Ranney Letter #1

As I was doing research toward my dissertation in Ashfield Massachusetts last year, I came across a series of family letters written by six out of a set of eight brothers (and one sister who apparently wrote no letters). The Ranney brothers were all born between 1812 and 1833 in Ashfield, and all of them but the third son Henry went west — some farther than others. They wrote each other regularly for more than fifty years, and over a hundred of their letters are preserved at the Ashfield Historical Society. These would have been letters kept by Henry Sears Ranney. The collection probably includes most of the letters Henry received (he was apparently a very meticulous record-keeper, and served as Ashfield’s Town Clerk for fifty years!), but unfortunately does not include copies of letters Henry wrote. Unfortunate, but not unexpected. Although blotter-books were used in this period to make copies of handwritten letters, this practice was usually reserved for business correspondence.

A collection of a hundred family letters spanning half a century is treasure for a historian. Because the writers were all brothers, there is very little time wasted on empty formality — they get right to the point and write about what’s most important to the family. Reading the letters, we get a rare glimpse at the interests and concerns of a fairly normal American family, as they experienced life in the nineteenth century.

The story begins in May, 1839, with a three-page letter from twenty-four year old Lewis George Ranney (he was born George Lewis, but there were Georges in every generation since the Ranneys arrived in America in the 1650s, including his father and grandfather, so he switched to “L. G.”) to his younger brother Henry. Lewis begins with the most important news: “our folks are well as usual.” Their parents, George Ranney Jr. and Achsah Sears Ranney, had moved most of the family to Phelps New York (then called Vienna) in 1833. Henry, sixteen at the time, had stayed behind in Ashfield. In early 1838, George Ranney bought 105 acres in Phelps for $5,000; a year later he bought another hundred acres for $2,800. Eldest son Alonzo Franklin Ranney had a two acre house lot in town, worth $500, and Lewis was living at home in 1839 when he wrote to Henry — but he had already decided by this time that he was going on to Michigan.

The contents of the letter reveal the topics that interested Lewis, that he knew his brother would want to hear about. First, news of both the immediate and extended family. Lewis remarks about their cousins, Samuel Ranney’s sons: “Dexter is yet in Michigan I suppose, William is a-building a new house in the West Village, Frederick is about here as usual” (Samuel had died in 1837). In response to Henry’s letter, Lewis lists the birth dates of all the siblings. Achsah Sears Ranney had eleven children in the 21-year period between age 23 and 44, and then lived to age 80. Nine of the children were alive in 1839. Lewis goes on to mention a couple of Ashfield acquaintances, and then tells Henry that their father wants him to send money. Funds will be tight in Phelps until the harvest, several months away, and George Jr. “has had none from Michigan.” This is a very interesting point, because it shows that the family is not only in contact over half the continent, but is financially connected as well. Money and information (and, as we’ll see later, merchandise) flows in both directions between family members all over North America. We’re mistaken if we assume that when people moved west, they cut their ties with family and went on their own.

Here’s my transcription of the letter:

Phelps May 19th

Respected Brother,

I take the present opportunity of informing you that our folks are well as usual. I am working at home this season. I have a couple of acres of peppermint planted &c. We have planted this season about six acres of mint nine acres corn six acres spring wheat potatoes oats sufficient &c.

As to stock they have five cows four yearlings and four calves and in the horse line Lucius thinks he has got a team. They have swopt the old big sorrel and a mare they had for a pair of Dun colored horses equally matched. As heavy as the old (???) horse which makes a (???) team, they being smart, and the big horse is yet on hand.
They calculate to summer fallow about eighteen or twenty acres. There has been a very good spring so far for crops and there are prospects now for considerable fruit.

Our people are a going into the poultry line considerable this season. Forty or fifty chickens already and a quantity of eggs yet to hatch. Eleven young turkeys and two turkeys yet to hatch &c. &C.

Our folks have taken a girl about ten years old which they like very well. I believe which makes quite a help to the woman affairs. Dexter is yet in Michigan. I suppose William is a building a new house in the west village. Frederick is about here as usual. Frank is about Pecks yet. Now news &c.

You requested us to send the Names Births &c. Of the children. I will write them viz.

Alonzo F Ranney Born Sept 13, 1812
Lewis G Ranney Born March 10, 1815
Henry S Ranney Born March 5, 1817
Lucius Ranney Born April 12, 1819
Priscilla M Ranney Do Jan 19, 1822
Harrison Ranney Born March 4, 1824
Lyman A Ranney Born August 1, 1828
Lemuel S Ranney Born Jany 17, 1831
Anson B Ranney Do May 31, 1833

Mother says she calculates to send you two or three pairs of socks.

