Sunday, June 1, 2014

Palmyra's socio-economic narrative

The basic scheme to comfort in Jacksonian America was to get your own farm and implement a basic pattern of agricultural self-sufficiency. This would have guaranteed food at all times. From that base of stability, it was possible to produce a surplus in some of the categories, then trade and acquire until your income and your reserves were sufficient to guard against the vagaries of life until the evening of life.

In the 1790s and 1800s, the Palmyra community was still struggling to get the basic infrastructure in place; a few families were working the land around John Swift's original homestead, and required to transport the necessities from afar and their surplus to equal distances. Each need that could not be met locally was an enormous drain on their resources and energies. Thus, in their pioneer reminiscences, the exhausting enumeration of infrastructure "firsts", be they industrial---various mills and carding machines---or trade-related---the first tanner, blacksmith, doctor, lawyer, school teacher, tavern or emporium or store owner---or social: the first school, graveyard and church. Despite all the hard work involved, the egalitarian situation is almost paradise-like: the community members have to and do support each other, and the population is small enough to make everyone familiar. The raising of a frame house or the husking of corn become the equivalent of holidays.

Then an odd sort of lacuna intervenes. We learn little about the second and the third of the various professions and infrastructure elements. Some of the later professions are oddly disqualified from the communal memory: the first tailors, cart- and wainwright, lottery salesmen; the banker and the printer are exempted. And we have signs of the weakening of the community spirit. Additional religious denominations. Schools divided along political orientations. Internal competition from more stores, more doctors, more lawyers. And the land agents continue to bring in new settlers, to put all the land for which they are responsible under production. By 1810, over two thousand souls inhabit the greater Palmyra area, maybe 300 to 500 households (see Christopher Clark's analysis for Massachusetts here; for a more general overview of US economic life in 1810, see here.).

Then in the fall of 1817, the lights come back on when the first newspaper---the Palmyra Register, by Timothy C. Strong, on November 26th, 1817---is published that provides us with weekly snapshots of the concerns of at least some of the community members. The differentiating responsibilities come across clearly in Strong's first editorial.
The farmer, the merchant, the mechanic and the professional man, have each a duty assigned, a talent committed.
Thus the division of labor in the community, as seen from the vantage point of a local opinion maker. Among the economic issues is the construction of the Erie Canal, and the unconvinced are goaded with the amount of flour that can be shipped to sale this way. The advertisement sections are dominated by the fine foods, clothes and table ware now available; material rewards for the hard work. No more tea made of hemlock or chocolate made of dried evans root.

And the legal section shows the negative side of the note and account system of debits: Dr Gain Robinson, the community doctor for the last seventeen years, co-owner of the drugstore, teacher of the next generation of physicians---be it Alexander McIntyre, the co-drugstore owner and allopath, or Durfee Chase, the homeopath---is subject to a write of fieri facias, or fi-fa for short; his prime real estate, with Mud creek access, sold off to meet the debts. No wonder that Dr McIntyre calls in the outstanding debts at the end of the drugstore's advertisement.

And so the double-edged sword of economic boom is revealed: The engine of economic growth brings in goods and services in quantity and quality, as well as the dispossessed from the bad harvests of the last years, while the sheriff sells off the land holdings of the ones who stumbled and failed to keep pace.

It is onto this scene that the Smiths had stumbled in the winter of 1816, after the year without a summer had pushed them out of Vermont and the move exhausted their family funds. They are not here because the land is cheap; they should have gone to Ohio or Indiana for that. They are here because it is a town, and Joseph Smith Sr, who had already owned one store, and was ready to start the next when the Typhoid Epidemic of 1813 wiped out the family fortune, is an urban man at heart and still wants one. They rent a home downtown, on Main and Stafford. The family store, a snack booth with a crafts component, keeps them going. They older sons and the father also provide day labor, a category conspicuously absent from the self-description of the community labor pool in the Palmyra Register. After two years, in 1818, they have located land they can use to rebuild their agricultural base. There is no prime land left that they could afford, so they squat on a hundred acres and build a block hut. That land is managed for East Coast minors from the land holding and banking center of Canandaigua, smaller but more prosperous than Palmyra. When a new agent arrived in 1820, they made a formal contract with down payment for 100 acres.

