The Ranney Letters: Family Correspondence During the Yankee Migration

The Ranney Letters: Family Correspondence During the Yankee Migration

Dan Allosso



Cover Image & Acknowledgement

The cover image is an 1857 oil painting called Waiting for the Ferry, by William Tylee Ranney. Although not a member of the immediate family that is the subject of this book, Ranney was a cousin. Born in Middletown Connecticut in 1813, he was a contemporary of the Ranney brothers of Ashfield whose grandparents had migrated to Ashfield from Middletown. In a career that lasted until his death in late 1857, Ranney completed about 150 paintings, many dealing with western or pioneer themes.


The building that now houses the Ashfield Historical Society Museum, as it appeared in 1898.


I am extremely grateful to the people of the Ashfield Historical Society who have been exceptionally generous for more than a decade, allowing me to visit several times and giving me access to their invaluable archives. Grace Lesure and Nancy Garvin have welcomed me, answered my questions, and have been interested in whatever I was searching for in their files; whether it was information on the Ashfield essence peddlers and the peppermint oil business I used in my dissertation, my fascination with Ashfield’s “infidel” doctor Charles Knowlton, or the Ranneys. History, at its heart, is the story of people, and the glimpses into the lives of people afforded by items like the Ranney letters are some of our best opportunities to connect the broad brushstrokes of nineteenth-century history with the experiences of the people who lived it. The interest and care of people like Grace and Nancy insures that such items will be available when curious historians drop in with questions one day. And they continue an important tradition of making their region’s history available to the public, both in person and on the internet. I know I’ve only scratched the surface of their 5,000 articles on Ashfield’s history, not to mention the 23,000 glass plate photographic negatives taken by a pair of Ashfield brothers between 1882 and 1907! If I lived closer to Ashfield, I’d be there all the time.


Thumbnail for the embedded element "RLHypo"

A Vimeo element has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view it online here:


The Ranney Letters are a series of letters written by the brothers of a single family, all born in Ashfield Massachusetts in the early years of the nineteenth century. This branch of the Ranney family moved to Phelps in western New York in 1833, leaving one sixteen-year old son behind in Ashfield. Henry Sears Ranney spent most of the rest of his life living in Ashfield and died there. He left behind letters he had received from his brothers, as they continued to spread westward. The Ranney brothers stayed in close contact with each other for over sixty years and their letters are a window into the lives and concerns of rural people in the nineteenth century.

So who were these Ranneys?  What can we find out about them, to set the scene for this series of letters?  Looking for information on a family like the Ranneys in nineteenth century America, we have a pretty wide variety of sources available to us.  As many descendants of more recent immigrants to the Americas have found, European communities where their families originated were not always good at record-keeping.  There may be nothing written down about an average family except births, deaths, and marriages in a local church register — and that register may have been lost or destroyed.  Luckily, Americans seem to have valued genealogical information from very early in our history.  The list of birthdates Lewis provides for Henry in the first letter of the collection is an indication of this.  And this impulse wasn’t limited only to Mayflower descendants (which the Ranneys were not).  Between the middle and the end of the nineteenth century people started publishing books tracing the genealogies of families like the Ranneys.  According to the Ranney book, (Founders, fathers and patriots of Middletown upper houses, 1903), the family in America originates with a Scottish immigrant named Thomas Ranney, born in 1616, who settled in Middletown Connecticut in the mid-1650s.  Although no one knows why Thomas left his native Scotland, the Scots were defeated by Cromwell’s parliamentary forces at Dunbar in 1650, leading to the unification of England and Scotland in 1653. It’s possible that Ranney, like many of his countrymen, chose to emigrate as a result of these events or the social changes they caused. The book on Middletown’s early history (Charles Collard Adams’s Middletown Upper Houses: A History of the North Society of Middletown, Connecticut, from 1650 to 1800, with Genealogical and Biographical Chapters on the Early Families and a Full Genealogy of the Ranney Family, 1908) agrees with the Ranney book (which is not unusual, since most of these early sources borrowed freely from each other without attribution) and elaborates. Thomas Ranney became a landowner in Middletown in 1658, and married seventeen-year old Mary Hubbard, a daughter of another founding family, in 1659. By 1670, Thomas was paying £105 in taxes, placing him ninth on the list of 52 town proprietors. Thomas was not a member of a church (most of his descendants would be similarly irreligious). He died at age 97 in 1713, the last surviving settler. In his will, Thomas gave grants of land to each of his ten surviving children. In addition to his homestead, valued at £110, Thomas’s estate included nearly 400 acres of land and was valued at £757. Thomas Ranney died a fairly wealthy man.


Thomas Ranney’s great-great-grandson, George Ranney III, was born in Middletown in 1746. By this time, Middletown had become the largest port city between Boston and New York, with more international shipping than Hartford or New Haven. The oldest son of a main branch in what was already a large and complicated family tree, George entered the “West India trade” as a young man. The trade, which flourished from the 1750s until the Revolutionary War, is evasively described by local historians as “carrying out mules, horses, and hay, and bringing back rum, sugar, molasses, and fine woods.” Although Middletown had a larger slave population than any other Connecticut city (peaking at 218 in 1756, according to most accounts), it is unclear whether the young George Ranney was involved in this aspect of the trade, or whether he ever actually went to sea. But since the money that islands like Barbados used to buy New England livestock, food, and fodder was derived from income on sugar produced by slaves and sold in the British market, there is little point splitting hairs: Middletown’s “West India” economy was part of the British colonial system and the slave-based sugar economy.



What is known about George Ranney is that he married Esther Hall, daughter of Captain Samuel Hall, in January 1771.  George was 25, his wife 20.  Captain Hall was not a ship’s master, but rather a member of another Middletown founding family, a deacon, and a captain of the militia. The Ranney and Hall families have a long history of intermarriage, and George’s younger brother Francis married Esther’s younger sister Rachel two years later.  George and Esther’s first child, named Samuel Hall after his grandfather, was born in March, 1772.

The West India trade in Middletown never really recovered from the American Revolution.  The British West Indian colonies found other sources of supply during the nearly decade-long conflict, and after independence Middletown’s economy began to shift toward manufacturing.  In 1791, a rum distillery that came symbolize this transition was begun by a Hall relative of George’s wife Esther.  Although this “last relic of former days…distilled annually, 600 hogs-heads of rum,” by the early years of the New Republic most of Middletown’s merchants had turned their attention to textiles, according to another old history, Whittemore’s 1884 History of Middlesex County: The Town and City of Middletown.

George and Esther Ranney moved their family to Ashfield Massachusetts in 1780.  In addition to young Samuel, who was eight at the time of the move, the family included Jesse, age five, and Joseph, three.  George IV, called George Jr. in Ashfield records and born in May 1780, may have been the first Ranney born in Ashfield.  George III’s younger brothers, Francis and Thomas, moved to Ashfield in in 1786 and 1792, leaving their much younger brother Jonathan (b. 1765) to care for their aging parents and inherit the family homestead in Middletown.  By the early 1800s there were many Ranney cousins in the neighborhood, including the prominent merchant and selectman Captain Roswell Ranney and his large family.

George Ranney bought a 100-acre “farm” from Lamberton Allen, and built a log house.  Several Ashfield histories suggest that Allen’s so-called farm was really an uncleared tract of forest, and this suspicion is strengthened by the fact George Ranney built a log house rather than moving into an existing structure.  Lamberton Allen was originally from Deerfield, about fifteen miles away on the rich, flat farmland beside the Connecticut River.  In August 1746, during one of the many Indian conflicts preceding the Seven Years (“French and Indian”) War, Lamberton’s father Samuel Allen had been killed by a native raiding party while working in his fields.  Two of his older children were at work with him: Eunice was “tomahawked” and Samuel Jr. was taken as a captive to Canada.  The younger Samuel eventually escaped  from the Indians as they were making their way northward into Canada and made his way back to Massachusetts.  Samuel and his younger brothers Lamberton and Enoch settled in Ashfield, after the two younger men married daughters of the Belding family.  The Beldings were another old Deerfield family who were very active in the early settlement of Ashfield.  (Converse, Some of the Ancestors and Descendants of Samuel Converse, Jr…., 1905)

George and Esther’s sons grew to adulthood in Ashfield in the years between the Revolution and the War of 1812.  When the Ranneys  arrived in 1780, Ashfield was a tiny upcountry village that had already attracted attention beyond its borders for its “Yankee” independence.  In the 1760s, the town’s new Congregational church had taken the land of Baptist residents who had refused to pay the Congregational church’s “tax”  because they said their church had been there first.  The Baptists protested to the colonial legislature in Boston, but the Congregationalists, led by Harvard-educated Israel Williams, refused to give back the 400 acres taken from the Baptists, and got the government to back them up.  The Baptists appealed to London, and in 1769 King George III’s Privy Council gave them back their land.  When the Bostonian patriots like Samuel Adams established committees of correspondence and sent out their revolutionary call just a few years later, many Ashfielders called them hypocrites.  “They were calling themselves the sons of liberty and were erecting their liberty poles about the country,” said Baptist leader Ebenezer Smith, “but they did not deserve the name, for it was evident that all they wanted was liberty from oppression that they might have liberty to oppress.”  (Quoted in Mark Williams, The Brittle Thread of Life, 2009)

Lamberton Allen, who sold his land to George Ranney, moved north to Vermont where his cousins Ethan and Ira Allen were local heroes.  He settled on Grand Isle in Lake Champlain, between Vermont and Canada, helping to found a township called Middle Hero.  At this time, Vermont was a wild frontier area between New York, New Hampshire, and Canada.  The Allens and their Green Mountain Boys resisted the territorial claims of their neighbors and played each of them against the others, until 1791 when Vermont finally joined the union as its 14th state.  Samuel Allen remained in Ashfield a while longer than his brother Lamberton, according to US Census data.  Although he had been a lieutenant in the Revolutionary War, Samuel opposed the local and Bostonian aristocrats who he believed had betrayed the spirit of the Revolution as a people’s independence movement.  Samuel led a company of local men during Shays’ Rebellion, and then refused to sign the loyalty oath required by Massachusetts authorities when the rebellion failed.  Although this refusal made him unable to hold any public office due to his continuing “rebel” status, Samuel stayed in Ashfield through the 1790s before moving to Grand Isle.  He was remembered by Ashfielders as “Barefoot Allen” for one of his many eccentric habits.   


George Ranney’s farmhouse in Ashfield Massachusetts.


The Ranney sons were remembered for helping their father George turn his homestead into one of the best farms in Ashfield.  Samuel, the oldest, had been eight years old when the family arrived in Massachusetts.  Samuel settled on a parcel just south of his father’s, and in 1821 he built a two-story brick house that still stands beside Route 116 south of the town center.  Second son Jesse settled on the land north of his father’s farm, which he later sold to his brother Joseph when he bought a larger farm in Ashfield.  Jesse raised his family in Ashfield and died at his home in 1861, age 86.  Joseph lived in Ashfield until 1838, when he was killed by a falling tree in his woodlot.  Youngest brother George Ranney IV (George Jr.) was born in Ashfield in 1789.

George Ranney Jr. inherited the family homestead when his father George died at age 75 in 1822.  This was traditional in early America, because older sons generally started their own farms or businesses long before the parents were ready to hand over their assets, and the youngest would be more available to take care of his parents in their old age.  George lived there another eleven years, and then became the first brother to leave Ashfield, migrating to Phelps (then called Vienna) in western New York in 1833, when he was 44 years old.  He took his entire family (wife Achsah Sears Ranney and eight out of their nine children) to their new home 260 miles west of Ashfield, leaving behind only his third son, 16-year old Henry Sears Ranney.


The George Ranney house is today the home of the Double Edge Theater company, which a couple of years ago produced a play celebrating the town’s history and the Ranney family’s contributions to Ashfield.

As I was doing research toward my dissertation in Ashfield Massachusetts last year, I came across the series of family letters written by six out of the eight Ranney brothers (they also had 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.  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.    


May 20, 1834

Before Henry Ranney began keeping the letters of relatives living far away, the family had to decide to move away from Ashfield. This happened as a result of opportunities on the frontier, especially in the new peppermint-growing region around Phelps New York. But an incident in 1834 when Henry was 17 sparked a transfer of the peppermint oil business, which Henry’s uncle Samuel Ranney had introduced to Ashfield, and completely changed the Ashfield economy.

The story of Ashfield’s religious disputes over Dr. Charles Knowlton and the first birth control book published are told elsewhere. Knowlton’s story is what attracted me to Ashfield in the first place, and I wrote a book about him which will soon be available as a free ebook online. The point, for this archive, is that Samuel Ranney was apparently a friend and supporter of Knowlton’s. When the church admonished Ranney for “absenting” himself from services and failing to pay his “tax”, Ranney responded with the following letter.

Ranney seems to have deliberately misspelled the minister’s last name (which was Grosvenor) and makes several points about his materialist beliefs that seem to be inspired by Knowlton’s philosophy. Samuel Ranney had apparently been converted to a secular world view by the “infidel” physician.

My transcription follows the images:


The original images are from the archives of the Ashfield Historical Society and are used with permission.

To Rev Mason Grovsenor, Chairman of the Committee of Christ’s Church in Ashfield, Sir I received your letter of the 22d ult containing charges against me as a member of the church of which you are pastor, which charges I am requested to take into serious consideration, and I have done so.

The first charge amounts to this: “A transgression of the laws of Christ’s Kingdom” by not paying away my money to support preaching.

Now as Christ’s Kingdom is not of this world, and as I have no knowledge of any other world, nor consequently of the laws of any other world, you should not be surprised that I should transgress the laws you speak of inasmuch as I know nothing about them.  I once thought that I did, but that was when I took names for things, and supposed that immaterialities were realities.  And as to pecuniary support, it cannot be expected I should give away my hard earning for what I consider of little or nothing worth.

The second charge is, “A violation of my Covenant Vows.”  To this I have only to say, that the same consistency—the same honesty which required me to make these vowes when I did make them, now require me to disregard them.  As a man’s opinions and feelings are not voluntary not under the control of his will, but are governed by circumstances, it is the height of absurdity for me to promise what my opinions and feelings shall be at a future time.  The most I can consistently do or be required to do is avow what they are at the time being.

I therefore this day excommunicate the Church of Christ in Ashfield for my further support and membership.  And I do hearby request the chairman of the committee of said church to read this at the meeting appointed for acting upon my case.

Your fellow townsman,

Ashfield, May 20 1834

Samuel Ranney


May 19, 1839

The series of letters kept by Henry Ranney 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 the letter. My transcription follows after the letter:


Letter from Lewis Ranney to H.S. Ranney, May 19, 1839. The original images are from the archives of the Ashfield Historical Society and are used with permission.


Phelps May 19th

Respected Brother,

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 mike horse which makes a loud team, they being smart, and the Bill 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.

Yours Truly

L G Ranney


May 15, 1842

In May of 1842, 23-year-old Lucius writes to his older brother Henry of his arrival in Allen Michigan, after a 10 day journey from Phelps. He announces he has bought a quarter section (160 acres) of prime farmland for $148 cash and his wagon and team of horses.  Lucius describes the property, listing the distances to neighbors and nearby towns, inventorying the trees and water on the parcel, and noting that the railroad will run only six miles from the property later in the year.   


Illustration in an 1884 history of Michigan railroads, showing the types of “cars” that first reached Hillsdale in 1843.


Lucius mentions that their brother Lewis came down to see him, but was unable to wait for him to arrive.  Lewis had a farm in St. Joseph County, about fifty miles away, where he had continued a Ranney family tradition by being the first farmer to successfully grow peppermint in Michigan.  Lucius also says their father is “very low” and that although their parents intend to move from New York to Michigan in the fall, he doesn’t think they will. He was right: their father George Ranney Jr. died in Phelps in September 1842.

Lucius tells Henry he plans to plant winter wheat and gives the current prices for wheat, corn, and oats.  He closes by asking Henry to write soon, and to send Massachusetts newspapers so he can keep up with events out east.

Like the earlier letter from Lewis, Lucius’s letter to Henry reveals their shared interest not only in news of the family, but in the specific details of the land Lucius has bought.  The list of tree species and the remark “you may judge what the soil is for yourself” suggests that the brothers remain very interested in each other’s success.  The slightly boastful tone of Lucius’s descriptions implies there may be some friendly sibling rivalry involved, too.    


My transcription follows the images of the letter:



Letter from Lucius Ranney to H.S. Ranney, May 15, 1842. The original images are from the archives of the Ashfield Historical Society and are used with permission.


Allen May 15th 1842

Respected Brother

I now take the present moment to drop a few lines to you as perhaps it will be interesting to you to read, for I suppose that you know that I am in the woods.  I arrived here on the fourth of the present month being ten days on the road with a team.  I am happy to say that I am well in good spirits and well suited with my location.

I have a warrantee deed of one hundred sixty acres of as good land as there is in Michigan.  For said land I paid one hundred and forty eight dollars, a span of horses, one wagon and harness which we calc $280.00 for it and I would not take a song for the bargain.

Lewis was here about three of four days before I arrived here.  He thought I was here, stayed two days expecting me along.  He then wrote a line and left.  He writes that he and a fellow by the name of Smith have set twenty four acres of mint this spring and it is large enough to hoe.  It is in the town of Florence St. Jo. Co. 5 miles from White Pigeon north I think.

Father was very low with a live complaint or consumption when I left home.  I have not heard from him since I left.  The rest were well as usual.

There is a good spring of water on my land.  A brook runs through the back part of it which there is two saw mills within one mile of it.  A road on 2 sides of it.  12 houses within 1 1/2 mile of it.  9 miles south west of Jamesville.  3 miles south of Allen being in the timbered land white wood and maple beech butnut bass black walnut oak hickory are the principal timber on the land.  You may judge what the soil is for yourself.  Six miles from Hillsdale Center which the railroad will be completed to from Adrian this season.

I am calculating to sow ten acres of wheat this fall and fix some for building.  Our folks are expecting to move out here this fall but I don’t think that they will.  I stayed with Orren Ranney one night in Adrian.  He is in the mercantile business and is a doing well I expect.

Wheat is worth 87 1/2 cents per bushel here oats 25 corn 31.  I wish you would send the papers along here into the woods at least 1 or 2 a week so that I can pass of leisure time in a pleasant way.  Direct yours to Sylvanus, Hillsdale Co.  I have my board for $1.25 per week.  I don’t think of anything more to write just now.  Give my respects to all inquiring friends.  If you can solve this writing you will do well.  Write as soon as convenient.

This from a Distant Brother

Lucius Ranney


April 30, 1843

Lucius writes his brother Henry again from Allen Michigan, April 1843.  He apologizes for not writing sooner, and thanks Henry for sending newspapers.  Apologies for tardiness will be a frequent part of these letters, showing there’s an expectation among the brothers that their correspondence will be frequent and that letters will get timely responses.  This expectation, added to Lucius’s remarks about money (“We have money enough due this fall in Phelps…”) and the fact that he continues to call Phelps home, suggest the brothers continue to consider themselves members of a geographically extended family rather than free agents.  This connection continues, in spite of the fact that the brothers are now adults (Henry is 27 and Lucius has just turned 24) supporting themselves and building their own homes far from the family center in western New York.

Lucius tells Henry he has traded one of his lots of land for one with a better “situation,” which could mean either that the land is better for farming or that it’s closer to town.  The new parcel has thirty-five “improved” acres, ready for planting.  Lucius reports in detail how much he paid for the parcel and what he plans to do with the new land.  Although he doesn’t mention this, it seems he traded evenly as far as acreage was concerned. Lucius continues to live on this 160 acre farm the rest of his life and it is easy to find on old maps. 



Allen Michigan in the late 19th century.


Two eighty acre parcels in the bottom center of the map above (due south of the town of Allen) are marked as belonging to Lucius.  Neither parcel has the stream on it that Lucius boasted about in his first letter, so that is apparently the parcel he traded.  It’s also possible to find the parcels on satellite photos.  Although they’ve been subdivided into a half dozen smaller parcels, you can still see the shape of the old lot and section lines.  This is the case across much of the Midwest — once you’re aware of it, the section lines are easy to see on satellite images or out the window of a plane.

News of other family members is a feature in this letter, as it will be in most of the Ranney letters.  Lucius tells of seeing Lewis, who has expanded his peppermint planting to fifty acres.  The new acreage means he will probably distill at least 500 pounds of oil in the fall, and Lucius advises his brother to come out and buy it.  This is not only evidence Lucius would like to see Henry (he mentions that a couple more times in this letter alone), but is a reminder that Henry Ranney is one of several Easterners who regularly buy the peppermint oil of Michigan farmers (the “Peppermint Kings” were the subject of my dissertation, which will soon be a book).  Trade between Western settlers and Eastern merchants frequently ran along these family lines, and was yet another tie binding the migrants with the folks who stayed behind.

In addition to farming, Lucius mentions he has gone into the Potash business.  Potash is potassium carbonate, used for bleaching textiles, making glass, and most important, making soap.  Potassium is now mined but in the nineteenth century was produced by soaking wood ashes on large vats (hence the name, pot ash).  Until settlers reached the treeless prairies of what we now call the Midwest, there were always trees to clear before the wheat could be planted.  So potash was often the first product that could be shipped back to Eastern markets and sold for cash.  Lucius says he has partnered with “one of Mrs. Baggerly’s Sons in Law.”  The Baggerlys are not an Ashfield family, so this suggests that Henry is at least familiar with some of the people his family has met since they moved to Phelps.

Lucius remarks that the land around Allen is filling up fast.  Forests are becoming wheat fields and the value of land will rise quickly as the last parcels are settled.  Then Lucius gives his brother some advice: he should find a wife.  His description of Henry’s social life and his own frontier existence give an interesting glimpse at the different lifestyles lived by people in the East and West in 1843.  Finally, Lucius asks for information on cousins from Ashfield.  He has heard they were in Medina, about thirty-five miles away, and he would like to visit them if he was anywhere nearby.  Once again, family — even extended family — is an important part of frontier life.

Note: In a postscript at the end, Lucius says “Excuse bad spelling writing &c.”  As I transcribed these letters, I fixed some of the spelling and punctuation in order to make them easier for modern readers.  That includes adding apostrophes to contractions and breaking a few long run-ons into separate sentences.  But just so you don’t miss all the fun, in the PS Lucius actually wrote “Excuse bad speling writing &c.”

My transcription follows the photos of the letter:


Letter from Lucius Ranney to H.S. Ranney, April 30, 1843. The original images are from the archives of the Ashfield Historical Society and are used with permission.


Allen April 30th 43


Henry Ranney


Dear Brother


I once more take my pen to write a few lines to inform you that I am well & ever have been in Michigan.  I shall not apologize for not writing any sooner  for I have not any except negligence to make.  I suppose you are well are you not?  I hear nothing in particular from you of late but receive papers from you quite often which I peruse with pleasure.

I traded one of my lots of land the other day for a lot with 35 acres improved House & Barn.  I gave or rather agreed to give five Hundred Dollars in four yearly payments, the first next fall, & clear ten acres on the lot I let him have.  I think the extra improvements are worth five Hundred Dollars & the situation of it is worth One Hundred Dollars more than the one I traded, so therefore you see that according to my estimation I have made $100.  We have money enough due this fall in Phelps to make the first payment & shall with common luck raise enough wheat to pay the rest.  I have six acres of wheat on the ground which bids fair for 100 bushels.  I intend to clear 20 acres this summer & seed thirty to wheat.  I have two as good lots of land for farming as there is in Michigan or anywhere else.  If you doubt my word come out here and see which I hope you will this fall will you not?

As for Lewis I saw him a few weeks ago.  He was well and is doing well I guess.  He & his partner will have about 50 acres of mint to still this fall.  You had better come out this fall & buy their oil.  What is it worth now?

I wrote a letter home about two weeks since stating to our folks that I should probably be at home about the tenth of May.  I suppose that they will move then to the West but shall write again today that I shall not return home until June for my business is such that I cannot leave at present.  I want to plant about eight acres this spring & furthermore I am in the Potash business with a partner.  One of Mrs Baggerly’s Son in Laws.  We are a building a Pot-Ash this spring.  We have made three tons & we find it profitable therefore we intend to follow the business.

This part of the country is settling fast.  Where there was forests one year ago the same surface is now waving with wheat.  The cars will run to Hillsdale Center this summer, six miles east from where this child is & then you can out here time in a hurry if you please.

We have had a hard winter for the past one for this country.  Grain is pretty well up.  Wheat is worth 62 cents per bushel corn 50 oats 37 potatoes 25 &c.

I shall give you a little advice, that is a man of your cloth & business ought to have a wife.  Why?  Because you are t home at night then and nothing to trouble your mind but someone to cheer up your drooping spirits.  But you are now a hunting up a horse and then you are in trouble to know who to take to this party that ball that ride this circus &c.  But it is different with me.  Sometimes I should be at home at night & sometimes in the woods to where night would overtake me I should be obliged to stay.  Now I am contented where ever I am, with a wife I should be discontented under such circumstances.  Therefore you see the disadvantage I should labor under with one.  But I don’t say that I shan’t have one.

Enough on that head.  I want you should write as soon as you receive this or put it off till after I go East.  I shall go about the first of June.  I should like to meet you there or somewhere else very much.  I do not know when I shall go to Ashfield if ever, but think I shall in the course of a year or two.  If you see any of Uncle Jesse’s folks just ask them what part their girls live.  When I am a traveling about I may go near them.  If I do I should like to know it & go and see them.  I have been through Medinah where I heard since one lived.  Give my respects to all inquiring friends. 


Yours in haste, Henry S. R.


Lucius Ranney


Excuse bad spelling writing &c.


November 13, 1843

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.”


My transcription begins after the photos:


The original images are from the archives of the Ashfield Historical Society and are used with permission.


Phelps, Nov 13th, 1843


Respected Brother,


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


February 15, 1844

Lewis writes to Henry from Florence Michigan in February 1844. He waited for snow in Phelps, but when it did not come he set out in a wagon.  Their brother “Frank” (Alonzo Franklin Ranney) traveled with Lewis and his partner Smith as far as Hillsdale, in order to look for a farm near Lucius and their mother.  Achasah Sears Ranney was ill but improving, and Lewis says she likes her “situation” in Michigan.

When Lewis and Smith sold their peppermint oil to Franklin Wells, it was with the understanding that if the price had increased when Wells resold the oil they would get a share.  Before he left Phelps, Lewis found that Wells’s agents in New York City had sold the oil before Wells wanted them to, and that the price had subsequently doubled to $4 per pound.  Probably a “Gum Game,” says Lewis: a slang expression for a swindle, probably derived from the fact that raccoons and opossums often hide in sweet-gum trees to outwit predators (according to the Merriam Webster Dictionary).  Wells was on his way to the city to settle the issue, and Lewis was expecting a windfall on their 594 pounds that Wells had sent to be sold along with his own oil.  He repeats to Henry that he intends to more than double his peppermint investment, adding thirty new acres to the twenty he and Smith harvested that year (peppermint is a perennial, and yields only drop off a bit after the first year).

Lewis reports with amusement that the Mormons have been battling with the Methodists and others in Michigan, noting that it’s nice to have “something going on.”  Most of the Ranneys are not particularly religious — some, like Lewis’s uncle Samuel, had been pretty aggressive freethinkers.  This is fairly early in the development of Mormonism: Joseph Smith was still in Nauvoo Illinois organizing the church.  The biblical debates Lewis mentions must have been quite a spectacle.

The Michigan economy is better off than western New York, Lewis tells Henry in closing.  Wheat is worth five shillings (Due to the scarcity of American coins, British Shillings worth 24 cents each were still in wide use.  Wheat was $1.20) per bushel, and Lewis is not yet tied down.  When his partner Smith marries, Lewis intends to live with him rather than get his own place.


My transcription follows the images of the letter:


The original images are from the archives of the Ashfield Historical Society and are used with permission.



Florence Feb 15th 1844


Dear Brother


I arrived here about three weeks since from the East.  We stayed some time in Phelps and vicinity waiting for snow to come upon.  But it did not come, therefore we came with a wagon.  We found very good wheeling most of the way.  We came through Ohio.  Frank came with us as far as Hillsdale.  We found Mother having the ague & fever a little but a growing lighter every day.  She seems to be well suited with her situation, being in a good neighborhood and better prospects than formerly.  The rest of the family were enjoying good healths.

Frank intends purchasing in their vicinity.  We got two dollars per lb for our oil we sold Wells of Lyons.  He shipped it to N. York, ours was to be sold with his.  His agent sold sooner than Wells expected they were a going to and when Wells was informed of the sale oil was worth $4.00 per lb in NY.  Probably some Gum Game about it.  Wells was a going down in a few weeks when I left to pry into affairs and if gets a clue we share in proportion to amy of oil.

Smith and I intend putting in thirty acres this spring to mint and that in addition to what we have already in I hope will give us some oil next fall or pocket change.

Lucius intends going to Grand River sometime in March I believe.  He shall get something from that way this spring.

We are having great excitement about here again this winter.  Methodists and Mormons are proselytizing considerably in this vicinity and something a doing with the other sects.  The Mormons have gained a good many converts in this town and have organized a church.  The sectarian preachers combine against the Mormons.  But the Mormons having received challenges for discussions upon the Bible they accepted, which has made amusement for the hearer.  Which is satisfactory to have something going on

Wheat is worth 5/- per bushel.  Times are better here than in New York.  There has been no snow here this winter of any consequence.  Smith my partner gets married in about two weeks.  I shall live with him.


Nothing more.  Yours respectfully,


L. G. Ranney

Write occasionally and send papers in any quantity.


August 23, 1844

When his father moved the family to Phelps New York in August 1833, sixteen-year old Henry Sears Ranney remained in Ashfield to pursue a career as a merchant. Henry clerked for Jasper Bement and seems to have lived in Bement’s household for a time, preparing himself for a commercial career in Ashfield and briefly in Boston. In 1893, Ranney remembered Bement as “a successful  merchant; a public-spirited man  of strong and sterling characteristics, the most pronounced and active abolitionist & free-soiler of this region.” Ranney received his start in business working as a clerk in Bement’s store and was “a member of his family for six years—during which time I failed to receive from him a cross or impatient word.” So although Jasper Bement was not a blood relative, it seems appropriate to include a couple of important letters he sent Henry–which just happen to tell us some very interesting things about politics in the antebellum North.