James King is about Vienna making pumps.

James Flower was married a few weeks ago.

Father wishes you to send him fifty or a hundred Dollars if you can as he has had none from Michigan and having some to make out he Requests &c. Money is very scarce here now probably will be till after harvest.

They thought if you could spare it till fall it would accommodate very much then they want to square up the horse and the stock line and other small debts. Write again soon and send if you send &c.

Yours Truly
L G Ranney

Ranney Letter #2

In May of 1842, 23-year-old Lucius writes to his older brother Henry of his arrival in Allen Michigan, after a 10 day journey from Phelps. He announces he has bought a quarter section (160 acres) of prime farmland for $148 cash and his wagon and team of horses. Lucius describes the property, listing the distances to neighbors and nearby towns, inventorying the trees and water on the parcel, and noting that the railroad will run only six miles from the property later in the year.

Lucius mentions that their brother Lewis came down to see him, but was unable to wait for him to arrive. Lewis had a farm in St. Joseph County, about fifty miles away, where he had continued a Ranney family tradition by being the first farmer to successfully grow peppermint. Lucius also says their father is “very low” and that although their parents intend to move from New York to Michigan in the fall, he doesn’t think they will. He is right: their father George Ranney Jr. died in Phelps in September 1842.

Lucius tells Henry he plans to plant winter wheat and gives the current prices for wheat, corn, and oats. He closes by asking Henry to write soon, and to send Massachusetts newspapers so he can keep up with events out east.

Like the earlier letter from Lewis, Lucius’s letter to Henry reveals their shared interest not only in news of the family, but in the specific details of the land Lucius has bought. The list of tree species and the remark “you may judge what the soil is for yourself” suggests that the brothers remain very interested in each other’s success. The slightly boastful tone of Lucius’s descriptions implies there may be some friendly sibling rivalry involved, too.

My transcription:

Allen May 15th 1842

Respected Brother

I now take the present moment to drop a few lines to you as perhaps it will be interesting to you to read, for I suppose that you know that I am in the woods. I arrived here on the fourth of the present month being ten days on the road with a team. I am happy to say that I am well in good spirits and well suited with my location.

I have a warrantee deed of one hundred sixty acres of as good land as there is in Michigan. For said land I paid one hundred and forty eight dollars, a span of horses, one wagon and harness which we calc $280.00 for it and I would not take a song for the bargain.

Lewis was here about three of four days before I arrived here. He thought I was here, stayed two days expecting me along. He then wrote a line and left. He writes that he and a fellow by the name of Smith have set twenty four acres of mint this spring and it is large enough to hoe. It is in the town of Florence St. Jo. Co. 5 miles from White Pigeon north I think.

Father was very low with a live complaint or consumption when I left home. I have not heard from him since I left. The rest were well as usual.

There is a good spring of water on my land. A brook runs through the back part of it which there is two saw mills within one mile of it. A road on 2 sides of it. 12 houses within 1 1/2 mile of it. 9 miles south west of Jamesville. 3 miles south of Allens (???) in the timbered land white wood and maple beech butnut bass black walnut oak hickory are the principal timber on the land. You may judge what the soil is for yourself. Six miles from Hillsdale Center which the railroad will be completed to from Adrian this season.

I am calculating to sow ten acres of wheat this fall and fix some for building. Our folks are expecting to move out here this fall but I don’t think that they will. I stayed with Orren Ranney one night in Adrian. He is in the mercantile business and is a doing well I expect.

Wheat is worth 87 1/2 cents per bushel here oats 25 corn 31. I wish you would send the papers along here into the woods at least 1 or 2 a week so that I can pass of leisure time in a pleasant way. Direct yours to Sylvanus, Hillsdale Co. I have my board for $1.25 per week. I don’t think of anything more to write just now. Give my respects to all inquiring friends. If you can solve this writing you will do well. Write as soon as convenient.

This from a Distant Brother

Lucius Ranney

Ranney Letter #3

Lucius writes his brother Henry again from Allen Michigan, April 1843. He apologizes for not writing sooner, and thanks Henry for sending newspapers. Apologies for tardiness will be a frequent part of these letters, showing that there’s an expectation among the brothers that their correspondence will be frequent and that letters will get timely responses. This expectation, added to Lucius’s remarks about money (“We have money enough due this fall in Phelps…”) and the fact that he continues to call Phelps home, suggest the brothers continue to consider themselves members of a geographically extended family rather than free agents. This connection continues, in spite of the fact that the brothers are now adults (Henry is 27 and Lucius has just turned 24) supporting themselves and building their own homes far from the family center in western New York.