Some of this would have been influenced by the wheat prices (pp,362-364). The area had been unaffected by the year without the summer, and had produced a decent harvest even in 1816. The lack of seeds meant that wheat continued to fetch good prices in 1817 and 1818; perhaps Joseph Smith Sr included that knowledge in his calculus to switch focus from the store to the farm. The good prices continued until 1820, when an abundant crop and the extensive recovery of wheat farming combined to lower the price. This was the year the Smiths made their downpayment. The record crop continued in 1821, and prices stayed low. In 1822 the Erie Canal reached Palmyra, a boon for the city, which now became the collector for shipping to the East. In 1823, Rochester came online, and the prices recovered, possibly due to the heightened demand, staying good in 1824 as well. However the economic focus started to shift from Palmyra to Rochester, and the boom times began to slow down. 1825 and 1826 were record harvests, with low prices, and the Smiths, who had begun the construction of the frame house, almost lost the farm except for the intervention of Lemuel Durfee. The crop of 1827 was unremarkable, but the crop of 1828 a disaster. By 1829 the Smiths were back in their hut, and the farm intermezzo over. By the 1830 census, even when keeping the spin-off of Macedon from Palmyra in mind, the population was no longer doubling either.

Whitney R. Cross issued a warning to all socio-economic analysis applied to the Burned-over District:
The relationship of the Burned-over District enthusiasms to specific sociological conditions could easily be overdrawn. Religious zealots were in no conscious fashion motivated by calculations of their social and economic interests. They found direct inspiration in the Bible and aimed at some kind of millennium within their own time. ... No rigid determinism can be applied to men who sought always the right and never the expedient, according to insights which were invariably individualistic. Still, they lived within an environment whose influence they could scarcely escape, however much they might disregard it. (The Burned over District, p.74)
Thus, without reduction of the revivals that took place in Palmyra from 1824-25, or the work on the Book of Mormon since 1827, to socio-economic circumstances, it is clear that the community of Palmyra in the latter half of the 1820s was heading toward a bit of a disappointment. The Erie Canal had come but passed Palmyra, Rochester was the final winner, passing from half the population size of Palmyra in 1820 to double the size by 1830 and six times the size by 1850 (as shown here).

I currently have no records for the 1830s and 1840s that capture these sentiments of being passed by; most likely they would be found in the newspapers of Palmyra from these time periods, in journals, letters and memoirs. The traces of nostalgia for the glorious past, its collaborative setup, and the willingness of sacrifice are present in the narratives of Turner's History of the Pioneer Settlement of 1851, but the main daemon they indict is whiskey, not economic stagnation.

But in 1857, in his Thanksgiving address, the Presbyterian minister Dr Horace Eaton explicitly had to address the fact that there was buyers remorse afloat in his congregation. His sermon targeted the local elite, the descendants of the pioneer settlers, as the title, Early History of Palmyra, suggests. The ancestors of his listeners had had opportunities to go elsewhere, to places that had since blossomed, while Palmyra had slumbered. For a God whose hand was visible in history, even in the history of this town, that situation required some explaining. Eaton's argument bears quoting in full (Early History of Palmyra, p.24).
The visit of William Hopkins to Long Island, just at the right time, doubtless diverted from many of you the possession of the land upon which Cincinnati now stands. The father of John Hurlburt offered his son the choice of lands in Rochester or Palmyra; he preferred the same number of acres in Palmyra. Pardon Durfee, too, contemplated purchasing the site of Rochester; but when, on a survey of the country, he was attacked with fever and ague, he came home to Palmyra in disgust. (p.24)
Eaton consoled his listeners with the moral superiority of their situation.
Let not the greed of gain count these decisions unfortunate. You might have rode as millionaires; but it may well be questioned whether the industrious principles and virtuous competency received from your fathers, are not a safer inheritance than the indulgence and dangers of overgrown wealth. ...  My hearers, you have a goodly heritage. The Lord hath dealt bountifully with you. (p.24)
The reaction from the point of view of the lower end of the socio-economic distribution must have been decidedly different. The descendants of the pioneers were frustrated with not having become millionaires; families like the Smiths had just wanted to keep their farms. The weakness in the prices and the trade possibilities had left the upper echelon with merely "a goodly heritage"; but it had crippled the chances of the lower levels. If God was to be found in history, then what would their reaction be?

1 comment:

  1. The main pieces missing from this narrative are the "get-quick-rich" schemes of treasure hunting and the socially disruptive side-effects of the canal, the so-called "canawler" problem, the influx of community external folks who came to make money, not stay and integrate.