Jasper Bement and Henry Ranney were both active “free soil” abolitionists, and in the early 1840s formed the nucleus of a “Liberty Party” in Ashfeld. In 1843, Jasper Bement campaigned for state representative as a Liberty candidate and lost, but a year later he won. Although they were interested in their businesses, Bement and Ranney were passionate about abolition. In August 1844, Bement wrote to Henry Ranney from Syracuse, New York, where he had stopped on his way to Detroit. Bement touched briefly on business, and then offered detailed descriptions of several conversations he had enjoyed with “Liberty Men,” and the reactions of strangers to whom he had offered abolitionist tracts at a political gathering. Bement gave Ranney some intelligence he had gathered on flour prices in Troy, and suggested a strategy for an upcoming Liberty Party convention. Bement confidentially advised against supporting Hooker Leavitt for State Senate because the voting public might become aware of his “disability” (Leavitt was aiding runaway slaves on the underground railroad) and reject him for public office. In spite of being rural businessmen from a remote community in the hills of western Massachusetts, Bement and Ranney shared a lifelong involvement in national politics. They both represented Ashfield in the legislature in Boston, and they maintained a far-flung network of family communication that frequently touched on important national issues like slavery.

Demonstrating his expert grasp of the classics, Bement mentions that the speaker at a rally “represented Polk as brought into this breathing world before his time & not half made up.” This is a line from Shakespeare, spoken by Richard III about himself, “sent before my time into this breathing world, scarcely half made up.” I had not noticed the reference until one of my Bemidji State University undergraduates, Emily Belland, called it to my attention. Great catch Emily! Don’t forget to mention that on your grad school application!


My transcription appears after the images of the letter:


The original images are from the archives of the Ashfield Historical Society and are used with permission.


Syracuse Friday August 23d 1844


Friend Ranney,


I avail myself of your proposal to send you some views of my progress. We arrived at Troy the next day after we started without any incident & found the city of Troy all alive with music and colors. Judging the several fire companies of Troy next day and Albany made a grand display with splendid uniforms particularly in the evening. Fireworks, torchlights and decorative flags and colors. They marched through all the principal streets with platforms 15 or 20 feet wide mounted on wagons with pyramids & [unclear] & 3 heavy bands of music placed at intervals in the procession which was perhaps ¼ mile long and a very imposing display. At Trop we shipped on board a canal boat with our luggage. The next day I left the boat & took the [railroad] cars and arrived at this place last night around 6 oclock. On the boat I had some collision with Abolition Whigs. One man in particular your argument I used up so fully that he gave it up and acknowledged I was right. I gave away some Abolition tracts. In every instance they were received eagerly & seemed willing and glad to read.  One man folded up a tact put it in his pocket & said I shall read this all over myself. I find people everywhere ready to discuss the subject of Political Abolition. There seems to be a spirit of enquiry abroad on this exciting subject. Last evening I went to the Log Cabin in this place & heard a Whig lecture from Mr. Barnard, member of Congress from this State. His object was to show that the Democratic Party had no principle but to obtain the spoils of office. The principle of the Whig Party was protection Tariff, distribution of public lands & no Annexation [of Texas]. Praised up Henry Clay and represented Polk as brought into this breathing world before his time & not half made up. I left him cutting up the Loco Party of the North most severely for their miserable subservience in adopting the Texas notion.

I find my friends here all well. Mr. Chamberlain is a Whig & most bitterly opposed to Abolitions, especially the third party. But his wife and 3 daughters at home are Abolitionists & we have had a great time battling with him. I met here Mr. Clark the expert Antislavery singing man. He introduced me to Mr. Tucker the editor of the Democratic Freeman, a Liberty paper. He began with 30 subscribers & now has got 700. We are gaining ground in this quarter if I can judge from what I see.

This evening I go to Fulton & tomorrow will be at Brachette & stay over Sunday. Then to Oswego, take a steam boat go to Lewiston & the N. [Niagara] Falls. Get to Buffalo next Wednesday where I shall meet Mr. Hall with the goods. If a hint about flour might be of some service to you we found large stocks in Troy and immense quantities are going down the canal & I have no doubt it will fall more yet. We paid 4.25 for new wheat, we could buy old wheat for 4.12. Tell our boys to sell and not hold on if they can get 5.25. This talk about flour you can keep to yourself if you please until our boys have sold out.

I will write you again from Buffalo or Detroit. You will please communicate to our folks that you have heard from me. I see by the Boston Chronicle that a convocation of the Liberty Party is to be held at Northampton to nominate candidates & you must take the responsibility of taking care of the Liberty Party operations & if it is thought best to make the nomination for Senator to the State Legislature election etc. you can communicate with our friends & perhaps with the State Central Committee at Boston & make such arrangements as are necessary if you hold the convention before I get home. You must not fail to attend.


(Confidential) I do not think it best for our party to put up Hooker Leavitt again for candidate for the Senate. He is under some disabilities as you know that would operate on the public mind against him as a public man.


Respectfully yours


Jasper Bement


I wish you would write to me at Detroit & let me know the news & how our folks get along & whether Mrs. Chamberlin has a new baby. You will have time if you write a day or two after you get this.


J. Bement.


August 29, 1844

Jasper Bement writes to “Friend Ranney” from Buffalo New York, following up on his letter from Syracuse. Bement is unhappy his travels are taking so long, and complains that the whole trip is likely to last six weeks. Although canal boats, railroads, and steamships on the Great Lakes were beginning to reduce travel times between the east coast and places like Detroit, Bement was making several stops along the way to do business and talk politics. He mentions he took a mortgage from a debtor for $1,650 on 244 acres of land, and that he lectured on Abolition at a Liberty rally. Bement told Ranney he used “your notice”, so apparently Henry had prepared a handbill of some type announcing talks about Abolition.

In addition to “Liberty men”, Bement finds Whigs and Loco Focos (an equal rights faction of the Democratic Party) busily holding mass meetings. The Whigs, he says, are almost ready to vote for the Liberty platform, but felt they needed to support Henry Clay in the next presidential election to prevent Democrat James K. Polk from being elected and annexing Texas (they fail).

Bement visits Niagara Falls, which he calls a sublime spectacle. He visits Toronto and sees the monument at Queenston Heights, site of the first major battle of the War of 1812, and the battlefield of Lundy Lane. Bement recounts a bit of history and mentions a couple of accidents where people died at the Falls. He closes by again urging Ranney to write him care of Detroit. He addresses the letter to “Mr. Henry S. Ranney, Postmaster”, so we see the 27-year old Ranney is becoming a substantial citizen of Ashfield.


My transcription follows the images:


The original images are from the archives of the Ashfield Historical Society and are used with permission.


Buffalo August 29th Thursday eve

Friend Ranney


I arrived here this morning by the way of Oswego & the Niagara Falls. Joined Mr. Hall who got here last evening. We found no boat going up the Lake today that suited us so we have to wait until tomorrow. Mr. Hall will go to Cleveland & I shall keep on to Detroit. I have got rather sick of the journey, it is going to take too long. I see no prospect of getting home under six weeks from the time we started.

I wrote you from Syracuse. I stayed there one day then went to Brackett in Hannibal. Found him alright but no cash. I sold him 40 dollars worth of goods and took a bond & mortgage on 244 acres land for 1650 dollar the amount of my debt against him. The country seems all alive with Whigs & Loco mass meetings. By inquiring I find a respectable number of Liberty men in almost every place. I was introduced to one Liberty man in Hannibal & he told me there 40 Liberty voters in that place. I told him I would give an Abolition lecture if he thought best that evening. It suited him well so he sent all around your notice & we had a good meeting, one to two hundred. After I had spoken an hour or so Mr. Brewster of Hannibal, brother of Doct. Brewster of Pittsfield Mass, gave a good speech. The Whigs present were rocked up, asked questions & disputed some. Our friends started for home in high spirits singing the Liberty Ball. Some of the Whigs are most ready to vote for Liberty, but they think they must vote Clay in this time to keep Texas out.

In coming from us we go to the Falls. The boat touched at Toronto so I went ashore into Queen Victoria’s dominions. We passed Queenston Heights saw General Brock monument who fell in the battle of Queenston. Spent half day at the Falls, a sublime spectacle. I will tell you about it when I get home. Crossed into Canada & went to the battle ground of Lundy Lane. 2 thous men killed in that battle 25th July 1814. The dead & wounded were left on the ground & the next day the dead were piled up in layers with old rails between & burned. Last week Thursday a young woman from Mass fell from the Table Rock near the Falls 150 feet & was killed. A short time since a young man was washed off a rock below the Falls in the boiling eddies and was seen no more. Tell our folks my health holds out good yet but I am afraid I shall get tired out before I get home. We get along so slow it seems as though we never should get around.

I shall expect a letter at Detroit. I expect to be at Detroit next Sunday & Monday, be back to Detroit again in about seven days from next Monday or Tuesday. I shall look for letter again. Our folks can write to me there if they wish to.


Good bye

I hope you can read this scrawl.

Jasper Bement

Tell the boys to look out for bad debts & take care of the time.


August 28, 1847

In late summer 1847, Henry’s nephew Frederick T. Ranney writes from Centreville Michigan, about 45 miles from Allen where Lucius lives and seven miles from Lewis’s home in Florence.  Frederick is Samuel Ranney’s son, born in 1820, who moved out to Michigan when his father died in Phelps in 1837.  He is apparently still in the peppermint oil business in Centreville, where mint planting continued through most of the nineteenth century.  Frederick asks Henry to send him money for oil he had shipped the previous fall, to prevent him from having to sell property at a loss to pay his debts.  The brothers in Michigan are apparently not able to help, although Frederick apparently went to them first, which suggests that they would have helped and would have covered Henry’s obligation if they could have.


My transcription follows the image:


The original images are from the archives of the Ashfield Historical Society and are used with permission.

Sherman Aug the 28th 47

Dear Sir

I am obliged to call on you for the money on that Peppermint Oil that was sent last fall. I have some money to make out in few days or sell property at a low price.  Lucius nor Lewis cannot help me to money this fall therefore I shall expect it in a return letter.  You must write on the receipt of this for time is short with me.  Let me know what you can do.

Yours truly in haste,

Henry Ranney

F. T. Ranney


St. Joseph Co,



January 8, 1850

Twenty-one year old brother Lyman writes to Henry from Van Buren, Arkansas, in January 1850.  He had left Michigan a couple of months earlier, apparently intending to study medicine with his cousin, Paul Sears, in Illinois.  Paul Sears was a well-known doctor in Mt. Carmel, the son of Lyman and Henry’s mother Achsah’s brother Nathan Sears, who had also been a doctor.  When this plan failed (Lyman says it was from a lack of books, which hardly seems likely), Paul sent Lyman to his brother-in-law Ephraim B. Bishop, to work in his store.  (Bishop’s papers, interestingly, are in the manuscript collection at Yale University). 

Lyman writes of several relatives from his mother’s side of the family.  Uncle Henry was Achsah’s younger brother.  He was a circuit judge in Arkansas before moving to Texas in the mid-1840s.  Uncle Paul was another of Achsah’s brothers, who was a real estate speculator who traded in soldiers’ claims around Houston Texas, and was said to be wealthy.  He died in New Orleans, but I haven’t been able to determine when or to find out anything about the “affair” Lyman mentions. 

Lyman goes on to describe Mr. Bishop’s business a bit, which he knows will be of interest to his merchant brother.  He also remarks on the slaves he has seen in Arkansas.  In his opinion, some have an “easier time than most of hired girls at the north.”  Lyman’s observations of slaves and Indians will continue to be a feature of his letters.  By 1850, Henry was a pretty vocal Free Soil abolitionist, so Lyman’s youthful remarks to his older brother are very interesting.   

My transcription follows the images:


The original images are from the archives of the Ashfield Historical Society and are used with permission.


Van Buren Jany 8/50

Dear Brother & Friends

Having written to you from Jonesville Mich. Some time last June and not receiving any answer, thought you must have not rec’d it, and thinking you would like to hear from me once more.  I am residing in Arkansas at present, having been here about one week.  I started from Mich on the 9th day of Nov last for Ills, where I expected to stay through the winter provided I could make any arrangements to get into business of some kind.  I did not know but I might get an opportunity to study Physic with cousin Paul.  But as he had not sufficient books for me to study I thought of returning home.  But Paul said his brother-in-law Mr. Bishop he thought would like help in his store, and therefore advised me to come here and thought I would find Uncle Henry on the way between here and there.  But was disappointed as he and removed to Texas.  He went to Texas about a year since to find out anything in regard to Uncle Paul’s affair and he got married while there, as I learned at the mouth of the Arks. River which is about twenty five miles from where he used to live, and returned to Ark. the last fall to get his little daughter.

Uncle H. Has been married twice before and has had two children but has but one living at present.  I did not learn whether he found out anything about Uncle Paul’s affair or not.  I found our relatives in Ills. all well.  Paul, Uncle Nathan’s son, is a very good Physician and is worth about $20,000 and gets a great ride in his profession.  Uncle Nathan has been dead two years come February.  His widow lives in Ills. also.  They had three children.  One lives in Mt. Carmel Ills. (Paul) and two of them live in Arks.  Clarissa (Mrs. Bishop) and Henry.  Henry is attending school about sixty miles from here.  He is sixteen years of age and a hard case at that. 

I am staying at Van Buren Arks, a town on the Arks. River six hundred miles from its mouth.  I have given up the idea presently of studying Medicine as it will cost so much and I have nothing to get through with.  I am not getting very great wages at present but I think I can command greater wages in the course of six months or a year.  I have been posting books and drawing off accounts the most of the time since I have been here.  Mr. Bishop has a large store, keeping almost everything from Potatoes to Pins.  He has another store in Fayetteville which is sixty miles from here, having in both a stock of about $20,000.  Keeping a large assortment of clothing making fifty to seventy-five per cent on them.

They have plenty of slaves in Arks.  What little I have seen I think they fare better than half of the poor whites at the north.  They have their holidays.  They had the Christmas week, having dances &c.  They have Meetings every Sunday.  The Methodist preacher for this circuit preaches to them by themselves.  But they are permitted to go to any meeting.  Mr. Bishop has one slave only.  She does the cooking &c.  She has an easier time than most of hired girls at the north. 

As it is getting late and I think of nothing more of importance to write, I shall bring my letter to a close hoping that as soon as you receive it you will answer.  I send my love to all our relatives and especially to your wife and children.

Yours with respect


Please excuse all mistakes as I am in a great hurry and have not time , if there should be any.

P. S.  Direct your letters to Van Buren Arks.  Write soon as it takes a letter four or five weeks to come.


March 8, 1850

Lyman writes Henry again from Van Buren Arkansas, in the spring of 1850.  He thanks his brother for writing, and says he is responding immediately because it takes three weeks for the mails between Arkansas and Ashfield.  In response to Henry’s questions, Lyman describes Van Buren and the commerce there.  He says there are people there from nearly all the old Eastern states, including some merchants from Boston.  Although many have caught “California fever,” Lyman lacks the funds to go further west, but he does hope to move back to the north once he has made his fortune.

Lyman reports once again on the slavery in Arkansas, and tells the story of a young slave boy who looked white, and who as a result was apparently worth less than other enslaved children.  Lyman says he would like to bring the boy back to the north, “and let them see what some of the subjects are that are held in bondage.”  But, realizing that his opinions are unwelcome in the South, Lyman reminds Henry that when he sends newspapers, it would be best to send no openly abolitionist “Free Soil” papers.

Lyman says his employer, Mr. Bishop, is on a buying trip East, and will probably go as far as Boston.  This was typical of western and southwestern merchants, who would often float the cotton they took in trade for their merchandise to New Orleans, and then continue on to the Northeast to buy product for the next year.  Lyman referred Bishop to their friend Elisha Bassett, who was a merchant in Boston (Henry had moved back to Ashfield by this time).

After Lyman concludes his letter to Henry, he writes a short note to his new sister-in-law, Maria.  Although Lyman did not attend his brother’s wedding, Maria Jane Goodwin was an Ashfield native about seven years older than Lyman, so they may have known each other.  Maria apparently wrote to Lyman along with Henry, admonishing him to be good.  Lyman thanks her for the advice, and assures her that “fortunately I never was guilty of anything which I thought would degrade me or detract from my character.”

Translation note: Doggery is a word dating from about 1830 for a low-class saloon or dive.  Lyman puts the quotes around it in his letter, suggesting the word — and probably the places — are a bit of a novelty for him.

My transcription follows the images:


The original images are from the archives of the Ashfield Historical Society and are used with permission.


Van Buren Arks. March 8th 1850

Dear Brother

It was with pleasure I recd your letter of Feb 10th and I make soon in answering it as it takes about three weeks for letters to pass between this place and Ashfield.  I was glad to hear from you and family and to hear that you were all enjoying good health.

As it was your request that I should give you a situation of our place I will try so to do.  Van Buren is on the Arkansas River 600 miles from its mouth.  It has a fine landing for boats, consequently there is considerable business to do here as this is the only landing of any importance for one hundred miles below and 10 above.  Consequently the produce and cotton that comes to market or that which is to be shipped has to be sent to this place if sent to New Orleans or Cincinnati, and there is where most of the shipments are made.

We have about 12 or 15 hundred inhabitants in town I should judge (Whites).  Some two wholesale houses (dry goods & groceries) and ten retail establishments besides several “doggeries.”  It is somewhat mountainous in most parts of Ark. and therefore is not so productive as it otherwise would be.  The climate is very mild, there not having been any snow here since I arrived.  The weather at present is very delightful & warm.  People are making gardens and some made garden two weeks ago.

The people in this place are much mixed.  Some from the Southern States, some from Ohio & Indiana, and others from Va. N.J. And in fact from almost every state.  Even from the old Bay State.  There is two or three merchants here from Boston, been here about two years.

They have a very good society of young people here and as I get acquainted with them I like them very much.

Although the village people are as intelligent as they are in any country, it seems to be far different with the country people, for I think at least there is one in three of them that cannot write their own names.  Consequently are ignorant and are harder to deal with than they would be otherwise, as they are so afraid of getting cheated.

Mr. Bishop has gone East after goods, intends going to Boston for the most of them.  I told him to find Elisha Bassett while there if he could.  I didn’t know his address consequently could not direct him.  I like merchandising very much so far and think that it will suit me well.

There are large numbers going to California this spring from this place and surrounding country.  I have had the California fever but have got over it mostly, as it is not possible for me to get there under present circumstances.  Slavery exists here in almost all forms.  Some have a good master, others hard.  Some slaves are black others are white.  There is one boy around in town who is whiter than half the so called white children.  He has very light colored hair, roman nose, and his features do not resemble a negro in the least.  Yet this boy is a slave.  He was sold since I have been here for 150$, being less than half what a black boy would have brought, or him if he was black.  If I had plenty of money when I go north I would purchase him and take with me and let them see what some of the subjects are that are held in bondage.

I sent you 2 newspapers a few days since and will send one occasionally.  I hope you will do likewise.  It would not be best to send any Free Soil papers.  Thinking of nothing of importance to write you at present I shall close as I am a going to write a few lines to your wife.  Mrs. Bishop sends her love to you and wife.  Hoping you will write soon, I now close.

I send my love to all our friends in Mass.

P.S. As regards Uncle Henry, I do not know his address nor cannot find out as there is no one knows where he is exactly.  He never lived in V.B. but lived formerly about 30 miles from the mouth.  He was in the habit of using liquor to some extent, but I understand he had left off when he returned last fall.

Affectionately yrs

Lyman A Ranney

Dear Sister

Although I never had the privilege of a personal acquaintance with you, still it does not seem that you are a perfect stranger to me as I have heard Mother speak of you so often.  I am glad to hear from you and am thankful for the good advice you and Henry have put forth in your letter, although fortunately I never was guilty of anything which I thought would degrade me or detract from my character.  I am glad to hear that you are all well and hope that I may yet see you all in Mass.  Perhaps the time may be years distant.  As it is getting late and for want of room I will have to close these few lines to you.  I hope to hear from you and Henry often.

From your Brother



March 10, 1850

Lucius writes Henry from Allen Michigan in March 1850.  He mentions that he has not written in a long time, and later remarks that neither has Henry.  We can’t be sure, of course, that the previous letter from April 1843 was his last contact.  Chances are that after a century and a half, some of the letters are missing from the archive.  In any case, letters seem to be moving between Ashfield, Phelps, and Michigan, because Lucius has heard from Alonzo Franklin that Henry has heard from Lyman.

But we can assume Lucius and Henry have been out of direct contact for at least half a year, because Lucius announces that he was married about six months earlier to a local girl, whom he describes as “19 years old, her health is good, &c.”  He gives Henry an update on all the family doings, including those of their cousins Lucretia and Frederick.  Lucius thinks their brothers Lewis and Harrison are not as hardworking as they might be, but he describes younger brother Lemuel as “doing very well I suppose, but still takes the world easy & gains the goodwill of the people & has plenty of fun with the Indians and girls.”  Their sister Priscilla has had a daughter (Mary, b. Nov. 1849, d. Aug. 1852), and Lucius adds some news about their brother-in-law Randolph Densmore.  Lucius also gives Henry an inventory of their farm, including a little drawing of a duck.

A local physician and his students have been caught dissecting a stolen corpse, Lucius tells Henry.  This happened a lot in the early 19th century — both the stealing of bodies by medical students and the prosecution of those who did.  Dr. Charles Knowlton, their friend and doctor in Ashfield, as a matter of fact, had served time at hard labor for the same crime (but that’s another story…)

My transcription folllows the images:


The original images are from the archives of the Ashfield Historical Society and are used with permission.


Allen March 10th 1850

Dear Friends

I am aware as well as yourselves that it has been a long time since I have written to you. Consequently methinks this will be gratefully received.  We are all well as usual, Mother is not very rugged however this winter. Our friends are also well.

I received a letter from A.F. a day or two since.  He says he recd a letter from you a few days since from which I understand that you have received one from Lyman.  Consequently I shall say little about him.  He has in my opinion made as food a move as perchance he could in going to Arkansas.  He wrote us about the time he did you.  He is quite steady & shrewd & has a good education, & that is you are aware a fortune to a young man.

I suppose that you have heard that I was married but let that be as it may.  I can safely say that I am.  I was married the 17th of Oct last.  My wife’s name was Clarissa A Wilcox.  She is 19 years old, her health is good, &c.  As for Lemuel, he is at Grand Rapids. I suppose he wrote us a letter about two months ago & we have other means of hearing from him. He is at work at his trade, he is doing very well I suppose, but still takes the world easy & gains the goodwill of the people & has plenty of fun with the Indians and girls. We expect him home this spring.  He left here last spring.  He worked in Paw Paw, Van Buren Co. The past summer.  He worked in Albion, Calhoun Co., a while in the fall, then he went to the Rapids where I suppose he now is.

Franklin wrote that his family was well.  I suppose that you know nearly as much about his affairs as I do.  Lewis and Harrison are at work on their places doing tolerably well.  They do not work very hard, perhaps I need not tell you that, but they are generally busy.  They are making some improvements.

Densmore is into all kinds of business & is bound to have a good living while he is sojourner upon Earth.  He & a partner slaughtered four thousand sheep last fall for the pelts & tallow out of which they made five hundred dollars.  This winter he is a butchering some & is working some at his trade &c.  He shifts too much for his own interest, I think.

Anson lives at home yet.  We are a jogging along after the old sort.  We are making sugar some at present.  We have made 100 lbs.  We have 14 acres of wheat on the ground which looks very well as yet.  Wheat is worth 75 cts, corn 25 cts, oats 18 cts, hay $6.00 &c.  We have one pair of horses, one yoke of oxen, 6 cows, 70 sheep, 2 roosters & one duck.  Also many other fine things.

We have had an open winter here.  We have not had any good sleighing, but about 2 weeks of poor sleighing.  A great deal of rain.  Aunt Polly, Frederick and family are out to Grand River.  I suppose Lyman wrote you about Uncle Henry Sears, Nathan’s family, &c.  There is no doubt in my mind but Uncle Henry has feathered his nest out of Uncle Paul’s property in Texas.  Who blames him?  Not I.  But some of you Ashfield boys ought to go and make him a visit.

Harrison likes the country well in the vicinity of Mt. Carmel.  Harrison has the Yellow Fever to a small degree, say a buck load or such a matter.  I have not had it yet & think I shall not bad, as long as I have plenty of Pork & Beans.  But human nature is not easily satisfied.  Clarissa and I was a visiting at Mr. Cross who married Lucretia Ranney this winter, they were well.  Abner Rogers’ family, some of them live near there.  Benjamin Rogers lost his wife last summer or fall.  He married another in six weeks. He has ten children.  They live in Lenawee County, I suppose you know that.

There is quite an excitement raging here in our town at present.  There is been found the bones of a human being, a Female, with the share of flesh on, found in a bag.  It was found in a field in the fence corner, covered with barks, a day or two since.  It was badly mutilated. It is supposed to have been dug up from some of the neighboring burying grounds by a Physician & student & two or three more.  They have been arrested & I suppose sufficient testimony can be found against them to convict them.  They have been dissecting it for two or three weeks. They have been watched. They found that they were like to be pursued & they secreted it in that shape.  The people let them work for the sake of getting sufficient testimony against them.  It will probably go hard with them.  It is no particular honor to the place but I want to show you what is a going on in this heathen land.

I have nothing more in particular to write.  We should be happy to see you here & if not convenient for that we would like to hear from that way soon.  If my memory serves me you have not written for a long time.  I have endeavored to give you the outlines of some of the most important news that is now in my mind, so you must excuse me for this time.  You have discovered of course that my writing is good, but poor ink.

Our folks all send their respects to you all.  Franklin’s little girl, Ellen Isabel, is here this winter & goes to school.  The rail road is a going to leave Hillsdale & continue west some ways I suppose.  They have commenced work on it.

This from your affectionate brother

Lucius Ranney

Priscilla has a daughter five months old, her health is quite good.


August 8, 1850

Lyman writes again from Van Buren in August 1850.  He has not heard from Henry, so he suspects his letter never made it — although, since his letter is in the archive, apparently it was Henry’s reply that was lost in the mail.  Lyman seems lonely, and writes again about wanting to study medicine but not having the funds. Lyman mentions he has heard from their brother Lemuel, who he suspects “strolls around too much to save a great amt of his wages.” Lemuel will shortly head out (on foot) to the California gold fields.

Van Buren is apparently a “wild west” sort of boomtown at this time.  Lyman says “merchants are getting rich here,” but he also says that murderers walk the streets and that people are regularly killed in duels “or just for some grudge they had.”  And since there are many young men looking for work, Lyman’s wages are low.  Lyman hints that if he had some money to invest, he could probably make enough to get back to the north and study medicine.  But he doesn’t come right out and ask for it.    


Panoramic map of Van Buren Arkansas in 1888.

My transcription follows the images of the letter:


The original images are from the archives of the Ashfield Historical Society and are used with permission.


Van Buren August 8th 1850

Dear Brother

After waiting some time for and answer to a letter I wrote you come time since I have come to the conclusion that you did not receive it, as I have not yet recd an answer.  But be that as it may, I will once more write you.  I have enjoyed remarkably good health since at the South, although we have exceeding hot weather.  I don’t know but that I may leave here between this and next April and try to make some arrangements about studying medicine.  I like merchandising very much yet I think I would rather practice medicine and should have made greater progress that way ere this if I had possessed the means.  Merchandising is a good occupation but it takes a long time to get a start in that business.

Merchants are getting rich here.  Mr. Bishop four years ago when he came here had not over fifteen hundred dolls and is now worth about 2000$ which is doing well.

I have not heard from home but once since I have been here yet I have written home several times.  I recd a letter from Lemuel a short time since.  He wrote from Albion Mich.  I expect he strolls about too much to save a great amt of his wages.

I think I have been well paid for coming here, having learned in several ways.  For one in the way of business, keeping books, &c.  I am keeping books here at present, which is done by double entry.  Yet there is but little chance of saving much here as wages are small comparatively.  There being a surplus of “clerks” who work for next to nothing apparently.  It is about all I can do to clothe myself here at present.

There is quite a chance here for speculation if a man has a little money, say 4 or 500$ to commence with.  I think he can double his money in a year and perhaps more in buying and selling different articles.  Wheat you can buy in the Indian States about ten or fifteen miles above here for from 10$ to 20$ you can sell for from 30$ to 50$ and other things in the same proportion.   

If I could see any prospect in the next year for making a few hundred dollars in any way I would do most anything.  There is a good society here in this place.  Mostly Eastern people.  But with those in the country it is far different.  There is not over 1/10 of them that can write their own name, and are a desperate sort of men most of them.  There is many a man here I have seen who has killed one or more persons in some way, whether in a duel or just for some grudge they had.  And yet these persons are passing about seemingly as unconcerned as though they never had committed any act.  There has been one or two quarrels here in town since I have been here, and one or two killed, but perfectly without effect.

Write as soon as you receive this and let me know what you are doing and what you are a going to do for the next generation to come.  How the children are and Sister “Marie” and the friends in general?

Mr. Bishop gets a paper from Elisha Basset occasionally.  I have not sent you as many as I ought, I have had to distribute them to so many different people, but will try to do better for you in future.  Send me some papers occasionally as you have done since I have been here.  Write on receipt of this and let me hear from you all.

I send my love to sister Marie, the children, and our friends in general and tell them I may visit them in future if nothing takes place other than expected.

Hoping this may find you all well I now close.

From your affectionate brother



August 23, 1850

In August 1850, Henry received a letter from a distant relative, General Nathan Ranney (1797-1876) of St. Louis Missouri. Henry had written to Nathan with genealogical questions, and Nathan responded with a very general (and partly erroneous — their ancestor apparently came in the seventeenth century from Scotland, not in the eighteenth from Wales) sketch of the arrival of their original ancestor. He added that he had met many Ranneys throughout the North and South, and with one exception they had been “men of high respectability.” The exception was “a man by our name traveling to exhibit wax figures.” Nathan noted that his family were mostly Whigs, but that he was a “firm Democrat.” This apparently changed — or at least he was a Democrat in the Jeffersonian sense, and not a supporter of slavery and secession, because he remained active in the “Union” government of Missouri during the Civil War, and even corresponded with President Lincoln.


General Nathan Ranney, 1797-1876

It’s interesting that as early as 1850, Henry Sears Ranney was already compiling a family genealogy and looking for information on the origins of the Ranneys in America. Much of what we know about families like the Ranneys comes from the efforts of people like Henry, whose findings were later compiled into volumes like The Middletown Upper Houses, where you can find the entry on Nathan Ranney on page 233 and the one on Henry on page 356. It’s lucky for historians and modern genealogists that people were as interested as they were in their family origins. But why were they? What was going on in the lives of people like thirty-three year old Henry Ranney — or what was going on in 1850 America — that prompted this nostalgia and search for roots?

My Transcription follows these images:


The original images are from the archives of the Ashfield Historical Society and are used with permission.

