Strangers in a Strange Land: The Frontier Letters of
John and Anna Graves
By Thomas S. Edwards
When Anna Graves Colby died in Fremont, Ohio in 1886 at the age of 83, neither she nor her first husband John Graves left behind extensive entries in the major histories of Sandusky County which emphasized "prominent’ and "representative" citizens of the community.1 John and Anna were not rich or prominent, but one might argue that they were representative. As the historian Lawrence Levine has pointed out, we often know much more about the political leaders, the military maneuvers or about the labor and business leaders than we do about the peaceful migrations which swept across our history, or about the small shopkeepers or individual workers who lived out the history which these prominent men and women directed. He concludes the "historians have tended to spend too much of their time in the company of ‘movers and shakers’ and too little in the universe of mankind."2 In their attempt to unravel the myriad threads which compose the web of the American frontier experience, historians have now begun to reexamine their sources and their definitions of the truly "representative" and to reconsider sources which might yield the truly "significant.
Only recently, for example, has there been a concerted effort to correct what many have come to view as an undue emphasis in historiography on the male experience on the frontier.3 In her book Frontier Women, Julie Ray Jeffrey has pointed out that much of American history unwittingly ignores the role of women in settling and civilizing the frontier:
When Turner wrote of the pioneers and speculated on the interaction between pioneers and the wilderness, the pioneers he had in mind were men: fur traders, miners, cattlemen and farmers. The historians who reexamined Turner’s thesis by and large retained this male perspective.4
Further, in her study of the writings of Midwestern women, Elizabeth Hampsten has made a strong case for the use of women’s letters and diaries as a rich source of historical information. She points out that letters often constituted the only social outlet for many women isolated on the frontier; in addition, the topics discussed at great length there are precisely the same ones she finds ignored in traditional texts. The details of everyday life, especially health care, are "not...given much prominence in accounts of railway expansion, Indian fighting, the Homestead Act, the discovery of gold, and the more glamorous events of which standard history textbooks are made."5
The correspondence of John and Anna Graves, who moved to the Ohio frontier in September of 1836, gives us some insight, not into the world of "movers and shakers," whose accounts, for better or worse, tend to color our image of history, but rather into the thoughts, emotions, dreams, and fears of a young married couple who left their homes in the East for an uncertain future on the frontier. The Ohio frontier was settled rapidly and by 1840 only slightly more than one-tenth of the public lands remained for sale.6 One often finds that the attention of the historian then moves as quickly westward as the settlers who pushed the borders of the expanding country before them. The letters of John and Anna Graves, however, allow us to see how an individual family grappled with the day-to-day struggles of settling on the new land and making a living under the combined pressures of loneliness, economic instability, and precarious health.
Anna Foote Bridges was born on December 3, 1813 in Bolton, Connecticut and moved with her family shortly thereafter to Williamstown, Massachusetts. She was the youngest of Perceis and Amasa Bridges’s ten children; six of her siblings had died as infants or young children. John Graves of Hoosick Falls, New York was the second youngest child of Timothy and Martha Graves, and he was at least ten years Anna’s senior, a fact she alluded to as having a possible impact on their marital relations when she wrote in an early letter to her sister Sophia, "I believe I have got a pretty good husband if he is a few years older than I am perhaps he will keep me where I ought to be" (August, 1836). For an extensive treatment of marital relations and the changing nature of domestic relations on the frontier, refer to John Mack Faragher, Women and Men on the Overland Trail (New Haven, 1979) and Glenda Riley, Frontierswomen: The Iowa Experience (Ames, 1981).7 John Graves had visited Ohio prior to their wedding on July 23, 1836, for Anna wrote in the same letter that he had just recently returned from there. Her excitement about the impending journey is revealed through her explanation of packing up the "Crockery Tin Silver Table Spoon Brass kettle Table linnen and a great many things" and she reported to her sister Sophia, "we had a letter from there [Ohio] a few days since they want we should come on they say peaches are ripening fast" (August, 1836).
Nevertheless, Anna’s excitement in this letter was tempered somewhat by her apprehension at leaving her friends and relatives far behind. The immensity of the journey to the relatively uncivilized frontier intruded somewhat on the visions of "ripening peaches." Although the new bride was eager to extend invitations to her sisters to come and visit, she had to admit that "I would insist on your coming this fall but his [John’s] house is not built yet" (August, 1836). In her letter, Anna revealed some of the fear of leaving the close ties of the family for a potentially lonely existence in Ohio. She wrote, "Tuesday night, the night before we left Mary wrote some to Father, and then she come in and got into our bed and we talked, and cried about parting. Oh Sophia it was hard parting with that dear Sister I can assure you." (August, 1836) As her later letters from Ohio would reveal, the loneliness that Anna feared was to assume a greater role for her than perhaps any other hardship.
