emigration a going that way this season that I thought I would try my luck in this Awful Country.  

I am at work at present on Clear Creek, 12 miles from Shasta City, in the mines and I am getting ninety dollars a month and boarded.  Board is quite an item in this country.  It costs a person about a dollar a day to live here, that is if he buys the raw material and cooks it himself.  They charge $2.00 a day at the Boarding Houses.  Flour here at present is worth 30¢ a pound.  Pork from 85 to 90¢.  Vegetables all sell by the pound here.  Potatoes are 12¢ a pound.  Onions, Cabbages, Beets & Turnips from 15 to 20¢ a pound.  Beans 25¢.

Well I thought at those prices I had better go to work by the month.  A short time anyhow, so as to be sure of my board and make a little raise.  For it looked rather dubious for a new emigrant that knew nothing about mining and no money to go to work on his own hook.  I am in about as good a mining vicinity probably as there is in California.  Some are doing very well here and some not so well, but they generally average from 5 to 8 dollars a day.  There was one lump taken out about 4 miles above where I am to work that was worth about $2,000.00 by an emigrant that came in this year.  

We were considerable longer through than we expected to be.  We lost one horse before we got to Salt Lake City, and traded the others off for cattle there.  There is a great many things I presume that you would like to hear.  That is, how I got a long and what I saw and how I like the country and what I think of the trip anyhow &c &c.  But I hope I shall see you all again and then I can tell you all the particulars much better than I could describe them to you with Pen and Ink.  But I can tell you now in a very few words what I think of the trip overland.  I think it an awful hard trip and one that I would not advise any of my Friends to undertake.  

If this will pass with you for a letter send me one in return as soon as possible, for I am anxious to know how you are all getting along in that far off country.  My respects to Mother and all the rest of you.

Lemuel S. Ranney

Copied by Anson B Ranney (Copied by Hope Packard)
PS Direct your letter to Shasta City, Shasta County Calif

Illustrations that get almost a full page

Since I'm planning on self-publishing my Environmental History textbook, I'm being very careful to use only illustrations from Creative Commons sources. It's not that hard, since I've already accumulated hundreds of images for each of my chapter topics, to use in my video lectures. But I'm trying to hold myself to a stricter level of sourcing for the book, take down the url of the source, etc.

Most of the images will become basic illustrations, occupying at most four of the "columns" I use as placement guides in the app (InDesign). A few seem so important that I'm giving them eight columns -- letting them extend from margin to margin across the top of a page. One is the diagram of the Grid produced under the National Land Ordinance, from
Wikipedia's "Land Ordinance of 1785" page:


I include that one not only because I think it's incredibly important that people understand why the land they see while flying over America looks the way it does, but because until I moved to the country, I never knew what the dimensions of an acre were or how many there were in a square mile. Appalling.

The second image, so far, that I've given a full spread across the page is Henry Gannett's census map of Government Land Grants. I got my copy direct from the out-of-copyright book (it's b&w because all my illustrations have to be, to make the book affordable to publish), but you can see it on
David Rumsey's excellent map website. This one gets the full spread because there's a lot of detail, and because one of the themes of the text has to do with the relationship between the public and private sectors. And again, because people just don't remember this stuff.


Edit: I almost forgot, this one too (although also in b&w):


Corporations & Environment in Early America

Before I tell the story of commons, mills, and corporations in my Environmental History class, I like to set the scene by talking about one of America's first experiences with corporate scope-creep. Here's how I'm thinking of talking about the Charles River Bridge case in my textbook:

Although it includes additional construction and bridges, this 1842 map of Boston illustrates why the battle between the Warren and Charles River Bridge companies (top of Boston) was so contentious.

Some projects to provide public goods such as colleges or hospitals cost more than individuals can conveniently raise. Early America’s answer was the corporation. Corporations during the colonial period had been quasi-public organizations given a royal charter to do a particular job. The Virginia Company and the Massachusetts Bay Company had been royally chartered corporations. They earned profits for their shareholders, but they also had, or at least claimed to have, an important social function that transcended mere business. Without this social dimension, businesses—even very large ones—were normally organized as partnerships or sole proprietorships. State legislatures in early America continued the English tradition and chartered corporations to do particular tasks in the public interest. Colonial governments began this practice very early in our history, when the Massachusetts legislature established Harvard College in 1636 and then chartered the Harvard Corporation, America’s first corporation, in 1650.

Corporate influence on the environment begins with this first American corporation. In 1640, the Massachusetts legislature gave Harvard a license to run a ferry between Boston and Charlestown across the Charles River, to raise money to operate the college. When the State of Massachusetts granted a corporate charter to the Charles River Bridge Company in 1785, to build the first bridge across the river, the charter specified that the company had to pay Harvard £200 per year to compensate the college for the revenue the old ferry operation would lose.

The Charles River Bridge was a privately operated toll bridge. Originally conceived as a public corporation that would provide a social benefit, the bridge company was wildly successful. The corporation had been capitalized at $50,000, meaning that $50,000 had been raised to build the bridge by selling shares to investors. Once built, the bridge collected $824,798 in tolls between 1786 and 1827. Although the original plan had been to eliminate the tolls once the bridge had paid for itself, the shareholders decided to continue profiting from their monopoly.

Enriching shareholders was not what the legislature had in mind when they granted the corporation a charter to build a bridge that would monopolize river crossing. So the legislature chartered the Warren Bridge Company to build a second bridge next to the Charles River Bridge. The new charter specified that the Warren Bridge would only be allowed to collect tolls for six years or until it paid for itself, whichever came first. Then ownership would revert to the Commonwealth and the bridge would be toll-free.

The Charles River Bridge Company sued the Warren Bridge Company, claiming their 1785 charter had granted a perpetual monopoly on traffic across the river. Charles River Bridge revenues disappeared, as travelers chose to pay the lower tolls on the new bridge. The lawsuit failed in Massachusetts courts, and the plaintiffs took their complaint all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In spite of hiring famous orator Daniel Webster to argue their case, the Charles River Bridge Company lost. The court’s decision reflected the judges’ belief that the profits of the corporation and the interests of its shareholders were less important—and legally came second—to the right of the state to charter corporations to meet public needs. Even so, the tremendous profits taken by Charles River Bridge shareholders and their ability to push their lawsuit to the highest court signaled the beginning of a change in the way corporations viewed their role in society and the responsibilities that went with their public charters.

