Extended Family in the 19th c.

Donald H. Parkerson
The Agricultural Transition in New York State

“One of the defining characteristics of mid-nineteenth-century New York State,” Parkerson begins, “was the extraordinary mobility of its rural people” (3). Contrary to popular belief and a historiographical tradition that mistakenly pictures a stable, tradition-bound rural world in contrast with the (more thoroughly studied) dynamic, industrializing urban world, Parkerson says that “ordinary farm families...embraced social and economic change” largely through chain migrations that extended the households of farmers trying to enter market production (4, 5). This key factor of the commercial agricultural transition has been missed for several reasons. Earlier studies of migration have tended to focus on household heads (because they are the ones named in the census, especially before 1860). A persistent agrarian myth has prevented generations of historians from even looking at the issue. And, when “new social historians” like
Thernstrom began studying persistence in the 1970s, they used a technique, nominal record linkage, that failed to account for deaths, errors in census enumeration, and common name errors; or that attributed a much lower value to these potential errors than Parkerson does (I seem to recall a discussion of these in one of Thernstrom’s articles -- but he seemed to believe he had corrected for them). The bottom line, says Parkerson, is that the city populations were probably more persistent than we’ve thought; but more importantly, “the countryside was in constant motion, with rural people moving in perhaps even greater numbers than their urban cousins” (146).

This mobility was not a Handlinesque tragedy, though. Rural families who moved were not the passive victims of social dislocation and the collapse of the producer republic. They were agents of change, and frequently they were taking advantage of opportunity, rather than running from trouble. Parkerson notes that “the price of winter wheat on the New York market increased by about 50 percent between 1840 and 1860, and corn and hog prices skyrocketed nearly 70 percent” (7). Rural families saw opportunities to enter the early consumer market, if only to free up women’s time that had been spent producing homespun (recall
Balstad-Miller’s Erie Canal story), as demand for farm products was boosted by the Irish potato blight, the Crimean War, Sutter’s Mill, and ultimately the Civil War (8). If there’s one flaw in this study, it’s that in his effort to highlight how “the investments and production strategies of surplus market farmers...increased their yields and made them wealthier by 1865,” I think Parkerson consistently undervalues the effect of the Civil War on the New York farm economy (102). If not for the Civil War, far fewer farmers might have shifted to market production, and the ones that made the change would not have become so rich. The transition might not have marched all the way to the threshold of agribusiness and a “more consolidated agricultural economy in which wealth increasingly was controlled by fewer and fewer farmers with larger, more productive farms” (147).

But that’s a quibble. This is an important study that shows how “Migrants and host families had specific needs that could be satisfied only through kin cooperation and coresidence. Migrants needed emotional support, a place to live, and knowledge of the emerging marketplace. Host families, especially in their early married years, needed willing workers who could improve their human capital and help them enter the market economy” (140-1). I’d add, both the migrants and the farmers needed the financial support that extended, multi-regional families could lend. And (crucially for the people I’m studying) when doing business over long distances, they needed to deal with people they knew they could trust. Parkerson uses New York Census data, which includes information on the length of time people had been at their current address. He also uses diaries and personal papers very effectively, giving the reader a solid sense of the people he’s talking about. By combining data and voices, Parkerson brings what would otherwise be a useful but sterile economic history to life.
The Agricultural Transition in New York State may be an unfortunate title, if it limits Parkerson’s readership to people interested in upstate New York farmers. This book is full of great detail (I particularly love the description on page 71 of how to make charcoal), and it makes a really important point about rural people, and about families in the 19th century.

Safety Valve

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

Danhof argues that the idea that western migration represented a safety-valve for eastern wage-based industry, keeping wages high with the threat of massive migration, is complicated by the expense of actually starting a farm on the frontier. Using contemporary accounts and estimates provided in guidebooks, Danhof argues that it was not only true that a settler needed a minimum of $1,000 (“to equip and 80-acre farm, exclusive of land.” 325), but also that it was well-known. A wage worker in industry or agriculture was doing well in 1850 if he managed to save a dollar a week. Thus, a couple of people could hope to save a thousand dollars in about ten years.

Quotes many useful contemporary sources, including an 1852 address by Horatio Seymour to the NY Ag Society that “distinguished between the ‘old’ self-sufficient type of agriculture and the ‘new’ agriculture of the 1850s, focused on profits and markets.” (318) And: “No error is more common that to suppose that the farmer does not require Capital,” says the
Working Farmer to its readers in 1859. (319) Even so, according to the Western Farm Journal there were “three hundred thousand men who, it was estimated, would emigrate in 1857 [and] would take $20,000,000 with them.” (322)

Contrary to some accounts that talk about the denigration of “wage-slavery,” by agriculturalists, Danhof says “Wage employment in the rapidly growing western towns and cities was frequently pictured to eastern mechanics as providing excellent opportunities to share in the growth of the West, since labor was in demand and wages were high.” (323-4) Perhaps this urban labor demand, more than farm-making, was the safety valve and the force that helped keep eastern wages high.

