Lewis writes from Phelps New York in November 1843, where he is visiting family and friends after selling his peppermint oil in neighboring Lyons. He apologizes for not writing sooner, admitting, “I ought to have written a long time since but through the fall I occupy twenty hours in the twenty four a stilling, therefore I wanted the rest for sleep.” Lewis reports that he left Florence on 18 October. He passed through Allen, where their mother, Achsah Sears Ranney, and the rest of the family had already moved after their father George’s death in Phelps a year earlier.
Lewis and his partner Smith delivered 594 pounds of peppermint oil to a dealer named Franklin Wells in the neighboring town of Lyons, who had commercial contacts in New York City and elsewhere. Lyons at this time was actually the center of the lucrative peppermint oil business (but you’ll be able to read more about that when I finish my dissertation), although Henry Ranney in Ashfield still did some mint oil business through the 1860s, connecting friends and family in Michigan with dealers in Boston who also happened to be relatives by marriage. A lot of business was transacted in the nineteenth century along these lines of kinship and trust. The deal is an interesting one, because it suggests the long-term relationship that lies behind it. Lewis receives $2.00 per pound in advance, and then he is also entitled to the increase in the oil’s value if it appreciates in the market over the next eight months. Peppermint oil was easy to store, and the price was very volatile, so this was a clever way for dealers to get a steady supply of oil and prevent growers from hoarding it. And it wasn’t insignificant business: Lewis and his partner made nearly $1,200, and they planned to expand their planting to thirty acres in the spring. Apparently they drove the oil overland themselves, because Lewis plans to start for home as soon as there’s “good sleighing.”
The family was ill when Lewis passed through Allen, so he didn’t stay for a visit. But he reports that his mother is pleased with the move and is thinking of staying in Michigan permanently. Their eldest brother Alonzo, Lewis says, has sold his farm in Phelps and is thinking of moving to Michigan as well (in the end though, Alonzo remains in Phelps). Lewis then announces he is planning on buying land in Indiana, just outside Chicago. It is still possible to get parcels for the “government price” of $1.25 per acre, and Lewis has seen how land values have increased in Michigan. So he plans to speculate, and set the land aside “until time of need.” This is interesting, because it shows that land speculation was quite normal. Often historians portray land speculators as ruthless capitalists from the east, and some definitely were. But it’s important to realize that everybody understood that settlement pushed up land values, and everybody who was able took advantage of the opportunity.
Like Lucius, Lewis thanks Henry for the Massachusetts newspapers he has been sending. He closes by mentioning Alonzo Franklin’s two young sons, who want to be remembered to their uncle, and assuring Henry that “Frank’s folks are all well.”
Phelps, Nov 13th, 1843
I now being perfectly at leisure I indulge in writing to you. I acknowledge I ought to have written a long time since, but through the fall I occupied twenty hours in the twenty four a stilling, therefore I wanted the rest in sleep. But we will stop excuses. I started from Florence the eighteenth Oct. I passed through where Lucius is but did not stay but an hour. Mother had been quite sick with a kind of fever, ague, &c., but was getting much better when I was there. Began to look fresh again and sit up most of the time, and the next was Harrison. He was a shaking with the ague while I was there. Anson had a few shakes but was rugged again. The rest of them were all well. Priscilla’s health is much improved since going to Michigan. Lucius wrote down here a few days since in true back woods style, saying they were getting as tough as bears. Priscilla in particular.
We brought down 594 lbs oil we sold to Wells of Lyons at $2.00 in advance and the rise 8 months. We had a little over 600 lbs, we left a few lbs at home. I have been here about three weeks. I shall tarry until good sleighing and then go back.
Mother and the family seem to be well pleased with their situation and find many more privileges than they expected and the prospect of a permanent home.
Smith and myself intend planting thirty acres in the spring of mint. It is rather hard business, but I think it better than wheat.
Franklin has sold his place here and thinks some of going to Michigan when I go, and look him out a place. He gets seven hundred dollars. Three in the spring and then one hundred yearly.
I think I shall start back in about four weeks probably, before if sleighing is good. My health has been good since I wrote you last winter. I shall remain in Florence another year probably. Crops were generally good in Michigan this season, but rather a poor season for mint, it being dry through harvest time.
You can direct letters and papers to me at Florence in a few weeks again and they will meet a happy reception. I am also greatly obliged to you for the papers I have received from you the year past.
I intend buying a lot of land this spring in Indiana forty miles east of Chicago, of prairie land to lay until time of need. Lands can be purchased at government price in that vicinity.
Frank’s folks are all well. Henry and Horace are a knocking about the table. They want me to write something about them. I guess they are pretty good boys.
Nothing more this time.
Yours respectfully, H. S. Ranney
Lewis G. Ranney
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