Western Farms and the Safety-Valve

Clarence H. Danhof, "Farm-Making Costs and The "Safety Valve": 1850-60."
The Journal of Political Economy 49, no. 3 (1941): 317-359.

This old article by Clarence Danhof helped change the
Turner-inspired idea that the West functioned as a “safety-valve” for American society in the 19th century. Danhof finds the claim that western migration acted as a safety-valve for eastern wage-based industry, keeping wages high with the threat of massive migration, is complicated by the expense of actually starting a farm on the frontier. Using contemporary accounts and estimates provided in guidebooks, Danhof argues it was not only true that a settler needed a minimum of $1,000 “to equip and 80-acre farm, exclusive of land,” (325) but also that this fact was well-known. A wage worker in industry or agriculture was doing well in 1850 if he managed to save a dollar a week. There were very few people who could hope to save a thousand dollars, even in ten years.

Danhof quotes many interesting contemporary sources, including an 1852 address by Horatio Seymour to the New York Agricultural Society that “distinguished between the ‘old’ self-sufficient type of agriculture and the ‘new’ agriculture of the 1850s, focused on profits and markets” (318). Mid-19th century authorities knew “No error is more common that to suppose that the farmer does not require Capital,” according to the
Working Farmer magazine in 1859 (319). Even so, according to the Western Farm Journal there were “three hundred thousand men who, it was estimated, would emigrate in 1857 [and] would take $20,000,000 with them” (322). So the question is, where did these emigrants get the money. My own primary research suggests that for many, close family ties and serial family migration were the key.

Contrary to some accounts that complain about the “wage-slavery,” practiced by Western agriculturalists, Danhof says “Wage employment in the rapidly growing western towns and cities was frequently pictured to eastern mechanics as providing excellent opportunities to share in the growth of the West, since labor was in demand and wages were high” (323-4). Perhaps this Western labor demand, more than farm-making itself, was the safety valve and the force that helped keep eastern wages high. As
Thernstrom and Knights found, it’s particularly difficult keeping tabs on people who moved around often and didn’t own land. But that’s no reason to conclude the West didn’t have as many transient workers as the East.

Government land sales to individuals totaled nearly fifty million acres from 1850-60, Danhof says (329). And “Under the military land-grant acts of 1847 and subsequent years, the government presented, to more than half a million individuals, tracts of land varying from 40 to 160 acres each and totaling more than 57,000,000 acres. These lands came on the [secondary] market after the warrants granting them were made assignable in 1852, and an active market was conducted in them with prices substantially below the [$1.25 per acre] federal minimum” (330). The federal government assigned to individuals by...sale and grant--about 57 per cent of its total land transfers made during the decade. The remaining [43% of] land conveyances were made as grants to the states...and to canal and railroad companies” (But remember that until the Transcontinental Railroad project began, the federal government granted land to states rather than directly to railroads, 331). Many of these lands came back on the market in the 1850s; most notably those owned by the Illinois Central Railroad, of which by 1860 “1,279,382 acres had been sold at an average price of $11.50 per acre on terms of up to six years’ credit.” Land office officials downplayed the role of speculators, but President Buchanan warned that “large portions of 'the public lands' have become the property of individuals and companies, and thus the price is greatly enhanced to those who desire to purchase for actual settlement” (quoting 1857
Annual Message, 332). This certainly seems to be the case for the Illinois Central. If they got government land free, then bought more at $1.25 or below per acre and sold it for $11.50, they made at least a thousand percent profit on the land alone, not to mention their railroad revenue.

Danhof mentions that many farmers were able to raise “farm-making” money by selling existing farms in the east, where population growth had dramatically pushed up values. He suggests on this basis that the majority of new Western farmers were old Eastern farmers. This could be verified demographically using census data, and I suspect we’d find a lot of Eastern farmers like the Ranneys retiring onto their sons’ new farms in the West. Danhof notes in passing in his conclusion that there were a lot of other things you could do beside farming, if you ran away to the West. These other activities might have been tried by adventurous or desperate single people he says; families would usually have made more solid preparations and thought things through.

Based on my primary reading, I’d suggest that the BIG issue Danhof doesn’t directly address is extended family. Serial migration, I think, was often financed by extended families. People who had gone before and those who (temporarily or permanently) stayed behind contributed to the migrating family’s expenses; with the expectation that when the time came, the previous migrants would contribute to the next. Brothers or cousins in the East helped the new Western farmers find markets for their produce. And people seem to have lived with relatives for what we would consider ridiculously extended periods. I think next time I teach the “moving West” unit of my EnvHist survey, I’ll spend a few more minutes comparing the cowboy image of the West with a more complicated picture of western expansion.

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. 

"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.

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.


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.