Greetings from the Wild West - Send Newspapers!

Lyman Ranney writes his brother Henry again from Van Buren, in August 1850.  He hasn't heard from Henry, so he suspects a letter never made it to him — although, since his previous letter is in the archive, apparently it was Henry’s reply that was lost in the mail.  Lyman seems lonely, and writes again about wanting to study medicine, but not having the funds.

Van Buren was apparently a “wild west” sort of boom-town at this time.  Lyman says “merchants are getting rich here,” but he also says that murderers walk the streets and that people are regularly killed in duels “or just for some grudge they had.”  And since there are many young men looking for work, Lyman’s wages are low.  Lyman hints that if he had some money to invest, he could probably make enough to get back to the north and study medicine.  But he doesn’t come right out and ask for it.

My transcription:

Van Buren August 8th 1850
Dear Brother

After waiting some time for and answer to a letter I wrote you some time since I have come to the conclusion that you did not receive it, as I have not yet recd an answer.  But be that as it may, I will once more write you.  I have enjoyed remarkably good health since at the South, although we have exceeding hot weather.  I don’t know but that I may leave here between this and next April and try to make some arrangements about studying medicine.  I like merchandising very much yet I think I would rather practice medicine and should have made greater progress that way ere this if I had possessed the means.  Merchandising is a good occupation but it takes a long time to get a start in that business.  
Merchants are getting rich here.  Mr. Bishop four years ago when he came here had not over fifteen hundred dolls and is now worth about 2000$ which is doing well. 

I have not heard from home but once since I have been here yet I have written home several times.  I recd a letter from Lemuel a short time since.  He wrote from Albion Mich.  I expect he strolls about too much to save a great amt of his wages.

I think I have been well paid for coming here, having learned in several ways.  For one in the way of business, keeping books, &c.  I am keeping books here at present, which is done by double entry.  Yet there is but little chance of saving much here as wages are small comparatively.  There being a surplus of “clerks” who work for next to nothing apparently.  It is about all I can do to clothe myself here at present. 

There is quite a chance here for speculation if a man has a little money, say 4 or 500$ to commence with.  I think he can double his money in a year and perhaps more in buying and selling different articles.  Wheat you can buy in the Indian States about ten or fifteen miles above here for from 10$ to 20$ you can sell for from 30$ to 50$ and other things in the same proportion.  

If I could see any prospect in the next year for making a few hundred dollars in any way I would do most anything.  There is a good society here in this place.  Mostly Eastern people.  But with those in the country it is far different.  There is not over 1/10 of them that can write their own name, and are a desperate sort of men most of them.  There is many a man here I have seen who has killed one or more persons in some way, whether in a duel or just for some grudge they had.  And yet these persons are passing about seemingly as unconcerned as though they never had committed any act.  There has been one or two quarrels here in town since I have been here, and one or two killed, but perfectly without effect.

Write as soon as you receive this and let me know what you are doing and what you are a going to do for the next generation to come.  How the children are and Sister Marie and the friends in general? 

Mr. Bishop gets a paper from Elisha Basset occasionally.  I have not sent you as many as I ought, I have had to distribute them to so many different people, but will try to do better for you in future.  Send me some papers occasionally as you have done since I have been here.  Write on receipt of this and let me hear from you all. 

I send my love to sister Marie, the children, and our friends in general and tell them I may visit them in future if nothing takes place other than expected.

Hoping this may find you all well I now close.

From your affectionate brother

Keeping tabs on the family in 1850

In another of the Ranney Letters from Ashfield, Lucius writes Henry from Allen Michigan in March 1850.  He mentions that he has not written in a long time, and later remarks that neither has Henry. We can’t be sure how long the brothers have been out of touch, but probably not for as long as the previous letter in the archive, from April 1843, would suggest. Chances are that after a century and a half, some of the letters are missing from this archive. In any case, letters seem to be moving between Ashfield, Phelps, and Michigan, because Lucius has heard from Alonzo Franklin that Henry has heard from Lyman.

One possibility is that whole letters were sent on from Ashfield to another brother, rather than transcribe all the news coming from one brother for the benefit of the next. In any case, we can assume Lucius and Henry have been out of direct contact for at least half a year, because Lucius announces that he was married about six months earlier to a local girl, whom he describes as “19 years old, her health is good, &c.”  Lucius gives Henry an update on all the family doings, including those of their cousins Lucretia and Frederick. Lucius thinks their brothers Lewis and Harrison are not as hardworking as they might be, but he describes younger brother Lemuel as “doing very well I suppose, but still takes the world easy & gains the goodwill of the people & has plenty of fun with the Indians and girls.” Their one sister, Priscilla, has had a daughter (Mary, b. Nov. 1849, d. Aug 1852), and Lucius adds some news about their brother-in-law Randolph Densmore.

A local physician and his students have been caught dissecting a stolen corpse, Lucius tells Henry. This happened a lot in the early 19th century — both the stealing of bodies by medical students and the prosecution of those who were caught. This may be of extra interest to the Ranneys because Dr. Charles Knowlton, their friend and doctor in Ashfield, had served time at hard labor in Massachusetts for the same crime (but that’s another story…)

My transcription:

Allen March 10th 1850
Dear Friends

I am aware as well as yourselves that it has been a long time since I have written to you. Consequently methinks this will be gratefully received.  We are all well as usual, Mother is not very rugged however this winter. Our friends are also well.

I received a letter from A.F. a day or two since.  He says he recd a letter from you a few days since from which I understand that you have received one from Lyman.  Consequently I shall say little about him.  He has in my opinion made as food a move as perchance he could in going to Arkansas.  He wrote us about the time he did you.  He is quite steady & shrewd & has a good education, & that is you are aware a fortune to a young man.

I suppose that you have heard that I was married but let that be as it may.  I can safely say that I am.  I was married the 17th of Oct last.  My wife’s name was Clarissa A Wilcox.  She is 19 years old, her health is good, &c.  As for Lemuel, he is at Grand Rapids. I suppose he wrote us a letter about two months ago & we have other means of hearing from him. He is at work at his trade, he is doing very well I suppose, but still takes the world easy & gains the goodwill of the people & has plenty of fun with the Indians and girls. We expect him home this spring.  He left here last spring.  He worked in Paw Paw, Van Buren Co. The past summer.  He worked in Albion, Calhoun Co., a while in the fall, then he went to the Rapids where I suppose he now is.