Lucius tells Henry he has traded one of his lots of land for one with a better “situation,” which might mean that the land is better for farming, or that it’s closer to town. The new parcel has thirty-five “improved” acres, ready for planting. Lucius reports in detail how much he paid for the parcel and what he plans to do with the new land. Although he doesn’t mention this, it seems he traded evenly as far as acreage was concerned, since Lucius continues to live on this 160 acre farm the rest of his life and it is easy to find on old maps. Two eighty acre parcels in the bottom center of the map above (due south of the town of Allen) are marked as belonging to Lucius. Neither parcel has the stream on it that Lucius boasted of in his first letter, so that is apparently the parcel he traded (possibly it’s one of the parcels to the right of one of Lucius’s parcels on this map). It’s also possible to find the parcels on satellite photos. Although they’ve been subdivided into a half dozen smaller parcels, you can still see the shape of the old lot and section lines. This is the case across much of the Midwest — once you’re aware of it, the lines are easy to see on satellite images or out the window of a plane.

News of other family members is a feature in this letter, as it will be in most of the Ranney letters. Lucius tells of seeing Lewis, who has expanded his peppermint planting to fifty acres. This means he will probably distill at least 500 pounds of oil in the fall, and Lucius advises his brother to come out and buy it. This is not only evidence Lucius would like to see Henry (he mentions that a couple more times in this letter alone), but is a reminder that Henry Ranney is one of several Easterners who regularly buy the peppermint oil of Michigan farmers (there will be much more on this subject in my dissertation -- wherever I manage to complete it!). Trade between Western settlers and Eastern merchants frequently ran along these family lines, and was yet another tie binding the migrants with the folks who stayed behind.

In addition to farming, Lucius has gone into the Potash business. Potash is potassium carbonate, which is used for bleaching textiles, making glass, and most important, making soap. Potassium is also one of the major elements of agricultural fertilizers (which is more important now than it was then), and is now mined but in the nineteenth century was produced by soaking wood ashes on large vats (hence the name, pot ash). Until settlers reached the treeless plains of what we now call the Midwest, there were always trees to clear before the wheat could be planted. So potash was often the first product that could be shipped back to Eastern markets. Lucius says he has partnered with “one of Mrs. Baggerly’s Sons in Law.” The Baggerlys are not an Ashfield family, so this suggests that Henry is at least familiar with some of the people his family has met since they moved to Phelps.

Lucius remarks that the land around Allen is filling up fast. Forests are becoming wheat fields, and the value of land will rise quickly as the last parcels are settled. Then Lucius gives his brother some advice: he should find a wife. His description of Henry’s social life and his own frontier existence give an interesting glimpse at the different lifestyles lived by those in the East and West in 1843. Finally, Lucius asks for information on cousins from Ashfield. He has heard they were in Medina, about thirty-five miles away, and he would like to visit them if he was anywhere nearby. Once again, family — even extended family — is an important part of frontier life.

Note: In a postscript at the end, Lucius says “Excuse bad spelling writing &c.” As I’m transcribing these letters, I’m fixing some of the spelling and punctuation in order to make them easier for modern readers. That includes adding apostrophes to contractions and breaking long run-ons into separate sentences. But just so you don’t miss all the fun, in the PS Lucius
actually wrote “Excuse bad speling writing &c.”

My transcription:

Allen April 30th 43
Henry Ranney

Dear Brother

I once more take my pen to write a few lines to inform you that I am well & ever have been in Michigan. I shall not apologize for not writing any sooner for I have not any except negligence to make. I suppose you are well are you not? I hear nothing in particular from you of late but receive papers from you quite often which I peruse with pleasure.

I traded one of my lots of land the other day for a lot with 35 acres improved House & Barn. I gave or rather agreed to give five Hundred Dollars in four yearly payments, the first next fall, & clear ten acres on the lot I let him have. I think the extra improvements are worth five Hundred Dollars & the situation of it is worth One Hundred Dollars more than the one I traded, so therefore you see that according to my estimation I have made $100. We have money enough due this fall in Phelps to make the first payment & shall with common luck raise enough wheat to pay the rest. I have six acres of wheat on the ground which bids fair for 100 bushels. I intend to clear 20 acres this summer & seed thirty to wheat. I have two as good lots of land for farming as there is in Michigan or anywhere else. If you doubt my word come out here and see which I hope you will this fall will you not?

