As I was doing research toward my dissertation in Ashfield, Massachusetts, last year, I came across a series of family letters written by a set of eight brothers (they had one sister, but she apparently wrote no letters). The Ranney brothers were all born between 1812 and 1833 in Ashfield, but all of them except 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. The collection probably includes most of the letters Henry Sears Ranney received from his brothers (he was apparently a very meticulous record-keeper, and served as Ashfield’s Town Clerk for fifty years!), but not all. For example, there is no mention of the death at age 25 of younger brother Lyman, who was working for a merchant in Tahlequah and had written several letters home with interesting observations of the South and the Indian Nation. And unfortunately the collection does not include copies of letters Henry wrote. That’s unfortunate, but not unexpected. Although blotter-books were widely 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 interested in the lives of regular people. 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 Ashfield Historical Society has been great about letting me transcribe and post these letters, which I have begun to do at www.ranneyletters.com. In the long run, I hope they can become a resource for teachers looking for primary material on the Yankee Migration to the northwest, and for anyone interested in the voices of regular Americans in the nineteenth century. When I’ve completed the set (something over a hundred letters and several background essays on local history, research, etc.), I’m going to self-publish them into a paperback volume. As I prepare the material, I’m hoping to get feedback from people on what is useful and interesting; I’ll use this when I prepare the final version for print. So if you get a chance, please take a look or tell people you think may be interested. And stay tuned, letters will be posted more or less daily.
The story begins in May, 1839, with a three-page letter from twenty-four year old Lewis George Ranney to his younger brother Henry. Lewis begins with the most important news: “our folks are well as usual.” Their parents had moved most of the family to Phelps New York 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. In response to Henry’s letter, Lewis lists the birth dates of all the siblings. Their mother, 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 their father “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. This web of continuity and connection is one of the most interesting aspects of the collection.