John and Anna Graves were part of the wave of migration from the settled areas of New England to Ohio which began soon after the end of the War of 1812. Although Ohio was admitted to the Union in 1803 as the first state carved out of the public domain lands of the Old Northwest Territory, settlement had been slow due partly to fears of trouble with either the Indians or the British. The greatest hindrance to rapid settlement of Ohio, however, was the difficulty of overland transportation, a fact reflected in the compact admitting Ohio to the Union in which the federal government assumed the responsibility to build a road to her border.8 Progress on the National Highway, (the former Cumberland Road), begun in 1811, was nevertheless agonizingly slow and the road to Wheeling on the Ohio connecting the river valley with markets in the East was not completed until 1818. The population distribution in the new state reflected the superiority of river travel compared to other modes, for Harry Scheiber reports that in 1820, Ohio had "barely gone beyond the frontier stage of development" with the exception of those communities along the Ohio river and its tributaries. Nevertheless, he points out that by 1861, Ohio had taken its place as one of the nation’s leading states in population, industry, and agriculture.9 How did such a transformation come about so rapidly? The key to the settlement of Ohio lay in the development of steam travel on the Great Lakes and in the canal era which spanned the technological gap between arduous overland travel and the coming of the railroad, thereby enabling families such as the Graves to settle and develop the rich farmlands of northwestern and central Ohio.
When completed in 1825, the Erie Canal established a major transportation link between the Great Lakes and eastern markets via Buffalo, Albany and New York. The effect on the economy of Ohio was immediate and dramatic. By 1826, goods transported from Columbus via Philadelphia took thirty days at a price of $5.00 per hundred; in comparison, goods could be transported via New York in twenty days at half that price.10 Because of the improved transportation facilities, including the development of the Ohio and the Miami Canals, the value of wheat and corn in the Ohio interior more than doubled between 1825 and 1832.11 Prior to such access to markets in the East, the high cost of transportation made farming for profit virtually impossible in much of Ohio.
Equally dramatic in its effect on migration to Ohio and other regions bordering on the Great Lakes was the development of safe, reliable steamship travel. The steamship Walk in the Water inaugurated a nine-day passenger travel schedule between Buffalo and Detroit in 1818, and by 1825 that time was reduced by half.12 In 1833, Great Lakes steamboat owners carried 42,956 passengers west out of Buffalo, and the combined total of steam and sail passengers soared to near 100,000, encouraged perhaps by the low cost of steamboat fares: Buffalo to Detroit cost a mere $8.00 for a cabin or $3.00 in steerage.13 Buley reports that by 1835, "fifty-six boats left Buffalo for the West in one week. Six to eight boats passed Erie daily."14 Carlyle Buley then, like many settlers and historians, rushes forward with the quickening pace of travel, questioning "where was the West? It was [in 1837] no longer Buffalo, nor even Chicago! A few years earlier Ohio was the West; now it was merely the starting point for the West."15
Yet for families like the Graves, the long, slow, and many times painful process of building a life and a community on that land which the frontier had left behind was just beginning. John and Anna joined the westward migration moving in the fall of 1836 to a farm near Ballville, Ohio, where records indicate that John purchased 125 acres of farmland.16 Their first correspondence from Ohio was optimistic; on February 20,1837, John addressed a letter to his brother Timothy of Hoosick Falls in which he indicated that he and Anna had survived the winter in good fashion: "The winter has been verry pleassant we had about 10 inches of snow that made good slaying about 4 weeks."
Despite the mild winter, however, John announced in this letter to Timothy his intention to move to a farm near Worthington, Ohio (near Columbus), approximately one hundred miles south of Ballville. John wrote,
there is a Country that is worth looking at I think I can do better there by highering a small farm than I can to clear up my land at preassant I shall deaden considerable of my timber and let it lie till the timber is dry it will clear easyer (February 20, 1837).