As for Lewis I saw him a few weeks ago. He was well and is doing well I guess. He & his partner will have about 50 acres of mint to still this fall. You had better come out this fall & buy their oil. What is it worth now?

I wrote a letter home about two weeks since stating to our folks that I should probably be at home about the tenth of May. I suppose that they will move then to the West but shall write again today that I shall not return home until June for my business is such that I cannot leave at present. I want to plant about eight acres this spring & furthermore I am in the Potash business with a partner. One of Mrs Baggerly’s Son in Laws. We are a building a Pot-Ash this spring. We have made three tons & we find it profitable therefore we intend to follow the business.

This part of the country is settling fast. Where there was forests one year ago the same surface is now waving with wheat. The cars will run to Hillsdale Center this summer, six miles east from where this child is & then you can out here time in a hurry if you please.

We have had a hard winter for the past one for this country. Grain is pretty well up. Wheat is worth 62 cents per bushel corn 50 oats 37 potatoes 25 &c.

I shall give you a little advice, that is a man of your cloth & business ought to have a wife. Why? Because you are t home at night then and nothing to trouble your mind but someone to cheer up your drooping spirits. But you are now a hunting up a horse and then you are in trouble to know who to take to this party that ball that ride this circus &c. But it is different with me. Sometimes I should be at home at night & sometimes in the woods to where night would overtake me I should be obliged to stay. Now I am contented where ever I am, with a wife I should be discontented under such circumstances. Therefore you see the disadvantage I should labor under with one. But I don’t say that I shan’t have one.

Enough on that head. I want you should write as soon as you receive this or put it off till after I go East. I shall go about the first of June. I should like to meet you there or somewhere else very much. I do not know when I shall go to Ashfield if ever, but think I shall in the course of a year or two. If you see any of Uncle Jesse’s folks just ask them what part their girls live. When I am a traveling about I may go near them. If I do I should like to know it & go and see them. I have been through Medinah where I heard since one lived. Give my respects to all inquiring friends.

Yours in haste, Henry S. R.
Lucius Ranney
Excuse bad spelling writing &c.

Ranney Letter #5

Lewis writes to Henry from Florence Michigan in February 1844. He waited for snow in Phelps, but when it did not come he set out in a wagon. Their brother “Frank” (Alonzo Franklin Ranney) traveled with Lewis and his partner Smith as far as Hillsdale, in order to look for a farm near Lucius and their mother. Achasah Sears Ranney was ill but improving, and Lewis says she likes her “situation” in Michigan.

When Lewis and Smith sold their peppermint oil to Franklin Wells, it was with the understanding that if the price had increased when Wells resold the oil they would get a share. Before he left Phelps, Lewis found that Wells’s agents in New York City had sold the oil before Wells wanted them to, and that the price had subsequently doubled to $4 per pound. Probably a “Gum Game,” says Lewis: a slang expression for a swindle, probably derived from the fact that raccoons and opossums often hide in sweet-gum trees to outwit predators (according to the Merriam Webster Dictionary). Wells was on his way to the city to settle the issue, and Lewis was expecting a windfall on their 594 pounds that Wells had sent to be sold along with his own oil. He repeats to Henry that he intends to more than double his peppermint investment, adding thirty new acres to the twenty he and Smith harvested that year (peppermint is a perennial, and yields only drop off a bit after the first year).

Lewis reports with amusement that the Mormons have been battling with the Methodists and others in Michigan, noting that it’s nice to have “something going on.” Most of the Ranneys are not particularly religious — some, like Lewis’s uncle Samuel, had been pretty aggressive freethinkers. This is fairly early in the development of Mormonism: Joseph Smith was still in Nauvoo Illinois organizing the church. The biblical debates Lewis mentions must have been quite a spectacle.

The Michigan economy is better off than western New York, Lewis tells Henry in closing. Wheat is worth five shillings (Due to the scarcity of American coins, British Shillings worth 24 cents were still in wide use. Wheat was $1.20) per bushel, and Lewis is not yet tied down. When his partner Smith marries, Lewis intends to live with him rather than get his own place.