St. Louis Aug 23 1850

Dr Sir

Your letter including a genealogical tree reached me this day.

Early in the 18th century a man by the name of Ranney with thirteen sons emigrated from Wales, or as then called Northern Brittany, to this country and settled on Connecticut River, originating the Town of Middletown on the river. From this stock has sprung all the Ranneys of the US who spell their name as we do. I was born in Litchfield Co. Ct. In 1797. My father’s name was Nathan. His brother Dr. Thos. Stow Ranney settled in Bradford NH and afterward moved to Maine. Another brother Stephen Ranney was in the first and second war with Great Britain & severely wounded at Monmouth. He died in Mo. in 1827. He had four heirs and some of his children are living in Mo. My father died in Vt. Rutland Co. about 1820. I was in the army during the War of 1812 & 14 and have lived in Mo. since 1819.

In N. Orleans, Cincinnati, and Louisville I am acquainted with gentlemen of our name. In every instance but one coming to my knowledge, the Ranneys have been men of high respectability and of business habits, but none of them rich. The exception I refer to was a man of our name traveling to exhibit wax figures.

My father and brothers were Whig, but I have always been a firm Democrat.

Never having troubled myself much about genealogies, I cannot give a very lucid account of our family. Perhaps if any branch of it had been very rich in this world’s goods I should have kept posted up.

Yours with great respect,
N. Ranney


December 8, 1850

Lyman writes to Henry in December 1850, having just returned from driving Mr. Bishop’s cattle from Arkansas up to Boonville Missouri.  Lyman did not form a very high opinion of the people he met on the 400 mile trip to the Missouri River.  It’s interesting that he would go to Boonville instead of Kansas City, but I don’t know anything about cattle driving in the 1850s except that the Missouri River was the destination.

Mr. Bishop has gone on another buying trip, so apparently Lyman has gained some responsibility.  But he still complains he is only earning enough to cover his immediate expenses.  Lyman says he was ill for a couple of weeks with bilious fever (probably typhoid or malaria), but has recovered.

Lyman describes the holidays briefly.  Thanksgiving had featured a public feast and a sermon against “ultraism” (political extremism, often associated with reform movements like abolitionism), and Lyman says the slaves have the whole week of Christmas off, and spend it celebrating.  But he also mentions a bill is being proposed to expel free blacks from Arkansas (this was ultimately signed into state law in 1859), which he says would “break up a great many” families if it passed.    

My transcription follows the images:


The original images are from the archives of the Ashfield Historical Society and are used with permission.


Van Buren (Sunday) Dec 8th 1850

Dear Brother

Yours of Sept 9th came duly to hand and was thankfully recd but I was delayed in answering it in consequence of starting for Missouri about that time.  I took a trip to Mo. in charge of a drove of cattle belonging to Mr. Bishop and consequently had a view of the Natives not of North America but of Missouri who by the way (most of them) are same as far as the trading of cattle or horses are concerned and that is about the extent of their knowledge.  I was gone about six weeks, went as far north as Boonville on the Mo. River which is about four hundred miles from here.

We have quite a snow here at present, about six inches deep which is something quite uncommon for this country.  It has melted some today and will probably all be gone before tomorrow night.  Bishop is gone to N. Orleans at present and is expected to be gone for 3 or 4 weeks yet.  He will buy his groceries in N. Orleans but will go East (Boston probably) in February to purchase dry goods.

Business is very good here at present.  Our cash sales average about 2  or 3 hundred dollars per week beside a large credit business.  I am bookkeeper here in this establishment and am getting so that I think books tolerable correct.  We keep by double entry in which you have to be very particular.

I don’t expect to get much more this year than my expenses covered which will be over one hundred dollars, Doctor’s bill & all.  As I have been sick since I last wrote you (which I like to have forgot).  I will now mention it.  I was taken about the first of Sept with the Bilious Fever which kept me down about two weeks.  But I soon recovered and am now enjoying as good health as I have for years.

Thursday last the 5th day of Dec. Was the day appointed by the Governor as day of thanksgiving and it was kept.  Stores were all shut and the Presbyterian Preacher of this place gave us a good discourse on ultraism, after which we had a fine dinner prepared for he occasion.

Christmas is the greater day here.  The slaves have Christmas week for themselves to do whatever they choose, but they generally keep up dancing the most of the time.  They are about passing a law in the state to expel all free Negroes from it which will break up a great many should that law be passed.

It is getting to be about 10 O.C. at night (and Sunday night at that) and I have a business letter to answer yet.  I must close.

Give my love to Marie, the children, Aunt Jerusha, and all our friends in Mass.

From your brother


I have written home several times, but have not recd but one letter from them since I have been here.  I have just written again and am in hopes they will answer it.


February 2, 1851

Lucius writes to Henry in February 1851, in his “leisure moments while our folks have gone to meeting this afternoon.”  After giving news of the family, Lucius announces that he and a neighbor have gone into the “thrashing” business, and have processed 10,000 bushels, or about a third of the local wheat.  They made $360, most of which went toward the $250 purchase of the thresher, wages, and other expenses.  But the business seems promising, and Lucius plans to lease his farm and pursue the opportunity.

Henry had asked Lucius for details on the cost of flour and transportation the previous fall, but Lucius was ill with typhus and unable to respond.  Henry was apparently considering buying flour in Michigan for shipment to New York.  The flour was cheap enough, Lucius reports, but transportation was high, and “advanced about 80 per cent” toward the end of the season.  It’s doubtful that Henry could have made money on flour that cost him over five dollars a barrel.  The high railroad rates made it too expensive to ship the Michigan wheat.

About two-thirds of the way through the letter, Lucius mentions that he and Clarissa had a daughter the previous fall.  Lucius says the baby “is healthy & of course a smart & good girl.”

Lucius asks Henry for an extension on a loan, explaining that due to his illness and building a house for his boarder he’s short of funds.  But he will borrow locally to repay his brother, if Henry needs the money.

After closing the letter, Lucius writes another long paragraph about items that had slipped his mind.  Their mother has “failed considerable” since returning from a visit to Ashfield, and Lucius is considering a trip East himself once he has leased his farm.  At the very end, Achsah Ranney writes a few lines to Henry’s wife Marie, asking her to kiss the children for Grandma.


Garrett’s Portable Thrashing Machine, ca. 1851


My transcription follows the images of the letter:


The original images are from the archives of the Ashfield Historical Society and are used with permission.


Allen Feb 2nd 1851

Dear Friends

Thinking that a few lines would be gladly received, I therefore embrace the few leisure moments while our folks have gone to meeting this afternoon, or P.M.  We are all well.  I was sick last fall about six weeks, four weeks confined to the house, with the chill & typhus fever, but have regained my health again.  Anson was also sick about the same time.  He was very dangerously sick a few days but recovered faster than I did.  He goes to school this winter.  Lewis and wife and Harrison are well, or was a few days previous.  Priscilla & Densmore live at Albion yet.  They were out here a few days ago visiting.  They are a boarding out, & have been the most of the time since they have lived there.  He gets $1.50 per day, Priscilla binds shoes what time she gets.  Light shoes only.  We have not heard direct from A. F. since you wrote.

We received yours of December the 12th /50.  We received a letter from Lyman about four weeks since.  He was well, his year with Bishop was then about up.  He expected to stay longer.  As for your boy Lem, he is a regular tramping Ger.  His habits remain good, he takes love easy.  Or in other words, enjoys life.  He started last fall for Illinois. He went there, he stopped at Galena, stayed and worked about one week.  He says they were all old country people that worked in the shop, consequently he left for some other port.  When he wrote he was in Wisconsin, about 60 miles from Milwaukee.  He was at work there.  He gets good wages he says.  He is a coming back here in the spring.

The weather is fine.  We have about 2 inches of snow now.  The ground has been naked the most of the winter.  We have had good sleighing about 2 weeks with about 4 or 5 inches of snow.  It is a good time for slaying the forests & I will assure you the time is not lost.

I & one of my neighbors bought a thrashing machine last fall.  We paid $250 for it.  We hired a man to work with us, of  which we worked at thrashing about 2 months & thrashed about ten thousand bushels of wheat which come to $360.  Our hired help & expenses would not exceed $60 & the machine is not damaged the amount of $30.  We can thrash & clean fit for marketing eighty bushels in sixty minutes.  A Mich story but true.  The town of Allen raised about thirty thousand bushels of wheat this year & other products in proportion (though not of Ashfield).  We had two hundred fifty bushels of wheat.

You wrote to me last summer something concerning the worth of flour  here & the transportation &c.  After wheat began to come in to market I went to Hillsdale to make some arrangements & enquiries concerning it & should have written immediately to you but I was taken sick the next day, so I excuse myself.  At that time I could get a bbl of flour for five bushels of wheat and wheat was worth sixty five cents.  Which of course would be $3.25 & transportation to New York was about $1.00 or to Buffalo about .60 cents.  Late in the fall transportation advanced about 80 per cent & wheat about 3 or 5 cents.  Therefore you can judge whether you could made a speck on flour or not.

I have let my farm on shares for three years.  The conditions are these: I furnish a team & necessary utensils, one half the seed of all kinds & have one half the grain delivered in the half bushel.  I also put on three cows fifty sheep of which I have one half the butter cheese &c., one half of the wool, one half of the increase & growth of the stock.  We have the privilege of keeping one cow for ourselves.  He has the same privilege of the cow.  I have reserved about four acres which contains the house & yard & orchard &c.  I am to build him a house to live in.  I am now a building it.  The size is 17×20, one and a half story high.  I shall stay on the place & make what improvements I can & in the fall thrash.  He takes possession in the spring.

We have a little daughter.  She was born the 22nd Sept.  We have named her Carroline Elisa.  She is healthy & of course a smart & good girl.

The money I am owing you if you wanted I will try & borrow it if I can.  Sickness & building will bring me rather short until next fall.  If you can wait until next fall it would favor me some.  I rather think that Lewis cannot pay you until then. I have two teams, one I shall keep for my own use.

As you are not acquainted here I cannot write you much news.  To describe the country here is I presume all useless for I presume you have heard a great many Mich yarns.  There is all kinds of country here.  Just about here it it similar to Phelps Town land.  The railroad running west from Hillsdale goes through this town three miles from here.  It will be completed to Chicago I expect next season. I do not want to urge you out of your way but I should like to have you come to Mich next season.  We have a very good society here.

You discover that my pen is always poor, but writing good.  Don’t forget to write as soon as you receive this.  Anson has received some papers from you of Cato.

Yours in haste

L. Ranney

I like to have forgotten some small matters.  I had a horse hooked by a two year old heifer this fall.  He died a short time after.  The horse was worth about sixty five dollars.  We also had two hogs die when they were nearly fatted.  They would weigh about five hundred the two.  I consoled myself by saying as the Paddy did they are but a small loss.  Franklin’s little girl lives here with us.  She goes to school.  Clarissa sends her respects to you, although she is a stranger.  Mother sends her love to you all & all enquiring friends.  Mother has failed considerable since she was to Ashfield.  Lewis and Harrison intend to mint it some next season. They are doing tolerably well.  My object in letting my farm is to save hiring & get as much improved as I can fix for building &c., & perhaps go to Ashfield.

Marie, I send a great deal of love to you and Henry and want to see you and the children more than I can write.  I want you to kiss them for me.  Grandma.


April 28, 1851

Lyman writes from Fort Smith Arkansas, which is only ten miles from where he has been living at Van Buren, but looks across the river at the “Indian Nation.”  The fort not only defends the boundary between the United States and the Indian territory established by the removal of the Cherokee, Choctaw, and Chickasaw people from Georgia in the 1830s, but it is the center for trade with the Indians.  Lyman writes that in a couple of months the Indians will receive their annual annuity of between $800,000 and $1 million, and that this cash payment will result in a frenzy of selling as the Indians try to turn the government scrip into something they can use.

Lyman writes bluntly about the Indians, but he has also taken the time during the few days he has been in Fort Smith to find out that there are three nations of natives crowded together in the territory across the river, and that they can’t communicate with each other.  He ironically quotes a southern song (All I ask in this creation, Is a pretty little wife and a big plantation, Way up yonder in the Cherokee Nation), and then declares that he would rather live in Fort Smith, because it is more lively and he likes trading with the Indians.

Translation note: Dido: a mischievous or capricious act: prank, antic.  Often used in the phrase cut didoes.  (Merriam-Webster online)

My transcription follows the images:


The original images are from the archives of the Ashfield Historical Society and are used with permission.


Fort Smith Arks. April 28th 1851

Dear Brother

You may think it somewhat strange to receive a letter from this remote corner of the Earth 9as you think I suppose), but it is so.  I came up here about a week since to stay a few days as Mr. Bishop has a store at this point and the young man that has been attending to his business here is sick.  I had to come up and supply it.

This is a great business point, although most of the trade is with the Indians.  All that separates this place in the Indian nation is the Arkansas River.  We can look across and behold the Indians on the opposite shore, cutting up all sort of “didoes.”  They are over on this side every day, sometimes hundreds of them, trading.  And most sure to get drunk, most of them.

Fort Smith is situated on the Arkansas River ten miles above Van Buren.  It has more inhabitants than V.B. But the society is not near as good as at Van Buren.

There is to be paid out at this point more about this point about eight hundred thousand of one million dollars appropriated to them by Congress. It will (they expect) be paid to the Indians about the first of June next.  Which if it is there will be a great chance of making money as you can sell to the Indians at double price and they would not know the difference.

I am way off down near the Cherokee Nation, but I have no pretty little squaw or big plantation.  There is three different nations of Indians that join this place: the Cherokee (the most numerous), the Choctaws and the Chicisaws all talk different and cannot understand each other no more than they can the white man.  But there is a great many of them that can talk English considerable.

I shall leave this place for Van Buren, I expect, in about one week, as the young man is getting able to be about.  I think I had rather live here than at V.B., it being more lively.  And I like to trade with the Indians.

Give my love to all our friends in the Yankee land, the land of my birth.

Hoping that this may find you and your family all well I close as I am writing on the counter and expect a customer in every moment.

I remain Faithfully Yours

Lyman A Ranney

P.S. I wrote these scattering remarks as I had nothing else to do just at this time and thought perhaps you would like to hear from this point.




June 30, 1851

Lyman writes to Henry in June 1851, acknowledging receipt of a letter of Henry’s forwarded by Lucius.  The brothers apparently forwarded each other’s letters onward, which may account for some of the gaps in the Ashfield collection.  In some cases, as we’ll see, they also transcribed letters so they could send the latest news along to several places at once.

Lyman says he has been well, but that there has been an outbreak of cholera, both at Fort Smith and in Van Buren.  It originated with soldiers who had lately come up the river, Lyman says, although he blames the disease on the soldiers’ drinking and debauchery once they arrived, not realizing that they probably brought it with them.

The political season was in full swing, Lyman reports, and the hot topic was “disunion.”  Due to its location near the lands recently taken from Mexico in the war ending in 1848, Arkansas was very interested in the debate over extending slavery into the newly acquired territories.  Arkansas Congressman Robert Ward Johnson was Chairman of the House Committee on Indian Affairs and a fervent supporter of South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun, who had urged southerners to reject compromise.  Johnson shocked moderate Arkansas Democrats with his extreme position, and then declared he would not run for reelection in 1851.  This created the confusion Lyman mentions.  Johnson was appointed by the Arkansas State Legislature to serve in the U.S. Senate, and later to the Confederate Senate.  His political career ended when the South lost the Civil War.  Lyman apparently favored the Whig candidate, Col. John Preston, but he didn’t come close to winning as Lyman predicted.

Lyman tells Henry that Mr. Bishop has taken on a partner and that they will have $100,000 in stock for the upcoming season, if the new partner can find a way to float his recent purchases up the dangerously low river.  This is an interesting reminder that before the age of railroads, merchants and their customers depended on water transportation that was much less predictable.  Dry goods bought in Boston had to be shipped down the Atlantic coast and into the Gulf of Mexico to New Orleans, where they were loaded on flat-bottomed steamboats (which began carrying freight on the Mississippi and its tributaries right after the end of the War of 1812) and shipped north.  Although steam power had reduced the trip upriver from months to days, the boats were still affected by weather conditions and especially by low water levels.

My transcription follows the images:


The original images are from the archives of the Ashfield Historical Society and are used with permission.


Van Buren Arks June 30th 1851

Dear Brother

I recd your esteemed favor (via Michigan) a few days since and was glad to hear from you and to hear that you were all well.  I have enjoyed very good this summer so far but the cholera is among us.  There has been some 10 or 12 deaths from that disease here within a few days.  First the cholera has been raging at Fort Smith, a point on this river about ten miles above this place.  It first originated among the soldiers who had lately come up the river and who had been exposed and had been dissipating and drinking.  There has been some thirty or forty deaths among the soldiers at Ft. Smith.

There is some considerable excitement here in this state at present of the union question.  The nominee of the Democratic convention for M. C. in this district is a dis-union man and there is a great split among the Democrats about it.  They will probably run a union candidate or vote for Mr. Preston the Whig nominee who is a strong union man and a smart man.  Mr. Robt W Johnson is the Democratic nominee who has represented this district in Congress for the last two years.

The candidates are canvassing the district.  They were both of them here and spoke yesterday.  Mr. Preston will probably be elected.

The Arkansas River is very low at present.  None but the smallest of boats can come up it at present.  Dr. Baker, Bishop’s new partner, has been on East to Boston, New York & Phila. and bought about 50,000$ stock of dry goods and am afraid he will not be able to get them up if there does not come a rise in the river.  Mr. Baker bought of one house in Boston (Blanchard Converse & Co.) over 12,000$.  The firm will have about 100,000$ stock this year which is quite a stock for this country.

Harvest is finished here.  Wheat cut about 2 weeks since, green corn sometime since.  The weather is not as hot here as it is at the north.  At times the thermometer scarily even getting above 98.  But it is more steady heat here than at the north.

Give my best respects to Marie and our friends in general.  And to Aunt Jerusha, to whom I would write but I have not time at present.  Write as often as convenient and let me know what you are doing down in the Yankee land.  Lucius made a raise of a half sheet of paper partly filled and sent it with your letter.

Yours affectionately

Lyman A Ranney


September 27, 1851

Lyman writes Henry in the fall, after a trip down the Arkansas River to its mouth on the Mississippi just beyond Little Rock.  Lyman has been ill, but tells Henry he is moving up to Tahlequah in the Cherokee Nation, to take over a store there for his employers.  Tahlequah was the first town incorporated in the territory given to the Indians after their removal from Georgia on the “Trail of Tears” in the 1830s.  The territory was taken back from the Indians and became the state of Oklahoma in 1907.

Lyman says the payments to Indians he described in a previous letter have begun, and he says the “appropriation” money comes to $800,000 more than the Indians regular annuity.  This is apparently a payment associated with the 1851 Indian Appropriations Act, which allocated funds to create a system of reservations and move Indians onto them.  This was a boon to the local economy, since as Lyman also described earlier, the Indians had nothing else to do with all this money but spend it in stores like Mr. Bishop’s.  And it apparently came at a good time for the white community, since a three month drought had reduced the cotton and corn harvest by half.

Lyman also mentions a young man he met who claimed to be related to the Gardner family of Ashfield.  He gives quite a bit of detail, although he never even got the man’s first name.  The Gardners were not closely connected to the Ranneys as far as I can tell (no marriages, no correspondence in the archives, etc.), so perhaps Lyman’s interest in this person suggests his continuing homesickness and nostalgia for home.   

My transcription follows the images:


The original images are from the archives of the Ashfield Historical Society and are used with permission.


Van Buren Sept 27th 1851

Dear Brother

As I have just retnd from a trip down the river I thought I would let you know how I am getting along.  I have been to the mouth of the Arkansas River after goods and arrived here on the 25th of Sept after an absence of over three weeks.  I enjoyed very good health while gone except the last two or three of my trip when I was taken with the chills & fever.  But I made out to reach home.  I am now taking medicine and think I will be able to work in a few days.

I am a going up in the Cherokee Nation in a few days (to take charge of a store for Messrs. Baker & Bishop) at a place called “Tahlequah” about 25 miles from the American line.  There is some whites and a good many Indians & Half Breeds that live there, but it is supposed to be a good place for selling goods.  The payment of the Indian appropriation money has commenced to be paid out on the 22nd of this month which amounts to over 800,000$ beside the regular annuity which is nearly half that amt.

It has been remarkably dry here this season.  Not over half or two thirds of a crop either in corn or cotton.  There has not been any rain of consequence in about three months.

I saw while down the river a young man by the name of Gardiner.  Says he is a relation of the Gardiners of Ashfield.  He was formerly from Springfield Mass, did not learn his given name.  Has been west two years or more, most the time in Cinti Ohio but came to Little Rock (capital of this state) last spring.  Is engaged in merchandizing I think.  Is a young man about 25 years old.

You will please direct all letters & papers, also please inform the offices from which I have papers sent (I have recd the Atlas & Tribune) to direct them to “Tahlequah” C. N. (Cherokee Nation) Arks.  I must draw to a close as I am quite weak yet and not able to write any more at this time.

Give my Love to your family & our friends in your vicinity.  Write on receiving this without fail and let me hear all.

Affectionately Yours

L. A. Ranney


A note about research

You may be wondering how a researcher can come up with information about these people to fill in the details of their lives around the information provided in the letters. There are many sources, and I’ll mention them throughout the course of this archive. One of them is the trove of genealogical volumes published in the second half of the nineteenth century and collected by the Mormons for their genealogical studies. One such volume was an 1890 book by Samuel P. May, called The Descendants of Richard Sares (Sears) of Yarmouth, Mass., 1638-1888. It is available in the Internet Archive at , but a useful synopsis of the data found there was made and published to the web by L. Ray Sears in 2002. It is available at and the page that describes the Ranneys looks like this:


  1. Achsah Sears(PaulDaniel , Paul , Paul , Richard ) was born 11 Apr 1789 in Ashfield, MA. She died 7 Aug 1869 and was buried in , 570.

Mayflower Index: No 29,883

Achsah married George Ranney, son of George Ranney and Esther Hall, on 11 Nov 1811 in Ashfield, MA. George was born 12 May 1789 in Ashfield, MA. He died 9 Sep 1842 in Phelps, NY.

They had the following children:

3365 M i Alonzo Franklin Ranney was born 13 Sep 1812 in .
3366 M ii George Lewis Ranney was born 10 Mar 1815 in . He died Apr 1881 in Hillsdale, MI.
George married Sarah McConnell. Sarah was born 1819 in .
+ 3367 M iii Henry Sears Ranney
+ 3368 M iv Lucius Ranney
3369 M v Harrison J Ranney was born 4 Mar 1824 in .

S.P. May Handnote p.141 Merchant in Clearwater, MN

Harrison married Living
3370 M vi Lyman A Ranney was born 1 Aug 1828 in . He died 7 Mar 1854 in Van Buren, Unm., AR.
+ 3371 M vii Lemuel S Ranney
+ 3372 M viii Anson B Ranney


In spite of the fact this is a book about the Sears family rather than the Ranneys, there’s a lot of useful information here, including the names of wives and children, and the dates and locations of people’s deaths. One mystery this page may help solve is what happened to Lyman Ranney, whose letters you’ve been reading. He apparently died in Van Buren on March 7, 1854. The letters from Lyman mysteriously end, as you’ll see, but the brothers never mention him after he stops writing. I’ll have more to say on this when we reach 1854.


October 12, 1851

Lucius writes to Henry in the Fall of 1851, mentioning that he has had letters from Henry in Ashfield, Alonzo Franklin in Phelps, and Lyman in Arkansas in the same week.  Lucius says everyone in his household is well, although his wife and niece have had bouts of fever.  Their brother Lewis, however, is fighting for his life.

Lewis had traveled down to Ashfield the previous Spring, and had returned home with an illness that “used him up.”  In the fall, he developed an infection in his leg that completely immobilized it.  The doctors described this as erysipelas, which is an acute streptococcus bacterial infection of the skin and lymph nodes.  As Lucius says, the infection was often fatal, through septic shock that could spread through the bloodstream to other parts of the body, as well as necrotizing fasciitis (“flesh eating” infection).

Lucius says the illness prevented Lewis from working for most of the summer, so in addition to being ill, Lewis is in a tight financial situation.  But Lucius remarks, Lewis has “a smart wife.”  Lucius also reports what he knows about Lyman and Priscilla, and says no one has heard from Lemuel in half a year.

The harvest was apparently very good in Michigan, because Lucius says the price of wheat has fallen as low as fifty cents a bushel.  And due to Lewis’s illness, no one in the family raised any peppermint.  As a result of the “uncommon hard” times, Lucius will have to defer payment again on the loan Henry gave him.  But he hopes to be able to come down to Ashfield himself in a year and repay his brother.

Lucius closes by saying their youngest brother, eighteen year-old Anson, has just returned from Lewis’s place fifty miles away, and that Lewis is doing better.

My transcription follows the images:


The original images are from the archives of the Ashfield Historical Society and are used with permission.


Allen Oct 12th 1851

Dear Friends

I was very much gratified by receiving a letter from you, one from Franklin, & also one from Lyman the past week, & as you all seem to be in a prosperous situation, it is somewhat a consolation to us here.  I shall however write but a few lines, as I intend to write to you all this afternoon.  We are well here at present.  Clarissa has had the ague & fever some this fall, also Ellen Franklin’s little girl has had it some.

Lewis is very sick with a swollen leg.  The doctors, the species of irrasiplas.  He has not been out of the house for about eight weeks.  The swelling commenced on the inside of the leg just above the knee.  It makes the cords & joint stiff .  It is drawn up in a triangle form & there remains.  It is swollen very large and very hard.  For the past two weeks it has been increasing & working upwards, & unless it is checked it will work up into his bowels & kill him.  Mother is there.  I saw him yesterday  He has failed very much since I saw him a week ago.  It is hopeful that he may get along but I am afraid that he will not live but a short time.  He has the best of care & has had three Doctors.  They opened it for fear it might be materated, but it was not.

Lewis had a bit of sickness this summer after he left Ashfield, which used him up.  He has not been rugged since.  He has not been able to do much the past summer.  It makes it bad in his situation, although he has a smart wife.

Lyman writes that Bishop & Co. are going to send him out among the Indians with a stock of goods.  When he wrote he was at Napoleon on the Mississippi on business for the firm & was going to return soon.

We have not heard from Lemuel since last spring.  Densmore was here yesterday.  He says Priscilla’s health is pretty good.

Produce is very low this fall.  Wheat is worth from 50 to 55 cts per bushel.  We had about 200 bushels.  As for oil peppermint, in consequence of Lewis health they did not raise any.

The demands you have against me I am afraid that I shall not be able to send you this fall.  But I think & hope that I shall be able to go down next fall myself & pay you.  Times are uncommon hard in the state this fall.  If the wheat crop comes in good next summer I will try & send you a quantity of flour if it should be desired.

I must draw my letter to a close.  Anson has just come from Lewis.  He says that L is better.  Good news.  Write on the receipt of this.  Give my respects to all enquiring friends.

Yours in haste

Lucius Ranney


October 28, 1851

Lyman writes to Henry for the first time from Tahlequah, where he says he is “no longer under the protection of the laws of the United States.”  He has been put in charge of Baker & Bishop’s store there, at a salary of $350 annually.  Lyman also says he has “found” $350, so perhaps he was given a bonus to take the position.

Tahlequah was about thirty miles from the U.S. border, and was a town of about 400 people at this time.  It was established in 1838, and became the capital of the Cherokee Nation the following year.  Lyman describes the people and the Cherokee government, and  mentions that two schools have been set up for Indian boys and girls.  Although he says “some of the students are far advanced,” Lyman seems to consider it odd that they study Greek and Latin: “English and dead languages, and no Indian language is taught at the school.”

My transcription follows the images:


The original images are from the archives of the Ashfield Historical Society and are used with permission.


Tahlequah Cherokee Nation Oct 28 /51

Dear Brother,

You may be somewhat surprised to be hailed from this quarter of the globe.  I am no longer under the protection of the laws of the United States as I do not remain within their limits.  My employers Messrs Baker & Bishop have established a store at this place and wanted me to take charge of it, to which I accepted.  This city is situated in the C. N. about  30 miles from the line of the States.  It is regularly built with a square in the center.  Population of about 400 persons out of which number but about twenty entirely white.  And some of them have Indian wives.  But the Indians around here nearly all civilized.  The greater part can talk English.  They are greatly amalgamated, you can scarcely find a full blood.  Some half and some as white as anybody.

The Nation built two fine seminaries of learning, one for the males and one for the females.  Cost about ninety thousand dollars.  One is about one mile and the other about three miles from this place.  Some of the students are far advanced, studying in the Greek and Latin languages.  They study the English and dead languages, and no Indian language is taught in the school.

They have a chief & 2nd chief here, and have a house of councilmen & house of committeemen chosen one member from each district.  The two houses are now in session.  They pass laws, make appropriations, &c.

I wrote home to Michigan last mail and sent Anson ten dollars to help him attending school this winter as the last two years of my attending was the making of me.  It may be the case with him also.  I wrote you from Van Buren before coming here, to direct your letters, papers &c, and also to have my regular papers, those sent from office of publication, directed here to this place: Tahlequah, C. N. Arks.

You will please answer this on receiving it and let me hear from you.

Truly Your Brother

L.A. Ranney

P.S.  I am getting a salary of 350$ per yr and found 350$.  L.A.R.


January 18, 1852

Lyman writes Henry again from the “land of Bowie Knives and Pistols.”  He describes a recent murder and says that there have been fifteen or twenty killings in the vicinity since he arrived three months earlier.  Lyman hopes to leave Tahlequah after the next big infusion of U.S. Government money in the Spring.

Lyman remarks that he has read a notice in the Greenfield, Massachusetts, newspaper that Henry has been elected to the Legislature.  Henry was an early member of the Liberty and Free Soil parties that contributed their abolitionist agendas to the Republican party in 1860.  The History of Ashfield  says this:  “About the beginning of the forties, the Liberty or Abolition party made its appearance in the shape of perhaps a dozen voters, or whom Jasper Bement, Henry S. Ranney and Dea. Samuel Bement were most prominent…this small beginning was the nucleus of the Free Soil party, which was in turn the nucleus of the Republican party in Ashfield, as well as in the nation…”  The History describes the growth of the abolition movement in Ashfield, noting that in 1849, Hosea Blake was elected in a contested race that included the recruitment of at least one black voter.  The election was protested and decided by the Legislature in favor of Blake, who won reelection in 1850 and was one of the men who voted to elect Charles Sumner to the Senate.  Sumner was elected by a single vote, so the Ashfield vote was significant in American history.

