Yankees in Michigan

Susan E. Gray
The Yankee West: Community Life on the Michigan Frontier

Gray’s story of three townships in the neighborhood of Kalamazoo Michigan could have been told as “the mundane march of the farm boy who collects the herd in the back forty and drives it resolutely toward the barn,” she says, except that “the circumstances under which the townships were settled were by no means mundane, and the settlers saw themselves as anything but plodders.” (1) Gray draws on many of the texts I’ve read lately that describe the market transition and migration, as well as important old regional sources like the many memorial atlases and
Lois K. Mathews’ 1909 Expansion of New England. The historiography of the Yankee migrations, she says, is complicated by the story they created for themselves “coeval” with settlement, and “an interpretation that reigned from the 1890s to about 1950, to which the works of Frederick Jackson Turner are central.” (3) Even early accounts like James Lanman’s 1839 History of Michigan, Gray says, struggle to define the “third New England’s” response to the “two congeries of Yankee cultural markers: the market and morality.” (5)

Gray describes the typical “Yankee migration” pattern as “chain migration, usually, but not always, in family groups.” (11) The two important elements of this type of migration are that there are familiar faces waiting for immigrants, after the first settlers arrive; and that there are family members still back in the old New England and New York communities, who are a source of not only ongoing migrants, but ongoing access to eastern capital. This is why both migration and “capitalism for Yankees seemed to promise not the destruction but the intensification of familial and community ties.” (12) The primary sources I’ve been reading (especially letters from migrants to siblings “back home”) seem to support Gray’s argument.

Although she spends quite a lot of time on the religious conflicts of these frontier communities, Gray acknowledges that although “organized settlements in Michigan, such as the one at Vermontville, near Lansing, involved relocations of entire congregations...they were not usual. Most settlements--no less Yankee--were founded by groups of families.” (18) In fact, Richland township’s largest landholder, John F. Gilkey, was “‘Behind none’ in contributing barrels of flour to the poor, he was known for his benevolence, but he belonged to no church.” (176) Gray reminds us there were “two New Englands--one coastal, commercial, and Congregational; the other, agrarian, democratic, and pluralistic.” (8) I might amend that statement in two ways, to suggest that western Massachusetts and Vermont were also quite commercial, and to suggest that many Vermont deists and New York/New England freethinkers were still alive and well in the 1830s, when southern Michigan was first settled.

MIchigan’s growth in the 1830s was driven in part by land sales at the Kalamazoo District Land Office. Although “open only 169 days in 1836...it took in $2,043,866.87.” (44) Michigan’s “General Banking Law of March 15, 1837, enabled any twelve landowners to form a banking association on application to the county treasurer or clerk.” (45) The Specie Circular slowed but did not stop land sales, Gray says, but the Panic of 1837-9 crushed the bankers, ruined rail and canal companies, and slowed population growth for decades. “The legislature stopped construction of the southern [rail] line at Hillsdale in 1843 and funded the central line only to Kalamazoo, which the line reached in 1846.” The “panic and ensuing years of depression--was to arrest Michigan’s economic development until the Civil War.” (47)

Gray’s discussion of Kalamazoo politics seems to draw heavily on Formisano, which she seems to think provides a fairly accurate description of conditions around Kalamazoo. She observes that “although Kalamazoo was an intensely anti-Democratic county, it supported continuously only a Democratic paper, the
Kalamazoo Gazette.” (152) In 1849, she says, “Democrats simply gave up the fight,” allowing the Whigs to “elect unanimously Uriah Upjohn...as supervisor.” (154) Upjohn was a British-born Doctor, and father of W.E. Upjohn. Gray calls him “the sole known antislavery man who compiled a winning record in township elections... [as] a Whig who ran as a Free-Soil candidate for state senator in 1848.” (157) “The formation of rural elites,” Gray suggests, “is a relatively understudied aspect of the transition to capitalism in the countryside.” (159) The politics of Kalamazoo’s civic leaders is also problematic, since Gray suggests it represents ethnic, religious, and social antagonisms from the home regions of these immigrant elites. (167-8)

Two families that it might be useful for me to follow up on are the Mays and the Wells. Richland settler Rockwell May (b. 1799) and his son, General Dwight May, seem interesting. And the family of Judge Hezekiah G. Wells might just figure into
my story. (170-1) I should look into H.G. Wells in Michigan Historical Collections, vol. 2, and also Ronald P. Formisano, The Birth of Mass Political Parties: Michigan, 1827-1861, 1971 esp. 16-20.

Yankee Peddlers

Richardson Wright, Hawkers & Walkers in Early America, 1927

Although old, this book is still considered the master text on peddlers and itinerants in early America. Wright devotes about half his time to Yankee Peddlers, and the rest to preachers, cobblers, tramps, itinerant craftsmen, and entertainers. There are some interesting observations about the rise of automobile and bus transportation -- Wright expects technology will begin “freeing” people from urban life just as it once “confined” them.