Franklin wrote that his family was well.  I suppose that you know nearly as much about his affairs as I do.  Lewis and Harrison are at work on their places doing tolerably well.  They do not work very hard, perhaps I need not tell you that, but they are generally busy.  They are making some improvements.

Densmore is into all kinds of business & is bound to have a good living while he is sojourner upon Earth.  He & a partner slaughtered four thousand sheep last fall for the pelts & tallow out of which they made five hundred dollars.  This winter he is a butchering some & is working some at his trade &c.  He shifts too much for his own interest, I think.

Anson lives at home yet.  We are a jogging along after the old sort.  We are making sugar some at present.  We have made 100 lbs.  We have 14 acres of wheat on the ground which looks very well as yet.  Wheat is worth 75 cts, corn 25 cts, oats 18 cts, hay $6.00 &c.  We have one pair of horses, one yoke of oxen, 6 cows, 70 sheep, 2 roosters & one duck.  Also many other fine things.

We have had an open winter here.  We have not had any good sleighing, but about 2 weeks of poor sleighing.  A great deal of rain.  Aunt Polly, Frederick and family are out to Grand River.  I suppose Lyman wrote you about Uncle Henry Sears, Nathan’s family, &c.  There is no doubt in my mind but Uncle Henry has feathered his nest out of Uncle Paul’s property in Texas.  Who blames him?  Not I.  But some of you Ashfield boys ought to go and make him a visit.

Harrison likes the country well in the vicinity of Mt. Carmel.  Harrison has the Yellow Fever to a small degree, say a buck load or such a matter.  I have not had it yet & think I shall not bad, as long as I have plenty of Pork & Beans.  But human nature is not easily satisfied.  Clarissa and I was a visiting at Mr. Cross who married Lucretia Ranney this winter, they were well.  Abner Rogers’ family, some of them live near there.  Benjamin Rogers lost his wife last summer or fall.  He married another in six weeks. He has ten children.  They live in Lenawee County, I suppose you know that.

There is quite an excitement raging here in our town at present.  There is been found the bones of a human being, a Female, with the share of flesh on, found in a bag.  It was found in a field in the fence corner, covered with barks, a day or two since.  It was badly mutilated. It is supposed to have been dug up from some of the neighboring burying grounds by a Physician & student & two or three more.  They have been arrested & I suppose sufficient testimony can be found against them to convict them.  They have been dissecting it for two or three weeks. They have been watched. They found that they were like to be pursued & they secreted it in that shape.  The people let them work for the sake of getting sufficient testimony against them.  It will probably go hard with them.  It is no particular honor to the place but I want to show you what is a going on in this heathen land.

I have nothing more in particular to write.  We should be happy to see you here & if not convenient for that we would like to hear from that way soon.  If my memory serves me you have not written for a long time.  I have endeavored to give you the outlines of some of the most important news that is now in my mind, so you must excuse me for this time.  You have discovered of course that my writing is good, but poor ink.

Our folks all send their respects to you all.  Franklin’s little girl, Ellen Isabel, is here this winter & goes to school.  The rail road is a going to leave Hillsdale & continue west some ways I suppose.  They have commenced work on it.

This from your affectionate brother
Lucius Ranney

Priscilla has a daughter five months old, her health is quite good.

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.


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.


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.


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.

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?


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


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.


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.


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.

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…

Calomel and the Fight for Medical Legitimacy

This is a short account of the fight over Calomel, “empirics,” and medical legitimacy in the first half of the nineteenth century. It's not Environmental History, but I think it involved a distinctly urban/rural dispute over legitimacy. As well as a bit of class conflict. And who doesn't love old accounts of crazy medical nightmares!


In March 1844 a Massachusetts country doctor named Charles Knowlton wrote a letter to the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal. He suspected himself of having infected a new mother with Erysipelas, giving her a fatal case of Puerperal Fever. Oliver Wendell Holmes had published “The Contagiousness of Puerperal Fever” only a year earlier in the New England Quarterly Journal of Medicine, and the issue of contagion was still hotly contested, so Knowlton was not only demonstrating he was up to date with the literature, he was taking a stand on a politically charged issue.[1] But he went further. Aware that his actions would be questioned by his peers, Knowlton argued:

if my treatment of the cases is to be criticized at all, let it not be done by the city practitioner, who, instead of spending most of his hours in buffeting the winds and storms 'o'er hill and dale,' as in country practice, may spend them at the bedside of the sick, acquiring practical experience--or in his study, treasuring up the experience of others; who can examine and re-examine both his patient and his library within the space of half an hour…But rather let it be criticized by the country practitioner, who…knows what it is…to be caught, perhaps in the night, some five or ten miles from home, at the bedside of a patient presenting urgent and alarming symptoms with which he is not practically familiar, and all this without any aid at command beyond what he may chance to have in his pockets and saddlebags. These are the circumstances that 'try men's souls,' and qualify country physicians to sit in judgment upon the practice of each other."[2]

Knowlton’s remarks suggest a certain tension between urban and rural physicians; they also point to his respect for
experience as a mark of professionalism and expertise. But Charles Knowlton wasn't a typical physician. He was a freethinker and the author of America’s first birth control manual. He had written his 1824 thesis for the medical lectures at Hanover, on the importance of anatomy. Dartmouth, like other respectable schools, held medical lectures nearby but outside the college's official walls. Dr. Nathan Smith, who had organized the medical programs at Dartmouth, Bowdoin, and the University of Vermont, was extensively grilled by Timothy Dwight regarding his religious and moral orthodoxy (and suspicions he was an “anatomist”) before being allowed to commence teaching at Yale.[3] On his graduation from Dartmouth's "lectures," Knowlton walked from Hanover directly to Worcester to serve three months at hard labor for stealing bodies from a local cemetery. But to what degree did Knowlton’s remarks reflect or speak for the developing profession? The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal holds a possible answer, in the form of a decades-long debate over the effectiveness and dangers of the drug Calomel. The conflict was between authority and experience, and the battle-lines were drawn largely on an urban-rural and class axes.