My transcription follows the images:


The original images are from the archives of the Ashfield Historical Society and are used with permission.


Tahlequah C. N. Jany 18th 1852

Dear Brother

Once more I drop you a few lines from this land of Bowie Knives and Pistols.  There has been not less than fifteen to twenty murders in this nation since I have been here (3 mos.)(all Indians I believe).  Last night there was a man part Indian (who had a grocery at this place) cut in pieces by two men under the influence of liquor.  They killed him in his own house, where there was five or six more at the same time.  They have the murderers but there is no certainty of their being hung as they clear more than half of the perpetrators of that deed here in the Nation.

This morning the news reached here of another man being murdered a few miles from here.  The one that was killed at this place was badly cut up.  I saw one cut in the breast that was not less than eight inches long and laid the heart bare.  A man has no certainty of his life I must confess.  Yet I expect to have to stay here six months or a year longer.

We have had some very cold weather here for the last few days.  Snow about 3 inches deep, the first there has been here this season.  Trade is dull here at present, the money that was paid out last fall to the Indians being nearly all gone.  There will be another payment made to the Indians about the 1st April next (amt. 1,500,000$) which will make money more plenty once more, after which I hope to leave the nation as it is not the place to suit me.

I see by the “Greenfield Paper” you sent me that you are elected a representative to the Legislature and will no doubt be in Boston at the time this reaches you, but I will direct it to Ashfield and then it can be forwarded if necessary.  Nothing more of importance to write at present.  Give my love to all our friends in your vicinity.  Write soon and let me hear all the news.

From Your Brother

L. A. Ranney


May 2, 1852

Eighteen year old Anson writes to Henry for the first time from Florence, Michigan, where he is working as a farm hand for day wages.  Anson is getting seventy-five cents a day, which he considers good pay.  He reports that he is in good health, “which is the first thing in letter writing.”  Then he gives news of all the family, and thanks Henry for the newspapers he has sent over the years and invites his brother to write back to him “without fail.”

Unlike Lucius, Lewis, and even Lyman, Anson and his older brother Henry really have no shared experience.  Anson was born just before the family moved to Phelps, so although Henry may remember him as a newborn baby, Anson’s only face to face contact with Henry would probably have taken place on the rare occasions when Henry visited Phelps (I don’t think he had been to Michigan yet, at this point), before their father George died and Achsah moved out to live with Lucius.  So it’s noteworthy that Anson feels a family connection and decides to initiate contact with a brother who he mostly knows through letters and family stories.

My transcription follows the images:


The original images are from the archives of the Ashfield Historical Society and are used with permission.


Florence May 2nd 1852

Respected Brother

Being that I am out here in St. Joseph away from the harm of Friends & alone today I thought there would be no harm in dropping a few lines to you, as I had never done the like before.  As to health, which is the first thing in letter writing, I have been blessed with good health for the past year & hope this to find you in the same.

I am to work by the day now & probably shall continue to work by the day through the summer.  I get $0.75 a day or $19.00 per month, which are good wages for a common tug like me.  Probably I am an extra hand, let me tell the story.  I have been here about six weeks.  I think that I can stay away as long as until fall if not longer.  I have a notion of going to Iowa in the Fall if I can make things shape right.  If I don’t go there I shall go home & go to school through the winter.

Anyone would judge from the looks of my writing that I had ought to go to school winters, but I do not pretend to be a scholar.  Neither at writing or any other branch of knowledge.

We got a letter from Lemuel just before I started from home.  His calculation then was to emigrate for California about the 10th of Apr.  I am afraid he will see some hard times before he gets back if he should happen to live until he got back.  But luck to him I say.  There has been a great many from here that started for California that got as far as Council Bluff & turned about & came back on account of there being such a rush this spring.  But I say if there is any that want to go there let them go.  I think I can better myself in some other country.  Everyone to their notion.  I can enjoy myself here for the present well enough.

Harrison was here about a week ago on his way to Mt. Carmel.  He says he shall probably be back in the fall, but I guess it is different.  I had a letter from Lyman a short time ago.  He wrote no news in particular.  He is getting pretty good wages down in Van Buren.  Lewis has had a hard time of it for 6 or 8 months past.  It is hopeful that he will recover fully.

As I have written a pretty long letter I think it is best to hold up now, for if you write to me I may want to write again.  I am very thankful to you for those papers you have sent me in times past.  Write to me when you receive this without fail.  If you should feel disposed to write me a letter you may send it to Constantine St. Joseph Co. Mich.  I send my love to you & the rest of the family.

Yours Truly

From Anson B. Ranney


November 24, 1852

Henry receives a transcript from the family in Allen of a letter they have received from younger brother Lemuel, who has gone west in search of gold.  Lemuel had been planning on trying his luck in Oregon, but too many people were heading that way, so he went to northern California instead.  The party he was traveling with lost a horse, and then traded the remaining horses for cattle (oxen) at Salt Lake City, which means Lemuel may have traveled at least the final 750 miles on foot.  He says the journey overland was “an awful hard trip and one that I would not advise any of my Friends to undertake.”

Shasta City, From a lithograph published by J. M. Hutchings in 1855

Lemuel writes a little about the mining prospects and the high cost of living in the camps.  He says he imagines they’d like to hear all the details, but “I hope I shall see you all again,” and it would be easier to tell the tale in person.  It’s interesting that Lemuel is aware there’s a chance he will not see the family again, and yet this possibility does not cause even an independent, free-spirited person such as Lemuel who takes off for the West on his own to be less concerned about the people back home.  Write soon, he says, “for I am anxious to know how you are all getting along in that far off country.”

My transcription follows the images:


The original images are from the archives of the Ashfield Historical Society and are used with permission.


Allen Nov 24th /52

Dear Brother

I here send you a true copy of Lemuel’s letter that we received from him, Dated Sept 25 1852.

Shasta City Sept 25th /52

Dear Brother & Friends

I am happy to inform you that I have once more reached the pale of civilization.  I arrived here about ten days ago perfectly well & hearty.  I wrote you a letter at Fort Larima which you have probably received long ago.  I stated in that or the one before it that it was my intention to go to Oregon and it was at that time.  But there was such a flood of emigration a going that way this season that I thought I would try my luck in this Awful Country

I am at work at present on Clear Creek, 12 miles from Shasta City, in the mines and I am getting ninety dollars a month and boarded.  Board is quite an item in this country.  It costs a person about a dollar a day to live here, that is if he buys the raw material and cooks it himself.  They charge $2.00 a day at the Boarding Houses.  Flour here at present is worth 30¢ a pound.  Pork from 85 to 90¢.  Vegetables all sell by the pound here.  Potatoes are 12¢ a pound.  Onions, Cabbages, Beets & Turnips from 15 to 20¢ a pound.  Beans 25¢.

Well I thought at those prices I had better go to work by the month.  A short time anyhow, so as to be sure of my board and make a little raise.  For it looked rather dubious for a new emigrant that knew nothing about mining and no money to go to work on his own hook.  I am in about as good a mining vicinity probably as there is in California.  Some are doing very well here and some not so well, but they generally average from 5 to 8 dollars a day.  There was one lump taken out about 4 miles above where I am to work that was worth about $2,000.00 by an emigrant that came in this year. 

We were considerable longer through than we expected to be.  We lost one horse before we got to Salt Lake City, and traded the others off for cattle there.  There is a great many things I presume that you would like to hear.  That is, how I got a long and what I saw and how I like the country and what I think of the trip anyhow &c &c.  But I hope I shall see you all again and then I can tell you all the particulars much better than I could describe them to you with Pen and Ink.  But I can tell you now in a very few words what I think of the trip overland.  I think it an awful hard trip and one that I would not advise any of my Friends to undertake. 

If this will pass with you for a letter send me one in return as soon as possible, for I am anxious to know how you are all getting along in that far off country.  My respects to Mother and all the rest of you.

Lemuel S. Ranney

Copied by Anson B Ranney

(Copied by Hope Packard)

PS Direct your letter to Shasta City, Shasta County Calif


October 17, 1852

Lyman sends Henry a short note with a five dollar bill to renew his newspaper subscriptions to three Eastern papers.  Lyman says the banknote is from “the N.O. Bank which I think will go there without much if any discount, it goes at par here.”  Until Federal Laws were passed during the Civil War, State-chartered banks printed their own currency.  Some varieties of this money were more widely accepted than others, depending on the remoteness of the bank and its perceived solvency.  Rather than flatly refuse the notes of a distant or shaky bank, people would sometimes “discount” the note, saying in effect, “I’ll take this, but only at 90¢ on the dollar” or some other amount below the par or face value of the note.  Historians disagree on how common this practice was, often citing the fact that people were taught in elementary school how to “discount” in their heads.  Personally, I don’t see the point of taking a note at 90¢ or 95¢ on the dollar, if you think the issuing bank is likely to not honor the paper.  The actual reason people were taught how to quickly calculate discounts was that many of these notes carried interest.  They were often promissory notes pledging to pay a month or two in the future, so people needed to know how much the five or seven percent interest would come to over that length of time.

Lyman briefly answers Henry’s questions about the size of the firm he works for, saying they do about $140,000 a year and that they sell a lot of goods at wholesale prices to smaller merchants who lack the capital to go East and buy for themselves.

My transcription follows the image:


The original images are from the archives of the Ashfield Historical Society and are used with permission.


Van Buren Arks. Oct 17th 1852

Dear Brother

I recd yours of — Sept. And was glad to hear from you again.  Enclosed you will find a five dollar bill (5$) on the N. O. Bank, which I think will go there without much if any discount, it goes at par here.  This as you will no doubt understand is to pay for another year of the Tribune, Atlas, & Blade which I wrote you about some time since, as the two former papers have already stopped, the year having run out I suppose.

You wished me to give youth amt of goods sold by the firm with which I am staying.  We have four stores in different parts of the State and two here in this place.  The goods for the other stores all pass through the stores here before they go out to the branches.  We sell in the year about 140,000$ here and and at the branches.  We wholesale a great many goods here in the course of the year.  The country merchants buy, some who have not capital enough to go east to buy for themselves.

I have to cut my letter short as I am writing on Monday morning, and I have now to close.

Yours Truly

L. A. Ranney


December 6, 1852

Lyman writes Henry in the winter of 1852, saying that he is healthy and that his older brother Harrison is “still living in the Indian Nation,” after apparently taking the job that Lyman had done there the previous year.  Lyman has served on several juries, and tells Henry about the weather and local conditions.

Henry has said he plans to visit Michigan the following summer, and Lyman says he would like to do the same.  Lyman also mentions that he wants to go the World’s Fair.  He is referring to the “Exhibition of Industry of All Nations,” held in New York City from July to November, 1853.  This was the first such fair held in America, and it attracted over a million visitors and featured a “Crystal Palace” that emulated the one built for the very successful 1851 fair in London.  But this is the final letter from Lyman in the collection, so I don’t know if he ever made it.

My transcription follows the images:


The original images are from the archives of the Ashfield Historical Society and are used with permission.


Van Buren Arks Dec. 6th 1852

Dear Brother

I embrace the present opportunity of writing you a few lines.  I have enjoyed remarkably good health for some time past.  Harrison is still living in the Indian Nation at the point where I stayed last winter.  The United States District Court has just closed here after holding for some three weeks.  There has been twelve or fifteen convicted during the term of the court.  Some are sentenced to the penitentiary.  Others are (three) sentenced to be hung for murder, among whom is an Indian.  I was on four different Juries, one the Jury was “hung” for three days.   

The Arkansaw River is in fine boating order at present and has been for some time.  The boats are arriving here almost every day, bringing some of the delicious fruits of the “South” such as Oranges, Pine Apples, &c.  Mr. Bishop is absent at present on a trip to New Orleans.

I have not heard from Mich for some time, hope to get a letter from there soon.  I have not heard from Lemuel but once since he started for California.  That by way of Lucius who recd a letter from him somewhere on his route.  I am hoping to get a letter from him soon.

You say you think you will be out to Michigan during the next summer.  What time do you think it will be?  I should like to visit the north during the next year.  Don’t know as I shall.  Not the fore part at least.  When I do I shall give you all a call.  I would like to attend the World’s Fair if convenient.  Mr. Bishop thinks of going north next summer and attending the Fair.

The weather here is as pleasant and warm as the month of September is at the north.  There has been but one or two frosts and no freezing weather here.  I have recd two numbers of the Home Journal coming from the office of publication.  You may order it sent to Mich. or make some other disposition of it if you choose, as Mrs. Bishop takes it and I am not very partial toward it to say the most.  I this day recd the Boston Atlas after an intermission of about 2 months.

Write soon & give my love to all your family.

Yours Truly

Henry S. Ranney Esq.

Lyman A. Ranney


September 11, 1853

Lewis writes to Henry for the first time since his illness.  He has recovered and can almost walk normally, but he is a changed man.  Lewis says he is “Able to do a good fair days works.  But not the nerve I carried in former years.”  He has reduced his farm to forty acres, which he can manage comfortably, and his wife does a lot of the work with him “from choice.”

Lewis reports on the health and doings of the brothers.  Lucius is now clearly the most driven farmer of the family, and younger brother Anson is living and working with him rather than out on his own for wages.  Harrison and Lyman are in Arkansas and Lemuel is out of touch.  Henry has apparently announced he has retired from business and become a gentleman farmer (this is only partially true) and Lewis pokes a little fun at him, asking whether he has done any heavy work himself or does he just watch others do it.

Their mother Achsah has decided to spend her winter in Phelps and Ashfield, Lewis reports.  Henry’s wife Marie is ill, so Achsah will be able to help look after the children.  Lewis says he encouraged her to go, and that Lucius agrees it is a good idea, but would never say, “for fear she would think they wanted to get rid of her.”   

The season was dry and the harvest light, Lewis says.  But he planted five acres of peppermint, and he has seen in the papers that peppermint oil is selling for $4.25 per pound.  Lewis asks Henry for a price because he would prefer to deal with family, but he makes sure Henry knows he is aware of the oil’s value in New York.

My transcription follows the images:


The original images are from the archives of the Ashfield Historical Society and are used with permission.


Hillsdale Sept 11th 1853

Dear Brother

It having been a long time since writing you, I have concluded to lay everything else aside and write you.  Yet I had rather work a day than write a letter.  I am unused to letter writing opt late (of which you are probably aware of) and it seems quite a job.  I read a letter a week or two ago of yours at Lucius’s, stating that Marie’s health was very poor.  I think I am prepared to sympathize with you in your afflictions, yet we had no children to look after or care for.  But we cannot expect our days all sunshine.

Our relations’ healths are all quite good at present here.  Lucius is a driving away as usual at farming.  Anson is with him.  Harrison and Lyman are yet in Arkansas, expect doing well.  Lemuel we know but little about.  Lyman wrote that he received a letter from him in July.  He did not mention how he was doing or when he was coming back.  But advised his Friends not to take the overland route to California.

My health is quite good this summer.  Leg become about straight so as not to be observed in my common walk.  Therefore you will calculate that I have not got the Blues as had when I wrote you last.  My health in the main is quite good.  Able to do good fair days works.  But not the nerve I carried in former years.  I do not work very hard nor do not intend to.  I now have only 40 acres of land, 28 improved, which I can work myself with a boy in the summer season very comfortably.  My wife is quite a rugged woman and very ambitious and helps me a great deal from choice.

Mother I believe has concluded to spend the coming winter at Phelps and Ashfield.  I have mentioned it to her several times the past summer that there was nothing to hinder her from visiting her friends East again.  But her head is full of cares and so much to do & Lucius has a very kind woman and would like to have her go if she could enjoy herself better.  But Lucius would not recommend her to go for fear she would think they wanted to get rid of her.  But Frank has invited her and you in your last wanted her, therefore she has concluded to go, probably in October.

We have had a very dry season.  Wheat and corn came in fair.  But most other crops were light.  Wheat is worth 8/6 per.  But I had only 85 bushes.  Sowed only five acres last year.  What is Pept Oil worth?  I planted five acres last spring.  It has been too dry for it, shall probably get about 30 or 35 lbs.  I see it quoted at about four twenty-five in N.Y. Papers.   

How does farming go?  Have you split any rails yet or made stone wall?  Or do you as an old saying is, keep tally while others do it?  Ralph I suppose is company for you if nothing more.  It hardly seems possible that he is a boy eight or nine years old.  We are not remarkably fond of very small children at our house.  But one of that age we should think worth fussing with.

Sept 12th

I must close as I am going to town and have not time to write any more.  Please write soon.  I am much obliged for papers I am receiving from you and intend favoring you with the expense sometime.

My respects to you and yours.

L.G. Ranney

I can send Hillsdale papers to you occasionally if of any account.  Densmore’s people we have not heard from in several months.  Probably well or we should have heard.


October 4, 1853

Lucius writes to Henry in the fall of 1853.  After the customary apology for not writing sooner, Lucius says he delayed because he knew Lewis had written in September.  Like Lewis, Lucius says writing is difficult: he would “rather do a days work anytime than to write a letter.”

In addition to news of the family, Lucius gives Henry a very detailed account of his farm, and of the prices he is getting for his produce.  This is valuable information, because it gives us a picture of what a hardworking man on 160 acres could produce in a year, with a single, part-time, hired man.  Lucius lists all the crops he sold, and all his livestock.  He also mentions that he has “a boy” living with them who will be in the household for another ten years, until he is 21.  The 1860 Census lists an eighteen-year old “apprentice” named Burton Brown as part of Lucius’s household, as well as a thirty-two year old “farm laborer” named Austin Pross.

Lucius thanks Henry for a book he sent as a gift.  Samuel Cole’s American Fruit Book was published in Boston in 1849; Lucius says it is “a very useful book in selecting & cultivating fruit trees in this new country.”  He already has 120 apple trees, which are just about old enough to produce, and he says his peach trees are yielding thirty to fifty bushels of fruit.  Henry has also apparently said he might send Harriet Beecher Stowe’s books, but Lucius says they already have both Uncle Tom’s Cabin and A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which was a book of “Facts and Documents Upon Which the Story is Founded,” published in 1853 by John Jewett of Boston.  Jewett was also the publisher of Cole’s book, and Henry may have a business relationship with him, because at about this time he begins to dabble in the book trade for a few years.

Lucius says Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Key are “a choice book, and one that takes well in this State.”  Although Lucius is not as active a campaigner for abolition, he is sympathetic and equates an appreciation of Stowe’s anti-slavery message with “intelligence and enterprise,” which he proudly declares Michigan is full of.

Translation note: A shoat is piglet that has just been weaned.

My transcription follows the images:


The original images are from the archives of the Ashfield Historical Society and are used with permission.


Allen Oct 4th 1853

Dear Brother

Well knowing it my duty to write a few lines to you, I therefore embrace the present time.  We are all well & have been the past summer.  I should have written sooner, but Lewis said that he had written to you sometime in the summer.  A poor excuse is better than none.  But I have had a great deal to do, or have done a great deal this summer.  Clearing &c.  I had rather do a days work anytime than to write a letter.

We raised about 280 bushels of wheat this season, of which I sold the most of it for $1.00 per bushel.  It is now worth $1.10.  We received a letter from you a few days since.  You wished me to see what I could get, or what flour would be worth, delivered at the Lake.  The cheapest way that it can be got would be to buy the wheat, which would at present prices cost $1.10 per bushel, & get it floured.  The millers will give a barrel of flour for five bushels of wheat, which will cost per barrel here at the present price of wheat $5.50.  It will cost 30 cts per barrel from here to the Lake.  You can readily see whether there is any speculation or not.  If so I will assist you in it if necessary.

You also spoke of oil Peppermint.  The season has been so very dry that peppermint is very small indeed.  There is some New York buyers about.  They offer $3.50 per lb.  Lewis will have about 25 lbs.  He has contracted a few lbs to the druggists in Hillsdale, Jonesville, & Coldwater for $5.00 per lb.

We have 7 acres of good corn, is worth 50 cts.  We also have 100 bushels of oats, they are worth 40 cts.  A good crop of potatoes, say from 100 to 150 bushels, they are worth 31 cts.  We milk 4 cows.  We market considerable butter which is worth 16 cts per lb.  Our stock consists of 2 horses, 1 yoke of oxen, 4 cows, 2 colts, sixty sheep, 6 fatting hogs which will at killing time weigh from 250 to 300 lbs each, 8 shoats to winter over which will weigh about 80 lbs each, &c.

As regards the books you wrote that you had sent me, we have got one only.  That is Cole’s Fruit Book & I am a thousand times obliged for the Present, for I find it a very useful book in selecting & cultivating fruit trees in this new country.  We have Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  The country is full of them, and also the Key.  They are a choice book, & one that takes well in this State.  I must say, and without prejudice too, there is a great amount of intelligence & enterprise in the Wolverine State.

We have about 120 apple trees of the choicest of fruit.  The most of them begin to bare quite a little.  We have about 40 peach trees.  We have had from 30 to 50 bushels from them this season.  We had plenty of them that commenced getting ripe in August & have had them a ripening tree after tree ever since & have a plenty yet.  We have several plum trees that bare & some guineas, currants a plenty, &c.

As regards my farm, I have 160 acres, about 70 acres cleared, & would not thank a man to offer three thousand dollars for it.  I have money enough & more due to me to pay my debts.  I keep a hired man a part of the time this summer.  A man can get about $150 to $160 a year to work on a farm.

Anson is at home at present.  He has attended school this summer.  He thinks of teaching this winter.  He will probably get some land soon to make a farm of.  We have a boy a living with us.  He will probably stay until he is 21.  He is now 11 years old.

Lewis & wife are well.  Franklin was here in June last.  He has disposed of all his land here.  He thinks that he can live easier in the State of N.Y. than here.  Priscilla & husband live at South Haven, the mouth of Black River.  We heard from them a few days ago.  They were usually well.  He is in a sawmill, Lath Machine, & farming, & tearing away at various things.  He has 30 acres of good land there.  If you want to write to them you can direct to South Haven, Van Buren Co Mich.  We have not heard anything from Lemuel this summer.  Lyman said he got a letter from him in June.  We hear from Harrison & Lyman often.  They think of coming to Mich in June next.

I sheared 50 sheep this season, of which I sold the wool for $86.  One sheep, a buck, sheared 11 lbs & 14 oz.  I sold my wool for 50 cts per lb.  Farming is getting to be much better than it has been for years past & the prospect is favorable for it to continue good.  There is a Flood of Emigration to this country this fall.  It has been very healthy here this season.  The price of land has increased one quarter in a year.

You see I must close for want of room.  I have endeavored to give you some of the lines of my affairs & things in general, and that without fabling too.  Write on receipt of this.

In Haste

Lucius Ranney

Mother is a writing to you & Marie some things I have neglected to write.  Mother thinks some of going to Phelps & also Franklin’s little girl that lives with us this fall to spend the winter & if she does I think she will go to Ashfield.


November 24, 1853

Anson writes Henry from the town of Reading, seven miles from the family home in Allen.  He has taken a teaching job for the winter that pays $16 and board, which Anson says sounded like a better deal than $12 a month for working “out in the snow.”  Some of Anson’s students are older and bigger than he is (Anson is 20), but that doesn’t seem to bother him.  He likes the people, who he says are “good nice citizens.”

Anson says the family is well, and mentions that they had heard from Lemuel.  Although he supposes that Lucius may have already written about Lemuel’s letter (if Lucius did write, his letter was lost.  This is one of those remarks that leads me to think there were actually many more letters between the brothers than made it into the archive — which is remarkable, given the number that were preserved), Anson repeats Lemuel’s news from memory.  He says Lemuel has offered to send him money for his trip, if he will come to California.  Since Lemuel has already written that he would not advise friends to travel overland to California, this presumably means a journey by ship down the coasts of North and South America, around the Straits of Magellan, and up the other side to San Francisco.  That would be quite an adventure for a twenty-year old from Michigan, and Anson seems to be considering it.  Anson says if he goes he might retire to Ashfield afterward, once he has made his fortune.

My transcription begins after the images:


The original images are from the archives of the Ashfield Historical Society and are used with permission.


Nov 24th 1853

Respected Brother

Having a few leisure moments to spare I will improve the time by writing to you.  I am well & doing the same.  I am about seven miles from Lucius in the town of Reading, teaching school.  I have taught about ten days, and so far I like the business very well.  My school is not very large now & probably it will not be this winter.  It will average about from twenty five to thirty scholars.  Some of them are men grown larger than I am.  I get sixteen dollars & boarded.  I thought that would be better than to work out in the snow for twelve.  It is a first rate district.  The people are good nice citizens, which makes it rather more pleasant.

I came from home last Monday morning.  The folks were all well then.  Lewis was at our house when I came away.  They were all well there.  We received a letter from Lemuel a few days since.  Probably Lucius has written about it before this.  He wrote that he was in good health and doing tolerable well.  He was to work where he has been for some time on Clear Creek, twelve miles from Shasta City.  He was to work by the month mining.  He gets one hundred & seventeen dollars per month & boards himself.  He wrote for me to go to California.  He said he would send me the money in the spring if I would only go.  He says that a laboring man can make more there than he can here in the States.

I must stop writing now for a while because it is most school time and I will try and finish after school.

Well school is out for the night and I am glad, for I am a little tired now but will soon be rested again.  I received a letter from Harrison a few days ago.  He wrote that he was well but a little homesick.  He thought of coming back in the spring, in June I believe he set his time for coming back.  He wrote that Lyman had been sick but was getting better so that he was up around.  Mother she is in Phelps N.Y.  I suppose she calculates on staying there throughout the winter.

If I go to California I shall probably go to Ashfield when I come back from the Gold Mines.  Then I can have something to live on.  I suppose you think there is not much to be made in California.  Well everyone to their notion.

I thank you very much for the papers you send me, for I get some time to read them and find some good pieces in them.  I suppose I shall have to quit for it is most time to go for my supper.  Please write on the receipt of this.  Write soon.

Yours Respectfully

A. B. Ranney

P.S.  Please send my mail to Reading P. O. Hillsdale Co. Mich and Oblige A. B. Ranney


December 21, 1853

In December 1853, Henry’s younger brother-in-law Eldad Goodwin writes from Hubbardston where he is on a peddling trip. The weather is fine, he says, but he worries of a snowstorm. Goodwin is a novice peddler, but the fact that he is traveling in the middle of winter suggests business is going well for Ashfield peddlers. Goodwin has a variety of items he wants Henry to resupply him with, including Hot Drops, ribbons, thread, needles, and tape.

In addition, Goodwin describes a visit to a customer of his father’s (Anson Goodwin made surgical splints and had a wide clientele) regarding a lost promissory note. Dr. Bemis is listed in the town history as a physician in the central Massachusetts town, but apparently did not stay long.

Eldad is traveling with his brother-in-law, but they are not peddling together. They stayed in Barre together the previous weekend and will meet up in Spencer, about eighteen miles away, on the following Saturday. Goodwin mentions that Cross is planning on returning home and says he may as well. He closes with a postscript, letting Henry know he will write his wife, Julia Cross, in the next day or two.

My transcription follows the images:


The original images are from the archives of the Ashfield Historical Society and are used with permission.


Hubbardston Dec. 21 1853

Brother Henry

Dear Sir

Agreeably to my promise, I drop a few lines to let you know of the whereabouts of the pedlar. We staid over Sunday at Barre eight miles from here and I have been these three days in getting here. I should think from what little I tried it that the pedling business was very good but can tell better when I get my hand in.

You can tell Father that I called on Dr. Bemis and had quite a confab with him about the lost note. He told me precisely the same story about it that he wrote to father. I watched him close and could get nothing new. He showed me the note which is genuine as it has Father’s name on the back in his own handwriting. We went together to the P. Master and I looked his papers over. No such letter was on his books. And I do not think that he ever saw the note. He appears to be honest and I think he is.

Bemis says the note was not due when he paid it, says he told the man he would give him Thirty Three dollars for it 35 and the man made no objection to taking that. He borrowed a part of the money of one Howard and paid it. Says he told Howard that this was the first time in his life that he ever shaved his own note etc. I have his statement on paper, will show when I get home. He has the reputation of being a horse jockey here. I fear that father will have to lose the note, but something may turn up yet.

I have sold all out of a number of little things and pretty near of several others. If you have than N. York order, wish you to send to Henry H. and get such things as you are not supplied with immediately as I shall want a small bill of goods before many days. Get something to please the children of course.

Cross thinks he shall go home the last of next week and I may come too as we shall be within a days drive of home. But can’t say certain, at any rate get the goods ready and I will take if I can make a line of it.

Have you any Hot Drops, Tape, Worsted, Braid, Harmonicas, Corking, Pins, Velvet Ribband, Ounce Pins, Coats, Spools, Thread Large Size Baylis Needles Nr. 28.

My health has been good, so has the weather. But am some afraid of a snow storm.

I expect to meet Cross at Spencer next Saturday if you have anything to communicate please direct there and I shall be sure to get it, as I will leave word to have it forwarded in case we leave before a letter could get there.

Respects to all, in haste yours

E.F. Goodwin

Shall write to my wife tomorrow or next day.


June 18, 1854

Lucius writes Henry in mid-June, 1854.  He mentions that he received a letter recently from Henry, but was waiting to write until Harrison came home from the Cherokee Nation.  Harrison is anxiously awaited, Lucius says.  The family’s anxiety would have been heightened because Lyman died March 7th, 1854 in Van Buren, Arkansas.  The fact that none of the letters in the archive discuss Lyman’s death is another strong indication that there were many more letters sent and received between the Ranney brothers than have come down to us.  But as a result of this gap, we have no information on how Lyman died.  Based on earlier letters, we know he had been ill and that epidemic illnesses were not uncommon, and in a future letter we learn Harrison is delayed returning home because of an outbreak of cholera.  But we also know that from Lyman’s point of view, Van Buren was a pretty rough town.  Lyman could as easily have been killed in a robbery or brawl as by illness.  We’ll probably never know, and this incompleteness of information is typical of this type of archival research.  We work with what we have, and hope the story we can tell using the available information hangs together and makes sense.

In spite of the fact their brother had died only a couple of months earlier, though, the Ranney family has other concerns that get a lot of attention in this letter.  Lewis is looking for a new farm, with even less acreage than the reduced parcel he has been working since his illness.  A dramatic rise in land values has allowed many of the Ranneys’ friends and neighbors to sell at large profits.  A neighbor boy has died, which has affected everyone (possibly more so because of their own recent loss of Lyman).  And Lucius wants his mother to come home, but as always doesn’t want to come right out and say it.

My transcription follows the images:


The original images are from the archives of the Ashfield Historical Society and are used with permission.