“The dealer in small wares, essences and such, was called a ‘trunk-peddler,’ because he carried his goods in one or two small, oblong, tin trunks slung on his back by a webbing harness or a leather strap.” (19) I’d like to see one of these set-ups. Even more, I’d like to put it on and carry a loaded rig for a couple of miles, to see what it felt like. Wright mentions Timothy Dwight’s disdain for peddlers, adding “whatever exuberant youth does, the clergy consider wrong. And these peddlers were young men.” (21)

The young peddler’s travels, Wright says, “afforded him a fairly complete survey of the rural markets; he could judge the best neighborhoods in which to open a store.” (22) They covered the entire settled area of the country; “Even Horn’s
Overland Guide to California--the Baedecker of the forty-niners--contains the advertisement of a Mr. Sypher in Fort Des Moines, who is willing to supply peddlers...at the lowest possible rates.” (26)

“The essence peddler,” says Wright, “was quite a different sort. Usually a free-lance, he managed to scrape together ten or twenty dollars [and] fill his tin trunk with peppermint, bergamot, and wintergreen extracts and bitters. In the backwoods these bitters were in great demand. They were mixed with the local brand of homemade liquor...Other extracts were used as remedies and antidotes.” (56-7) Wright quotes Hawthorne’s 1838 passage from the
American Note-books describing his conversation with an essence peddler on the way home to Ashfield, to renew his supply.

Wright thinks “We can trace the dislike of the town for the country through practically all phases of itinerant life.” Despite the fact that “had there been no peddlers there would have been no countryside distribution, and...manufacturing, even of the humblest household sort, could never have survived,” Wright says “the peddler’s foe was the established, settled, town merchant.” (89) It’s hard to judge this argument, because Wright simply asserts it. He does not cite any examples (and although he includes a large bibliography, he includes no notes), but his general attitude is betrayed a few pages later when he comments “a vast amount of sentiment has been wasted over this Homespun Era.” (93)

In an interesting aside, Wright dates the entry of Jewish peddlers into the picture to about 1836, “following the oppressive marriage laws promulgated in Bavaria” in 1835. He doesn’t spend a lot of time on this, and it doesn’t seem particularly relevant to my story, but it’s interesting that there’s a whole other view of peddling and the rise of Jewish families in America, that originates here. See, for example, the
American Jewish Historical Society website.

I raced through the sections on preachers and entertainers, but noticed a couple of interesting people and facts along the way: Jonathan Chapman and William Augustus Bowles are both probably worth a closer look at some point. And “the yeast man who kept his precious fluid--barm, it was called locally--in a jar in front of him in his cart,” is probably a character who should make a cameo appearance in a story, someday. (229) New York street sellers are interesting, but seem a lot tamer than London costermongers.

“Out of Boston, in 1832...ran no fewer than 106 coach lines to all parts of the State and contiguous States.” (265) Important for me to keep in mind that Ashfield was a rest-stop on the Boston to Albany mail run. There’s got to be some material on this, either in Ashfield or at the PVMA. William F. Harnden, who started the “Express Package Carrier” company between Boston and New York in 1839 is also probably worth looking into. (268)

Yankee exodus

Stewart H. Holbrook
The Yankee Exodus: An Account of Migration from New England

Synopsis: Holbrook believes “Yankees were born with an uncommon urge to see, with their own eyes, if the grass on the other side of the mountain really was greener.” (10) He doesn’t ever completely explain why this urge would be universal, rather than be due to particular motivations like religion or economics. Holbrook does not give any thought to people who may have moved more than once (New Englanders who moved to New York, and then
moved on to MIchigan or Oregon). Nor does he distinguish between those who left and those who stayed. This might have complicated his argument (in a good way), especially where families sent some members west, while others stayed home in New England. What Holbrook does provide is a heartfelt personal connection to these old Yankees, and a lot of good details it will be fun to track down someday, when I’m looking for topics to research.

High on the list of things to check into someday are names. Along with Ethan Allen, Holbrook singles out General
Rufus Putnam, head of the Ohio Company of Associates. He doesn’t give much information about any one topic, and he doesn’t make many judgements. Oliver Phelps and Nathaniel Gorham are simply described as “Two Massachusetts speculators” who “For $100,000...bought preemptive rights to a vast tract in the western part” of New York and began the “Genesee Fever.” (17) A passage outlining the founding of Oberlin College is suggestive. The “new Oberlins” (Hillsdale College in Michigan, Ripon, Northfield/Carelton, Grinnell and Tabor in Iowa could probably figure in a story about the intellectual/social history of the Upper Midwest in its early years. (43)

Lucy Stone was a radical I’d never heard of. (45-6) Another surprise was Vermont’s “Year of Two Winters, the infamous Eighteen Hundred and Frozen to Death, when snow fell a foot deep in June and was of aid in helping thousands of Yankees to make up their minds.” (48) The story of the Mormons (and of other religious fanatics) recurs throughout the book. I didn’t know Smith had his vision of Moroni near Palmyra, or that Brigham Young lived on a farm in Mendon.

There are several references to Ashfielders, but none that are salient to my research. Hiram Alden arrived in Coldwater, Branch County, MI in about 1834, and became a leading man in the new town. James T. Barber settled in Eau Claire and became a leading lumberman. His “timber stands included yellow pine in Idaho, where the town of Barber is named for him.” (124) Ashfield’s Rev. Samuel Parker wrote a journal of his travels in the Pacific northwest, attracting immigrants to the Oregon territory. (227) And Zebulon B. Taylor went to the Tacoma area. (236) These brief mentions of people who may or may not be historically significant are typical of Holbrook’s approach. The book mentions many people, but rarely goes into depth. Abner Kneeland gets about a page and a half of coverage that includes a mention of
The Fruits of Philosophy, but not its author. Kneeland’s 1839 emigration to the Des Moines river in Iowa and his utopian community Salubria, like so many other items in The Yankee Exodus, scream for more attention.

Critics: Generally praised the “rich word-pictures” Holbrook provided, and criticized his lack of documented references and analytical rigor, and his filiopietism.