My transcription:

Florence Feb 15th 1844
Dear Brother

I arrived here about three weeks since from the East. We stayed some time in Phelps and vicinity waiting for snow to come upon. But it did not come, therefore we came with a wagon. We found very good wheeling most of the way. We came through Ohio. Frank came with us as far as Hillsdale. We found Mother having the ague & fever a little but a growing lighter every day. She seems to be well suited with her situation, being in a good neighborhood and better prospects than formerly. The rest of the family were enjoying good healths.

Frank intends purchasing in their vicinity. We got two dollars per lb for our oil we sold Wells of Lyons. He shipped it to N. York, ours was to be sold with his. His agent sold sooner than Wells expected they were a going to and when Wells was informed of the sale oil was worth $4.00 per lb in NY. Probably some Gum Game about it. Wells was a going down in a few weeks when I left to pry into affairs and if gets a clue we share in proportion to amy of oil.

Smith and I intend putting in thirty acres this spring to mint and that in addition to what we have already in I hope will give us some oil next fall or pocket change.

Lucius intends going to Grand River sometime in March I believe. He shall get something from that way this spring.

We are having great excitement about here again this winter. Methodists and Mormons are proselytizing considerably in this vicinity and something a doing with the other sects. The Mormons have gained a good many converts in this town and have organized a church. The sectarian preachers combine against the Mormons. But the Mormons having received challenges for discussions upon the Bible they accepted, which has made amusement for the hearer. Which is satisfactory to have
something going on.

Wheat is worth 5/- per bushel. Times are better here than in New York. There has been no snow here this winter of any consequence. Smith my partner gets married in about two weeks. I shall live with him.

Nothing more. Yours respectfully,
L. G. Ranney
Write occasionally and send papers in any quantity.

Ranney Letter #8

Lyman writes Henry again from Van Buren, in the Spring of 1850. He thanks his brother for writing, and says he is responding immediately because it takes three weeks for the mails between Arkansas and Ashfield. In response to Henry’s questions, Lyman describes Van Buren and the commerce there. He says there are people there from nearly all the old Eastern states, including some merchants from Boston. Although many have caught “California fever,” Lyman lacks the funds to go further west, but he does hope to move back to the north once he has made his fortune.

Lyman reports once again on the slavery in Arkansas, and tells the story of a young slave boy who looked white, and who as a result was apparently worth less than other enslaved children. Lyman says he would like to bring the boy back to the north, “and let them see what some of the subjects are that are held in bondage.” But, realizing that his opinions are unwelcome in the South, Lyman reminds Henry that when he sends newspapers, it would be best to send no openly abolitionist “Free Soil” papers.

Lyman says his employer, Mr. Bishop, is on a buying trip East, and will probably go as far as Boston. This was typical of western and southwestern merchants, who would often float the cotton they took in trade for their merchandise to New Orleans, and then continue on to the Northeast to buy product for the next year. Lyman referred Bishop to their friend Elisha Bassett, who was a merchant in Boston (Henry had moved back to Ashfield by this time).

After Lyman concludes his letter to Henry, he writes a short note to his sister-in-law, Maria. Although they have never met, Maria apparently wrote to Lyman along with Henry, admonishing him to be good. Lyman thanks her for the advice, and assures her that “fortunately I never was guilty of anything which I thought would degrade me or detract from my character.”

Translation note: Doggery is a word dating from about 1830 for a low-class saloon or dive. Lyman puts the quotes around it in his letter, suggesting the word — and probably the places — are a bit of a novelty for him.

My transcription:

Van Buren Arks. March 8
th 1850
Dear Brother

It was with pleasure I recd your letter of Feb 10
th and I make soon in answering it as it takes about three weeks for letters to pass between this place and Ashfield. I was glad to hear from you and family and to hear that you were all enjoying good health.

As it was your request that I should give you a situation of our place I will try so to do. Van Buren is on the Arkansas River 600 miles from its mouth. It has a fine landing for boats, consequently there is considerable business to do here as this is the only landing of any importance for one hundred miles below and 10 above. Consequently the produce and cotton that comes to market or that which is to be shipped has to be sent to this place if sent to New Orleans or Cincinnati, and there is where most of the shipments are made.

We have about 12 or 15 hundred inhabitants in town I should judge (Whites). Some two wholesale houses (dry goods & groceries) and ten retail establishments besides several “doggeries.” It is somewhat mountainous in most parts of Ark. and therefore is not so productive as it otherwise would be. The climate is very mild, there not having been any snow here since I arrived. The weather at present is very delightful & warm. People are making gardens and some made garden two weeks ago.

