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