Calomel was a chloride of mercury, known since the days of the alchemists. Its use was promoted in the leading medical schools at London and Edinburgh, and eighteenth-century Americans who had studied overseas taught Calomel’s purgative, tonic, and cathartic properties to their own students at home. Along with bleeding, Calomel became a centerpiece of Dr. Benjamin Rush’s “heroic” style of treatment and was featured in authoritative American texts.[4] Calomel became such a standard part of the American
material medica that in Dartmouth lecture notes of the 1830s, students didn’t even bother to give the drug its own descriptive page. For many early nineteenth-century doctors, Calomel was the panacea, the “Samson” drug they turned to when all else failed.[5]

The harmful effects of mercury were well-known to early doctors. Along with bloodletting, Calomel was used as a “depletive,” since medical theory held first that inflammation, and later that “excitement of the blood” caused most illness. But early in the nineteenth century, the general public also began to understand the dangers of mercurial medicines, and to distrust physicians who relied on them. This distrust was fueled by popular critics like William Cobbett, who quipped that Benjamin Rush’s heroic practices were “one of the great discoveries…which have contributed to the depopulation of the earth.” More testimony against Calomel came from the legions of Thomsonian botanical healers, hydropaths and homeopaths who challenged traditional doctors in the early nineteenth century. These “sectarians” took advantage of horror stories that circulated about patients injured or killed by heroic treatment, to erode the social standing of traditional physicians they said were doing more harm than good.[6]

In 1828 the
Boston Medical and Surgical Journal (Journal) began offering doctors from New England, New York, and the western territories as far away as New Orleans a forum for sharing cases, and a place to read about medical advances. It was active in the ongoing battle against “quackery” and the struggle to establish medicine as a respected profession. The Editors of the Journal were aware of the public’s distrust of heroic treatment, and especially of the growing fear of Calomel. But rather than addressing these concerns open-mindedly, they rejected and demonized skeptics and dissenters, even when these were fellow doctors relating their cases. The continued use of Calomel and the Journal’s dogged defense of it in the face of mounting evidence from the late 1820s to the late1840s set rural doctors and urban academics in opposing camps. Leading physicians’ obvious lack of consensus on the safety and effectiveness of treatments further undermined the public’s acceptance of the profession.

Although aware of its dangers, the medical profession defended Calomel in its publications. In April 1828, Dr. Finley of Bainbridge Ohio proposed using solutions of water and “tartarate of antimony for checking mercurial salivation,” indicating that the problem was already well-known.[7] A September report of a British lecturer’s comment, “To calomel I am averse; on some bowels it acts roughly, and I have seen it apparently occasion miscarriage,” suggests that by the late 1820s the use of mercurials was falling out of favor across the Atlantic.[8] In America, doctors had begun reporting cases of “Ptyalism” and “Gangrenopsis.”[9] The effects of Calomel poisoning on patients, particularly children, were gruesome. One doctor described a ten-year old girl who was treated (by another doctor) with eight doses of calomel over the course of three weeks. She complained of swelling and soreness in her mouth that the other doctor had dismissed as canker. This swelling progressed “uninterruptedly to gangrene and sphacelation [morbidity] of both lips, and the greater part of the right cheek, before her death, and left such a hideous spectacle…as made it desirable she might not survive.” In another case, a forty-year old man “to whom much mercury had been given, and pursued for a considerable time, in small doses, and even after profuse ptyalism had been established…His mouth and face swelled; he could not distinctly articulate for several months; his teeth fell out; and portions of his lower jaw, including the sockets of the teeth, came out. At the end of nine months he died…”[10]

Dr. George Packard of Saco Maine wrote in 1830 about treating “an uncommonly healthy” ten-year old girl for fever. He gave several doses of calomel, and on the second day of treatment, her cheek began to swell. Packard was “confident that the constitutional effect of calomel was not produced, though…a fetor, somewhat resembling that of a mercurial sore mouth, was for some days perceived.” In the fourth week of treatment, the girl’s left cheek became swollen and painful. The doctor tried blisters, poultices, and tonics with no success. The "mercurial fetor" gave way to a gangrenous stench, and “a large slough came away” from the inside of the girl’s cheek. The “erosion proceeded rapidly,” and the girl began to have regular hemorrhages, which finally killed her in the eighth week of her illness. By this time, the erosion, “commencing at the angle of the mouth, passed by the nose to the upper edge of the malar bone,—thence, by the ear…came anteriorly, including half of the throat and chin.” The girl was unable to eat for much of the two months she suffered from this erosion, and her death “was for many days heartily desired by her attendants and friends, and, when it came, was not an unwelcome visitor.”[11]

Although it continued to print alarming letters from country doctors describing catastrophic results of Calomel use, the
Journal was unwilling to offer an opinion contradicting medical canon. In early 1831 the Editors denounced a “REFORMED Medical College” that had been opened by Dr. John J. Steele in Worthington Ohio. The college’s “chief object of reform,” they said, would be to “dismiss from the material medica, the internal use of mercury, antimony, lead, iron, copper, zinc, arsenic, and other poisonous materials.” The Editors called this “the most weak, absurd and contemptible affair…we ever met with in print.”[12]

In 1834 Dr. Stephen W. Williams of Deerfield, Professor of Medical Jurisprudence at the Berkshire Medical Institution, wrote in defense of mercury. Williams gave the case of a ten-year old boy with scarlet fever, to whom he had prescribed calomel. After nine days of treatment, the boy was “attacked with severe haemorrhage from the small arteries of the cheeks and gums, which continued without much intermission for two or three days, and prostrated his strength considerably.” Williams complained, “about this time I was attacked, with the ferocity of a tiger, for administering mercury in this case and destroying the patient…Such is often the gratitude that is awarded to physicians.” Dr. Williams insisted the patient would have died under any other treatment, and proceeded over several pages to cite dozens of medical authorities supporting his use of mercury. His citations went back to the seventeenth century, and included advocates of heroic treatment like Rush.