The people in this place are much mixed. Some from the Southern States, some from Ohio & Indiana, and others from Va. N.J. And in fact from almost every state. Even from the old
Bay State. There is two or three merchants here from Boston, been here about two years.

They have a very good society of young people here and as I get acquainted with them I like them very much.

Although the village people are as intelligent as they are in any country, it seems to be far different with the country people, for I think at least there is one in three of them that cannot write their own names. Consequently are ignorant and are harder to deal with than they would be otherwise, as they are so afraid of getting cheated.

Mr. Bishop has gone East after goods, intends going to Boston for the most of them. I told him to find Elisha Bassett while there if he could. I didn’t know his address consequently could not direct him. I like merchandising very much so far and think that it will suit me well.

There are large numbers going to California this spring from this place and surrounding country. I have had the California fever but have got over it mostly, as it is not possible for me to get there under present circumstances. Slavery exists here in almost all forms. Some have a good master, others hard. Some slaves are black others are white. There is one boy around in town who is whiter than half the so called white children. He has very light colored hair, roman nose, and his features do not resemble a negro in the least. Yet this boy is a
slave. He was sold since I have been here for 150$, being less than half what a black boy would have brought, or him if he was black. If I had plenty of money when I go north I would purchase him and take with me and let them see what some of the subjects are that are held in bondage.

I sent you 2 newspapers a few days since and will send one occasionally. I hope you will do likewise. It would not be best to send any Free Soil papers. Thinking of nothing of importance to write you at present I shall close as I am a going to write a few lines to your wife. Mrs. Bishop sends her love to you and wife. Hoping you will write soon, I now close.

I send my love to all our friends in Mass.

P.S. As regards Uncle Henry, I do not know his address nor cannot find out as there is no one knows where he is exactly. He never lived in V.B. but lived formerly about 30 miles from the mouth. He was in the habit of using liquor to some extent, but I understand he had left off when he returned last fall.

Affectionately yrs
Lyman A Ranney

Dear Sister

Although I never had the privilege of a personal acquaintance with you, still it does not seem that you are a perfect stranger to me as I have heard Mother speak of you so often. I am glad to hear from you and am thankful for the good advice you and Henry have put forth in your letter, although fortunately I never was guilty of anything which I thought would degrade me or detract from my character. I am glad to hear that you are all well and hope that I may yet see you all in Mass. Perhaps the time may be years distant. As it is getting late and for want of room I will have to close these few lines to you. I hope to hear from you and Henry often.

From your Brother

Ranney Letter #12

Lucius writes to Henry in February 1851, in his “leisure moments while our folks have gone to meeting this afternoon.” After giving news of the family, Lucius announces that he and a neighbor have gone into the “thrashing” business, and have processed 10,000 bushels, or about a third of the local wheat. They made $360, most of which went toward the $250 purchase of the thresher, wages, and other expenses. But the business seems promising, and Lucius plans to lease his farm and pursue the opportunity.

Henry had asked Lucius for details on the cost of flour and transportation the previous fall, but Lucius was ill with typhus and unable to respond. Henry was apparently considering buying flour in Michigan for shipment to New York. The flour was cheap enough, Lucius reports, but transportation was high, and “advanced about 80 per cent” toward the end of the season. It’s doubtful that Henry could have made money on flour that cost him over five dollars a barrel. The high railroad rates made it too expensive to ship the Michigan wheat.

About two-thirds of the way through the letter, Lucius mentions that he and Clarissa had a daughter the previous fall. Lucius says the baby “is healthy & of course a smart & good girl.”

Lucius asks Henry for an extension on a loan, explaining that due to his illness and building a house for his boarder he’s short of funds. But he will borrow locally to repay his brother, if Henry needs the money.

After closing the letter, Lucius writes another long paragraph about items that had slipped his mind. Their mother has “failed considerable” since returning from a visit to Ashfield, and Lucius is considering a trip East himself once he has leased his farm. At the very end, Achsah Ranney writes a few lines to Henry’s wife Marie, asking her to kiss the children for Grandma.

Illustration is a threshing machine, ca. 1851

My transcription:

Allen Feb 2
nd 1851
Dear Friends

Thinking that a few lines would be gladly received, I therefore embrace the few leisure moments while our folks have gone to meeting this afternoon, or P.M. We are all well. I was sick last fall about six weeks, four weeks confined to the house, with the chill & typhus fever, but have regained my health again. Anson was also sick about the same time. He was very dangerously sick a few days but recovered faster than I did. He goes to school this winter. Lewis and wife and Harrison are well, or was a few days previous. Priscilla & Densmore live at Albion yet. They were out here a few days ago visiting. They are a boarding out, & have been the most of the time since they have lived there. He gets $1.50 per day, Priscilla binds shoes what time she gets. Light shoes only. We have not heard direct from A. F. since you wrote.