John is referring here to the arduous process of girdling trees and clearing away the dense timber that was often necessary before farming in Sandusky County could be profitable. In his study of farm labor in the Midwest, David Schob has called this process "grim, back-breaking toil"17 and he has described it in some detail:
A popular and simple method was to cut underbrush and fell timber, letting the timber dry for two years. The farmer could then chop out rail timber, clear and burn logs at his convenience. The total cost by this method amounted to only ten dollars an acre. Girdling was recommended as the best method, but it required time. Trunks of trees were girdled five feet above the ground, cutting into the trunk for a depth of one to two inches. The object was to leave five feet of trunk below the girdle strips, in order to retain the natural water in the trunk cavity which later helped rot out the tree base. Trees were then felled when dead, while the roots and base enriched the soil and facilitated removal. The stump of a girdled tree decayed more rapidly than the stump of a green tree.18
In general, John seemed impressed with the richness of the farmland near Columbus and he was confident of his ability to succeed there. He wrote, "They raise from 50 to 75 bushels of corn to the Acre by shakeing a stick at it" (February 20, 1837).19
In a postscript to this letter of John’s addressed to her sister-in-law Martha, Anna referred to matters closer to the heart and revealed that whereas in her new home corn might have been plentiful, neighbors and friends were not. She wrote:
I am contented here, or any where it is best I should be, but it does not appear like home as much as it would Could I enjoy some of the privileges that I have in former times I have not been to meting since I commenced house keeping except one evening at the School house It was very stormy but I told John I wanted to go to meting once more, which is a longer time than I ever stayed at home before I commenced house keeping the 12 Oct it was the last Sabbath in Sept I went to meting I am in hopes to enjoy such things again if I live (February 20, 1837).
The fact the "meting" occurred somewhat regularly, and the very existence of a school house indicated the rapidly growing size and stability of the frontier community, Anna’s sense of isolation was nevertheless painfully obvious here. At a time in American history when a woman’s ability to move and act independently was severely restricted, the correspondingly increased importance of community-sanctioned social events for women on the frontier is easily understood. Faragher, on the other hand, has concluded that the lives of most midwesterners before 1860 were shaped by two major restrictions: the dependence of farm labor on hand-tool technology, and the isolation of the homestead from markets and neighbors (179). Although Riley’s warning about reading our own interpretations of loneliness into a situation is well-taken, one cannot ignore the fact of the very real physical isolation on the frontier as compared with communities back East. Should we in the future develop more humane living situations in our urban areas, perhaps historians will admire our fortitude in overcoming the psychological isolation present in such areas.20
John and Anna moved as planned to Worthington, Ohio where their first child, Martha, was born on June 19, 1837.21 In a letter to his brother Cyrus, however, John seemed more concerned with business matters, and he discussed at length the price of corn and the improvement of roads he noticed on a visit to Ballville. In addition, he pointed out that "there is not much building going on there [Lower Sandusky] on account of the hard times." (August 27, 1837), a reference to the Financial Panic of 1837 spurred in part by President Jackson’s Specie Circular of July, 1836, which severely restricted the amount of hard currency in circulation.22 John admitted that "This is a good country to live in but a rather slow country to make money in," and in the same letter he wrote,"I don’t know but I could swap my land for land in York State better than I can for land here people don’t like to move to the north if there is any boddy that wants to swap you may wright to me."(August 27, 1837).
John’s willingness to trade his land in Ballville or to move to a more profitable location less than a year after his optimistic move to the West must have been a difficult decision. In his discussion of the Financial Panic of 1837, Eugene Roseboom maintains that the financial problems caused by Jackson’s requirement that all purchases of government land be in gold or silver and the resulting suspension of specie payments by banks generally did not affect settlers on the Ohio frontier. He claims, "Most Ohioans...lived under such a simple agrarian economy that the obtaining of the necessities of life was not seriously affected by the problems of the financial centers," and he goes on to refer to one writer who pointed to the "total ignorance" of Ohioans to the problems experienced by the financial centers of the East.23
John Graves’s correspondence from this period, however, would seem to indicate otherwise. Although generally self-sufficient in terms of staple crops, it can hardly be imagined that farmers on the frontier were immune to a general slowdown in the economy, for this restricted their ability to deal in any form of cash crops or to undertake loans for the purposes of capital improvement. A general sense of alienation, confusion, and despair is evident in John’s prose:
I wonder how Asher stands the hard times I wrote to him but have not received an answer yet I dont know but it must be because ink is scarce or paper is hard to be got, Time must be hard if there is no sails of wool. Land rents middling high here I have no place in view yet, My foot troubles me a great deal. I don’t know as it will ever get sound again where is Philander what is he dooing
Wright to me again soon without fail for we are alone strangers in a strange land (August 27, 1837).
Economic difficulties, loneliness, and bad health all combined to paint an emotionally moving picture of the future facing John Graves and his family as he closed this letter with the simple apology, "You must excuse this imperfect scroll for I have had to wright with one hand and rock the cradle with the other" (August 27, 1837).