Allen June 18th 1854

Dear Friends

We received a letter from you about two weeks since & ought to have written to you before this, but have waited for Harrison to come home.  But he has not come & I shall not delay writing a longer on his account.  The last letter that we got from him said that he should start for home in May.  But Henry Coon got a letter from him some 2 or 3 weeks since.  Harrison said to him that he meant to start for home about the first of June but should be at home at any rate by the fourth of July.  We are anxiously awaiting his return.

We are all well & have been since I wrote last.  Lewis & his wife are here & have been for about 3 or 4 weeks, or ever since Sarah Ann came from the state of N.Y.  She was at Franklin’s 3 or 4 days, they were all well.  Ellen had just got over the ague.  Lewis went out to Black River & drove his cow, with the intention of staying.  He did not buy any land.  He stayed two weeks & made up his mind that it was not the place for him.  Priscilla’s health was quite good, Lewis said that he never saw her as fleshy.  Densmore & Edwin were also well.

Lewis thinks of buying about here somewhere.  He wants somewhere from twenty to forty acres of land.  Land is a getting very high about here.  It has raised in value one third since you left.  I mean Mother.  Mother you would be surprised if you knew all the sales of land & changes even in this town since you left.  I will just mention a few that you are the most particularly acquainted with.  Mr. Bements have sold to John Baggerly and he has moved out here so that we have got them for neighbors once more.  Mr. Bement’s folks have bought 3 miles south of Hillsdale.  He sold for two thousand dollars & bought for the same 80 acres.  George Martin has sold 60 acres which was all he had to a man by the name of Edwin from Ontario Co. for eighteen hundred dollars.  Mr. Scovill has sold his that joined Holbrook.  Mr. Graves has sold his & has moved a few miles west somewhere.  Richard Aldrich has sold & moved out with his father in law.  Elder Sabin sold last fall & the man that bought him out has sold again.  Daniel Nichols has sold & bought near Jonesville.  There has been a number of small sales on & about the Prairie this spring.  There is a great many many Eastern people through the country a looking this season.

We got a letter from Lemuel a day or two since.  It was written the 9th of May.  He says that he is well & has been.  He also says that he is a coming home next spring.  He says that he has not made his fortune yet but has been a doing well of late.  He has made the last three moths $500 five hundred dollars.  He is a mining but he says that his claim is a running out a little.  He intends to keep a mining until he comes home.  He got a letter from Lewis & one from Henry a day or two before he wrote.

Anson is here this summer.  He is a clearing off, intending to put in about seven or eight acres of wheat this fall.  I am also a clearing off 6 acres up on top of the hill by the sugar place.  Wheat is worth two dollars a bushel.  I sold a load the other day for $1.90.  Wheat looks very poor on the ground this summer, poorer than I ever saw it in this country.  Anson’s looks well, it bids fair for two hundred bushels.  Mine looks better than on average, but rather poor.  Other crops looks well.  The weather is fine.  We had a heavy rain yesterday.

Mr. Brockway’s folks have been sorely afflicted.  They have lost their son George.  He died about five weeks ago.  He was sick just a week.  He died with the inflammation of the bowels.  He suffered a great deal of pain through his sickness, the most I ever knew a person to in sickness.  The family (Mother) you know took it very hard, & the neighborhood feel to mourn the loss of him, for truly it is a great breach of the family & great loss to the neighborhood.

I sent some money to Franklin by Harrison Baggerly about three or four weeks ago, & out of it there would be about 26 or 28 dollars more than was a going to him which I told him that he might send the whole or a part of to you.  Probably you have received it before this time.  As regards your coming home, I will say in this as I have said in my previous letters, you can act your own pleasure about coming home.  We would all be glad to see you, but just do as you think best & you will please us.  We do not want you should give yourself any uneasiness one way nor the other about us.  I would also say that we get along well.  I do not know how long Lewis’ folks will stay here.  Lewis’ goods are in the house across the road.

We shall write again when Harrison comes home or we hear from him again.  I have nothing more in particular to write at this time.  Clarissa says that she will not write any this time.  She is a writing to her folks.  It is nearly night.  We have been to the Prairy to meeting today.  Clarissa & Sarah Ann send their love to you all.  Wealthy Ann Howard was married to Andrew Winchester about 4 weeks since.  Write soon.

Yours in Haste

Lucius Ranney

[Notes written upside down in the margins:]

We have sheared our sheep & have sold wool for thirty five cts a lb.

Caroline as the old saying is, is tougher than a bear.  She wants to be on the move from morning till night.  She is all over the farm & wants to know all that is a going on & she asks as many questions as her Grandmother Ranney has ever thought of.   

We raised about 30 lambs this year which I would like to sell for $1.50 a piece.


September 10, 1854

Lucius writes to Henry and Achsah, who is visiting Ashfield to help out.  Both Henry and his wife Marie have been ill.  Lucius mentions that he was briefly down with “ague & fever,” but is recovering.  Lewis is fully recovered and is buying a small farm in Quincy, about six miles away.  He and his wife Sarah Ann will stay with Lucius until they move into their new place in a month.  Lucius also says Harrison is not home yet, because he is waiting for a cholera outbreak to subside.

Michigan and apparently much of the continent are experiencing a drought, and Lucius gives a detailed account of the conditions on his farm.  The hot, dry weather has reduced the wheat and corn yields and a hailstorm has damaged his fruits, but Lucius says at least the extreme heat has produced plenty of tomatoes.

Lucius says his wife Clarissa has gone into the “dairy business,” and made twenty cheeses.  Their daughter Carroline is healthy and Lucius writes fondly about her and says she “often says she wants to see Granma.”  But he repeats his opinion from previous letters, that Achsah should come home whenever she is ready.  Lucius also says he’s sorry Henry’s family has seen so much sickness; and he uncharacteristically sends his love at the close of the letter.  It will be interesting to see if, as the brothers age, more or less sentiment shows up in their letters.

My transcription begins after the images:


The original images are from the archives of the Ashfield Historical Society and are used with permission.


Allen Sept 10th 1954

Dear Friends

It has been a long time since I have written to you, in consequence of which I am almost ashamed, but friendship & duty directs me to do it, although I am quite feeble just about these days.  I was taken with the ague & fever about ten days since.  I had 3 or 4 very hard shakes of it.  The first hard work that I done after the first shake was to send after some Rhubarb, Quinine, Brandy & Hops, and I soon started over fever & ague.  I am now fast recovering.  I can eat nearly my full allowance, think that I shall be at work in a day or two.  The rest of us here are all well.  We have not had a Doctor since Mother left here.   

Lewis & his wife have made it their home here this summer.  His wife has not been here for the past four weeks.  She has been down near Hillsdale in their old neighborhood, a sowing, visiting &c.  Lewis has bought him a small farm, I expect.  He went yesterday to draw writings & he has not been here since.  He has bought 20 acres all under good improvement with a log house, a young orchard good land &c.  It is located in the town of Quincy two miles north of Quincy Center.  He gives five hundred and fifty dollars $550.00 for it, gets possession the first of Oct.

We got a letter from Priscilla a few days since.  She that her health has been & is better now than it has been for several years past.  Harrison has not got home yet.  The last we heard from him was about a month ago.  He thought that he should come home after the Cholary subsided.  Say in Sept or Oct.  He had been well the last we heard from him.  We have not heard from Lemuel since I wrote you last.

A.B. Is here with us this summer.  He is at work on his place some.  He had an excellent crop of wheat for this year.  Two hundred bushels, it is now worth $1.75 per bushel.  He is clearing off & putting in about 7 acres this fall.  The wheat crop was very light this season here in Mich.  The smallest yield per acre that I have ever known in this Western Country.  It is very dry here, but according to the papers we do not suffer with the drought as many parts of the United States do.  Even your region of country does.  The corn crop is going to be a light crop generally.  The potato crop is a going to be very small.  Buckwheat got a good growth of straw, but the extreme hot & dry weather has blasted that.  My wheat crop was better than an average, but it was light.  I harvested 10 acres & I had 125 bushes.  I have 10 acres of corn which is about middling fair.  1 acre of potatoes which are as good as anybody’s & that is not any more than 1/4 of a good crop.  Our corn looked first rate until about the middle of July.  We then witnessed a terrible blow & hail storm.  It cut the corn terribly.  It also knocked the apples & peaches & plums awfully.  It knocked off a great many of our hard winter apples.  We have apples enough to use & shall have some to dry.  We shall have from 4 to 8 bushels of good winter apples.  We shall have but a few peaches.  We also have but a few plums.  But a plenty of tomatoes.  We have had a great deal of not only warm but hot weather this summer, both day & night.  We had a fine shower yesterday & it is cooler today.

Mother, I say Mother because I suppose that this will reach you, there is a great many things that I might write about which I do not think of now.  But I will make a kind of wholesale business of it.  Times move along about as when you left here.  The neighbors with the exception of a few changes remain about the same.  Moultrop has returned from California without money & full of pin pains as usual.  It is generally healthy here this season.  None sick about here but me & it seems to me that I shall feel better after supper as Clarissa is cooking not a quarter of veal but has a large piece nearly baked & any quantity of potatoes.

Lewis says that his health is better than it has been for six years.  Mrs. Brockway & the 2 Mrs. Sheriffs got home day before yesterday from Phelps.  They have been down on a visit.  Was gone about 4 weeks.  They did not see Franklin but heard that he & his folks were well.  Uncle Everett as we call him & his wife are a coming out here about the 10th of Oct to spend the winter.

Clarissa is in the dairy business on a very small scale this summer.  She has made 20 cheeses.  Carroline says that dinner is ready & I shall have to stop writing.  She is always on hand about 10 minutes before there is anything to eat & if you do not believe it, you would if you should see how she grows.

Mother, as regards you coming home, I shall say as I have said in my previous letters.  That is, come when you think best.  We would all be very glad to see you.  Carroline often says that she wants to see Granma.  We all get along very well here.

I am very sorry that Henry’s folks are sick as much as they are.  I suppose that all things are for the best.  But it certainly seems to me that they have more than their share of sickness.  It has been a long time since we have heard anything from you, therefore write on receipt of this.

Clarissa sends her love to you all.  I also send mine.

Yours in Haste, Mother, Henry & Family

Lucius Ranney


October 22, 1854

Lucius writes Henry and Achsah again, in spite of the fact he has not heard from them since his previous letter of early September.  Lucius apparently finds the long silence unsettling and says “we are all anxious to hear how you all get along.”  He gives news of the family and neighbors, and of his farm.  His daughter Carroline, who is now about four, has been to party for a little girls at a neighbor’s house, and had a good time.  Lucius probably includes mentions of Carroline for his mother’s sake, rather than Henry’s.


The Michigan State Normal School in Ypsilanti, 1878.

Anson has gone to the State Normal School at Ypsilanti, to take a four or five-week teacher training course.  In the nineteenth century, many professions such as teaching and medicine were taught in short, intensive programs.  In the early 1800s, for example, the “medical lectures” at colleges like Dartmouth lasted only fourteen weeks (and cost $50).  People went, learned what they needed to know, and returned home.  Sometimes they went back for a second course of study a year later.  Then they took an exam.  Only at elite colleges did students stay for long academic terms.  The multi-year, residential college life we’re so familiar with was something only the rich experienced until the establishment of land-grant agricultural and technical colleges during the Civil War, and then to a much greater degree in the twentieth century with programs like the GI Bill.

My transcription follows the images:


The original images are from the archives of the Ashfield Historical Society and are used with permission.


Allen Oct 22nd 1854

Dear Friends

I wrote a letter to you some five or six weeks ago, & have not heard any thing from you since that time.  But however having a few leisure moments this evening, I thought I would write you again a few lines.  We are all well.  Anson is at Ypsilanti to school at the State Normal School.  He went about three weeks ago.  He will probably stay about two weeks longer.  He went with Mr. Beers.  I presume he will teach this winter.

We heard from Franklin’s folks some 3 or 4 weeks ago by way of Mr. Everett Baggerly & his wife.  They are here on a visit & expect to spend a few months here.  We like John Baggerly’s folks quite well for neighbors.  They said that Frankiln’s folks were well.

Lewis and Sarah Ann moved to Quincy about two weeks since.  Henry Koon got a letter from Harrison about a week since.  He said that he should start for home about the first of December.  We got a paper a day or two since from California.  Suppose it was from Lemuel.  We have not heard directly from Priscilla in some time.

We have just finished husking corn & digging potatoes.  I had three hundred bushels of ears of corn, & 75 bushels of potatoes.  We have had a very pleasant fall so far, & but a very little rain until today.  Today has been a very steady rainy day.

I hope that we shall hear from you soon.  We feel anxious to hear how you all get along &c.  Do you get the Hillsdale Standard regular?  We send it times & matters move along about as usual.  We milk 3 cows.  Butter is worth eighteen pence.  I let Lewis have to old Brin cow.  Snap & Old Yellow are sleeping around the fire as usual.

Carroline went to a little girl’s Party to Mr. Brockway’s yesterday.  She enjoyed it well.

Please write as soon as you receive this.

Yours in Haste, Mother, Henry &c.

Lucius Ranney

Mother, if I do not write more on this slip of paper I am afraid that you will think that I am wasteful.  Well what shall it be?  There is so much that I might write about that I hardly know what to write.  Well we are a fattening a beef & six hogs.  We have 22 pigs about 6 weeks old.  They are just right for roasters.  We have 10 spring pigs.  We raised one calf this summer.  It is a nice one.

We also raised a nice lot of chickens.  Mrs. Ford started out a visiting a day or two since as usual.  She went to three places & they were all gone.  You know that she is very persevering on such occasions, consequently she made us a visit.



December 18, 1854

Lemuel writes to Anson in December 1854, saying he had just received Anson’s letter dated October.  This letter apparently took a similar amount of time getting back East, since Lucius forwards it on to Alonzo Franklin in Phelps in early February, saying it has just arrived.  He asks A. F. to forward it on to Henry in Ashfield.  At some point along the way (probably in Phelps), the entire letter seems to have been transcribed, because the whole thing is in the same hand.  Interestingly, the transcriber in Phelps makes a “true” copy, including Lucius’s side-message to A. F. in the final copy.  I think this letter is just one of many that made its way from place to place, which might help explain some of the gaps in the Ashfield archive.

Lemuel says he is planning to stay through another summer in the gold country, because the winter rains prevented him and his partners from working their claim completely.  They have diverted Clear Creek, and are harvesting the loose gold from the creek bed.  Lemuel says they made a little over a thousand dollars apiece after expenses.  While this isn’t a fortune, Lemuel defends the result as “better probably than I could [have done] in the Atlantic States.”

My transcription follows the images:


The original images are from the archives of the Ashfield Historical Society and are used with permission.


Clear Creek, Shasta County, California

December 18th 1854

Dear Brother

I have just received your kind favor of last Oct. and take the earliest opportunity to answer, as I know you will be anxiously looking for a reply.

I am digging in the mines yet, trying to make a couple of dollars.  I did think and in my last letter to Lewis stated that I should probably start for the Atlantic States next Spring.  But I think now that I shall stay until next fall when I shall certainly make a break for the East.  You wrote that you would like to know how I have made it since I have been here.  Well I have done much better probably than I could in the Atlantic States.  I will tell you what I made the last summer. 

I have two partners.  We commenced working in the Creek or digging a race so as to turn the creek out of its natural bed, about the first of June.  And we worked in the bed of the creek until about the first of October.  And we took out in that time Five Thousand dollars.  And our expenses were about Fifteen Hundred, including hired help & everything.  We did not get the claim worked out as the rains drove us out about the first of Oct. and we cannot work in it again until next June.  Hence my reason for staying here another summer.  We are making about five or six dollars a day to the hand now.  Wages for good hands here are four dollars per day, they board themselves.  We have two hired hands and are paying them that.   

I received two letters from Harrison the past summer, but he wrote to me not to write to him again until I heard from him again as he intended going to Mich.  But I have not heard from him in a long time.  I am indebted to Lewis for a letter too.  I believe you say he is located in Branch Co.  Write to me his Post Office address and I will write to him again when I hear from you.  How has he made it in selling & buying again? 

I hope you will redeem your promise to write again as soon as you receive this and let me know what new neighbors you have got there and where your place is and how many acres you have got and when you are going to & &.  I shall certainly be home next fall.  Write about all the folks.  I don’t think of anything more to write in particular.  I have never seen anything of the boys from your parts out here. 

Give my respects to all my old acquaintances

Yours respectfully, Anson B. Ranney

Leml S. Ranney

Allen Feb 6th 1855

We received this letter last week & thinking you would like to know what Lemuel wrote I thought best to enclose it & send it to you, A. F.  Please forward this to Ashfield. 

A. F. I have this evening wrote a letter to you.  We are all well. 

Lucius Ranney


April 4, 1855

Henry’s brother-in-law George Goodwin writes to inquire whether Henry has some patent medicine and essential oils to sell him. Goodwin, who is a merchant in Boston, says he has run out of a salve and doesn’t have the time to make up a batch himself. He would like to buy it from Henry even if it comes from Henry’s former partner Joseph Bement, because he suspects Henry can get a better price from Bement than he could. Goodwin also inquires about peppermint oil and a couple of other essential oils, which establishes the fact that Henry remains connected to the essential oil business in the mid-1850s.

George greets Henry as Brother, in spite of the fact that his sister, Maria Goodwin Ranney, died in January 1855. Henry and George remain close and continue doing business together (especially in peppermint oil) until Henry’s retirement from business

My transcription follows the image:


The original images are from the archives of the Ashfield Historical Society and are used with permission.


Boston Apr. 4, 1855

Bro. Henry

I disp this line to say that I am in want of some Cowles Salve and not having time to make it, I thought you might have some on hand, or could perhaps buy it of Joe Bement at a better price than I could myself.

If you have any, at what price will you sell it? I want anywhere from one to two gross.

Or if you have none, will you have the goodness to inquire of Bement, and inform me the lowest price cash. Let me know as soon as possible as I am all out.

Have you any Oil Pepmt new and good, or can you inform me when I can get some. Also Oil Checkerberry, Spruce, etc.

All well. Wallace was here yesterday.

Yours etc.

Geo. C. Goodwin


July 23, 1855

After the death of his wife, Henry gets a letter from his sister, Priscilla Densmore.  This is the only letter from Priscilla in the collection.  She lives in South Haven on Lake Michigan, about 110 miles from Allen and Hillsdale.  Priscilla’s husband, Randolph Densmore, is a “lumberman and manufacturer,” according to most accounts.  The couple had a daughter, Mary, in 1849 who died as a child in 1852.

Priscilla addresses her letter to “Mother & Brother” which confirms that Achsah Sears Ranney is still in Ashfield with Henry.  Following Henry’s illness, his wife Maria Goodwin became ill and died in January 1855, leaving Henry with three young children. Their youngest, George Goodwin Ranney, had died at 5 months of age two years earlier. A daughter, Clara Maria Ranney, would die at age 4, later in 1855.

Priscilla says she wishes she had known Maria.  That they had never met despite Henry’s eleven year marriage to Maria suggests the possibility that Henry may never have visited Michigan during this period.  Priscilla says she is able to sympathize because she too has experienced losses.  She also tries to console Henry with a paraphrase of a biblical passage (“For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth.” Hebrews 12:6), and the assurance that Henry’s loss is Maria’s gain.  This passage is notable, because it is one of the only times religion is ever mentioned in the Ranney letters.  Although some of the brothers were remembered in local histories as members of their area congregations and occasionally mention in letters that members of the family were off at church “meetings”, they never communicated with each other using any type of religious language.  This may come as a surprise to modern readers who believe all 19th-century Americans were extremely devout and that ours is an unusually secular time, but the absence of overt religion in nearly all of the Ranney letters suggests otherwise.  Samuel Ranney’s letter of 1834 is not the only evidence that the Ranneys were a secular family. Based on these letters, we can conclude that at least some 19th-century Americans were not particularly religious, or that they considered religion an extremely private matter and kept it to themselves.  Of course, death was still emotional, even in an age when people lost loved ones much more frequently.  But the Ranney brothers seem to have had other ways of coping other than overt expressions of faith.

Priscilla also says that Lemuel has returned from the gold country and has just left after visiting her and Randolph.  He will visit Chicago, 125 miles southwest of South Haven, before returning to Allen.  Lemuel is planning a trip to Phelps and Ashfield, she says, and Anson is thinking of going along.

Note: Priscilla signs her name P. M. Densmore.  Her middle name was Minerva, which may also say something about the family’s cultural background.

My transcription follows the images:


The original images are from the archives of the Ashfield Historical Society and are used with permission.


South Haven July 23 1855

Dear Mother & Brother

I received your kind letter of April 18th with pleasure.  Was happy to hear that you are all in the enjoyment of good health which is one of earth’s greatest blessings.

I want very much to see you and enquire all about Maria’s sickness and death.  I heard you (Mother) talk so much about her that I hoped I should sometime become acquainted with her.  We can sympathize with you in your bereavement for we have been called to part with near and dear friends.  You have the sweet assurance that your loss is her gain.  We are told in the word of God that whom the Lord loveth he chastneth and that our light afflictions which are for a moment will work out for us a far more exceeding and Eternal weight of Glory.

The children I should love to see.  We are all well except Edwin.  His health is quite poor.  He has a cough.  He is in a store as clerk a mile from here.

Randolph has taken a lathe mill to run this season & is doing well.  I suppose you have heard ere this of Lemuel’s return from Cal.  He has been spending a few days with us.  He left here Wednesday evening for Chicago.  From there home.  He came quite unexpected as we had not heard from him in a long time.  He intends to start for Ashfield in about 3 weeks.  He will call at Phelps on his way down.  I believe Anson talks of going with him.

We have had a cool wet season so far with the exception of a few days.  We have a good garden.  Our corn & potatoes look well.  We intend to visit our friends at Hillsdale probably in Dec.  Mother we anticipate seeing you at that time.

For particulars enquire of Lemuel.

Please write soon.  We send our love to you all.

Truly & Affectionately Yours

P. M. Densmore


August 25, 1855

This is a letter from H.J. (Harrison Jackson) Ranney to A.B. (Anson Bement) Ranney.  It found its way into Henry’s collection because Anson was visiting Ashfield when he received it.  Harrison wrote to his brother in late August, 1855, when he finally returned from Tahlequah in the Cherokee Nation.  He had been planning to go to Phelps and Ashfield with his brothers, but he didn’t return soon enough.  He also missed his brother Anson’s marriage to Caroline Baggerly on August 15th.  Caroline (“Callie”) was born in Phelps, so Harrison is curious whether she stayed there with relatives or went with Lemuel and Anson to Ashfield.

Harrison, who worked as a merchant out west for several years, has decided to make a thousand dollars buying and selling Michigan peppermint oil.  He arrived too late to have planted any of his own, so he would be thinking of buying from neighboring farmers, and taking the oil to a market where he could make a profit on it.  Harrison wants Anson to find out prices in Ashfield and Boston; he is also considering Louisville and St. Louis, which illustrates the large market for Michigan peppermint oil in the 1850s.


Jesse Ranney (1775-1861), one of the few Ranneys of the period whose photo is available. He was described as “a man of sterling good sense; of retiring disposition; of exemplary life, and most esteemed by those who knew him best.”


Harrison asks how “Uncle Jesse” is. Jesse Ranney is a brother of their father George, who moved to Ashfield from Connecticut and never left. Harrison also mentions that John Baggerly, Callie’s father, is ill.  He appears to be staying with the Baggerlys, possibly because Lewis is visiting Lucius.  Harrison urges them to write, and to come home soon, so he can see them and their Mother, who he expects to return with them from her long stay out East.

My transcription follows the images:


The original images are from the archives of the Ashfield Historical Society and are used with permission.


South Allen Mich

August 25th /55

Dear Brother,

I arrived here on the Saturday after you left.  Was sorry I did not see you & Lem before you started.  I recd your last letter on the night before I left Tah-le-quah.  You said in your letter Lem & you would start for Phelps about the fifteenth of this month and go down to Henry’s.  I had intended to have got home in time to have gone with you to Ashfield.  But you was a little too soon for me.

I wish you to ask Henry if I could dispose of any Oil Peppermint and how much and at what price, for if I could sell two, three, or four hundred pounds of oil down there somewhere I would go down sometime this fall.  Oil is worth about three dollars per lb in Florence this fall.  Could I get four in Ashfield or Boston?  I am expecting a letter from Louisville telling me how much oil I can sell there and at what price.  I may perhaps do something in that business this fall if all things are favorable.

You & Lem I hope will be making yourselves back this way ere long.  John’s folks have just recd a letter you wrote them the day after you got to Frank’s.  My kind regards to all friends.  Write soon after you get this.  Why cannot Henry come out here this fall?

Respectfully Yours

H. J. Ranney

[On reverse page]

John Baggerly was taken with a kind of fever last night.  He is up here today on the bed.  Thinks he is going to have the fever & ague.  Got the blues some.

Has Callie gone to Ashfield with you?  I tell our folks if she don’t go with you that you will not enjoy yourself much.

What do you think of the folks down there?  Clarissa said you wanted to see what kind of relatives you had.  How is Uncle Jesse?

Lem, take care of Ans & Kin. Rather new potatoes to take to market.

Anson, you be certain to find out about the Oil Peppermint.  I want to make One Thousand dollars this fall.  I may go to St. Louis with one lot of oil.  It is worth four dollars there.

The reason I write so much stuff, Lewis & Lucius are talking and I do not care about listening to them.

Come home soon.  I want to see Mother & Lem & Callie.  Jane was over to JB’s as soon as she found I had got home.

I’ll quit,



September 24, 1855

Lemuel writes Henry from Lucius’s home in Allen, to let Henry know they arrived home without mishap.  Anson has gone to his father-in-law’s place, to help while John Baggerly is ill.  Harrison has received a letter from Henry regarding Peppermint Oil, and thinks he can get it for less than the local farmers are asking.  Lemuel mentions that he and Alonzo Franklin in Phelps had talked about the possibility of Henry buying land there.  He says he and Harrison may come down again in the winter.

My transcription follows the images:


The original images are from the archives of the Ashfield Historical Society and are used with permission.


Allen Sept 24th 1855

Dear Brother

I am happy to inform you of our safe arrival home.  We arrived last Friday and found every one well.  Harrison wanted I should write you a few lines this morning concerning the oil peppermint.  He received your letter last Saturday and will start for Florence next Wednesday. He has not run out there yet but saw a young man from there a few days ago, and he says they hold oil at Four Dollars a pound there.  But Harrison thinks he can get it for 3.50 or 3.75 and will let you know the result as soon as he returns.

There has been a great deal of fever & ague here this fall.  Anson has gone to John Baggerly’s to work.  John has the ague pretty bad.  Lewis & his wife were here yesterday and carried home a wagon load of Peaches.  I wish you had about 3 or 4 bushels.  They lay here on the ground rotting.

I spoke to Frank about you buying out there.  He didn’t say much about it, but said that he should think you ought to come out this fall and see for yourself, but said he would write to you about it.  Harrison and I may be down there this winter.

Give my respects to all enquiring friends.

Very Respectfully Yours

L. S. Ranney


November 18, 1855

Harrison writes to Henry in late 1855, acknowledging receipt of a draft for payment on a shipment of peppermint oil.  The oil went to Henry’s brother-in-law, George C. Goodwin who is a merchant in Boston.  When Henry lived in Boston, he and Goodwin had been partners in a mercantile business.  Harrison says he went to some effort to find the best and purest oil for Goodwin, and he’s pleased that his efforts were appreciated.

Since Harrison and Lemuel have both recently returned to Michigan, they are considering going in together on a farm or business.  Harrison has been a merchant in Tahlequah, so he thinks a clothing store might be profitable.  There is a shop in Quincy, where Lewis lives, where a tailor cuts custom clothing and then pays local women to sew it.  But he can’t keep up with demand, so Harrison thinks ready-made clothing from Boston or New York might be a profitable venture.  He asks Henry to refer him to a manufacturer who might offer them credit or send them goods to sell on commission for the first year, because he and Lemuel would like to reserve their capital to speculate in land.

Anson has returned from his father-in-law’s and is preparing to teach school.  Their sister Priscilla is visiting and says she would like to see their mother Achsah, who apparently did not return to Michigan with Anson and Lemuel earlier in the fall.  Harrison closes his letter with an apology for his poor handwriting.  He has been husking corn at Lewis’s place so long, he says, his fingers are “like sticks.”

My transcription follows the images:


The original images are from the archives of the Ashfield Historical Society and are used with permission.


Quincy Mich

Nov 18th /55

Dear Brother

I recd your letter containing the draft two or three days since and am glad Goodwin is satisfied with the oil, for I took some extra care to get that which was good and pure.  Lem & I are at Lewis now for a few days assisting him about husking out his corn.  He has very good crop this year.  Priscilla came out here some ten days since on a visit.  Will remain here some ten days longer.  Her health is good, she is quite fleshy.  She, Lucius & Wife came up here to Lewis on a visit yesterday & have just started for home.  Anson commences teaching school tomorrow at the Red School House situated across the road from his farm.

Leml and I have not bought a place yet.  We do not know what business to go into.  Sometimes we think of going into the Clothing Business as there is a good opening for that type of business at Quincy.  If we could get ready made clothing and cloths from New York or Boston to sell on commission for the first year we would do so as we would like to use our money for the purposes of buying unimproved land or lands with small improvements on them near here.  Such purchases are a good investment as land is rising fast.

If you think we could get cloths and clothing in some of those places to sell on commission or we would advance some money on them if we could not get them without doing so, I say if you think we could get a stock of say about fifteen hundred dollars worth or two thousand, we would like to have you write to us what you thought about our getting them.

Quincy is growing rapidly, quite a good place for trade.  There is one clothing store in the place.  Lewis Wife and Sister are sewing for them.  The establishment employs one man to cut out clothing constantly for custom work, and he cannot cut fast enough.  There is a good opening I think for Lem and myself to go into business.  We have talked with men of our acquaintance who are doing the same business in Hillsdale and they advise us to go into the Ready Made Clothing Business at Quincy.  I have I think quite a good knowledge of the business and from what experience I have had in it, it is a very pretty and profitable employment.

The reason why I write to you about it is this.  We thought perhaps you might probably be acquainted with some Firm where we could get a stock on such terms as we propose.

Priscilla says she would like to see Mother very much.  That is the case with all of us.  I suppose she will come out here in the spring.  Please excuse bad writing for I have been husking corn so long that my fingers are like sticks.  Write soon.

