One of the most exciting and interesting things we do as historians is look at old documents. Exciting because we get to use all our “detective” instincts, and we’re never sure what we’re going to find. Interesting because along with the data we’re looking for, there’s often a lot more. Sometimes this additional information takes the form of a surprise that completely changes our idea of what happened; more often, it broadens and enriches our understanding of the setting, the people involved, and the times they lived in.
I recently had an opportunity to look at nineteenth-century land deeds, or “Indentures” in upstate New York. My goal was to establish when the people I was studying had arrived in the region. I went to the county records office and got permission to use their computerized database of indentures. This saved me the trouble of pulling a dozen old books off the shelves, since deeds were recorded in the order they were executed, so you need to find them in the index and then go to the appropriate “Liber” and page.
As I expected, the pile of documents I was able to find and print for a nominal fee, told me a lot about when my subjects had arrived in the area, but also a lot more that I hadn’t expected. For example, I found an 1842 record of an agreement between one of my subjects, Roswell Ranney, and Spencer Hildreth and Elijah Bement, “and Julia his wife.” Ranney bought a 106.25-acre parcel of land from these two men, “for the sum of Ten Dollars to them in hand,” as well as “payment & satisfaction of twelve hundred and fifty dollars being a part of a mortgage heretofore executed by Samuel H. And Henry Baggerly and their Wives to the New York Life Insurance and Trust Company for twenty seven hundred dollars.” The location and dimensions of this land were described in great detail, which allows me to not only plot it on a map and know where Ranney lived, but suggests that an acre of prime farmland in Phelps was worth about $12 in 1842, if this sale was at the market price.
But I don’t know that for sure, yet. Because, reading on, I find that there had been a previous mortgage, dating from 1838, between George Ranney, Roswell’s brother, and the late Russell Bement, whose exact relationship to Elijah I don’t yet know. George and Russell, I already knew, both came to Phelps around 1833 from the same town in Massachusetts. George Ranney died about six months after this indenture was recorded, so this land sale may have been part of an attempt to put his affairs in order. But now, to understand the sequence of events, I’d like to know why the Baggerly brothers had a mortgage with New York Life. Actually, until I saw this indenture, I wasn’t aware that the New York City company was involved in real estate lending in this small upstate village—so that’s definitely worth finding out more about.
In a footnote to the indenture, the county official appended a note witnessing the signatures and stating that in a private interview, Elijah Bement’s wife Julia “acknowledged that she executed the within deed freely and without any fear or compulsion of her said husband therefore let it be recorded.” It’s an interesting glimpse at the changing status of wives in 1842 New York, that although she clearly does not have the rights of the men, society is concerned about Julia’s willing participation in this sale.