Good Sleighing

Several of the Ranney letters mention sleighing, in terms that make it seem to be a favorite activity during the winter months. Snowfall certainly made it easier to get to places where there were not roads — hence Lucius’s pun in a recent letter, connecting sleighing with “slaying the forests.” But it also seems to be something people looked forward to in its own right.

In the course of researching this particular branch of the Ranney tree, I’ve occasionally run up against information from other branches; in fact since posting these letters I’ve received several messages from people working on other Ranneys. One of the distant branches that interests me is the one with American painter William Tylee Ranney on it. Although not widely known now, during his short career (he died at age 44) Ranney was a very successful painter of western and frontier themes. I’ve just gotten my hands on a copy of
The Art of William Ranney, published in 2006 by the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody Wyoming.

William Ranney’s branch is about as far from the Ashfield Ranneys as it can be. He is descended from a different son of Thomas Ranney, the original Scottish immigrant. But he was born in Middletown in 1813 and grew up on the agricultural frontier (North Carolina, in William’s case), so he lived in a similar time and place, and he drew and painted pictures!

Hopefully, the pictures or the stories that go with them will add something to the story I’m putting together here, if only glimpses of what historians like to call “material culture.” In the meantime, this is an 1852 Wiliam Ranney painting called “
The Sleigh Ride.” Quite different from the Currier and Ives image of nimble little sleds flying across the snow pulled by jingle-bell covered ponies. But everyone seems to be having a great time. So apparently sleighing was one of those forgotten pleasures of 19th century winter.


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

Henry Ranney's Business

As we saw earlier, Henry Ranney and Richard Cook were reported by R. G. Dun & Company’s correspondents to be in business together, possibly supported by Cook’s relatives in New York City. The credit report also mentioned that Henry had been a clerk for J. Bement. Jasper Bement (1794-1850) ran one of the early mercantile stores in Ashfield, and became Henry’s mentor and friend. Together with Joseph, Jasper’s son who inherited his business, they outfitted, supplied, and managed a large proportion of the famous Yankee Essence Peddlers based in Ashfield and neighboring towns (I’ll write more on them soon, in the meantime here’s what Nathaniel Hawthorne had to say about them) This involved Henry not only in the family peppermint oil business, but in procuring a wide variety of essential oils, bottles, and labels, and seeing to their production and distribution to the peddlers.

Henry Ranney’s business correspondence is beyond the scope of this project, but it provides some more background and insight into his life. In 1843, Charles Philips wrote Henry several times from Saratoga Springs, New York. Philips was apparently bottling essences for Henry: he mentions labels and the cost of several essences and patent medicines such as “origanum,” “Opodeldoc,” and “Elixer Pro.” In April 1844, O. O. Elmer of Heath Massachusetts wrote Henry, asking for six gross more of (2 ounce) vials and labels for his next batch of “liniment.” About a month later, Charles Sanderson sent a shipment from Leominster to Ashfield with his brother William (a friend of Henry’s and a famous peddler we’ll run into again later), and in return said “if it is convenient you may pay him that last bill, one half in essence as follows, one half gross peppermint, one half gross wintergreen, one quarter each cinnamon, hemlock, lemon, aniseed and Sassafras, one quarter dozen sassafras in large bottles if you have it. One half gross oil spruce, the balance proportioned as above.” The essence business was big and widely distributed.

In 1844, Henry moved to Boston for three or four years. He married Maria Jane Goodwin of Ashfield, and went into business with her brother George, at 76 Union Street, a few blocks from the Long Wharf. In the summer of 1844, twenty-one year old Augustus Graves of Ashfield wrote Henry there. Graves was in Franklin on a peddling trip, but said he would be in Boston in ten days. “I should like you to put up some essence of an extra quality, twice as strong as any I have yet had of you,” he says, “without the alcohol being reduced. I think I shall want about two gross of 4 oz essence in peppermint, lemon, Wintergreen, hot drops etc. (and 4 or 5 gross 2 oz do [ditto]). I shall be in sometime next week and shall want considerable stuff if you have the right sort…I left home two weeks ago tomorrow, am going east from here. Hope you will have essences, patent medicines, etc. of the right sort for retail trade, as I would rather buy of you than in Ashfield or elsewhere.”

In February 1847, Augustus Graves wrote again from Middleborough Mass, on another peddling trip. He asks for 29 dozen 2 ounce essences, including six dozen peppermint; 12 dozen 4 ounce, including six dozen peppermint, and 6 dozen half pints of peppermint, in flat bottles. Among the other essences and product tasks for are Cinnamon, Wintergreen, Hemlock, Wormwood, Spearmint, Sassafras, Anise seed, Lemon, Pennyroyal, Goldenrod, Hot Drops, Balsam Life, Balsam Honey, and Lee & B. Prestons Salts “if you have them–no other.” (Preston Salts are ammonia-based smelling salts). Graves asks Henry to direct the package to him in Boston, “in care of George C Goodwin 73 Union St.”

When Henry moved back to Ashfield, he continued to do business with his brother-in-law, George Goodwin. He partnered with the Bements off and on, and is mentioned in the R. G. Dun report on Jasper Bement in 1850:

2-11-50: "Has taken a man by the name of "Ranny" as a pt. "R" is reputed worth $20,000 his credit is good. R young of good char, has recently been in business in Boston or vicinity."

