Ranney Letter #11

Lyman writes to Henry in December 1850, having just returned from driving Mr. Bishop’s cattle from Arkansas up to Boonville Missouri. Lyman did not form a very high opinion of the people he met on the 400 mile trip to the Missouri River. It’s interesting that he would go to Boonville instead of Kansas City, but I don’t know anything about cattle driving in the 1850s except that the Missouri River was the destination.

Mr. Bishop has gone on another buying trip, so apparently Lyman has gained some responsibility. But he still complains he is only earning enough to cover his immediate expenses. Lyman says he was ill for a couple of weeks with bilious fever (probably typhoid or malaria), but has recovered.

Lyman describes the holidays briefly. Thanksgiving had featured a public feast and a sermon against “ultraism” (political extremism, often associated with reform movements like abolitionism), and Lyman says the slaves have the whole week of Christmas off, and spend it celebrating. But he also mentions a bill is being proposed to expel free blacks from Arkansas (this was ultimately signed into state law in 1859), which he says would “break up a great many” families if it passed.

My transcription:

Van Buren (Sunday) Dec 8
th 1850
Dear Brother

Yours of Sept 9
th came duly to hand and was thankfully recd but I was delayed in answering it in consequence of starting for Missouri about that time. I took a trip to Mo. in charge of a drove of cattle belonging to Mr. Bishop and consequently had a view of the Natives not of North America but of Missouri who by the way (most of them) are same as far as the trading of cattle or horses are concerned and that is about the extent of their knowledge. I was gone about six weeks, went as far north as Boonville on the Mo. River which is about four hundred miles from here.

We have quite a snow here at present, about six inches deep which is something quite uncommon for this country. It has melted some today and will probably all be gone before tomorrow night. Bishop is gone to N. Orleans at present and is expected to be gone for 3 or 4 weeks yet. He will buy his groceries in N. Orleans but will go East (Boston probably) in February to purchase dry goods.

Business is very good here at present. Our cash sales average about 2 or 3 hundred dollars per week beside a large credit business. I am bookkeeper here in this establishment and am getting so that I think books tolerable correct. We keep by double entry in which you have to be very particular.

I don’t expect to get much more this year than my expenses covered which will be over one hundred dollars, Doctor’s bill & all. As I have been sick since I last wrote you (which I like to have forgot). I will now mention it. I was taken about the first of Sept with the Bilious Fever which kept me down about two weeks. But I soon recovered and am now enjoying as good health as I have for years.

Thursday last the 5
th day of Dec. Was the day appointed by the Governor as day of thanksgiving and it was kept. Stores were all shut and the Presbyterian Preacher of this place gave us a good discourse on ultraism, after which we had a fine dinner prepared for he occasion.

Christmas is the greater day here. The
slaves have Christmas week for themselves to do whatever they choose, but they generally keep up dancing the most of the time. They are about passing a law in the state to expel all free Negroes from it which will break up a great many should that law be passed.

It is getting to be about 10 O.C. at night (and Sunday night at that) and I have a business letter to answer yet. I must close.

Give my love to Marie, the children, Aunt Jerusha, and all our friends in Mass.

From your brother

I have written home several times, but have not recd but one letter from them since I have been here. I have just written again and am in hopes they will answer it.


In August 1850, Henry receives a letter from a distant relative, Nathan Ranney (1797-1876) of St. Louis Missouri. Henry had written to Nathan with genealogical questions, and Nathan responds with a very general (and partly erroneous — their ancestor apparently came in the seventeenth century from Scotland, not in the eighteenth from Wales) sketch of the arrival of their original ancestor from Wales. He adds that he has met many Ranneys throughout the North and South, and with one exception they have been “men of high respectability.” The exception was “a man by our name traveling to exhibit wax figures.” Nathan notes that his family were mostly Whigs, but that he was a “firm Democrat.” This apparently changed — or at least he was a Democrat in the Jeffersonian sense, and not a supporter of slavery and secession, because he remained active in the “Union” government of Missouri during the Civil War, and even corresponded with President Lincoln.

It’s interesting that as early as 1850, Henry Sears Ranney was already compiling a family genealogy and looking for information on the origins of the Ranneys in America. Much of what we know about families like the Ranneys comes from the efforts of people like Henry, whose findings were later compiled into volumes like
The Middletown Upper Houses, where you can find the entry on Nathan Ranney on page 233 and the one on Henry on page 356. So it’s lucky for historians and modern genealogists that people were as interested as they were in their family origins. But why were they? What was going on in the lives of people like thirty-three year old Henry Ranney — or what was going on in 1850 America — that prompted this nostalgia and search for roots?

My Transcription:

St. Louis Aug 23 1850

Dr Sir

Your letter including a genealogical tree reached me this day.

Early in the 18
th century a man by the name of Ranney with thirteen sons emigrated from Wales, or as then called Northern Brittany, to this country and settled on Connecticut River, originating the Town of Middletown on the river. From this stock has sprung all the Ranneys of the US who spell their name as we do. I was born in Litchfield Co. Ct. In 1797. My father’s name was Nathan. His brother Dr. Thos. Stow Ranney settled in Bradford NH and afterward moved to Maine. Another brother Stephen Ranney was in the first and second war with Great Britain & severely wounded at Monmouth. He died in Mo. in 1827. He had four heirs and some of his children are living in Mo. My father died in Vt. Rutland Co. about 1820. I was in the army during the War of 1812 & 14 and have lived in Mo. since 1819.

In N. Orleans, Cincinnati, and Louisville I am acquainted with gentlemen of our name. In every instance but one coming to my knowledge, the Ranneys have been men of high respectability and of business habits, but none of them rich. The exception I refer to was a man of our name traveling to exhibit wax figures.

My father and brothers were Whig, but I have always been a firm Democrat.

Never having troubled myself much about genealogies, I cannot give a very lucid account of our family. Perhaps if any branch of it had been very rich in this world’s goods I should have kept posted up.

Yours with great respect,
N. Ranney

Ranney Letter #10

Lyman writes again from Van Buren, in August 1850. He has not heard from Henry, so he suspects his letter never made it — although, since his 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 is apparently a “wild west” sort of boomtown 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.

(Illustration is Van Buren in 1888)

My transcription:

Van Buren August 8
th 1850

Dear Brother

After waiting some time for and answer to a letter I wrote you come 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

Ranney Letter #9

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, of course, that the previous letter from April 1843 was his last contact. Chances are that after a century and a half, some of the letters are missing from the 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.

But 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.” He 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 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. Lucius also gives Henry an inventory of their farm, including a little drawing of a duck.

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

My transcription:

Allen March 10
th 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 17
th 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.

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 #7

Twenty-one year old brother Lyman writes to Henry from Van Buren, Arkansas, in January 1850. He 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 who traded 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.

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 9
th 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

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.