Government land sales to individuals totaled nearly fifty million acres from 1850-60, Danhof says. (329) And “Under the military land-grant acts of 1847 and subsequent years, the government presented, to more than half a million individuals, tracts of land varying from 40 to 160 acres each and totaling more than 57,000,000 acres. These lands came on the [secondary] market after the warrants granting them were made assignable in 1852, and an active market was conducted in them with prices substantially below the [$1.25 per acre] federal minimum.” (330) The federal government assigned to individuals by...sale and grant--about 57 per cent of its total land transfers made during the decade. the remaining land conveyances were made as grants to the states...and to canal and railroad companies.” (331) Many of these lands came back on the market in the 1850s; most notably those owned by the Illinois Central Railroad, of which by 1860 “1,279,382 acres had been sold at an average price of $11.50 per acre on terms of up to six years’ credit.” Land office officials downplayed the role of speculators, but President Buchanan warned that “large portions of ‘the public lands] have become the property of individuals and companies, and thus the price is greatly enhanced to those who desire to purchase for actual settlement.” (quoting 1857
Annual Message, 332)

Danhof mentions that many farmers were able to raise “farm-making” money by selling existing property in the east, where growth had dramatically pushed up values. He suggests on this basis that the majority of new western farmers were old eastern farmers, which can no doubt be verified demographically. And he notes in passing in his conclusion that there were a lot of other things you could do beside farming, if you ran away to the west. These other activities would have been resorted to by adventurous or desperate single people; families would (hopefully) have made more solid preparations and thought things through.

Based on my primary reading, I’d suggest that the BIG issue Danhof doesn’t directly address is extended family. Serial migration, financed by extended families. Both people who had gone before, and those who (temporarily or permanently) stayed behind, contributed to the migrating family’s expenses; with the expectation that when the time came, the previous migrants would contribute to the next. People also seem to have lived with relatives for what we would consider ridiculously extended periods.

Hill Towns

Started Harold Fisher Wilson’s The Hill Country of Northern New England. It’s beginning as expected, with a description of Thomas Nixon Carver’s five stages of New England agriculture. Wilson uses a seasonal metaphor for his narrative, beginning with Summer, 1790-1830. This is the age of self-sufficiency, which is followed by a fall attributed to the railroads and “external causes of unrest.” It’s interesting that in 1936, Wilson seems to be turning a corner from a Progressive/New Deal sort of optimistic elitism to a new social history concern with “those who stayed at home.” (4)

This will probably be fairly interesting, since Wilson is supposed to be a lifelong New Englander with deep knowledge of the place and people. The early pages reiterate a lot of the standard structure. The soil is thin and rocky, so “tillage is not profitable under modern conditions.” (5) But does this mean farmers were actually trying to compete head-on with western staples? Why do we generally assume they weren’t astute enough to recognize their disadvantages and choose to do something they were more competitive at? The later chapters seem to talk a lot about sheep and dairying -- we’ll see if the farmers get to be agents of this change, or if it’s just something that happens to them.

Wilson introduces the population question by remarking on the beginning of a trend in population loss as early as the decade from 1790 to 1800 (first two census decades), but accelerating in the 1820s-30s. My question, after looking at the Ashfield census is, did these towns have a loss in households? Or just in total population? Once these townships were fully occupied (all the viable farmland divided and distributed), it seems almost inevitable that a homestead farming community was going to produce too many sons within a generation or so. At that point, net outmigration is virtually guaranteed, until the “pioneer generation” stops having kids. Wilson mentions that although people in the 1790s believed many farms had been abandoned, they were in fact “unoccupied,” they “continued to be held by actual owners who paid taxes on them.” (9) Does this imply a different attitude toward these properties on the part of their owners, from the declension story we see?

Who was there and for how long?

Today I’m reading census data from 1790 to 1840. Putting together a big spreadsheet that lists everybody, so I can see who came and who left the town I’m writing about. Ran into some interesting problems along the way.

The 1810 census was a mess! I’m still not sure I got it all -- I’m going to have to search on all the missing names, to make sure they really are missing from the town. Three different census recorders took parts of the town I’m looking at, so my data is appended to the forms for three towns surrounding my target. And the machine transcription on these forms was less than perfect, so it’s a good thing I’m familiar with the family names in this town, or I’d be hopelessly lost.

I don’t want to do JUST a population study of any of these places, but with the info readily available these days, I don't see how you can avoid knowing what happened with the people, as part of the due diligence. Persistence, turnover, where people went, who came to replace them...all go to establishing the character of the place.