We received yours of December the 12
th /50. We received a letter from Lyman about four weeks since. He was well, his year with Bishop was then about up. He expected to stay longer. As for your boy Lem, he is a regular tramping Ger. His habits remain good, he takes love easy. Or in other words, enjoys life. He started last fall for Illinois. He went there, he stopped at Galena, stayed and worked about one week. He says they were all old country people that worked in the shop, consequently he left for some other port. When he wrote he was in Wisconsin, about 60 miles from Milwaukee. He was at work there. He gets good wages he says. He is a coming back here in the spring.

The weather is fine. We have about 2 inches of snow now. The ground has been naked the most of the winter. We have had good sleighing about 2 weeks with about 4 or 5 inches of snow. It is a good time for slaying the forests & I will assure you the time is not lost.

I & one of my neighbors bought a thrashing machine last fall. We paid $250 for it. We hired a man to work with us, of which we worked at thrashing about 2 months & thrashed about ten thousand bushels of wheat which come to $360. Our hired help & expenses would not exceed $60 & the machine is not damaged the amount of $30. We can thrash & clean fit for marketing eighty bushels in sixty minutes. A
Mich story but true. The town of Allen raised about thirty thousand bushels of wheat this year & other products in proportion (though not of Ashfield). We had two hundred fifty bushels of wheat.

You wrote to me last summer something concerning the worth of flour here & the transportation &c. After wheat began to come in to market I went to Hillsdale to make some arrangements & enquiries concerning it & should have written immediately to you but I was taken sick the next day, so I excuse myself. At that time I could get a bbl of flour for five bushels of wheat and wheat was worth sixty five cents. Which of course would be $3.25 & transportation to New York was about $1.00 or to Buffalo about .60 cents. Late in the fall transportation advanced about 80 per cent & wheat about 3 or 5 cents. Therefore you can judge whether you could made a speck on flour or not.

I have let my farm on shares for three years. The conditions are these: I furnish a team & necessary utensils, one half the seed of all kinds & have one half the grain delivered in the half bushel. I also put on three cows fifty sheep of which I have one half the butter cheese &c., one half of the wool, one half of the increase & growth of the stock. We have the privilege of keeping one cow for ourselves. He has the same privilege of the cow. I have reserved about four acres which contains the house & yard & orchard &c. I am to build him a house to live in. I am now a building it. The size is 17x20, one and a half story high. I shall stay on the place & make what improvements I can & in the fall thrash. He takes possession in the spring.

We have a little daughter. She was born the 22
nd Sept. We have named her Carroline Elisa. She is healthy & of course a smart & good girl.

The money I am owing you if you wanted I will try & borrow it if I can. Sickness & building will bring me rather short until next fall. If you can wait until next fall it would favor me some. I rather think that Lewis cannot pay you until then. I have two teams, one I shall keep for my own use.

As you are not acquainted here I cannot write you much news. To describe the country here is I presume all useless for I presume you have heard a great many
Mich yarns. There is all kinds of country here. Just about here it it similar to Phelps Town land. The railroad running west from Hillsdale goes through this town three miles from here. It will be completed to Chicago I expect next season. I do not want to urge you out of your way but I should like to have you come to Mich next season. We have a very good society here.

You discover that my pen is always poor, but writing good. Don’t forget to write as soon as you receive this. Anson has received some papers from you of Cato.

Yours in haste
L. Ranney

I like to have forgotten some small matters. I had a horse hooked by a two year old heifer this fall. He died a short time after. The horse was worth about sixty five dollars. We also had two hogs die when they were nearly fatted. They would weigh about five hundred the two. I consoled myself by saying as the Paddy did they are but a small loss. Franklin’s little girl lives here with us. She goes to school. Clarissa sends her respects to you, although she is a stranger. Mother sends her love to you all & all enquiring friends. Mother has failed considerable since she was to Ashfield. Lewis and Harrison intend to mint it some next season. They are doing tolerably well. My object in letting my farm is to save hiring & get as much improved as I can fix for building &c., & perhaps go to Ashfield.