Dr. Williams’ article marks a perceptible change in the rhetoric surrounding the Calomel argument. Spurred by growing concern over the profession’s declining public image, the Editors of the
Journal chose to stand for tradition and the authority of medicine’s canonical texts. “A great change is evidently taking place in regard to the old mode of theorizing,” the Editors complained. “Facts are now first demanded, and every one may then dispose of them according to his own individual fancy.”[13] Country correspondents of the Journal objected to this “intolerant and overbearing” approach, charging that if any doctors “have the boldness or temerity to doubt their infallibility…they [the Editors], in the plentitude of their wisdom and power, are determined to inflict summary vengeance on them…by a ten times more frequent and greater use of the article in question, than they otherwise would have done.”[14] But the Editors continued, in columns like their “Remarks on Itinerants,” to declare that “although mercury is “anathematized by quacks and their unconscious dupes, it is a valuable medicine, and could not be dispensed with in general practice.”[15]

The basis of the Editors’ argument for Calomel seems to rest squarely on the authority of tradition. In 1838 the
Journal devoted several issues to reprinting a London lecture on Materia Medica that traced mercury’s use from Pliny and Dioscorides, through the Arabians, to Paracelsus and the alchemists, for whom it was “the summum magnum of all their labors.”[16] In an 1839 conclusion to a “Medical Essay,” on another subject, the Editors attacked “the empiric…[who] is absolutely ignorant of the nature and proper operation of calomel, and therefore in his hands it becomes an edged-tool, which should never be in the hands of the ignorant, the prejudiced, or the insane.”[17] Though the term empiric was then widely used as a derogatory catch-all for Thomsonian herbalists, homeopaths, and others, its literal meaning is equally relevant. In the minds of the Editors and their supporters, physicians, like contemporary professionals practicing law and the ministry, claimed their authority not from experience, but from their mastery of medicine’s ancient, canonical texts.

The battle raged on, in literally dozens of
Journal articles and letters. Most often correspondents and country doctors argued from their observations, while the Editors and their academic experts argued from the texts. At the same time, the Journal and other organs of the medical press complained of physicians' low social standing relative to ministers and lawyers. One of the first priorities of the American Medical Association, founded in 1847, was setting minimal standards of education for its members. While this ultimately resulted in the highly empirical, science-based medicine we are familiar with today, at the time it may have functioned like the Association's committees to investigate secret remedies, patent nostrums, and other “quack” cures: more as a reinforcement for authority over experience than as a search for new discoveries.[18]

By mid-century the weight of evidence was unbearable. Its acceptance coincided the establishment of medical schools
within the elite institutions that had once held them at arm's length. Perhaps moving inside the walls gave medicine the prestige it needed to address its critics. Experience became institutionalized as medical science and Calomel faded from use. In his 1850 “Valedictory Address” to the AMA, President John C. Warren remarked “I do remember that at one time most diseases were attacked by mercurials; not only general but local; inflammations and fevers; affections acute and chronic, syphilitic and scrofulous; in short, nearly all diseases, all ages, both sexes, were invaded by this potent mineral.”[19] Warren’s position as Professor of Anatomy at the Harvard Medical School thirty-seven years after Nathan Smith arrived at Yale under a cloud of suspicion illustrates how much had changed in a little over a generation. Memory faded rapidly regarding the divisiveness of the Calomel debate and the authoritarian philosophy of medicine it illustrated. Young doctors were no longer jailed for studying anatomy on stolen corpses. The profession had grown up and empiricism had won, if not a decisive victory over authority, at least a seat at the table.


[1] “A gentleman’s hands are clean,” claimed opponents. Meigs, C. D. (1854). On the nature, signs, and treatment of childbed fevers; in a series of letters addressed to the students of his class. Philadelphia, Blanchard and Lea. Holmes article was reprinted in Holmes, O. W. (1883). Medical essays, 1842-1882. Boston, Houghton Mifflin.
[2] Massachusetts Medical, S. and S. New England Surgical (1844). "Erisypelas and Puerperal Fever." The Boston medical and surgical journal.
XXX(5): 89-95.
[3] Smith, E. A. (1914). The life and letters of Nathan Smith, M.B., M.D. New Haven, Yale University Press; [etc.].
[4] Eberle, J. (1834). Notes of lectures on the theory and practice of medicine, delivered in the Jefferson medical college, at Philadelphia. Cincinnati, Corey & Fairbank.
[5] Cobbett, W. (1885). How to get on in the world, as displayed in the life and writings of William Cobbett. New York, R. Worthington.
[6] Thomson, S. (1822, 1972). A narrative of the life and medical discoveries of Samuel Thomson; containing an account of his system of practice, and the manner of curing disease with vegetable medicine, upon a plan entirely new; to which is added an introduction to his New guide to health, or botanic family physician, containing the principles upon which the system is founded, with remarks on fevers, steaming, poison, &c. New York, Arno Press.
[7] Massachusetts Medical, S. and S. New England Surgical (1828). "Letter." The Boston medical and surgical journal.
I(9): 137.
[8] Massachusetts Medical, S. and S. New England Surgical (1828). "Lectures Delivered at Guy's Hospital." The Boston medical and surgical journal.
I(29): 458.
[9] Massachusetts Medical, S. and S. New England Surgical (1828). "Letter." The Boston medical and surgical journal.
II(43): 679.
[10] Massachusetts Medical, S. and S. New England Surgical (1830). "Some Account of Affections of the Face." The Boston medical and surgical journal.
II(48): 758.
[11] Massachusetts Medical, S. and S. New England Surgical (1830). "Letter." The Boston medical and surgical journal.
III(21): 337.
[12] Massachusetts Medical, S. and S. New England Surgical (1831). ""REFORMED" Medical College." The Boston medical and surgical journal.
IV(6): 101.
[13] Massachusetts Medical, S. and S. New England Surgical (1835). "Self Limited Diseases." The Boston medical and surgical journal.
XII(26): 413.
[14] Massachusetts Medical, S. and S. New England Surgical (1835). "Letter." The Boston medical and surgical journal.
XII(26): 411.
[15] Massachusetts Medical, S. and S. New England Surgical (1837). "Remarks on Itinerants." The Boston medical and surgical journal.
XVI(1): 14.
[16] Massachusetts Medical, S. and S. New England Surgical (1838). "Mercury, from Dr. Sigmond's Lectures on the Materia Medica." The Boston medical and surgical journal.
XVIII(9): 133
[17] Massachusetts Medical, S. and S. New England Surgical (1839). "Medical Essay." The Boston medical and surgical journal.
XX(6): 94.
[18] Davis, N. S. B. S. W. and ed (1855). History of the American Medical Association from its organization up to January, 1855. Philadelphia, Lippincott, Grambo & Co.
[19] Massachusetts Medical, S. and S. New England Surgical (1850). "Dr. Warren's Valedictory Address." The Boston medical and surgical journal.
XLII(20): 409.
Cobbett, W. (1885). How to get on in the world, as displayed in the life and writings of William Cobbett. New York, R. Worthington.
Davis, N. S. B. S. W. and ed (1855). History of the American Medical Association from its organization up to January, 1855. Philadelphia, Lippincott, Grambo & Co.
Eberle, J. (1834). Notes of lectures on the theory and practice of medicine, delivered in the Jefferson medical college, at Philadelphia. Cincinnati, Corey & Fairbank.
Holmes, O. W. (1883). Medical essays, 1842-1882. Boston, Houghton Mifflin.
Massachusetts Medical, S. and S. New England Surgical (1850). "Dr. Warren's Valedictory Address." The Boston medical and surgical journal. 
Meigs, C. D. (1854). On the nature, signs, and treatment of childbed fevers; in a series of letters addressed to the students of his class. Philadelphia, Blanchard and Lea.
Smith, E. A. (1914). The life and letters of Nathan Smith, M.B., M.D. New Haven, Yale University Press; [etc.].
Thomson, S. (1822, 1972). A narrative of the life and medical discoveries of Samuel Thomson; containing an account of his system of practice, and the manner of curing disease with vegetable medicine, upon a plan entirely new; to which is added an introduction to his New guide to health, or botanic family physician, containing the principles upon which the system is founded, with remarks on fevers, steaming, poison, &c. New York, Arno Press.
James Cassedy,
American Medicine and Statistical Thinking, 1984
John Duffy,
From Humors to Medical Science, 1993
William Rothstein,
American Medical Schools and the Practice of Medicine, 1987
Michael Sappol
, A Traffic of Dead Bodies, 2002
------------, “The Odd Case of Charles Knowlton: Anatomical Performance, Medical Narrative, and Identity in Antebellum America,”
Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 2009.
Jayme Sokolow,
Eros and Modernization, 1983