Truly Yours

Harrison J. Ranney


July 19, 1857

Lucius writes to Henry in the summer of 1857, after a long silence.  The gap in their communication was not as long as the gap in the archive, because Henry went to Michigan in late 1856 and Achsah returned home to Allen.  Lucius writes about the farm and the family.  He says their mother Achsah did not go to Coldwater to visit their cousin, Lucretia Ranney Hathaway in the fall, as she had apparently planned to do.  Coldwater is about twelve miles from Allen.  Harrison, who was married in early 1856, had a son in April, and Anson’s son who is just over a year old “walks all over the house.”

Lucius mentions that he has traded his team of oxen for horses, and that Harrison and Lemuel also have a team of horses.  Horses are slightly more of a luxury than oxen, because they are faster and can pull a wagon quickly to town, but more expensive, since they need oats whereas oxen can survive on grass.  Lucius also says Anson doesn’t have a team at all, so he has been doing his brother’s “team work.”

Lucius invites Henry to visit again in September, when their brother Alonzo Franklin will be coming out from Phelps.  He also invites his niece and nephew, suggesting to Ralph that he take up a peddler’s basket and come out on west.  This is a joke, because Ralph is only twelve — but Ralph does go out on the road as a peddler several years later.

My transcription follows the images:


The original images are from the archives of the Ashfield Historical Society and are used with permission.


Allen July 19th 1857

Dear Brother

It has been a long time since I have written you a letter, & the reason is not because I have forgotten you for I presume that there is not a day passes but what I think of you & also think of what a fine visit we had together last fall.  But it is my negligence.  We are all well as usual & also the other Boys & their Families for aught I know.  I see them quite often.  Mother’s health is about the same as it was when she came home last fall.

We had a very long & severe winter & the spring & summer are very backward, & very wet.  We had a very hard thunderstorm last night.  Provisions are rather dear here this summer, although there seems to be a plenty in the country.  We have a plenty of old wheat on hand yet, old potatoes & old pork &c.  Potatoes have been worth during the summer, one dollar a bushel.  Wheat, the average price about $1.50 a bushel &c.  One year ago today I had my wheat harvested & in the barn & the most of my hay, and now I have just begun to hay & my wheat will not be fit to cut under about a week.

Crops look very promising at present.  I think I shall have two hundred bushels of wheat.  I call it 12 acres.  You recollect where it was sowed.  I should estimate it higher, but the Weavle are injuring it some.  Don’t know how much.  The little piece across the road is injured by being too large straw, it is lodged flat to the ground the most of it. Grass is very good.  I shall cut double the hay that I did last year.  I have a piece of oats that looks well.  Potatoes look first rate.  Corn is backward but is a growing finely now days.

Anson’s crops look very well.  He will have nearly two hundred bushels of wheat.  Harrison & Lemuel’s wheat is rather small, their other crops are good.  Lewis says that it has been too wet to hoe his corn much, but it will all be right with him in the fall.

I suppose that you have heard that Harrison has a boy about three months old.  Anson’s boy walks all over the house.  Anson has not got any team this summer, consequently I do the most of his team work. I have no oxen this summer, I work horses.  I traded my oxen for horses last winter.  I have about such a team as the Boys had when you were here.  They have the same now.

We have three cows this summer.  I sheared the same flock of sheep that I had last fall when you were here.  There was 66 of them.  We saved 2 fleeces, the other sixty-four sheared 291 lbs of which I sold for 44 cts a lb.  Beat that with a common flock of that size in your county if you can.

Mother says I must write more about my horses.  I keep that black colt that you saw.  She is raising a fine colt this summer.  I have the boy 2 year old colt, & I also have a yearling colt that I bought last winter.  Which makes in all six horse kind.  I have since shearing sold all of my wethers, both old & young.  23 in number for $2.25 per head.  Beef cattle are very high here at present.  There is a great many buyers about these days.

I moved the house from across the road over near where you & I staked out & I find it much better or handier rather.  It also looks better.  We are a having a great deal of fruit this season.  We shall have a number of bushels of peaches from the old, apparently dead trees.  Our orchard is a bearing full.  We shall have a great many greenings & we are a having lots of currants.  In fact there is a going to be a great many beechnuts, butternuts &c.

We have not heard from Priscilla in a long time.  She was well the last we heard from her.  We are expecting Franklin out here in Sept & we would like to have you come out with him if you thought you could make it pay.  We are a fitting up some roasters.  I think it will be doubtful about my going East this fall as A.F. is a coming out here.  Mother did not go out to Coldwater to see Mrs. Hathaway last fall.  It did not seem to be convenient for her to go until we was afraid that Mrs. Hathaway was gone.  Andrew is not a living with us now.  His mother got married last winter & wanted him to go live with her, so he went.  I have got a lad to work for me this summer, about seventeen years old.

I might perhaps write many more things which would be interesting to you, but it is chore time & I must draw to a close.  I must try to write often & hope that you will do the same.  We want that you should all write.  We were all very much pleased with the large mail that we got from you at one time last winter.  Ralph, can’t you take a basket of essence & take a trip out into Mich and make a dime or two & see your kin?  They would like to see you very much.  Ella how can you manage to come out, try and study out some way can’t you?  If you cannot don’t forget to write.  Carroline goes to school to Mr. Howes this summer.  Down in Anson’s dist.

Yours in Haste H. S. Ranney

From Lucius Ranney

P. S. Please do not delay writing but a short time after you receive this.  Mother says that Ralph is a great hand to write.  Can you make any of your townsmen believe many moderate Mich truths?  We all send our love to you all.

L. R.


December 27, 1857

Lucius writes to Henry, a little over a week after returning from a trip to Ashfield and Phelps. He spent six weeks and a day away from home, which he remarks is just a day less than the time Henry spent away on his recent visit West.  Lucius says Alonzo Franklin’s family is well, and revives the perennial claim that Frank is putting his affairs in order in Phelps and planning to move to Michigan (he never does).

Lucius describes a severe flood (remembered in New York histories as the “Freshet of 1857”), which washed away most of the bridges around Phelps as well as several mills, and damaged the railroad.  He remarks that times are hard in Michigan, but apparently the Panic of 1857, which began in October in New York, did not affect Lucius badly enough to prevent his trip East at the beginning of November.

My transcription follows the images:


The original images are from the archives of the Ashfield Historical Society and are used with permission.


Allen Dec 27th 1857

Dear Brother

I presume that you would like to hear from me by this time, & I am very sure that I would from you.  I arrived safe home two weeks from the next Friday after leaving Ashfield.  I found everything all correct on my return Home, & we are all well at present.  I stopped at Albany one night, at Utica over one.  Train arrived in Vienna in the evening.  I found Franklin’s folks well & Frank was a making arrangements to move to Mich in the spring.  I had an excellent visit in Phelps & Hopewell, & in fact the whole visit was a good one.

They had a very heavy freshet in Ontario Co & in fact from Siracuse almost to Buffalo when I was there.  It swept off almost every bridge in Phelps both great & small.  It took both bridges at Orleans & all on the Creek to Vienna, & a number on the Canandagua Outlet.  It also done great damage to the railroad.  It took out about seventy feet of the high embankment East of Vienna in the hollow by Russell Bement’s old place.  It made a great Depot & the passengers had to exchange cars.

Harrison & his Wife were here Christmas.  I heard from Lewis yesterday.  He was on the Grand Jury last week at Coldwater.  We heard from Priscilla a few days ago.  She was well but did not weigh only 180 lbs.

I was gone just six weeks & one day on my visit, just one day less than you was.  We had some very cold weather the next week after I got home.  We had about 4 days of good sleighing & then it came off warm & pleasant & remained so until last week & now it is comfortable winter weather with about three inches of snow.  I wish that there was about three inches more.

I have not foddered much yet, sheep only 3 or 4 days.  Produce is very cheap of all kinds.  Wheat is only with 75 cts.  I think that it will be higher next spring.  I have not thrashed the balance of mine yet.  Times are, or rather money matters are, very hard this winter.

Ralph, I got some chestnuts on my return home.  What speculations are you into this winter?  Ella, have you got your pay on the Butternuts yet, & are you a studying Laws & Resolves as much as you was?

I have nothing more in particular to write.  Write soon, I want to hear from you.  Mother, Clarissa & Caroline send their Love to you all.

Yours in Haste

Lucius Ranney


February 9, 1858

Lemuel writes to Henry at Lucius’s request, to inform their brother that Lucius and his wife Clarissa have lost their seven-year old daughter, Carroline.  She died of Scarlet Fever a week earlier, after an illness of two weeks during which Lemuel says “she suffered very much.”  Lucius and their brother Anson’s one and a half-year old son, Everett, are also ill, but both their cases are less severe than Carroline’s.  The fever is a bacterial infection (strep), and this is before the discovery of antibiotics like penicillin — which, unbelievable as it may seem, is less than a hundred years old, discovered in 1928.

Lemuel says Carroline’s death is not only “a severe stroke on Lucius and Clarissa,” but that their friends and neighbors all “feel her loss very much as she was a general favorite in the school and neighborhood.”  But after devoting the first half of his letter to the details of Carroline’s illness and the spread of the fever in the area, Lemuel moves on to other matters.  The recession historians know as “The Panic of 1857” is in full swing in Michigan.  Land prices have eroded and farm commodities are selling at very low prices because there is no cash in the local economy and there has been a general collapse of credit.  Lemuel says a number of local merchants will be unable to pay their debts, which will result in more bankruptcies and “assignments” of assets.

In spite of all the bad news, Lemuel remarks that the snow is finally falling, so there’s “a prospect of having some sleighing yet this winter.”  Even in the middle of disaster and a letter filled with tragic news, there’s a glimmer of hope and an acknowledgment that life goes on.

My transcription follows the images:


The original images are from the archives of the Ashfield Historical Society and are used with permission.


Hillsdale February 9th 1858

Dear Brother

As Lucius is sick and not able to write, I at his and his wife’s request will address you a few lines to inform you of their affliction.  They have lost their little girl.  Little Callie is dead.  We buried her last Wednesday.  She had the Scarlet Fever in its most malignant form.  She was sick about two weeks.  Her tongue and throat were badly swollen and cankered and she suffered very much throughout her illness.  It is a severe stroke on Lucius and Clarissa I assure you.  In fact, all the friends and neighbors feel her loss very much as she was a general favorite in the school and neighborhood.

Lucius was taken with the same disease about a week after she was and was quite sick for a few days, but is able now to be about the house again.  The Scarlet Fever has been quite prevalent in that town this winter.  Anson’s little boy has got it now but is not very sick, not considered dangerous.  One of Mr. Fox’s little girls has it also.  Hosea Folger’s wife is very sick and not expected to live a great while.  The rest of our friends around here are well I believe.

Clarissa and I have made a visit to South Haven this winter.  We found Densmore’s folks all well and prospering.  I have some expected to make you a visit this winter, but it is such hard times here that I shall have to postpone it this winter I guess.  I have talked some of going to California next spring.  But I don’t believe I can raise money enough to go with.  Wheat is worth 65¢ a bushel.  Corn we cannot sell for the cash at any price.  Butter is worth only 10¢ per pound.  In fact everything sells low for cash.  The price of land has fallen 20 per cent since you were here last fall.

We have not had any sleighing here since November, until today.  It commenced snowing here last night and is snowing yet.  So there is a prospect of having some sleighing yet this winter.  It was very warm and pleasant during the month of January, and there was considerable plowing done around here.

Jim Pratt and W. C. Campbell of this place have been forced to make an assignment lately, and there are a number of other merchants here that will be unable to meet their payments next spring.  How are the times down your way this winter?  I hope not as tight as it is here.

Our respects to you all.   Write soon and often.

Yours Respectfully

Leml S. Ranney


August 26, 1858

Lucius writes to Henry near the end of the summer of 1858.  Lucius says he has received two letters from Henry in the last couple of weeks, and he does not mention the death of his daughter in the Spring — suggesting once again that there were letters between February and August that did not survive in the archive.

In response to Henry’s inquiries, Lucius has talked to the miller in Jonesville about “flouring” some local wheat for Henry.  Henry apparently considered the miller’s offer, because he did the math in pencil on the last page of the letter.  The wheat crop was much lighter than expected due to the rust, a fungal disease once known as the “polio of agriculture.”  Lucius says he has no live-in hired boy this season, and is “both man & boy this summer.”

Definition: Offal usually means the parts of an animal discarded after butchering, but can also refer to the byproducts of grain milling.

My transcription follows the images:


The original images are from the archives of the Ashfield Historical Society and are used with permission.


Allen Aug 26th 1858

Dear Brother

I take the present moment to drop a line to you.  I have received two letters from you within two or three weeks & I now attempt in part to answer them, although with regret I have been very dilatory. I was at Jonesville a day or two ago to see about wheat & flour &c.  I saw Baxter, the man that owns the mill.  He said that he would flour wheat on a short notice.  His terms of flouring were this.  He would give what flour the wheat would make & furnish barrel & deliver at the Depot & he keep the offals for fifty cts a barrel, or he would give the offals (or bean &c.) and charge seventy five cts on the barrel.  He says that last year and almost every year 4 1/2 bushels of wheat will make a barrel of flour.  He has not tested it this year but he thinks it will take 10 or 15 lbs more of wheat this year than most seasons.  Wheat is generally poor & considerably shrunk this season.

Since the new wheat has begun to come in to market the price for white wheat has been from $1.00 to $1.15.  It may be a little lower but I think that it will run higher.  There is a great deal of wheat a going into the market.  There has been on an average for the last two weeks about four thousand bushels per day or 100 loads in Jonesville & about 1/2 that amount in Hillsdale.  White wheat I think now stands at $1.15.  At these figures a barrel would cost here from $5.70 to $6.00.

The wheat that is bought in this market is all shipped, not any floured here scarcely.  About the mark I did not think to inquire particularly, about the 1/2 barrels he does not put up any in that way.  But if he can get the 1/2 barrels he would do it.  He has got the same miller that he had when you were here.  He says that he will make a good article, one that take well to retail first rate.

If you see fit to get any put up I will assist you here.  I have been very busy this summer for I am alone.  Miles, the boy that was here last year, went to the State of N.Y. last spring and I am both man & boy this summer.  I have not hired much, only in harvesting & haying.

I saw a piece in the Northampton Courier concerning a man somewhere in the East that had tended eight acres of corn this summer.  I can say that of myself besides doing a great share of my harvesting & haying, I have about the same amount of hay this season as last.  I have not thrashed my wheat yet.  I thought before harvest that I should have about 250 bushels, but I think now that I shall have about 150.  The rust injured the wheat from one 1/4 to 1/2 throughout the state.  The prospect before harvest a few weeks was never better, but it has proved to be a short crop.  I also have got 12 acres of summer fallow which is partly plowed the second time, that I done myself in addition to all the boy work.           

Mother has had 3 or 4 shakes of the fever & ague.  She is better now.  Otherwise we have been well this summer.  Harrison & Lem have thrashed their wheat.   They had 100 bushels.  Anson has not thrashed.  He will have about 50 bushel. L. G. Says that he shan’t have not over six bushels.  Fruit is very scarce in this country.  There is no peaches.  We shall have about one half the apples as last year.  I have the same team that I had last year.  The Boys also have the same as last year.  My stock is about the same.  I summered about 10 tons of hay.  The hay crop is good this summer.  Corn about the same as last year.  There is not much old corn in the country, old corn is worth 60 cts.  Oats & potatoes are a light crop.

There is much more news that I might write but I have not time this morning as I have to go to Jonesville on business today.  I would like to write a little to Ralph & Ella but they must excuse me this time & write to me soon.

Yours in Haste

Lucius Ranney

H. S. Ranney


January 16, 1859

Harrison writes Henry in early 1859.  This letter contains a lot of interesting little clues about life in 1859, and one really big one.  Harrison mentions that their seventy-year old mother, Achsah, is busy churning seven pounds of butter a week from her cow.  He describes the situation on his farm and his brothers’ and he gives Henry a little news and gossip about local people.

The big news, however, is that Lemuel and many others are talking about going west to join the new gold rush in Kansas.  As odd as it sounds, ten years after the California Gold Rush, the Kansas Territory in 1859 was the hot new place to make your fortune.  This is because the territory of Kansas was much larger than the state it became in 1861.  The Kansas and Nebraska territories established in 1854 extended to the Continental Divide and included Pikes Peak and much of what is now Colorado and Wyoming.


1855 Map of the “Kanzas” and Nebraska Territories.


Kansas in the 1850s is usually remembered as “Bleeding Kansas,” a battleground where the issue of whether to extend slavery into the new western states was fought in a savage war along the Missouri border.  For the most part, we’ve forgotten that in 1859, both Kansas and Nebraska were part of The West in a way they no longer are. 

My transcription follows the images:


The original images are from the archives of the Ashfield Historical Society and are used with permission.


Hillsdale Jan 16th /59

Dear Brother

Yours of the 10th came to hand last night.  We are enjoying usual good health this winter.  LGs and Ansons people are well, also Lucius family.  Mother is making seven lbs Butter per week from her cow this winter.  You saw this cow probably when you were here.  We have not heard anything from R. Densmores folks for some time past.  Are looking for them out here this winter.  Lem is not doing anything this winter, but thinks or talks of going to Pikes Peak in the spring.

There is quite an excitement here about the gold in Kansas.  There are more than two hundred persons in this county say they are going to Pikes Peak next season.  I do not suppose there will be more than half that number go.  I heard Lucius speaking about your sending Anson some fifty dollars last fall.  I asked him some two months since if he had written you to let you know that the money was recd.  He said not but would write you in a few days.  That is the last I had heard or thought of it until I read your letter last night.  He said the money came so thats all right.

We have had quite an open winter thus far.  No cold weather to speak of.  Have had only about ten days of sleighing the fore part of Dec or last of Nov.  We milk two cows & make butter to sell this winter & keep two fine hogs & one span of horses.  We will probably milk 3 or 4 cows next summer.  Our wheat looks well.  We have on the ground eighteen acres, ten acres new ground & eight of corn ground, all of which we put in before the fourth of September last.  Our new ground we broke up in June and cross plowed in August.  So you can judge from that we expect a good crop of wheat if the season is favorable.

I intend to plant some ten or twelve acres of corn in the spring and sow four or five to millet.  We raised eight acres of corn last summer and fatted six hogs.  Ours were larger than your Pig.  But not so large according to the age.  One of ours weighed 420 lbs, the others were not so heavy.

I paid Rowlson for the Standard for one year in advance to be sent to you.  I think it was about one year ago now.  He may perhaps keep on sending it after the year is up. I know there is not much in it but advertisements.  Still I thought perhaps you might like to see what was a going on out here if it was not much, as we did not write you very often, and that you might see something in the paper that would interest you.  Therefore if you would like to read it another year, just let me know and I will have it sent to you.  All it will cost you will be the postage.

I recd a Greenfield newspaper from you last week.  We have not heard from Harry Lawrence nor have we seen any of the St. Jo people down here.  Lem is not married, nor have Lucius folks any children.  But Fox and his wife have had another fight!  He has sold off everything but the House Hold Goods and wanted to give his wife one third of the farm.  But she would not divide the property that way.  Consequently he lets her and the Boys remain on the land while he goes to Kansas.  He sold two horses, harness, wagon, two plows, one drag for two hundred twenty five dollars on two years time.  Lucius bought his sheep.  Fox says he goes dish time certain.  But folks think they will make up again as usual.

The last we heard from Frank he was trying to get in Deputy Sheriff under Wm Hildreth.  Have not heard from him direct since last fall.  L.G. Saw Powell Lound at Coldwater in the fall.  He said he would sell his place for thirty dollars per acre.  And that other place was about five dollars per acre cheaper than when you were out there.  About here it is Hurah for Mo or Kansas, don’t care much which.

It is dinner time and I must stop blowing.  Helen joins in sending Love to all.

Yours Truly

H. J. Ranney


April 10, 1859

Lucius writes Henry to say their brothers Lemuel and Anson have gone off to the gold rush at Pike’s Peak. Their older brother, Alonzo Franklin, has decided to stay in New York and has bought a new farm in Phelps. Lucius, who is now forty and no longer has a child of his own, has both a young boy staying at the house to do farm-work and a girl about the same age. He fills Henry in on the crops he is growing and commodity process in Michigan.

My transcription follows the images:


The original images are from the archives of the Ashfield Historical Society and are used with permission.


Allen, April 10th 1859


Dear Brother

I again attempt to write a few lines to let you know that we are in the land of the living & in the state of Mich & surrounded by mud and water, for it is a very rainy day. We are all in our usual health & have been since I last wrote you. Mother’s health remains about the same with a gradual decline caused by old age.

Lemuel & Anson started for Pikes Peak one week ago last Tuesday March 29th they & three other fellows have gone together with one horse team. Probably will trade them in Iowa for 2 or 3 yoke of oxen. They have taken the grey horse that I owned when you was here last they have also got the original mate and brother to him which Mr. Whitney raised & owned until they bot him. He is fourteen & the one they got from me is thirteen this spring. They weigh about eleven hundred perfectly right & their constitutions are good, the best team for that journey that I know of.

They have taken Harrisons & Lems lumber wagon & their harness that they bought when you was out here last. They put a first rate oil cloth cover on it. They wrote from Valparaiso Indiana last Sunday about 140 miles from here. I have not much faith in Pikes Peak Excitement but however I hope the boys will do well.

Anson has let his place to be worked on shares this season & his wife is a living to her Fathers. L.G. was here and stayed over night last week. His family are well. Lem was at Densmores about 3 weeks ago, they are well. I am going to repair my barn this summer & build cow house on where the old hovels are.

I have the boy a living with me this summer that Anson had for the past year with him. He is sixteen but small of his age but very trusty. We also a girl with us about the same age. Harrison is a farming on his own hooks this summer. I have sowed my orchard to oats. Wheat is worth $1.35 per bushel, corn 75 cts, oats 50, potatoes 50 cts. Wheat looks fair on the ground this spring.

If you should want to write to the boys you had better direct to Council Bluff as they will expect some letters there. There has several gone from this county in the search of gold & in fact a great many from this state. We have had a very open winter the past. I do not think of anything more of importance to write this time. I have written to A.F. today. I got a letter from him a few days ago. He has bought a farm this spring on the Canandagua Outlet in Phelps. Probably has written to you about it. Write soon. Mother & Clarissa send their love & best wishes to you all & would like to hear from you all again.

In Haste

Lucius Ranney


June 2, 1860: Allen Michigan Census

A page from the United States census-taker’s notes for Allen, Michigan. 41-year old Lucius is listed, along with his 29-year old wife Clarissa, his 71-year old mother Achsah, and two farm workers. The first is a 32-year old named Austin Cross and the second an 18-year old apprentice named Burton Brown. Lucius’s real estate is valued at $4,500, and his “personal estate” at $700.

Lower on the page, in a neighboring household, is 27-year old Anson, his 21-year old wife Caroline, and their 3-year old son Everitt. Anson’s farm is worth $1,800, and he has $250 in other assets.

Sources like these census forms, which are now available online, are a good way to keep track of people like the Ranneys as they move across the nation. Census forms include valuable details such as occupations, assets, place of birth, and household members that can add to out knowledge of the people we study. And they can be compared, decade to decade, to keep track of people.



October 14, 1861

Henry’s oldest brother Frank (Alonzo Franklin) writes a short note, possibly in reply to Henry’s inquiry about buying some flour from millers around Phelps. He gives some details of the red wheat flour market, and then closes with a bit of new about the family. Frank has recently heard from Harrison in Michigan. Apparently after Lemuel and Anson’s trip to Pike’s Peak, Anson was ready to settle down on the farm down the road from Lucius but Lemuel decided to look for gold on the west coast again.

My transcription follows the image:


The original images are from the archives of the Ashfield Historical Society and are used with permission.


Oct 14th

We have sowed 20 acres to wheat this fall. Red wheat is now worth $1.06. The mill near here has undergone some improvements & probably they manufacture as good quality of flour as any in this county. They have a contract to furnish 100 bbls [barrels] per week at $5.00 per bbl delivered at the Rail Road Phelps.  The compy [company] to whom they ship are at Fort Plain. This flour is made from Red Wheat.

Harrison writes me that Lucius health is quite good. Also that they had no letter from Lemuel for sometime but a young man by the name of Thomas from Allen who went to Cal in the compy wrote in July that Lem had gone to Washington Territory prospecting.


October 17, 1861

This is a rare example of a draft of a letter Henry wrote to his brother-in-law George Goodwin in Boston regarding 218 pounds of peppermint oil offered by Henry’s Michigan supplier, H. H. Lawrence. A resident of Florence, Lawrence seems to be a friend of Henry’s brothers. Henry bought peppermint oil from Lawrence off and on in the 1850s and 1860s. Their letters are much more businesslike than the brothers’ letters, although Lawrence occasionally mentions that he or his wife have been to visit Lucius or Lewis.

Henry is annoyed with Goodwin’s indecision about buying the oil Lawrence offers. Henry seems to be out of the business of supplying peddlers at this point, and wants to act as a middleman for his brother-in-law and make a small profit marking up Lawrence’s oil to Goodwin. George will drag his feet for too long in this instance, and Lawrence will sell the oil elsewhere. A year later, when Henry hears from Lawrence about oil again, he will remind Goodwin not to wait too long this time to decide.

Strike-throughs in the draft seem to indicate where Henry decided to edit parts of his not that seemed to project too much annoyance.


My transcription follows the image:


The original images are from the archives of the Ashfield Historical Society and are used with permission.


Ashfield October 17, 1861

Dear Brother

I am just in receipt this evening of a line from my correspondent in Mich saying that he has had an offer for his 218# oil and would prefer to sell it in one lot wishing to know how much we will have from him (for I gave him reason to think we might wish for the whole of it) Could do a little better there by selling the lot together but he wishes to know immediately how much we want & asks me to make him an offer to him the best offer we can make for the lot. I have not written him since Sept 17th for I have been waiting to hear from you & he now expects me to reply immediately & decisively. I shall write him this evening and ask him to hold on, at least, until I can communicate with you.

I presume you rec’d my letter of Sept 30 to which I have not rec’d your reply


November 17, 1861

Lucius writes to Henry after a silence of a couple of years. He says he is ashamed, but recounts a long illness that probably accounts for much of that lost time. Lucius describes how he began to feel ill and had to “commence Doctoring & the more I Doctored the worse I grew.” This is not unusual in an era when Doctors were just beginning to think twice about long-standing traditions of bleeding their patients and prescribing poisons such as mercury and antimony. The treatment Lucius’s doctor prescribed seems to have involved driving from place to place in a buggy, which Lucius did for the better part of a year until he was recovered. During the year of his illness, Lucius says he didn’t work a day. This would have been the period during which the Census listed two farm workers living in his household, so he was apparently able to hire men to run his farm under his direction.


Lucius brings Henry up to date on the health and situations of their mother, sister, and brothers. Lemuel has been mining in the Utah Territory at the “Washoe mines”. Lemuel is probably working for wages in silver mines around Virginia City in what will soon become Nevada. But he seems to retain a hope of striking it rich himself, and plans to go prospecting in the Washington Territory.


My transcription follows the images:


The original images are from the archives of the Ashfield Historical Society and are used with permission.


Sunday Eve

Allen Nov 17th 1861

Dear Brother

It has been so long since I have written to you that I am at a loss to know what to write first, but my better judgment tells me that you will not be particular in regard to that if you can only hear from us. In the first place I can say that we are all enjoying our usual health, & that is to say pretty good health, and have been for the past summer, if my memory serves me & I guess it does. It has been some over two years since I have written to you, & on the other hand you cannot boast much of writing to me in that time and for my part I feel ashamed that such a state of things should have occurred. (but so it is)

Two years ago the past summer in consequence of over working or from some other cause not known to me, my health became very precarious or in other words very poor. So much so that I was obliged to stop work entirely. And of course I had to commence Doctoring & the more I Doctored the worse I grew, & I tried a 2nd Doct & then a 3rd and so on until I got so debilitated from the top of my head to the sole of my feet that I could not eat sleep nor rest in no shape. I did not want to see any one, neither did I want any one to see me and the candle of life was fast a going out, so much so that I could not hardly walk to the barn & back.

But lo & behold as the good Providence would have it, some of my good friends prevailed on me to go to Hillsdale with them, & try one Doct more, & so I mustered all the strength and energy that I had & rode down with them. The Doct told me that he could help me, if I would strictly follow his directions (I after wards heard that he told others that my case was a very doubtful one). But it would take a long time to do it.

I was not able to ride home that day & he did not want that I should go home for a week but sent for Harrison to come down the next day with a Buggy so that I could ride out a mile or two & in the course of three or four days after pursuing that course & the medicine that he gave me I went home with Harrison & could stand it to ride from Harrison’s to the Village & back about every day & in the course of a week or two I got so that I could ride home one day & back the next. Then I hired a top Buggy & rode what I was able to for a few weeks. & then I bot [bought] one a Buggy & still kept riding what I was able to.

It was good, almost, wheeling all winter. We only had about two weeks of sleighing that winter & by spring I had improved considerable, & in fact to get at the point & cut a long story short there was not a day for over one year but what I took more or less medicine & I think still that it was necessary that I should. It may appear singular but nevertheless it is true that there was over three months of the time of my illness that I was not able to harness a horse onto the buggy and yet I rode hundreds of miles on no earthly business only to improve my health & it did improve it. & for over a year I did not do one hour’s work. But for the past six or eight months I have been able to do a good deal of work & my health is pretty good & still improving.

There was several months of my illness that my stomach was so weak that I did not eat a meal of victuals but distressed me more or less & sometimes very much. I did not eat one lb of Pork for over one year. There was several months that I lived mostly on graham bread & butter. Doct Parsons the Hillsdale Doct told me that my only alternative was to let my business or farmtake care of itself, ride what I could, visit what I could & take all the comfort that I could. I spent a great deal of time at Lewis’s & at Harrison’s. Some two months off and on at Anson’s. I hope that you won’t get as tired of reading this as I am of writing it.

Lewis & his wife are well & get along very well. Lewis bot 10 acres of Harper. Gets the house. He has moved it, fixed it up & it is quite good. He raises 100 bushels wheat this year & a good crop of corn &c [etc.]. Harrison folks are well. They have two boys and one girl about 8 months old. Their oldest boy Frank Herbert has been here with us ever since last May. Harrison has been clerking for Docts French and Parsons in the Drug Store at Hillsdale for the past year. He intends to stay there for another year. He rents out his & Lem’s farm.

We have not heard from Lem for the past four or five months. Utaw Territory at the Washoe mines where Anson left him then. But was about to start for Washington Territory a prospecting there. Don’t know how he was a doing. Densmore has moved from Black River to the mouth of the Kalamazoo River. He is a running a mill there. Priscilla’s health I guess is pretty good. Anson is a farming away as well as he can.

