As I was doing research toward my dissertation in Ashfield Massachusetts last year, I came across a series of family letters written by six out of a set of eight brothers (and one sister who apparently wrote no letters). The Ranney brothers were all born between 1812 and 1833 in Ashfield, and all of them but the third son Henry went west — some farther than others. They wrote each other regularly for more than fifty years, and over a hundred of their letters are preserved at the Ashfield Historical Society. These would have been letters kept by Henry Sears Ranney. The collection probably includes most of the letters Henry received (he was apparently a very meticulous record-keeper, and served as Ashfield’s Town Clerk for fifty years!), but unfortunately does not include copies of letters Henry wrote. Unfortunate, but not unexpected. Although blotter-books were used in this period to make copies of handwritten letters, this practice was usually reserved for business correspondence.
A collection of a hundred family letters spanning half a century is treasure for a historian. Because the writers were all brothers, there is very little time wasted on empty formality — they get right to the point and write about what’s most important to the family. Reading the letters, we get a rare glimpse at the interests and concerns of a fairly normal American family, as they experienced life in the nineteenth century.
The story begins in May, 1839, with a three-page letter from twenty-four year old Lewis George Ranney (he was born George Lewis, but there were Georges in every generation since the Ranneys arrived in America in the 1650s, including his father and grandfather, so he switched to “L. G.”) to his younger brother Henry. Lewis begins with the most important news: “our folks are well as usual.” Their parents, George Ranney Jr. and Achsah Sears Ranney, had moved most of the family to Phelps New York (then called Vienna) in 1833. Henry, sixteen at the time, had stayed behind in Ashfield. In early 1838, George Ranney bought 105 acres in Phelps for $5,000; a year later he bought another hundred acres for $2,800. Eldest son Alonzo Franklin Ranney had a two acre house lot in town, worth $500, and Lewis was living at home in 1839 when he wrote to Henry — but he had already decided by this time that he was going on to Michigan.
The contents of the letter reveal the topics that interested Lewis, that he knew his brother would want to hear about. First, news of both the immediate and extended family. Lewis remarks about their cousins, Samuel Ranney’s sons: “Dexter is yet in Michigan I suppose, William is a-building a new house in the West Village, Frederick is about here as usual” (Samuel had died in 1837). In response to Henry’s letter, Lewis lists the birth dates of all the siblings. Achsah Sears Ranney had eleven children in the 21-year period between age 23 and 44, and then lived to age 80. Nine of the children were alive in 1839. Lewis goes on to mention a couple of Ashfield acquaintances, and then tells Henry that their father wants him to send money. Funds will be tight in Phelps until the harvest, several months away, and George Jr. “has had none from Michigan.” This is a very interesting point, because it shows that the family is not only in contact over half the continent, but is financially connected as well. Money and information (and, as we’ll see later, merchandise) flows in both directions between family members all over North America. We’re mistaken if we assume that when people moved west, they cut their ties with family and went on their own.
Here’s my transcription of the letter:
Phelps May 19th
I take the present opportunity of informing you that our folks are well as usual. I am working at home this season. I have a couple of acres of peppermint planted &c. We have planted this season about six acres of mint nine acres corn six acres spring wheat potatoes oats sufficient &c.
As to stock they have five cows four yearlings and four calves and in the horse line Lucius thinks he has got a team. They have swopt the old big sorrel and a mare they had for a pair of Dun colored horses equally matched. As heavy as the old (???) horse which makes a (???) team, they being smart, and the big horse is yet on hand. They calculate to summer fallow about eighteen or twenty acres. There has been a very good spring so far for crops and there are prospects now for considerable fruit.
Our people are a going into the poultry line considerable this season. Forty or fifty chickens already and a quantity of eggs yet to hatch. Eleven young turkeys and two turkeys yet to hatch &c. &C.
Our folks have taken a girl about ten years old which they like very well. I believe which makes quite a help to the woman affairs. Dexter is yet in Michigan. I suppose William is a building a new house in the west village. Frederick is about here as usual. Frank is about Pecks yet. Now news &c.
You requested us to send the Names Births &c. Of the children. I will write them viz.
Alonzo F Ranney Born Sept 13, 1812
Lewis G Ranney Born March 10, 1815
Henry S Ranney Born March 5, 1817
Lucius Ranney Born April 12, 1819
Priscilla M Ranney Do Jan 19, 1822
Harrison Ranney Born March 4, 1824
Lyman A Ranney Born August 1, 1828
Lemuel S Ranney Born Jany 17, 1831
Anson B Ranney Do May 31, 1833
Mother says she calculates to send you two or three pairs of socks.
James King is about Vienna making pumps.
James Flower was married a few weeks ago.
Father wishes you to send him fifty or a hundred Dollars if you can as he has had none from Michigan and having some to make out he Requests &c. Money is very scarce here now probably will be till after harvest.
They thought if you could spare it till fall it would accommodate very much then they want to square up the horse and the stock line and other small debts. Write again soon and send if you send &c.
L G Ranney