Marie, I send a great deal of love to you and Henry and want to see you and the children more than I can write. I want you to kiss them for me. Grandma.

Ranney Letter #20

Henry receives a transcript from the family in Allen 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 at least 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 who takes off for the West on his own 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.”

Shasta City 1855, J. M. Hutchings
My Transcription:

Allen Nov 24
th /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 25
th /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

Ranney Letter #15

Lyman writes Henry in the fall, after a trip down the Arkansas River to its mouth on the Mississippi just beyond Little Rock, Arkansas. Lyman has been ill, but tells Henry he is moving up to Tahlequah in the Cherokee Nation, to take over a store there for his employers. Tahlequah was the first town incorporated in the territory given to the Indians after their removal from Georgia on the “Trail of Tears” in the 1830s. The territory became the state of Oklahoma in 1907.

Lyman says the payments to Indians he described in a previous letter have begun, and he says the “appropriation” money comes to $800,000 more than the Indians regular annuity. This is apparently a payment associated with the 1851
Indian Appropriations Act, which allocated funds to create a system of reservations and move Indians onto them. This was a boon to the local economy, since as Lyman also described earlier, the Indians have nothing else to do with all this money but spend it in stores like Mr. Bishop’s. And it apparently came at a good time for the white community, since a three month drought had reduced the cotton and corn harvest by up to half.

Lyman also mentions a young man he met who claimed to be related to the Gardner family of Ashfield. He gives quite a bit of detail, although he never even got the man’s first name. The Gardners were not closely connected to the Ranneys as far as I can tell (no marriages, no correspondence in the archives, etc.), so perhaps Lyman’s interest in this person suggests his continuing homesickness and nostalgia for home.

My Transcription:

Van Buren Sept 27
th 1851

Dear Brother

As I have just retnd from a trip down the river I thought I would let you know how I am getting along. I have been to the mouth of the Arkansas River after goods and arrived here on the 25
th of Sept after an absence of over three weeks. I enjoyed very good health while gone except the last two or three of my trip when I was taken with the chills & fever. But I made out to reach home. I am now taking medicine and think I will be able to work in a few days.

I am a going up in the Cherokee Nation in a few days (to take charge of a store for Messrs.
Baker & Bishop) at a place called “Tahlequah” about 25 miles from the American line. There is some whites and a good many Indians & Half Breeds that live there, but it is supposed to be a good place for selling goods. The payment of the Indian appropriation money has commenced to be paid out on the 22nd of this month which amounts to over 800,000$ beside the regular annuity which is nearly half that amt.

It has been remarkably dry here this season. Not over half or two thirds of a crop either in
corn or cotton. There has not been any rain of consequence in about three months.

I saw while down the river a young man by the name of Gardiner. Says he is a relation of the Gardiners of Ashfield. He was formerly from Springfield Mass, did not learn his given name. Has been west two years or more, most the time in Cinti Ohio but came to Little Rock (capital of this state) last spring. Is engaged in merchandizing I think. Is a young man about 25 years old.

You will please direct all letters & papers, also please inform the offices from which I have papers sent (I have recd the
Atlas & Tribune) to direct them to “Tahlequah” C. N. (Cherokee Nation) Arks. I must draw to a close as I am quite weak yet and not able to write any more at this time.
Give my
Love to your family & our friends in your vicinity. Write on receiving this without fail and let me hear all.

Affectionately Yours
L. A. Ranney

Ranney Letter #26

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 died March 7th, 1854 in Van Buren, Arkansas. The fact that none of the letters in the archive discuss Lyman’s death is another strong indication 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, 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 has other concerns that get a lot of attention in this letter. Lewis is looking for a new farm, with even less acreage than the reduced parcel he has been working since his illness. A dramatic rise in land values has allowed many of the Ranneys’ friends and neighbors to sell at large profits. A neighbor boy has died, which has affected everyone (possibly more so because of their own recent loss of Lyman). And Lucius wants his mother to come home, but as always doesn’t want to come right out and say it.

My Transcription:

Allen June 18
th 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 9
th 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.

Ranney Letter #38

Harrison writes Henry in early 1859. This letter contains a lot of interesting little clues about life in 1859, and one really big one. 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 his brothers’, and he gives Henry a little news and gossip about local people.

The big news, however, is that Lemuel and many others 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 in 1859 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 was fought in 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. I’ve written a little more about this here.

My Transcription:

Hillsdale Jan 16
th /59
Dear Brother

Yours of the 10
th 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