Background on a 19th-Century Family of Farmers

So who were these Ranneys, who left four decades worth of primary source material in a local archive?  What can we find out about them, to set the scene for this series of letters?  Looking for information on a family like the Ranneys in nineteenth-century America, we have a pretty wide variety of sources available to us. As many descendants of more recent immigrants to the Americas have found, European communities were not always big on record-keeping. There may be nothing written down about an average family except births, deaths, and marriages in a local church register — and that register may have been lost or destroyed. Luckily, Americans seem to have valued genealogical information from very early in our history. The list of birth-dates Lewis provides for Henry in the first letter (which I'll post tomorrow) is an indication of this. And this impulse wasn’t limited only to Mayflower descendants.  Between the middle and the end of the nineteenth century people started publishing books tracing the genealogies of families like the Ranneys. According to the Ranney book, (The Ranney Memorial and Historical Association: Preliminary Report, 1904), the family in America originates with a Scottish immigrant named Thomas Ranney, born in 1616, who settled in Middletown, Connecticut in the mid-1650s. Although no one knows precisely why Thomas left Scotland, the Scots were defeated by Cromwell’s parliamentary forces at Dunbar in 1650, leading to the unification of England and Scotland in 1653. It’s possible that Ranney, like many of his countrymen, chose to emigrate as a result of these events and the social changes they caused. The book on Middletown’s early history (Charles Collard Adams’s Middletown Upper Houses: A History of the North Society of Middletown, Connecticut, from 1650 to 1800, with Genealogical and Biographical Chapters on the Early Families and a Full Genealogy of the Ranney Family, 1908) agrees with the Ranney book (not unusual, since most of these early sources borrowed freely from each other without attribution) and continues the story. Thomas Ranney became a landowner in Middletown in 1658, and married seventeen-year old Mary Hubbard, daughter of another founding family, in 1659. By 1670, Thomas was paying £105 in taxes, placing him ninth on the list of 52 town proprietors. Thomas was not a member of a church (a tradition his freethinking descendants continued). He died at age 97 in 1713, the last surviving Middletown settler. In his will, Thomas gave grants of land to each of his ten surviving children. In addition to his homestead, valued at £110, Thomas’s estate included nearly 400 acres of land and was valued at £757. After a humble beginning, Thomas Ranney died a fairly wealthy man.

Thomas Ranney’s great-great-grandson, George Ranney III, was born in Middletown in 1746. By this time, Middletown had become the largest port city between Boston and New York, with more international shipping than Hartford or New Haven.  The oldest son of a main branch of what was already a large and complicated family tree, George entered the “West India trade” as a young man. The trade, which flourished from the 1750s until the Revolutionary War, is evasively described by local historians as “carrying out mules, horses, and hay, and bringing back rum, sugar, molasses, and fine woods.” Although Middletown had a larger slave population than any other Connecticut city (peaking at 218 in 1756, according to most accounts), it is unclear whether the young George Ranney was involved in this aspect of the trade, or whether he ever actually went to sea. But since the money that islands like Barbados used to buy New England livestock, food, and fodder was derived from sugar produced by slaves and sold in the British market, there is little point splitting hairs: Middletown’s “West India” economy was part of the British colonial system and the slave-based sugar economy.

is known about George Ranney is that he married Esther Hall, daughter of Captain Samuel Hall, in January 1771. George was 25, his wife 20. Captain Hall was not a ship’s master, but rather a member of another Middletown founding family, a deacon, and a captain of the militia. The Ranney and Hall families have a long history of intermarriage, and in fact George’s younger brother Francis married Esther’s younger sister Rachel two years later. George and Esther’s first child, named Samuel Hall after his grandfather, was born in March, 1772.

The West India trade in Middletown never really recovered from the American Revolution. The British West Indian colonies found other sources of supply during the nearly decade-long conflict, and after the war the Sugar Islands found other trade partners within the British Empire. With the loss of commerce, Middletown’s economy began to shift toward manufacturing.  In 1791, a rum distillery that came symbolize this transition was begun by a Hall relative of George’s wife Esther. As the connection with the Caribbean waned, the new manufacturers explored other businesses. The distillery, a “last relic of former days…distilled annually, 600 hogs-heads of rum,” but by the early years of the New Republic most of Middletown’s merchant-manufacturers had turned their attention to textiles, according to another old history, Whittemore’s 1884
History of Middlesex County: The Town and City of Middletown.