In the 1860s, Henry began buying hundreds of pounds of Michigan peppermint oil from H. H. Lawrence of Florence Michigan. His brothers had all gone out of the business by this time. One of his regular customers for this oil was George in Boston. But he seems by this time only to be dabbling. Henry has already made his fortune and is living in semi-retirement in Ashfield, devoting his efforts to being Town Clerk and occasionally Postmaster.

Estates and Credit Reports

In addition to simply reading the Ranney letters, a diligent historian would want to find out as much as possible about where they lived and about all the aspects of their lives for which there might be records. People were writing histories of places like Ashfield Massachusetts, Phelps New York, and Allen Michigan throughout the nineteenth century. In the case of Ashfield, it was already old by American standards, since the town was originally settled in the 1760s. The western New York and Michigan histories were partly about memorializing the pioneer period in those areas, especially as the pioneer generation started to age and die. So there’s a lot of good information on what it looked like and how people lived in these places.

Similarly, wills and estate inventories can often tell you a lot about the day to day lives of nineteenth century subjects. People would literally list
all the property of the deceased and tally up the value. If we pay close attention, this allows us to know intimate details of people’s lives: how many shirts they had, what books they read, what type of animals they kept. Using these details, we can reconstruct a picture of their lives and fill the frame with the appropriate, real stuff, rather than just leaving it to some vague imaginary backdrop from historical movies we saw as kids.

The probate records for Ashfield are in the Franklin County Courthouse in Greenfield Massachusetts. People working in probate offices are usually focused on the present, because they spend most of their time helping people who come in with present-day needs. But they’re also usually aware that stashed away somewhere in the vault they have old documents that probably contain some interesting history. When I’ve visited these offices, the clerks and probate officers have always been very helpful and interested in what I’m finding.

In Greenfield I found Henry S. Ranney’s estate documents, and also George Ranney’s (Henry’s grandfather), which he wrote in 1819, three years before his death. George provides for his widow (his second wife, Alithea Patch), giving her one cow, three sheep, and all the furniture she brought to the marriage, plus the use of a third of his real estate for the rest of her life. He gives his eldest sons Samuel and Jesse a nominal fifty cents each, and gives the bulk of his estate to George “Jr.,” H. S. Ranney’s father. As mentioned earlier, it was fairly common practice in the nineteenth century to leave the bulk of the estate to the youngest son, who would be with the aging parents longest and would take care of them in their old age, long after older brothers had established households of their own.

I was also able to get in touch with the probate people in Ontario County New York, and get copies of the estates of Samuel Ranney, Roswell Ranney, and Alonzo Franklin Ranney (Henry’s oldest brother). Unfortunately, they did not have one for George Jr., possibly because he died suddenly, before writing a will (although there are sometimes documents for intestate estates, too). There’s interesting material in those, which I’ll get to when the time comes.

Another source of information, which fits into the chronology right about here, is a credit report done on Henry Ranney by a reporter for the R. G. Dun & Company credit agency in 1842-3. The credit reporting company had been established only a year earlier by Lewis Tappan (1788-1873, born in Northampton Massachusetts, most famous for his work as an abolitionist), so the entries in the 1842 ledger on the small company of “Cook and Ranney” are some of the earliest. For a really good introduction to the credit crisis of 1837 and the rise of reporting agencies, see Christopher Clark’s
The Roots of Rural Capitalism, 1990. These records are much harder to get your hands on than wills and estate inventories, since the ledger books are held at the Baker Library at Harvard, where they’re a little picky about who they let in and they don’t let you photograph the pages. They’re big, heavy books, divided by region, with handwritten transcriptions of the reports sent in by field agents. This is what they say about Henry S. Ranney:

Ashfield, Cook & Ranney,

"Dec 22 '42 From the enquiries we've made...

R...clever young man...was clk to J. Bement. Can't learn that he or C have more than a few hundred $ worth of property. Has been suggested that they may be assisted by Levi Cook of NY but can't say with certainty.

11-43 C we presume is the son of Levi Cook who has not any property but he has a son doing business in NY who is reported to be wealthy.

The Rs of Ashfield are considered to be men of some but not large property.

We learned that they are reputed safe and doing good business.

Aug 43 Have no knowledge of the real position of this firm. Their reputation is that they are close young men but unless they are assisted by Levi Cook of NY we don't suppose they have much capital.

Aug 44 In fair credit.

Oct 15 47 Ages 34 and 30. In business 10 years. Good character business men credit and business fair. Worth 2 to 3,000. Considered good for engagements.

Ranney Family Background

So who were these Ranneys, anyway? 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 birthdates Lewis provides for Henry in the first letter 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 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 or 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 (which is not unusual, since most of these early sources borrowed freely from each other without attribution) and elaborates. Thomas Ranney became a landowner in Middletown in 1658, and married seventeen-year old Mary Hubbard, a 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. He died at age 97 in 1713, the last surviving 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. 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 in 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.

What 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 independence 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. Although this “last relic of former days…distilled annually, 600 hogs-heads of rum,” by the early years of the New Republic most of Middletown’s merchants 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 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, 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 bought a 100-acre “farm” from Lamberton Allen, and built a log house. Several 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 the 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 made his way back 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 arrived in 1780, Ashfield was a tiny upcountry village that had already attracted attention beyond its borders for its “Yankee” independence. 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 said 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 the 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, 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 of them against the others, until 1791 when Vermont finally joined the union as its 14
th 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 the 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.

George Ranney Jr. inherited the family homestead when his father George died at age 75 in 1822. This was traditional in early America, because older sons generally started their own farms or businesses long before the parents were ready to hand over their assets, and the youngest would be more available to take care of his parents in their old age. George lived there 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.