I have just finished husking and digging potatoes. I had about 150 bushels of potatoes & about one thousand bushels ears corn. I had about two hundred bushels wheat. My stock consists of 3 horses, 3 cows, 3 yoke 2 year old steers, 9 fatting hogs &c. I have had a boy a living here this summer. Pay him 7 dollars per month. I have hired by the day some. Mother’s health is pretty good. We have had a warm fall but rather wet. The first frost we had was the 20th of Oct. We have not but a few apples this year. We had about 30 bushels of peaches. Last year we had none. Two years ago we had about 100 bushels. Mother & Clarissa dried about 50 bush.

I must close. Write soon & I will try & answer. Mother & Clarissa send their love to you all. This from your brother Lucius Ranney.




January 1, 1863

On New Years Day 1863 Elisha Bassett writes to “Cousin Henry” from Boston. Elisha gets right to business, offering no opinion in answer to a question Henry had apparently posed regarding savings banks but answering questions for Henry about current government bond yields. Bassett refers to “Uncle Frank” as the potential investor in the bonds he describes, and mentions the hassles associated with getting his money to Boston and then redeeming the interest coupons of the bonds. Uncle Frank is Henry’s father-in-law Francis Bassett. Henry married Julia Bassett in June 1856 when he was 39 and she was 33. Later in the letter, Bassett sends his “best regards to cousin Julia.” Although marriage to Julia might have been enough for Bassett to consider Henry a cousin, there’s an additional connection. Bassett’s mother Fanny Sears Bassett was the sister of Henry’s mother Achsah Sears Ranney. Bassett also mentions “It affords me pleasure to hear that your mother is still living & in comfortable health.”


The Massachusetts 34th Regiment at camp near Fort Lyon, Virginia.

Bassett says he is surprised to learn that Henry’s son Ralph has gone to fight in the Civil War. Ralph was only 17 at the time when Bassett wrote, and he was already in Company F of the 34th Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteers. The 34th was mustered in Worcester in August 1862. At the time Bassett wrote the regiment was guarding Washington D.C. From the summer of 1863 to the end of the war in 1865 the regiment fought in eight battles and lost 269 men. They were present at the Battle of Appomattox Courthouse on April 9, 1865 and at the surrender of Robert E. Lee. The regiment was mustered out of service in June 1865. Ralph survived the war.

My transcription follows the images:


The original images are from the archives of the Ashfield Historical Society and are used with permission.


Boston Jan. 1st 1863

Cousin Henry,

Your letter was rec’d yesterday. As I don’t know how your Savings Banks are managed I cannot compare them with other investments. I think well of U.S. Bonds as investments, in proof of which I may mention the fact that I have $5,500.00 worth of them. I prefer on the whole the 6 per cts, and have $4000 of mine in them. The 7 3/10 bonds are to run from one to two years, and then may be paid or be converted into 20 yr. 6 per cts, while the sixes have 20 yrs to run. The difference in market price makes the sixes as cheap as the 7 3/10 in the long run 7 there will be no trouble with collecting or changing them soon. However the sixes are not to be had in smaller notes than $500, while the 7 3/10 can be had in $50, $100, &c. and would be more convenient for investment of less than $500.

I can today buy 7 3/10 bonds for abt 102 & add accrued interest. These run two years from Oct. 1, ’62 and there is now 92 days int. earned, which is one ct. per day on each $50, and which must be paid in addition to the price. The sixes are always sold here flat as the brokers call it, that is no acct. is made of earned interest but it makes a part of the price, as in stocks of Banks or Rail Roads. On them interest is due today, and they are today sold in. off at between 98 and 99 per ct. My interest coupons today I sold my brokers at 33 per ct. premium to save the trouble of going to Custom House for gold, for which I could have got a fraction more. At present prices for gold a dividend, or rather interest of 3 per ct in gold is equal to abt four per ct in current funds. The 5.20 sixes as they are called come in $100.00 pieces and Uncle might get them. They are sold at about the same as the 20 yr sixes I believe, but are not plenty nor often quoted. They are payable in 20 years absolutely and at Govt option any time after 5 yrs.

The objection to Uncle Frank’s investing in U.S. Bonds is the risk & trouble & expense of sending his money here and returning the bonds to him, and then collecting each coupon as it came due &c. I think them safe & likely to command a handsome premium at some future time. Any considerable success or failure in the prosecution of the war would affect them. They fell abt two per ct. upon our defeat at Fredericksburg, and have not since rallied. I will purchase any of these bonds for him if he wishes, and will forward the funds. If his money was not the exact amt I could arrange it and balance it afterwards.

A great many capitalists avoid Govt Bonds entirely, and will let money on good mortgages, or on City of Boston Bonds at 5 per ct. instead. A good six per ct. mortgage where interest was sure every six months, would be perhaps better than Govt. Bonds, but they cannot be had here now.

I was surprised to learn that Ralph had gone to the war. I did not imagine that he was old enough. I am glad that he has not been exposed any more so far, and I hope no harm will befall him. It affords me pleasure to hear that your mother is still living & in comfortable health.

Tell Uncle F. that I should be happy to have a visit from him in Boston, and then we will see about his investments. We are well. Call on us whenever you happen this way. I have never had the pleasure of introducing you to my present wife. I hope to visit my Ashfd. friends again at sometime.

My best regards to cousin Julia & all my good friends in Ashfd. & believe me, as ever

Yours truly Elisha Bassett

H.S. Ranney Esq.

Ashfield Mass.

P.S. I have written in haste & I presume have written particulars that you knew as well as I, but it is no matter if I have if I have made myself intelligible. E.B.


September 23, 1866

Lucius writes in response to a letter from Henry. He has relates some details of his crops and livestock, and news from Lemuel, who related a story in a letter to Lucius about being swindled out of a mining claim into which he had invested a great deal of time and money. As a result, Lucius writes that Lemuel is working for wages on someone else’s claim. Rather than getting rich, he is earning $4 per day.

My transcription follows the images:


The original images are from the archives of the Ashfield Historical Society and are used with permission.


Allen Sept 23rd 1866

Dear Brother,

Yours of the 16th was duly received and I thought I would respond to it this evening. We are all of us enjoying our usual health at present. I saw Lewis & Harrison yesterday & Anson today, they are a getting along after the old sort. Lewis was offered $3200 for his 40 acres the other day & He have all the crops.

Wheat is a very poor crop this year but corn & oats & all spring crops are good. I had only one hundred and twenty bushels of wheat on 18 acres this year and that is more than an average of the country. I have 14 acres of corn and 200 bushels of oats and 15 or 20 tons of hay. My present stock is 2 horses one two year colt two cows and two hundred sheep. I sheared one hundred and forty sheep got over eight hundred lbs. wool. I sold for 56 ½ ct a lb. I sheared 3 sheep at the sheep shearing festival at Hillsdale this spring. I got 2 second premiums on the same 2 sheep that I did the first last year at Jonesville. The amount was $13.00

I think that I shall go out to Densmores in the course of 3 or 4 weeks. Clarissa will probably go with me a visiting. We got a letter from Lem about the first of July, in answer to one that I wrote the first of April. I have written him since then. He was well. He said perhaps that he might come home this fall. He was a mining, at work by the Day for $4.00 hard money and had been for the last year. Works 10 hrs per day. He says that he has had bad luck and it was this, about two years ago he bought into a mining company and they went on and sunk a shaft. Six hundred feet deep and timbered it up from top to bottom with 4 inch plank & made three apartments to it 4 feet square each, run drifts in all directions. They had expended over one hundred thousand dollars & just commenced taking out ore with a prospect of getting there money back when adverse titles came up such as any claim in that country of any worth has to defend. Came up and beat them out of their ground. Lem says why or how he has not time to explain now but they had one of the biggest lawsuits ever got up in that country and it left them all dead broke and the most of them in debt. He said that he had paid up his and was all straight again. He said that he thought that he had his fortune right there and would if they had not been swindled out of it.

Lemuel keeps all of his land here yet. It is advancing in price some. Last spring two of uncle Abiather Phillips boys were here. He thinks of buying him a small place somewhere about here. His family consists of his wife and two children. We like them quite well. He has about four thousand dollars. He says that the rest of them are all better off than he is. Abiather & Samuel are quite wealthy.

I have found out where Marti Leach lives. He lives about eight miles north of Kalamazoo on the plank road. Ella we are very much pleased with the photograph that you sent us this summer. Grandma wants that you should write her a letter.

Lucius Ranney


March 31, 1867

In early spring Henry’s 22-year old son Ralph writes to his younger sister Ella (Lemira Ella Ranney, 1847-1874) from a peddling trip in Vermont. Ralph seems to be selling mostly silk thread, and says he waited in Rutland for a resupply from “Bement”. This was probably Joseph Bement, Jasper’s son and Henry’s former partner. Ralph took the train from village to village and had been headed toward Bennington near the New York border until he heard that another Ashfield peddler had just been there.

Ralph says he has gotten over a cold that was bothering and asks his sister about the measles outbreak she had mentioned in a prior letter. He closes the letter abruptly to make room for people at the house he’s staying at who want to use the table to eat some maple sugar that was being prepared while he was writing.

My transcription appears after the images:


The original images are from the archives of the Ashfield Historical Society and are used with permission.


East Arlington Vt. 31st Mch ‘67

Dear Sister

I wrote you last week at Fair Haven & I suppose you recd it in due season.

Monday morning after I had finished FH village I took the train to Rutland Centre & worked from there on to Rutland village where I recd the letters from you & father. Stopped while in R at Mrs. Russells Boarding House. Tuesday peddled around the village & recd another load of silk from Bement to peddle out on the way home. Wednesday finished up Rutland & in the afternoon took the train to Wallingford where I peddled till Thurs night when I took the train for Manchester. Stopped over night at Factory Point with a Mrs. Wilson. First rate place. Friday finished both villages in Manchester and at night took the train to Arlington. Stopped at the Hotel & yesterday finished up the village of Arlington & East A & am stopping with a Mr. Ralph Smith.

Have had a fair week. One days work at Rutland was extra but silk peddlers are plenty in this country. I have to talk to ‘em hard to get ‘em to trade.

Intend to go afoot to Shaftsbury & so on south. Shall get home sometime next week if not before according to my hurry. Don’t expect to sell out as I am afraid John Phillips has been to Bennington. W. Bement says he was at Stamford & is now in York state so I guess he has been in B.

The weather has been very changeable this past week but today ‘tis quite pleasant.

I am in quite a hurry to write this as we (ie the folks here) are sugaring off & I expect to get some pretty quick. If you should write please direct to No. Adams.

My cold is almost well but I was most sick two days.

Hope the measles are not so prevalent as it was last time you wrote.

I have got to close as the sugar will wax & the folks want the table to eat sugar on.

Your aff Bro.



June 16, 1867

Hackettstown and Washington New Jersey from an 1872 map.

Ralph writes to his sister Ella again in the summer of 1867, from a peddling trip in central New Jersey. He has been in Hackettstown long enough that it has begun to seem like home, but says tomorrow he and his partner Henry are going to move on to the town of Washington, about ten miles southwest. He mentions he has received a letter recently from their father Henry S. Ranney, but has not heard from her in a while.

Ralph observes that the successful people in the area seem to be always at work, but says the poor “loaf around and drink whiskey.” The region is called “German Valley” and the typical diet is salt mackerel, krout, and cheese. But the population of the region might be changing, because Ralph notes that almost every other farm is rented out, which means many are not as well kept up as they might be.

My transcription follows the images:


The original images are from the archives of the Ashfield Historical Society and are used with permission.

Hackettstown June 16th ‘67

Dear Sister

I have been waiting to receive a letter from you for some time but as it don’t come guess I will write a few lines as perhaps you may forget where I am. I rec’d a letter from father a while ago which was none the less welcome from the fact that most all the news items had transpired before I left A.

Henry & I have been operating around in this vicinity ever since we came out. Have been around on both sides of the R.R. the greater part of German Valley etc. The country is splendid & just the place for farming. There are a great many rented farms however, almost every other one in fact and such places rarely get much improvements like fruit trees, new buildings &c. &c.

I have done pretty well thus far nothing wonderful however, but shall be satisfied to average as well all summer. Gardner came up from Clinton where he is operating last night to see what we were up to. He reports entire satisfaction. Th weather for the last four days is very warm & it is rather hard time to work at such business.

Has the revenue collector been around to collect my special tax? If so please send the license to me in your next.

Please excuse careless writing.

The people are somewhat different here than in Mass. The richest people ie rich farmers, work hard all the time & the poor people loaf around and drink whiskey. The principal diet throughout the country is salt mackerel which in a warm day gives one an almost intolerable thirst. Sour krout, dutch cheese &c. &c. also disappear in large quantities.

My health has been good & have enjoyed myself as well as is possible in a business of this nature which you know is one of that class which are filled with trials and vexations, but not quite as bad in some respects as I had expected to find it. As I hadn’t heard anything from you I suppose you are all well & moving along in the same old channel as heretofore. We are going to leave Hackettstown tomorrow and going down to Washington N.J. to operate for the present where you may direct hereafter. I would rather stay in H. where it begins to seem like home but “business before pleasure” you know. I haven’t written much but it is warm and lazy weather and I must close. My respects to all the folks.

Your aff bro.





June 16, 1867

Henry’s oldest brother Frank (Alonzo Franklin Ranney) writes him from Phelps, saying he hopes his letter will elicit an immediate response. He mentions that their sister Priscilla and her husband Randolph Densmore visited the previous winter. They had moved to Saugatuck, Frank says, a small town on Lake Michigan at the mouth of the Kalamazoo River. Densmore sold off his share of the mill he was a partner in, and probably retired. Densmore was President of the village organization from 1873 to 1874.

Frank also says Lemuel had visited and that he thinks his brother has become unstable from spending his life chasing wealth in western mining camps. He retells Lemuel’s story of being swindled out of his claim. Then he mentions that his own plaster business in Phelps has been quite successful, selling $56,000 worth of plaster in less than two weeks. Frank also mentions that family friend John Bement, who was a supplier of glass vials for Henry’s peddler business, had recently died.

My transcription appears below the images.


The original images are from the archives of the Ashfield Historical Society and are used with permission.


Phelps June 16th 1867

Dear Brother

After delaying it for a long time I now improve a few leisure moments of writing a short epistle hoping thereby to shortly hear from you. We are enjoying our usual health.

The last we heard from you was sometime last fall when you was engaged in a book agency. Should be pleased to learn what success you had. We here had the coldest wettest spring I ever saw but for the last 10 days the weather has been beautiful. Vegetation has grown rapidly. Grass promises to be heavy. Wheat a fair crop but of spring crops many were got into the ground late & much depends on the weather in order to produce a good yield.

Densmore & Priscilla made us a visit in Feb. They spent about a week here & some 3 weeks in Seneca & Hopewell among his relatives and friends. They are living at Saugatuck. He sold out his interest in the mill. He has 120 acres near the village a part of which he has surveyed into Village lots a small portion of which he has sold to the amount of $7000. Himself & son own 2 Tug Boats used for the purpose of towing vessels in and out of the harbor which they make quite profitable. The T. Boats the value of $3000 each. He says good luck has attended him for the last 2 or 3 years. He considers himself worth $20000.

Lemuel accompanied Ella home the last of April. Spent some 3 weeks here & then returned to Mich. He said Densmore had offered him some inducements to come to Saugatuck.

He has roamed over the wilds of the west so long in search of wealth that his mind has become unstable and unsettled. Says he has let chances pass which would have paid well to have sold at offers for claims that promised to be rich but held to them and did not realize from them according to expectations. Himself & 3 other partners had a rich claim which they opened and began to realize from it & there came a wealthy company and commenced a suit for an original claim and they were at law for sometime and they were beaten out of it at last. He says the Judge & their own lawyers were bribed. Lem intended going out to Saugatuck about the 1st of June.

There is a large Camp Meeting now in progress near Oaks Corners. Over 100 tents on the ground. I have attended one day. An immense crowd of people in attendance.

Our plaster trade has been very brisk for 2 weeks past. Sold in 12 days 140 tons at $400 per ton.

There is much building going on this season in the Village and country among the farmers. Jas. B. Flower has sold his farm at $100 per acre & is building in the village.

John Bement died last winter at Geneva. Probably you are apprized of it. The larger part of his property went to his nephews & nieces. Simeon Phillips is one of the executors of the will. There has been a cheese factory started in the village which promises to do well. The superintendent is said to be as good a maker of cheese as any in the state.

Remember us to all your family

H.S. Ranney

A.F. Ranney


September 13, 1868

Ralph asks his father if Ashfield has a “Grant & Colfax” flag yet.

Ralph Ranney writes to his father Henry with news of his peddling trip across Vermont and New Hampshire. He has visited a series of towns from Claremont New Hampshire and up the Connecticut River, finally reaching Northfield in central Vermont. Ralph says he will go to Montpelier next, and mentions that he has been travelling by train between towns and has passed several villages by because they seemed too small to be worth stopping at.

Ralph says he has been “netting” about $15 per week in profit, which is pretty good for 1868 but not unusual for a peddler. He asks whether the other silk peddlers have left Ashfield yet, and if so in which directions they went. This suggests Ralph is probably selling silk thread again.

Transcription follows images:


The original images are from the archives of the Ashfield Historical Society and are used with permission.


Northfield Vermont

13th Sept. 1868

Dear Father

It is time for me to write you a few lines again and I enclose it in this to Rosa as I’ve only one envelope by me in which to send both. I wrote you I think at Bellows Falls. Since then I’ve been in Charlestown N.H., Springfield Vermont, Claremont N.H., Windsor Vt., West Lebanon N.H., White River Junction & Wt. River Village Vt. Till I’ve brought up here nearly in the centre of the old Green Mountain State. Trade has been on the whole just about as it was on the first week. I have been netting I think about $15. per week profit.

I am pretty confident that I can keep up to those figures at least if there is no unforeseen obstacles to prevent. I don’t know but the price of easily smuggled goods may be a little less as far north as Burlington. From the Junction to this place I didn’t stop as all the towns are very small indeed should think this place about the size of Greenfield. Montpelier is about 10 miles distant shall go there next. Have you sent Pratt Bros that money yet? If not do so immediately as neglect may injure Mr. Howes’ credit which I should be very sorry to occasion.

I have been obliged to stop work two or three days on account of the rain but have had a few days extra success to counterbalance.

So far as I have travelled the Apple crop seems to be very good in all places. Even the old trees seem to bear well. Have the Church boys, Ryland and other silk peddlers gone out yet? And if so do you know in what direction? I can’t think of anything that will impress one of the greatness of our country any more than to travel mile after mile by rail in a little state like this and then look at the United States map and compare distances.

Has Ashfield got a Grant & Colfax flag yet? How do the Ros Eldridge potatoes turn out? Don’t think I shall get around before election if I do then.

Write everything you think I shall want to hear. How all our folks are especially. If you write before Sunday direct to Montpelier if not until to Waterbury.

Yours in haste



October 8, 1868

Ralph Ranney writes to his father Henry S. Ranney from a peddling trip in Vermont. He says he has recently passed through several towns and villages between Burlington and Rutland and mentions that his finger had been bothering him and he had feared a “felon” infection. A felon is an abscess deep in the palm side of the fingertip, caused by a bacterial infection. Luckily, Ralph’s problem turned out to be nothing.

Ralph also mentions that a man was run over by a train in Rutland and lost an arm and a leg. He mentions he was intoxicated at the time but “is now sober!”

A flyer from Van Amburgh’s Menagerie, from 1864. A song about him went, “Van Amburgh is the man, who goes to all the shows/He goes into the lion’s cage, and tells you all he knows;/He sticks his head in the lion’s mouth and keeps it there a-while,/And when he pulls it out again, he greets you with a smile.”

Ralph says he arrived in Rutland on the second day of a cattle show, but didn’t attend. He mentions that Van Amburgh’s Menagerie was attracting a lot of visitors on the Agricultural fairgrounds  and that Rutland is growing quickly. Ralph says it is the most like Ashfield of any town he has visited in Vermont.

My transcription follows the images:


The original images are from the archives of the Ashfield Historical Society and are used with permission.


Rutland VT. Oct. 8 ‘68

Dear Father

I rec’d your letter at Burlington and I don’t remember of writing you since but will write you a few lines now. Since I left Burlington I’ve stopped at Shelburne, Vergennes, Middlebury, Brandon, Pittsford, etc. Have been having a fair trade all the time about as it was when I wrote last. The last work however has been the best of any since I’ve been out. At Vergennes trade was good, at Middlebury fair, Brando ditto, Burlington pretty well. I didn’t go to St. Albans and am now rather glad as there is a fellow who has kept along with me most of the time since I left Montpelier selling spectacles out there and didn’t do anything and I have seen by county maps that it wasn’t a very large place.

As you said I rather missed it in not stopping at West Randolph but I knew nothing of the place till after I got to Northfield. I had been informed that there was no place of any size till I got to N.

Had a pleasant time at Middlebury where I stopped three days. Staid with Mr. Cobb who is the P.M. and who was formerly Editor of the Middlebury Register and although holding the P.O. from Andy I should judge him not to be so sound a democrat as his Bro. Jasby. He is the strongest Repub. I’ve seen.

That letter Roscoe forwarded me to Windsor I rec’d just before leaving Montpelier. Have been having something of a sore finger for a little more than a week which at one time I was afraid was going to be a felon but it is nearly well now and no felon. Did they have a good cattle show at A. I understand you started off there in the rain.

They had one here Wednesday and Thursday. I came into town the last day but didn’t go to see any of it. They had the additional attractions of Van Amburgh’s Menagerie on the Agricultural Grounds and a great many went. Rutland is growing fast. A great many new stores & dwellings have been built since I was here before. I’ve ordered some new goods which I expect will be here sometime this week.

Meanwhile I am going to Castleton & Fair Haven way and then shall come here finish up and continue on south. And shall get around to Ashfield not far from Election time I think. Rutland seems most like home of any place I’ve found in Vt.

A man was run over by the cars near the depot at the crossing last night and his leg & arm cut off & otherwise badly mangled. He is yet alive. He was intoxicated at the time. Is now sober!

Am boarding at Mrs. Earles on Willow St. There are six other boarders.

Had a letter from Fayette within a week or two. Dated St. Louis. No news in particular, only that he intended starting for a firm in St. L. soon. Whether with team or as a drummer didn’t understand. He wanted to know Emeline’s address.

My health is good. Hope you are all the same. Won’t ask questions as I consider them superfluous as I shall expect to hear everything without.

Yours etc. Ralph

Yours was forwarded from Montpelier to Bulrington.


April 4, 1869

Ralph writes to his father Henry S. Ranney from Waltham (probably New Hampshire, since he frequently travels up along the Connecticut River peddling) in early spring 1869. He is planning on going to work as an employee of a Boston-area silk manufacturer names Bowman. Giving up independent peddling, he expects to be paid a $750 to $800 annual salary and says Bowman has supplied him with a seven-year old mare and is planning to outfit him with a “Rockaway” wagon and $2,000 of inventory.



Ralph says the weather is good, and the snow is gone but there is not a lot of mud. He mentions that people are beginning to get outside and are riding “velocipedes” which are “all the rage”. He say he will tell his father more about his new employment when he sees him and that it will be okay for his father to let it be known Ralph has “hired out” but asks his father not to mention the salary he has agreed to.


A Dexter Velocipede, 1869.


Transcription follows images:


The original images are from the archives of the Ashfield Historical Society and are used with permission.


Waltham Sunday 4th April 1869

Dear Father

I rec’d yours in answer to mine in due season. I did not write much in my las both because I was in a hurry, and because I thought as you do that I had better let them finish everything and didn’t think it necessary to go into particulars much.

Mr. Bowman did not seem to be very particular about the amt. he was to pay me as that he said would depend on the amt. of trade I could hold and he expected and was willing to make raise my pay if I succeeded in establishing a paying route; but as at first I probably shouldn’t make very profitable work he thought $750 or $800 per annum about all he could afford to pay. He was quite liberal in restrictions of different kinds and I think judging from appearances that I shall find them good employers. I think he will furnish me with a 7 year old black mare, weight about 11 hundred and a good traveler. The wagon is to be new and is very much like a Rockaway, you know what they are I suppose as they are quite common around here. He is going to take the back seat out & have a box with doors &c. fitted in.

Some have a fancy painted wagon like Amos’s Grocer & Baker with the name of firm and Sewing Silks &c. on it, but Mr. Bowman thought that would more of an advertisement to Burglars than anyone else. He intends to stock me with about $2,000 worth of goods and express me from time to time as I want more. He has a better and fuller stock of everything in the line than any firm I know of and I think sells cheaper and I see no reason why I shouldn’t sell.

Will tell you more what he said when I see you. You can say that I have “hired out” if you wish though I wouldn’t care to have the wages stated nor too much importance laid upon the matter. You know it makes a difference how a thing is told.

Trade I find is fair though there have been too many peddlers to make trade extra. I shall go on Fitchburg way next and you can direct there if you write.

The ground is bare here not a bit of snow to be seen. Hardly any to be seen this side of Fitchburg. The walking is good, hardly any mud. Probably better here than it will be in Ashfield in a month from now. Velocipedes are all the rage yet & they are beginning to get out doors with them some. I suppose Rosa and the baby are getting along well. Have you seen them lately?

Are they making sugar much yet? Hope you are all well. Suppose Willy is getting out doors some now. Aunt Hannah & the girls send their respects to all of you.

In haste yours




August 16, 1869

Achsah Sears Ranney’s gravestone in Allen Michigan.

Lemuel writes to his brother Henry of the death of their mother, Achsah Sears Ranney. Born in Ashfield in 1789, she married George Ranney in 1811 and had eight sons and a daughter who survived to adulthood. She moved to Phelps New York with her family in 1833, and when George died in 1842 she began splitting her time between her sons’ homes in Michigan and New York, with occasional stays with Henry in Ashfield. She was apparently healthy and active to within a couple of months of her death, her son reporting in a letter a few years earlier that she had churned eight pounds of butter to sell.

Lemuel continued with news of the brothers’ farms and greetings from family members who asked to be remembered to Henry. In a postscript Lemuel mentioned their mother’s exact age and suggested Henry put a notice in the Greenfield newspaper.

My transcription follows the images:

The original images are from the archives of the Ashfield Historical Society and are used with permission.

Hillsdale Aug. 16, 1869

Dear Brother Henry,

I received your letter in due time & should have answered it sooner, but Lucius said he would write and did write about 2 weeks ago, so I thought I would postpone it a few days.

We buried our Mother a week ago today. She died on Saturday night, Aug, 7 at 11 o’clock. Entirely conscious & able to talk up to the last moment.

It has been about 2 months since she was able to be out and eat at the table with the rest of the family. She has been troubled some a few years past with the asthma & since she has been confined to her bed, has been afraid she would strangle & choke to death. But she died very easy and quietly. Hardly knew when her spirit passed away. She asked Clarissa on Saturday at noon if it was night. Clarissa told her no, she was getting dinner. She said a little while before she died that had been the longest day she ever knew.

Priscilla is at Lucius yet. She has been quite unwell for 3 or 4 weeks past. Having chills & fever. But is getting better now. Lucius wrote to Franklin about the same time he wrote to you & wrote to him again yesterday. I suppose he told you all about his new house. So I have nothing to say on that matter.

Mother wanted I should tell you when I wrote again that Mr. & Mrs. Leach, she that was Esther Phillips, was here visiting last winter. And George & Sam Phillips were here about a year ago.

We are through with our harvesting & haying & are preparing the ground for sowing wheat again. Wheat is a heavy crop in Mich this year & had been got in in good order generally.

Anson & I finished thrashing ours today. We have 325 bushels. Our corn is looking first rate. Better than it did last year. But corn through this county & I guess in the state generally will not be more than half a crop. Fruit is abundant such as Apples, Pears, Peaches, Grapes. There is a prospect of potatoes being a fill crop so there is no danger of short rations or starvation prices for the next year.

Anson & his wife send their kindest regards to you & yours. Hoping we may hear from you soon.

We remain your affectionate Brother

L.S. Ranney

P.S. I suppose you know Mother’s age. It was 80 yr 3 months & 27 days. It would be well to have it noticed in the Greenfield Paper wouldn’t it?



March 24, 1871

Ralph writes to his father in early spring, 1871 from his employer’s office in Boston. Henry is apparently helping Ralph and his boss sell a wagon and a team of horses, probably the one Ralph has been using to peddle the company’s silk. The letter seems to have accompanied one with Mr. Bowman’s terms of sale on it, and this addition is marked “Private and Confidential” in large script diagonally across the first page.

My transcription follows the images:

The original images are from the archives of the Ashfield Historical Society and are used with permission.


Seavey, Foster & Bowman

Manufacturers of

Sewing Silk and Machine Twist

No. 42 Sumer Street, Boston (letterhead)


Private and Confidential


Mch 24th, 1871

Dear Father

I’ve written you on the other sheet what Mr. Bowman gives as his best terms and I think they’ll do and are reasonable.

There is a seat down here belonging to the wagon will be thrown in, and rather than to lose the trade you can throw off ten dollars if necessary at discretion.

Mr. B. don’t feel disposed to give away the team but at the same time don’t want to be penny wise and pound foolish and lose more by keeping than selling.

You will sell him to Mr. Primson I think and you can take out the pay for keeping &c. and remit the balance.

I am writing in business house and have no time to write more. It’s very rainy today.

Very much in haste




February 16, 1876

Alonzo Franklin (Frank) Ranney writes to his brother Henry, mentioning at the start that Henry is actually “indebted” to him for a letter. He brings his brother up to date on his family, who he says are all well. Frank’s oldest son, named Henry Sears Ranney after his brother, lives on a nearby farm with his wife and three children. Younger son Horace has moved out to Michigan and also has three children. Frank’s 32-year old daughter Ella lives nearby and has just had a baby son. Frank’s youngest son Emory is still in school and works on his brother’s farm.

Frank fills his brother in on local weather and his recent harvest. He mentions visits from more distant Ranney relatives and then says that business is “dull” in Phelps. The Panic of 1873 had settled into a depression that lasted until 1879 and was known as the “Long Depression” until the 1930s.

Frank concludes with some talk of national politics. He remembers that Henry had been partial to Horace Greeley in the 1872 presidential election. Greeley, a longtime New York newspaper editor, had formed a Liberal Republican Party in protest against the corruption of Ulysses S. Grant’s presidency. Grant had won re-election and his eight years in office gave rise to the term “Gilded Age”, first used by Mark Twain. Frank seems to share his brother’s dislike of Grant, but doesn’t feel that much better about the 1876 Democratic challenger, Samuel Tilden. Although Tilden was governor of New York, Frank considered him an unscrupulous cheat. Frank said that in the 1868 governor’s election, Tilden had helped manipulate the vote in New York City to steal the election from the Republican candidate, John A. Griswold.