George and Esther Ranney moved their family to Ashfield Massachusetts in 1780. In addition to young Samuel, who was eight at the time of the move, the young family included Jesse, age five, and Joseph, three. George IV, called George Jr. in Ashfield records and born in May 1780, may have been the first Ranney born in Ashfield. George III’s younger brothers, Francis and Thomas, also moved to Ashfield in in 1786 and 1792, leaving their much younger brother Jonathan (b. 1765) to care for their aging parents and inherit the family homestead in Middletown. By the early 1800s there were many Ranney cousins in the neighborhood, including the prominent merchant and selectman Captain Roswell Ranney and his large family.


George Ranney III bought a 100-acre “farm” from Lamberton Allen, and built a log house. Ashfield histories suggest that Allen’s so-called farm was really an uncleared tract of forest, and this suspicion is strengthened by the fact George Ranney built a log house rather than moving into an existing structure. Lamberton Allen was originally from Deerfield, about fifteen miles away on the rich, flat farmland beside the Connecticut River. In August 1746, during one of many Indian conflicts preceding the Seven Years (“French and Indian”) War, Lamberton’s father Samuel Allen had been killed by a native raiding party while working in his fields. Two of his older children were at work with him: Eunice was “tomahawked” and Samuel Jr. was taken as a captive to Canada. The younger Samuel eventually escaped from the Indians as they were making their way northward into Canada and returned to Massachusetts. Samuel and his younger brothers Lamberton and Enoch settled in Ashfield, after the two younger men married daughters of the Belding family. The Beldings were another old Deerfield family who were very active in the early settlement of Ashfield. (Converse, Some of the Ancestors and Descendants of Samuel Converse, Jr…., 1905)

George and Esther’s sons grew to adulthood in Ashfield in the years between the Revolution and the War of 1812. When the Ranneys had arrived in 1780, Ashfield was a tiny upcountry village that had already attracted attention beyond its borders for its “Yankee” rebelliousness. In the 1760s, the town’s new Congregational church had taken the land of Baptist residents who had refused to pay the Congregational church’s “tax” because they rightly claimed their church had been there first. The Baptists protested to the colonial legislature in Boston. But the Congregationalists, led by Harvard-educated Israel Williams, refused to give back the 400 acres taken from the Baptists, and got the government to back them up. The Baptists appealed to London, and in 1769 King George III’s Privy Council gave them back their land. When Bostonian patriots like Samuel Adams established committees of correspondence and sent out their revolutionary call just a few years later, many Ashfielders called them hypocrites. “They were calling themselves the sons of liberty and were erecting their liberty poles about the country,” said Baptist leader Ebenezer Smith, “but they did not deserve the name, for it was evident that all they wanted was liberty from oppression that they might have liberty to oppress.”  (Quoted in Mark Williams’s
The Brittle Thread of Life, 2009)

Lamberton Allen, the Ashfielder who sold his land to George Ranney, moved north to Vermont where his cousins Ethan and Ira Allen were local heroes. He settled on Grand Isle in Lake Champlain, between Vermont and Canada, helping to found a township called Middle Hero. At this time, Vermont was a wild frontier area between New York, New Hampshire, and Canada.  The Allens and their Green Mountain Boys resisted the territorial claims of their neighbors and played each against the others, until 1791 when Vermont finally joined the union as its 14th state. Samuel Allen remained in Ashfield a while longer than his brother Lamberton, according to US Census data. Although he had been a lieutenant in the Revolutionary War, Samuel opposed both local and Bostonian aristocrats who he believed had betrayed the spirit of the Revolution as a people’s independence movement. Samuel led a company of local men during Shays’ Rebellion, and then refused to sign the loyalty oath required by Massachusetts authorities when the rebellion failed. Although this refusal made him unable to hold any public office due to his continuing “rebel” status, Samuel stayed in Ashfield through the 1790s before moving to Grand Isle. He was remembered by Ashfielders as “Barefoot Allen” for one of his many eccentric habits.

The Ranney sons were remembered for helping their father George turn his homestead into one of the best farms in Ashfield. Samuel, the oldest, had been eight years old when the family arrived in Massachusetts. Samuel settled on a parcel just south of his father’s, and in 1821 he built a two-story brick house that still stands beside Route 116 south of the town center. Second son Jesse settled on the land north of his father’s farm, which he later sold to his brother Joseph when he bought a larger farm in Ashfield. Jesse raised his family in Ashfield and died at his home in 1861, age 86. Joseph lived in Ashfield until 1838, when he was killed by a falling tree in his woodlot. Youngest brother George Ranney IV (George Jr.) was born in Ashfield in 1789.

Samuel Ranney's House, Ashfield Massachusetts

George Ranney Jr. inherited the family homestead when his father George died at age 75 in 1822. Inheritance by the youngest son was traditional in early America, because older sons generally started their own farms or businesses long before the parents were ready to stop working and hand over their assets, and the youngest would be more available to take care of his parents in their old age. George lived in the family home another eleven years, and then became the first brother to leave Ashfield, migrating to Phelps (then called Vienna) in western New York in 1833, when he was 44 years old.  He took his entire family (wife Achsah Sears Ranney and eight out of their nine children) to their new home 260 miles west of Ashfield, leaving behind only his third son, 16-year old Henry Sears Ranney.

A Farmer's Letter from 1857

I was lucky enough, some years ago, to do research in the hill-towns of western Massachusetts. One in particular stood out. Ashfield is a town of about seventeen hundred people, located at an elevation of about 1250 feet in the Berkshire foothills. It was the home of Dr. Charles Knowlton, the first American to publish a birth control manual (in 1833. He was promptly jailed for it), who I wrote about in An Infidel Body-Snatcher and the Fruits of His Philosophy. Ashfield was also home to the Ranney family, at least until they spread out across upstate New York and southwestern Michigan.

The Ranneys are great, because like many nineteenth-century families, they kept in close touch with each other -- and luckily, the
Ashfield Historical Society has held onto their letters! So I had the opportunity to photograph, transcribe, and read correspondence that spans four decades. I promised my friends at the Historical Society that one day I'd put all the letters together and publish them. Time to get back to work on that project.

