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.

Urban Migration was the Tip of the Iceberg

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

John Sanderson's Farm

There are two very influential articles Environmental Historians usually read together although they’re separated by forty years; both about “The View from John Sanderson’s Farm.” The first was written in 1966 by Hugh M. Raup, who was the director of the Harvard Forest in Petersham Massachusetts on the site of Sanderson’s farm. Raup described the growth and decline of New England agriculture and its impact on the forest, attributing change to economic forces outside the area and beyond local residents’ knowledge or control. Although this isn’t the main point of Raup’s essay (his main point is that conservation planning doesn’t work), Raup paints a vivid picture of the inevitable decline of New England farming, with the farmers as first the beneficiaries and then the victims of market forces they can neither anticipate nor influence.

An important element of Raup’s article is the fact that it was originally a public lecture that Raup frequently gave to diverse popular audiences. The story he presented has over the years become the widely-accepted, seldom-questioned history of Eastern agriculture. Raup’s description of farming popularized the work of Harvard and Yale professors
Percy Wells Bidwell, Harold Fisher Wilson, and John Donald Black, whose books are still required historiographical reading for Agricultural Historians despite the fact that many of their conclusions have been contested. Raup popularized their ideas very successfully: in addition to the many lectures where Raup presented his case, the article has become possibly the most widely read and cited article in the long history of the Journal of Forest History (now Environmental History).

According to Raup’s story, early New England communities were based on subsistence farming because the roads were so poor. Farm products couldn't easily be brought to seaport markets, so rural life reflected the “simplicity and self-contained quality of the farm economy” (Raup, 3). Between 1791 and 1830, better roads and the growth of local industrial centers caused a farm boom, and New England's ratio of cleared land increased to 60 percent (4). But although New Englanders like John Sanderson planned for the future and invested in their farms, “a different kind of people,” financial investors, built the Erie Canal which spurred “expansion of agriculture in the Middle West.” New England farmers were caught by surprise, Raup says, because “the conceptual frame they had for their lives didn’t allow for such unknowns.” Their farm “economy collapsed…rather suddenly and on a large scale,” and the abandoned farms of the region were quickly overrun with second growth forests (6).

I have several issues with this story. First, neither Raup nor the sources he cites actually demonstrate the supposed cultural simplicity of rural New Englanders. And Raup’s description of the building of the Erie Canal puts the cart before the horse. Transportation did not produce products. On the contrary, a growing volume of expensive overland freight justified the canal project. This is shown by the immediate use of portions of the Canal as they were gradually opened before the completion of the entire line. Raup not only fails to mention this, he gets the Canal’s opening wrong by five years. But perhaps the biggest flaw with the story is Raup’s continuing use of the idea of “another kind of people” (8). “The people who visualized and built the canal,” he says, were only interested in the flow of products, and “where they came from or went, at either end, was of secondary importance as long as the flow continued” (10). This claim is not only extremely presentist, it’s inaccurate. The promoters of the Erie Canal were mainly western New Yorkers like William H. Seward or agriculturalists like Elkanah Watson -- who incidentally was born in Plymouth Massachusetts and lived in Pittsfield, which by Raup’s logic should have made him either oblivious to or opposed to the project. And perhaps most anachronistic and damaging element of Raup’s story is the assumption that capital is always external and (so obviously in Raup’s mind that he doesn’t even need to say it) urban. To be fair, this is a misconception that's at the heart of a lot of Banking History (more on that some other time). Economic development  projects from this perspective were always investments that “had to be made attractive to [outside] investors so that capital would flow into them” (8). Raup’s assumption of rural people’s passivity and ignorance as capitalists is especially difficult to swallow, because a few paragraphs earlier he had complained that the Sanderson heirs had liquidated their father’s farm at a profit, “took their capital and started a bank” (8).

One final note, based on my own research: Raup seems to conclude that although Sanderson’s “heirs did well by themselves when they sold their property while land prices were still high,” their profit was basically accidental (10). The story Raup tells hinges on “comfortable old New England farmers…actors in each segment [who were] essentially uninformed about what those in other segments had in mind” (10). I don’t think this was the case. My own primary reading suggests that most New England farmers by the 1830s and 1840s had friends and relatives in the newer western farming regions. My research suggests that these family connections were extremely active in passing information, money, and people along the new east-west land, water, and rail connections. Some farmers even had relatives that had gone into commerce and even banking in eastern cities. So I suspect that the farmers of New England towns like Petersham were not only aware of the economic changes going on around them, but that many of them welcomed these changes.

In “Another Look from Sanderson’s Farm,” Environmental Historian Brian Donahue challenges Raup on several of the points I’ve mentioned. The thrust of Donahue’s article (published in
Environmental History, January 2007) is that the economic growth that Raup believed would always provide better solutions than "planning" actually depends on unsustainable and environmentally destructive practices that generally happen far away, where we don’t see them. Donahue concludes that conservation provides a “moral brake on economic drives [that] is necessary to ensure greater ecological and social well-being,” but that “conservation cannot succeed if it is subjected to short-term economic tests” (Donahue, 31). Donahue's conclusion implies that there's a mismatch of both physical and temporal scale in the ways these practices are judged. Externalities of distance (out of sight, out of mind), time, and distribution (short term benefits to the few, long term costs to the many) are hidden in Raup's conclusions. And along the way, Donahue challenges many of Raup’s facts as well.

In Donahue’s story of the early New England farm economy, Petersham grew naturally and forests were cleared steadily. Population grew and farmers’ sons became farmers in their turn. Returning agency to people like the Sandersons, Donahue says population and farm growth would have happened, “increased outside stimulation or not” (18). Looking more closely at the structure of these farms than Raup had, Donahue points out that “the idea that Midwestern grain could have caused the collapse of New England farming is an odd one, considering how little of New England farmland was committed to tillage to begin with” (20). Contrary to Raup’s story, Donahue says “the number of acres in tillage scarcely grew at all and never rose above 4 percent of all the land in town” (18). Instead, pastureland was added; partly for wool but mostly for dairy production. Western grain actually took the pressure off New England farms. Corn and wheatfields were turned over to hay and pasture, and marginal pastures were allowed to grow up to pines. As a result, “Between 1880 and 1910, the acreage in agricultural production in Massachusetts fell in half…[while] During the same thirty years, the value of agricultural production doubled” (20). Massachusetts agriculture actually peaked not “around the time of the Civil War, as standard accounts like Raup’s would have it, but about 1910,” 85 years after the opening of the Erie Canal and 41 years after the completion of the transcontinental railroad.

Donahue admits the farm economy of New England did ultimately decline. “Population in hill towns like Petersham fell in half between 1860 and 1910,” Donahue says (20). But then he turns aside from the agricultural story, to return to his main theme about conservation (I would have preferred sticking with the farmers a little longer, to find out what happened to them). Population decline could have been the result of children moving away, old people dying, or simply of no one moving into a town like Petersham for a couple of generations. Who died, who moved away, and who decided not to come seem to be the crucial questions at this point in the story. If most Petersham families had sent sons and daughters into the West, then the deaths of the old folk back home or their retirement to the homes of their children in New York or Michigan takes on a much different emotional tone than the standard tale of a region crushed and impoverished by the wheels of progress. But we won’t know, until someone looks for the actual people, examines their records, and tells their story. Somebody needs to take yet another look from Sanderson’s farm, and this time follow the people rather than the trees.