In an apparent afterthought, Frank writes upside-down on the top of the final page about his feelings of indignation at the conduct of the South. He mentions the “old rebel yell” and a letter written by former Confederate president Jefferson Davis. I’m not entirely sure what Frank is referring to here, but less than a year later the presidential election will end in a near victory for Tilden, and a deal to put Republican Rutherford B. Hayes in the White House in return for the withdrawal of federal troops protecting the elected (black) Republican governments of North Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana; effectively ending reconstruction and completing the so-called “redemption” of the South.

My transcription follows the images, which are unfortunately a bit blurry this time, making them a bit harder to read:

The original images are from the archives of the Ashfield Historical Society and are used with permission.


Phelps Feb. 16th 1876

Dr Brother

I think if I was to be very particular you would not hear from me at this time as you are indebted to me in that respect. We are all usually well, our family number only 3 at present. Henry lives nearby & works the farm they have 3 children. Horace you are aware lives in Mich they have also 3 children all XXX [unreadable] helped him to buy 40 acres in addition to the 40 he did own & he is getting along remarkably well. We hear from our friends there frequently, all well when last heard from. Lewis health had been better for some months than for some time previous. Ella was married about a year ago. She has a son about 6 weeks old. She lives about a mile from us.

Emory D. our youngest will be 19 years old next May. Attends school this winter he probably will work for Henry on the farm this coming season by the month and board with us. As for myself I enjoy very good health except rheumatic difficulties occasionally. I suppose I do not show my age as some do from the fact that there is scarcely a gray hair in my head. I use no Dyes or Tonics.

Yesterday it snowed all day some 8 or 10 inches deep, the mud in some places about the same depth, and today it is blowing and drifting so you may calculate the going in no ways good. We have not had over 2 inches of snow up to this time at any one time this winter, remarkably mild winter so far. We nor scarcely anyone about has been able to secure any ice for their ice houses as yet. Our wheat crop was light in Western N.Y. We had from 32 acres only 432 bu. Of good merchantable wheat. Of barley from 5 acres 247 bu. and from 12 acres to corn 1500 bu. Of ears. 2 acres potatoes about 300 bu. Oats none.

Our stock consists of 4 head Horses, 6 cows, 3 yearling steers & 3 spring calves (no sheep). Slaughtered 8 good hogs & keep 3 over.

Last summer a daughter of Anable whose mother was Betsy Ranney called on us and spent a few days on her way to Elbridge’s to visit her uncle Luke Ranney & aunt Martha (not married). On her return to Mich Martha came as far as Phelps & made us quite a visit. Says that she used frequently to visit Uncle McFarland at Syracuse & that Emily who married Squires is keeping a large boarding house there and is on very intimate terms with her. They have about 60 boarders, the business is transacted in her name. Squires has never succeeded very well in business having failed 3 or 4 times. Emily says she is a very smart active business woman & much confined by her cares.

Business of all kinds is very dull. Farm produce low except perhaps Butter & Cheese. Also Beef & Pork at paying prices for farmers. Yet all kinds of business is dull among all classes. I continue to receive the Springfield Repub. from some source. Do you get the Phelps paper, suppose it to be sent you from office.

I don’t know exactly where you stand politically. Had the impression you was somewhat Greelyized nearly 4 years ago. The Springfield Repub. is an able paper, yet do not apprehend it to be entirely infallible. Rather given to faultfinding, many times without cause. I cannot agree with it in its laudation of Sam Tilden, don’t believe him to be quite a saint. He has for years been an arch conniving unscrupulous politician. Has gained some reputation as a reformer without accomplishing much as yet. I don’t forget in 1868 that he was chairman of Down State committee and was instrumental in figuring up majorities in certain wards in N.Y. City thereby defeating John A Griswold who was legally elected Gov. of state.

Please write soon & I will answer.

With regards to self and family

Yours A.F. Ranney

[upside-down on top of final page] I don’t like that old rebel yell. It comes too soon I think for it drove their hellish history. I can’t help feeling indignant at XXX [unreadable] defiance & Jeff Davis letter.


June 24, 1877

Frank Ranney writes to Henry from Phelps, where he is considering giving up his farm and retiring from “so many cares & hard work”. His two oldest sons have moved to Michigan, the younger having just bought a 120 acre farm near Lansing. His youngest is twenty and still lives at home. Frank has a widow boarding with him and has let his farm-hand use the house that his son Henry had lived in until his move.

Frank remarks briefly that he has decided to “rather approve” the new president’s policy toward the South. Rutherford B. Hayes lost the popular vote and it required a Supreme Court decision to award him a majority of the Electoral College. In return, he ended Radical Reconstruction which had been enforced by stationing troops in the South to protect the voting rights of former slaves. Hayes believed that by focusing on reconciliation he would  “get from those States by their governors, legislatures, press, and people pledges that the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments shall be faithfully observed; that the colored people shall have equal rights to labor, education, and the privileges of citizenship. I am confident this is a good work. Time will tell.”

Frank may have been similarly hopeful; after decades of supporting abolition and fighting the Civil War and Reconstruction, many Northerners were weary of the fight and hoped the issues could finally be laid to rest.

Frank concludes by inviting Henry to come out to Phelps for a long stay, remarking that it has been twenty years since Henry’s last visit.

My transcription follows the images:


The original images are from the archives of the Ashfield Historical Society and are used with permission.


Phelps Sunday Eve June 24th / 77

Dear Brother,

I have been contemplating of writing you every week for the past six months. No excuse only did not get at it. My family are all well which consists of myself wife & youngest son (who is now twenty years old) and a widow who makes her home with us (about 40 years old). She has no home of her own, is good help. Takes as much inters in seeing that everything is cared for as any one of the family. She has the privilege of taking in sowing & doing considerable work on her own account. Has lived with us nearly 2 years.

My health has been better for a year or two than some time previous. Am less troubled with stomach & rheumatic difficulty.

Henry went to Michigan about the first of last December, was gone 6 weeks. Purchased a farm of 120 acres in Ingham Co. about 12 miles from Lansing & six east of Mason the County seat & about ½ mile from Wm. Vanderhoof who married my 2d wife’s daughter Etta Cline. He gave $3,700 about $31 # per acre. 95 acres under improvement with very comfortable buildings. The country around in that section is excellent for wheat.

Erastus Ranney lives about 20 miles west from Henry’s. He moved with his family from here about the 20th of March. Went by way of Hillsdale and visited a week. His place is 60 miles north. They have 3 smart healthy children, 2 boys & 1 girl. The youngest will be 4 years old in Aug. We hear from them often, are well pleased with their home.

Horace is living on his farm near Hillsdale and doing well. They have 3 children, all girls.

I have been laboring quite hard this season. So far helped lay 25 rods of heavy 4 foot stone wall. I have hired a man for 8 months at $25 # per month and boards himself. Is married. I give him house rent and garden. He lives in my old house that Henry occupied.

Winter wheat is very heavy & promising. I have 15 acres on the ground. 20 of barley & oats, 10 of corn, 4 to potatoes. Spring crops are not as forward as some seasons. We have had but a little rain since snow went off. Scarcely a Thunder Shower so far. We was favored with a nice rain last Thursday afternoon.

Potato bugs are plenty. They have never troubled me as much as some others. Have never used Paris Green in any way. What few I have had have been picked off or knocked off into a pan & burned or killed.

I think sometimes of selling my farm in order to get rid of so many cares & hard work but just now it would be hard disposing of it except at a sacrifice. We milk 5 cows this season and make considerable Butter and sell at 25 cts per lb.

I wish you would shape your affairs so that yourself & wife could come out and make us a good long visit. It will be 20 years this fall since you were out here.

For myself I rather approve of our President Hays Policy in regard to the South.

Write soon & I will try and improve on the past.

Truly & affectionately yours,

A.F. Ranney


April 24, 1881

Henry’s younger brother Anson writes in late April 1881, a couple weeks after the death of their brother Lewis. Lewis’ health had been declining for years, and the previous autumn he had fallen off a wagon while hauling wood and had never completely recovered. Anson says his 22-year old son Everett is going to rent Lewis’ farm from his widow Sarah and work it. He reports that his family is well, except for his wife Caroline (Baggerly) who has a bad cold and neuralgia.

Anson mentions that he still receives the Springfield Massachusetts newspaper, The Republican, but says his own political leanings are more Radical Republican than middle-of-the-road Independent like the paper. Then he asks Henry to consider making a long visit to Michigan. Anson is only 48 years old at this point, but he will die at age 53, thirteen years before his older brother.

My transcription follows the images:


The original images are from the archives of the Ashfield Historical Society and are used with permission.


Hillsdale April 24th 1881

Dear Brother

After waiting this long I have just commenced a letter to you, hoping you will pardon me for my negligence in answering your very acceptable letter. I have sometimes thought that we would hardly know how many there were left of us if we did not write each other and find out how many were living and how many dead. The health of our family is pretty good except Caroline. She has a very sore throat and neuralgia and a hard Cold.

In regards to Lewis sickness and death he was not supposed to be dangerously sick but a few days before he died. Although his health had been poor for a number of years, not able to do much work aside of his chores. Each winter he would have quite bad spells with his lungs taking Colds and settling on his lungs. Last fall he was drawing a load of wood from his field to the house and in loading the wood he fell from the wagon and hurt him quite bad, which I think he never got over. It seemed to jar him all over and laid him up for some weeks. But he rallied from that and done his own chores for some time until he took a severe cold which run into what the Doctor called Catarrhal Fever, which terminated in his death.

Sarah still lives on the place and Everett our boy is going to work it this summer. He rents it of Sarah for cash rent. Lem is living in Hillsdale this summer working for a man by the name of Armstrong in a leather store. He comes home nights.

Now in regard to Caleb Phillips he was uncle to Abiather Phillips Sen. Harrison and Hellen were quite well the last we heard from them and also their children. Frank their oldest boy is married and lives in the north part of this state. He is in Charlevoix County working a farm.

The Springfield Republican we get regularly. You ask what I think of it. Sometimes I think it a first-rate paper and then again get so disgusted with it that I think I won’t read it. Maybe I am too Radical a Republican to like any Independent paper. I wish it was so that you and your wife could come out here to Mich on a visit. I would so much to have you come and make us all a long visit. We ought to write each other oftener than we do. I should have written sooner than this but I have so many cares on hand that I neglected too long by far. Lem agreed to write for me but he is so negligent, but he says he will write in a few days.

We have had quite a long, hard, cold winter. Wheat on the ground is looking very bad. I think it will not average half a crop this year. Emily Squares of Syracuse was here last summer and made us a good long visit. Now Henry my letter is very scattering and you must put it together to suit yourself. There is lots more that I might write about but perhaps I can coax Lem to write the rest. Our love to you all,

AB Ranney


November 22, 1883

Lemuel S. Ranney writes to Henry following the death of their brother Lewis, to get Henry’s input on what accommodation they should make with Lewis’ widow, Sarah Ann. The first letter is undated, but seems to precede the second. Lewis died without a will and apparently intended that his wife would be taken care of by the brothers rather than simply inheriting all his assets as we would expect today. The situation was complicated by the fact that Lewis and Sarah Ann had no children. Lemuel does not seem particularly against the idea that the brothers grant a deed for the property to Sarah Ann and let her sell it, although he acknowledges that by current laws and customs she cannot claim that by right. This is the woman that Lewis had once described to Henry as a “rugged woman” and a partner who worked alongside him on the farm “from choice”.


Lemuel Sears Ranney, 1831-1909


In the second letter, the situation between the brothers and Sarah Ann seems to have worsened. Lemuel mentions that she had “forfeited all sympathy” by her actions, although it is difficult to tell if she wasn’t merely trying to get what she believed was rightfully hers. Even so, he suggests paying Sarah Ann $2,000 for her interest in the farm, which would leave about $1,000 in proceeds from its sale to cover a debt Lewis owed Lemuel and Lucius and a small amount for each of Lewis’ seven “heirs”, the six remaining brothers and their sister Priscilla.

Lemuel also mentions the birth of his son Samuel Owen the previous June. Lemuel was fifty-two years old and his wife forty when their only son was born.

My transcriptions follow the images:



The original images are from the archives of the Ashfield Historical Society and are used with permission.

H.S. Ranney Esq

Ashfield Mass

Dear Brother,

Brother Lewis left his farm of 40 acres, and about five hundred dollars in personal property, clear of any debts or incumbrances; without making a will.

After Lewis died Sarah Ann did not want to carry on the farm herself, and wanted to sell off all the stock, tools, grain, hay &c. and rent the place. She reserving the house & garden, as she said she would rather live there than anywhere else. So we sold everything but a horse & buggy, and turned the money over to her. Then she wanted Anson & I to take the place & work it, she to have the wheat then growing on the ground about 10 acres. We to give her one hundred dollars for one year, pay all the taxes & insurance, pasture her horse, & let her have all the fruit she wanted for her own use.

She has found no fault with us about the working of the place. But she now says she doesn’t want to live there any longer & she thinks the heirs ought to give her a deed of the place so that she can sell it & go and live where pleases & do as she pleases with the money she gets from it. Now what do you think had better be done about it? What are you willing to do?

Lucius, Anson, & I that if she had all the personal property, and the control & the use & the proceeds of the farm during her life, it would be all in justice & equity she could ask for, as Lewis left it in that way for her support. Knowingly & understandingly saying to her that the Boys would see that she was taken care of. We want to do what is just & right & for her best interests.

Sarah Ann requested me to write to you & Franklin & Harrison & ascertain if you were all willing to give her a deed to the place. Please let me hear from you right away.

We are all well here. I was at Lucius yesterday & they were all quite well.

With best wishes to Yourself & Wife

I remain very truly yours

L.S. Ranney


Hillsdale Mich. Nov. 22 /83

H.S. Ranney Esq.

Ashfield Mass

Dear Sir and Brother,

In the matter of the estate of brother Lewis, Lucius Anson & myself think we had better come to a settlement with Sarah Ann and have the place disposed of. We were in hopes that she would be satisfied & contented to keep the place & make it her home while she lived. But she isn’t & thinks it terrible to keep her in that situation.

She is living there all alone. She doesn’t want anyone to live in the house with her & I guess there isn’t anyone that wants to that knows her nor anyone that could long. She is a peculiar woman. She says the place will not support her & she will not listen to any advice nor accept of any assistance from anyone. I have offered her $200 a year while she lives for her interest in the place, but she takes it as an insult & looks upon it as placing her in a dependent condition & says she had rather go to the poor house than to be dependent on anyone for a living. What she has she wants in her own right, free & independent. It makes her wild with rage to think or imagine anything looking like restraint or guardianship could be held over her will or actions in business matters or otherwise.

Two years ago she flew into a paroxysm of rage because we wouldn’t give her the place outright or sell it & give her the money. We all thought it best to hold it for her support as L.G. undoubtedly intended it should be. She went up to Lucius at that time & give him & Priscilla a terrible “raking down” & hasn’t spoken to either of them since nor to Anson or I only in the most abusive manner.

When I say that L.G. left his farm for the use & support & benefit of his wife while she lived & then intended it go to his brothers & sister, many expressions & remarks he made in the last 2 or 3 years of his life made me think so. 2 or 3 times in the last six months of his life in the presence of other friends, in speaking of his circumstances, he said he didn’t owe a dollar in the world except to the “boys”. He said he owed them (Lucius & I, he meant) $200 and that we probably wouldn’t get it while he lived, but we would get it sometime. I always told him he didn’t owe me anything, but he insisted that he did, honestly if not legally, & that I should get it sometime.

The circumstances are these. In 1855 I let L.G. have $100.# and took his note at 7 pr cent due in one year, but he wasn’t able at that time to pay it. And in the spring of 1859 (he hadn’t paid any principal nor interest) when I started for California, I gave him the note & told him if I didn’t come back he could destroy the note. But if I should come back & he was able to do so, he might pay the note. And when I came back in /66 he had moved from Quincy on to the place where he died & had men in debt considerable, & wasn’t able to pay it, but said that Densmore owed him about the same amt that he owed me & that if Densmore would pay him he would pay me. I told him not to trouble himself about it at all, that if Mr. Densmore didn’t pay him he needn’t pay me. Mr. Densmore acknowledged the debt & said he would pay it sometime. He owed Lucius a few hundred dollars also and in 1869 he paid Lucius all up. And told me to borrow $150.# of Abiathar Phillips and he would keep up the interest & pay him the principle as soon as he could. I done so with the understanding with Lucius that if Mr. Densmore didn’t pay it, he should pay one half the Phillips note.

Mr. Densmore paid some interest, but when he died there was a little over $200 principal & interest due on the Phillips note, & Lucius paid it. And that is what Lewis had reference to when he said he owed the “boys” $200.

The Law gives her all wearing apparel, all household goods, and all personal property not exceeding one thousand dollars absolutely, and the control, use, & profits of all real estate during her lifetime. The real estate is worth & would probably sell for about $3000, 40 acres.

And now, while Sarah Ann has by her talk & actions forfeited all sympathy by us here, and while we would be glad to have her stay on the place, and would gladly & cheerfully assist her if she would allow us to, we don’t feel it would be just right to compel her to stay there. And have therefore concluded to give her $2000 for her interest in the place if it meets with your views of the case. That would leave it as follows:

Sarah Ann                    $2000.

Lucius & myself           200 as Lewis claimed

To be divided              800 7 heirs



Or in other words are you willing to take $115.00 or $120 for your interest in the place.

I don’t know for certain as Sarah Ann will do that. She has said she wouldn’t, she asks $2300. I haven’t seen her to speak to her in over 4 months but she has sent one of her neighbors down to see me several times lately, & he says is very anxious to sell out, & wants to know immediately what we are willing to give her.

Lucius is in Detroit as juror in U.S. District Court. Has been down there about 2 weeks, don’t know how long he will stay. Priscilla is living with him yet. All well there. Anson & I made some changes last spring. Sold our farm & Anson bought 90 acres in Allen 2 miles east of Lucius. His Post Office is Hillsdale. Lucius Post Office is South Allen. I am living in the city with my father in law, Samuel Gilmore. He owns about 5 acres here. We keep a team & I have worked the place this season.

My wife sends her respects & says tell bro Henry we are coming down to see him sometime before long too. We have the finest looking & brightest boy in this country. 5 months old next Sunday. His mother named him Samuel after her father & I named him Owen for an old playmate & chum of mine in old Ashfield in days long since. So together we call him Samuel Owen Ranney.

Very Truly Yours

L.S. Ranney


September 8, 1885

Harrison writes to Henry from Clearwater Minnesota, a village of about 230 people on the Mississippi River between St. Cloud and Monticello. Harrison had married in Michigan and had three children in Hillsdale before moving to Minnesota: Frank Herbert Ranney (b. 1857), Fred Albert Ranney (1859-1903) and Mary Minnette Ranney Whittemore (1861-1925). Harrison mentions that Minnette is about to “become a mother any day now.” She has her only child, Maude, the following day.


Harrison Jackson Ranney, 1824-1906


Harrison’s oldest son, Frank, lives in Charlevoix County in northern Michigan. Harrison says Frank teaches school in addition to farming. Frank apparently continued the family’s Republican traditions; he would be an alternate Michigan delegate to the Republican National Convention in 1892.

My transcription follows the images:


The original images are from the archives of the Ashfield Historical Society and are used with permission.

Clearwater Minnesota

Sept 8th 1885

Dear Brother

I recd yours of Aug 29th a few days since, & was very glad to hear from you once more.

Our family (like yours) consists of only myself & wife, & we are having usual good health although Helen is troubled some with her Heart.

I am still in the same store where I have been for the last thirteen years as clerk. I keep my farm yet of fifty seven acres all seeded down to Timothy & Clover. I rent a house in the village, my farm is one mile out. Fred has 40 acres about 80 rods from mine & his wife has a house & a block of land which contains 10 village lots in the corporation that makes all the land Fred can work. Freds folks have no children. Minnette’s husband CD Whittemore is a very nice young man. Has a good farm & buildings one & one half miles from this village. Minnette expects to become a mother any day now.

Frank lives at South Arm Charlevoix Co Michigan away up near Petoskey. He is on a farm of his own. He has 80 acres a good house which he built last year & a large log barn. Frank & wife have two children, one Boy Ralph 4 ½ years of age and one Boy Merritt 2 ½ “ “ . Minnette spent a year in Michigan the year before she was married. She said Frank’s boys were very nice boys.

Frank works his farm summers & teaches school winters, & is getting along well. I do not hear from Hillsdale (only by the newspaper) very often. Your old friend Eb Orr (who was brought up by his uncle Daniel Forbes) used to be around here selling watches & jewelry. He was about here for 2 or 3 years. But his health is poor & it has been 2 or 3 years since he has been here. He lives in Todd County with his son about 75 miles from here. Where in Kansas does your grandson Austin Packard live?

I hope we will write each other oftener than heretofore. It really seems good to hear from you.

Love to All

Harrison J. Ranney

[Upside-down at top of page] Please excuse pencil. I do all my writing mostly with pencil. I will send you my photo when I get one.



March 28, 1886

Lemuel writes to Henry of their brother Anson’s unexpected death. He was not able to send a telegram, as he had to Franklin in Phelps, because Ashfield still did not have telegraph service. Anson had caught a bad cold which seems to have turned into pneumonia, but that did not seem to be the cause of his death. The doctor who treated him supposed the cause of death was heart-related because Anson was apparently quite “fleshy” and weighed 220 pounds, which was a considerable amount in an era before routine obesity.

Lemuel also mentioned that their cousin Fred (Samuel Ranney’s son) had died a few months earlier in Illinois, and passed on news of relatives and friends living in Detroit. He sent his regards to Henry’s wife and grandchildren, since both of Henry’s adult children, Ralph and Ella, had died in the mid-1870s.

It is once again worth noting that, unlike most letters of the era, this correspondence between the Ranney brothers remains entirely free of references to religion. Despite this being the very first notice Henry is receiving of his brother’s death, the way Lemuel describes the loss is sympathetic, but quite secular: “But he has gone. A good man and true, honest & upright, a good neighbor, a genial & social companion for old or young. Caroline & Ev. & Hattie will miss him very much.”

My transcription follows the images:

The original images are from the archives of the Ashfield Historical Society and are used with permission.

Hillsdale, March 28, 1886

Dear Brother

I come to you with sad news. Brother Anson died last Wednesday after a short illness of one week. On Saturday the 13th he & his wife went to Quincy to see her uncle & aunt, who were quite sick, and returned home the next day.

It was very muddy, and a long drive in a cold wind. He got very cold & chilled through. But feeling better then next day he went to Allen with a load of wheat and before he got home it rained & he got wet and more cold. And the next day, Tuesday the 16th, he went to an auction sale of farm stock & implements, & in the afternoon he told Lucius he wished he would take him home, about 1 ½ miles, as he felt quite unwell.

Lucius took him home immediately & they soaked his feet in hot water & gave him a warm bath. But that night he had a high fever and the next morning they sent for a Doctor who thought it was not a serious or alarming case; thought he could break the fever & get him out again in a few days. Saturday & Sunday, a week ago, I went up there. Found him quite sick but I didn’t think him dangerously so. Although he told me on Sunday that he was sicker than the Doctor thought he was. He says I intended to write to Henry today, but I don’t feel able to and probably never shall again.

I went up again on Tuesday morning & stayed with him until he died, Wednesday about 11 o’clock. Monday night he had a very bad night, in a good deal of pain, nervous & restless, and didn’t sleep a wink. His left lung filled up so he labored for breath, but his right lung seemed to be all right & sound & clear. And Tuesday afternoon & night he slept well. Breathed very much easier & no pain.

Wednesday morning about 6 o’clock he woke up and says to me, I have had a splendid sleep, a good night’s rest. I feel much better now, if I had a little bread & milk I think I could eat it. Caroline got him about half a teacup full of bread & milk. He eat it and said it tasted good. Talked quite a good deal & seemed so much better. We thought the crisis had passed and there would be sure if not rapid improvement from thence on. About 8 o’clock he went to sleep again and we soon discovered that his pulse was very irregular, sometimes very fast sometimes very slow. It was hard work to arouse him, he was growing stupid.

The Doctor came and gave him some stimulant & stimulating injection which quickened his pulse & aroused him temporarily. But after 10 o’clock he never spoke nor recognized anybody or anything. But gradually & almost imperceptibly sank to rest, so quietly that we could hardly tell for some time when the end had come.

But he has gone. A good man and true, honest & upright, a good neighbor, a genial & social companion for old or young. Caroline & Ev. & Hattie will miss him very much.

Anson has been troubled a good deal in the last 2 or 3 years & especially the past winter with rheumatism & sometimes a very acute & painful dodging from place to place. In the fore part of the winter he was confined to the house 2 or 3 weeks with it. He was very full & fleshy, weighing about 220#.

The Doctor called his disease catarrhall or lung fever, but thinks he died with heart disease or fatty generation of the heart, from the symptoms & manner of his final taking off.

Myself, Maggie & Owen are quite well. Priscilla’s health is very good. Lucius health for the past year has been better than in the previous ten years. Clara has been afflicted very much the past year with rheumatism in her hands, arms, and limbs. Her hands are very much out of shape & joints enlarged. Hardly looks like her former self. Once so plump & rosy & healthy, now so poor & sallow & feeble. She has been better in the last few weeks than for some time before & thinks she is improving. She is under treatment of a new Doctor here in Hillsdale who says he can help her immediately and eventually cure her, not as well as she once was but comfortably well.

Our cousin Fred Ranney died at his daughters in Batavia Ill. about the 20th of December last. I saw his son Frederick in Detroit about two months ago, who told me of it. I also saw Charlie Hathaway, who is City Inspector of buildings in Detroit. Frederick T. Ranney, I think his name is, is Secretary of the Waterman Real Estate Exchange in Detroit.

I telegraphed Anson’s death last Wednesday to Franklin, thinking perhaps he might come out to the funeral. I recd a letter from him Friday evening saying it was his wishes & desire to have been here at the funeral, but for the first time this winter he & his wife both have had quite a severe cold, and though tit imprudent for him to come at this time.

I would have sent you a telegram if there was any office at Ashfield. How do you get telegrams there? Where is the nearest point?

Hoping this may find you fully recovered from your illness last year. With kindest regards to yourself, wife, and grandchildren. I remain

Affectionately Yours

L.S. Ranney


Lucius Ranney

Around the end of the nineteenth century, a wave of nostalgia seems to have broken over American culture. People became even more interested in stories of the settlers of their regions, and “biographical albums” were published for many communities, counties, and states. One of the main publishers was Chapman Brothers of Chicago. Relatives of John Chapman (Johnny Appleseed), Frank M. and Charles O Chapman published a Portrait and Biographical Album for at least fifty-three counties in the Midwest, including nineteen for Illinois and seventeen for Michigan. Other publishers such as Louis H. Everts published historical compendia for other regions, featuring similar sketches of notable residents and often engraved illustrations of their homes or farms. See, for example, Everts’ History of the Connecticut River Valley in Massachusetts, which contains a detailed account of Ashfield.


The Connecticut River Valley in 1879. Ashfield, where Henry Ranney lived, is in the hills in the upper left of the image.

The Portrait and Biographical Album of Hillsdale County, Mich. describes Lucius Ranney as “a leading farmer of Allen Township” and tells the story of his arrival in the region and activities there. The details of Lucius’ ancestry are accurate, and the entry provides valuable details on the family of Lucius’s wife, Clarissa. The biography describes Lucius as a lifelong Republican and a prominent member of the Allen Grange. The National Grange of the Order of the Patrons of Husbandry was a fraternal organization founded in 1867 to advocate for the interests of farmers. Lucius and Clarissa were both members, and Lucius is also reported to have been the organization’s overseer and chaplain. The Ranneys were also described as “zealous” members of the Methodist Episcopal church, which is interesting if true. Churches were important social institutions It is not unusual that Lucius may have been a member while at the same time not being much of a believer (based on his letters to Henry). It is also possible that the writer of the biographical sketch may have had a greater interest in portraying Lucius as a faithful church-goer than did Lucius himself.



Henry Ranney Obituary

Henry Sears Ranney died on January 23, 1899 at the age of 81. His obituary (probably from the Greenfield Republican) described him as “one of Ashfield’s most respected citizens and one who for 60 years had had an important part in the conduct of the town affairs and been identified with its best institutions.” Henry was described as a “village oracle” and a “country squire”, and his half-century of service as Ashfield’s Town Clerk was noted, as was Henry’s political orientation. “In politics Squire Ranney stood on the high moral plain which his conscience dictated and with the courage of his convictions he espoused the cause of the great reforms which were inaugurated during his lifetime. His earnest advocacy of antislavery doctrines and his membership in the Free-soil party was followed by an independent position in the republican party.”

The article also mentions that both Henry’s wives and his five children all died before him, but that he left behind four grandchildren.




Lemuel Sears Ranney

In 1903, another regional history was published in Chicago to appeal to the children of the Yankee settlers of Michigan. Elon G. Reynolds’Compendium of history and biography of Hillsdale County, Michigan begins with 81 pages of general history of the region and continues with over 450 pages of sketches of the people (actually, men) and institutions (banks, churches) prominent in the county over the years. One of these men was Lemuel S. Ranney (1831-1909), who after his footloose years trying to make his fortune in western goldfields, settled down and became a solid citizen of the county.

The sketch fills in some interesting details of Lemuel’s life. For example, I was not aware Lemuel had been apprenticed to a shoemaker as a boy or that he had moved to Illinois and Wisconsin at nineteen to follow that trade. The sketch mentions that Lemuel went to California in 1852 at age 21, where he stayed three years “mining with success”. Lemuel returned to the west in 1859 to visit Virginia City, Nevada. He mined until 1866, and then “returned to Michigan, making the trip by water” (before the transcontinental railroad, traveling to and from the west involved either a long overland journey or sailing around South America through the Straits of Magellan).


Advertisement for a clipper ship connecting the east coast of the US with the west, circa 1850.

On his return to Michigan, Lemuel became involved in politics first as an alderman and county supervisor, then as a state representative. Lemuel married Margaret Gilmore in 1882, when he was 51 (she was 39), and they had a son named Samuel Owen Ranney (1883-1855). Lemuel is remembered as a lifelong Republican, “always zealous and helpful in the service of the party.” It’s interesting comparing the information the editors of historical compendia considered significant with the stories and observations that fascinate us today.



This is where you can add appendices or other back matter.