Lucius Ranney has two 80-acre parcels in the section to the right of Duck Lake

So here's a representative letter, from Lucius Ranney of Michigan to his older brother Henry, who was the sole family member to remain in Ashfield. The Ranneys had moved first to Phelps, New York in the late 1830s. Then several of the brothers picked up and went to Michigan. By the mid-1850s, Lucius was well-settled on a 160-acre parcel in Allen Township. The parcel is no longer in the family, but you can still see the grid-lines from space.

The parcels previously owned by Lucius
Lucius writes to Henry in the summer of 1857, after what he describes as a long silence. The gap in their communication was probably not as long as the gap in the archive, because Henry went to Michigan in late 1856, and their mother Achsah had returned home to Allen (she actually split her time between Massachusetts, New York, and Michigan). Lucius writes about the farm and the family.  He says Achsah did not go to Coldwater to visit their cousin, Lucretia Ranney Hathaway in the fall, as she had apparently planned to do. Coldwater is about twelve miles from Allen. Their younger brother Harrison, who was married in early 1856, had a son in April, and (another brother) Anson’s son who is just over a year old “walks all over the house.”

Lucius mentions that he has traded his team of oxen for horses, and that Harrison and (yet another brother) Lemuel also have a team of horses. Horses were slightly more of a luxury than oxen, because they're faster and can pull a wagon quickly to town. But horses were more expensive, since they needed oats whereas oxen can survive on grass. So the brothers were doing well. Lucius also says Anson doesn’t have a team at all, so he has been doing his brother’s “team work.”

Lucius invites Henry to visit again in September, when their brother Alonzo Franklin will be coming out from Phelps. He also invites his niece and nephew, Henry's children, suggesting to Ralph that he take up a peddler’s basket and come out on west. This is a joke, because Ralph is only twelve — but Ralph does go out on the road as a Yankee Peddler several years later.


My Transcription:

Allen July 19th 1857
Dear Brother

It has been a long time since I have written you a letter, & the reason is not because I have forgotten you for I presume that there is not a day passes but what I think of you & also think of what a fine visit we had together last fall.  But it is my negligence.  We are all well as usual & also the other Boys & their Families for aught I know.  I see them quite often.  Mother’s health is about the same as it was when she came home last fall.

We had a very long & severe winter & the spring & summer are very backward, & very wet.  We had a very hard thunderstorm last night.  Provisions are rather dear here this summer, although there seems to be a plenty in the country.  We have a plenty of old wheat on hand yet, old potatoes & old pork &c.  Potatoes have been worth during the summer, one dollar a bushel. 

Wheat, the average price about $1.50 a bushel &c.  One year ago today I had my wheat harvested & in the barn & the most of my hay, and now I have just begun to hay & my wheat will not be fit to cut under about a week.  

Crops look very promising at present.  I think I shall have two hundred bushels of wheat.  I call it 12 acres.  You recollect where it was sowed.  I should estimate it higher, but the Weavle are injuring it some.  Don’t know how much.  The little piece across the road is injured by being too large straw, it is lodged flat to the ground the most of it. Grass is very good.  I shall cut double the hay that I did last year.  I have a piece of oats that looks well.  Potatoes look first rate.  Corn is backward but is a growing finely now days.  

Anson’s crops look very well.  He will have nearly two hundred bushels of wheat.  Harrison & Lemuel’s wheat is rather small, their other crops are good.  Lewis says that it has been too wet to hoe his corn much, but it will all be right with him in the fall.  

I suppose that you have heard that Harrison has a boy about three months old.  Anson’s boy walks all over the house.  Anson has not got any team this summer, consequently I do the most of his team work. I have no oxen this summer, I work horses.  I traded my oxen for horses last winter.  I have about such a team as the Boys had when you were here.  They have the same now. 

We have three cows this summer.  I sheared the same flock of sheep that I had last fall when you were here.  There was 66 of them.  We saved 2 fleeces, the other sixty-four sheared 291 lbs of which I sold for 44 cts a lb.  Beat that with a common flock of that size in your county if you can.

Mother says I must write more about my horses.  I keep that black colt that you saw.  She is raising a fine colt this summer.  I have the boy 2 year old colt, & I also have a yearling colt that I bought last winter.  Which makes in all six horse kind.  I have since shearing sold all of my wethers, both old & young.  23 in number for $2.25 per head.  Beef cattle are very high here at present.  There is a great many buyers about these days.  

I moved the house from across the road over near where you & I staked out & I find it much better or handier rather.  It also looks better.  We are a having a great deal of fruit this season.  We shall have a number of bushels of peaches from the old, apparently dead trees.  Our orchard is a bearing full.  We shall have a great many greenings & we are a having lots of currants.  In fact there is a going to be a great many beechnuts, butternuts &c.  

We have not heard from Priscilla in a long time.  She was well the last we heard from her.  We are expecting Franklin out here in Sept & we would like to have you come out with him if you thought you could make it pay.  We are a fitting up some roasters.  I think it will be doubtful about my going East this fall as A.F. is a coming out here.  Mother did not go out to Coldwater to see Mrs. Hathaway last fall.  It did not seem to be convenient for her to go until we was afraid that Mrs. Hathaway was gone.  Andrew is not a living with us now.  His mother got married last winter & wanted him to go live with her, so he went.  I have got a lad to work for me this summer, about seventeen years old.  

I might perhaps write many more things which would be interesting to you, but it is chore time & I must draw to a close.  I must try to write often & hope that you will do the same.  We want that you should all write.  We were all very much pleased with the large mail that we got from you at one time last winter.  Ralph, can’t you take a basket of essence & take a trip out into Mich and make a dime or two & see your kin?  They would like to see you very much.  Ella how can you manage to come out, try and study out some way can’t you?  If you cannot don’t forget to write.  Carroline goes to school to Mr. Howes this summer.  Down in Anson’s dist. 

Yours in Haste H. S. Ranney
From Lucius Ranney

P.S. Please do not delay writing but a short time after you receive this.  Mother says that Ralph is a great hand to write.  Can you make any of your townsmen believe many moderate Mich truths?  We all send our love to you all.