Trouble continued to stalk John and Anna Graves. After returning to Ballville, they were forced to report the death on November 4, 1838 of their child Martha, aged 16 months, 16 days. John wrote, "She was taken a vomiting which lasted several days then it terminated in an inflamation in the Liver which caused violent spasms and cramping fits She was sick about 13 days" (November 13, 1838). Health on the frontier was a general problem, and settlers in the Midwest were often forced to deal with outbreaks of malaria, typhoid, dysentery, smallpox, and erysipelas.24 The threat of bad health or disease remained the ultimate uncertainty in a generally tenuous existence. John lamented "whose turn it will be next the Lord onely knows" (November 13, 1838) and he concluded this discussion with the observation, "We can make our calculation for Years to come but we know not what a day may bring forth We are verry lonely here since our little Martha died."
At this point, Anna’s sister Sophia joined the Graves family and she proved to be a great help as well as "a great Deal of Company" (November 13, 1838), but health remained a serious concern. Another child of John and Anna Graves, born on September 15, 1839, required a great deal of care. Anna wrote:
I should have written with Sopia but was not able --- when my babe was 4 weeks old I begun to take care of her considerably, and she was taken with a sore mouth, and never until today has her mouth been free from canker I am in hopes that it is a going to get well, the canker Sores coming out of her forehead, my nipples have been so sore all this while and sometimes so bad I had to take her off entirely and nurse her with a bottle (January 30, 1840).
Despite their health concerns, however, John and Anna’s farming enterprise seemed to provide a bright spot in their lives. After three years in Ohio, Anna could boast, we rased this last year 240 bushels wheat, 200 bushels corn 200 bushels potatoes 20 or 30 bushels buck wheat...We have a first rate span of horses 2 cows 3 heifers that will be cows soon some young cattle besides 10 hogs 30 or 40 fowls, one Cat (January 30, 1840). John continued to work on clearing his land, and by spring of 1842 Anna Graves could write home about her new two-story home and of her plans to furnish it eventually with feather beds and carpets.
Although Anna seemed at this point generally well-contented with her life in Ohio and genuinely proud of her accomplishments, she nevertheless mentioned "crying spells" and confessed that when she thinks of her family back home, she "cant keep the tears from running" (February 6, 1842). In the same letter, although she wrote, " I have company enough," she also admitted that "one visit from my dear Sisters would exceed anything that has happened to me in a great while." And, in a telling postscript to her sister, Anna confided, "I tell John if he will move back I will have a boy for him" (February 6, 1842).
How serious the comment was intended to be is difficult to determine, but it does indicate that the economic opportunity provided on the frontier was, at least in Anna’s eyes, not suitable recompense for the sacrifices made in other areas—the loss of or separation from friends and relatives and the lack of access to a social life in a community of other women. Although John and Anna Graves seemed to be well settled-in by 1842 as evidenced by their new home and their livestock, John still complained of economic hard times. He finally obtained glass for the windows of his new house, but admitted the "My building has got me indebt considerable" (October 15, 1842). He wrote that the economy of the community remained volatile: "Hard money a plenty The publick works has prety much all stopt, the railroad company has brooken down and there works is left to rot down" (October 15, 1842).25
Further, the frailty of their individual economic stability was threatened once again by the dangerous life on the frontier. In March of 1843, John was almost crippled when he was kicked by one of his horses. Anna wrote:
They helped him on the bed Our hired man went immediately for a physician he came but was unable to tell to what extent he had been injured, he was in great distress the doctor was afraid his wound was mortal, he could not pass any water the doctor said he did not come prepared for drawing it off but would do so when he came again, he said if his bladder was burst that when his water began to spread through his bowels that he would be in great distress. We had to give him a great deal of Morphine before he could keep down any medicine he was vomiting all the while so that we could not have much hopes of saving him (April 14, 1843).
Although Anna concluded that "My felings can better be imagined than discribed," her sense of fear and helplessness in view of her family’s past brushes with serious illness and death are obvious.
Despite the capriciousness of a freak accident which could so easily threaten their lives, Anna’s letter revealed subtle signs that the frontier and some of its dangers were indeed passing. Her letter contains several clues that Ballville was becoming an increasingly stable community. Although Roseboom reports, "As late as 1835 only a small minority of Ohio doctors had ever attended a series of lectures at a medical school,"26 the very existence of morphine, doctors, and medicine within a community is evidence that medical care, although rudimentary, was nevertheless improving. Anna indicated that she and John planned to add onto their house, and they were able to employ a hired man. In addition, neighbors were more abundant, and also close by, for Anna reported that a "Great many" came by to see John as he lay ill (April 14, 1843).
The individual story of the Graves family diverged from the signs of progressive change in the community, however, for Anna had to report on April 7, 1844 that she had "drained the cup of affliction to the very last dregs." She sat down to write, " It is true that I have lost Parents a Brother and an own dear Child, but this is severing a still more tender Cord John was taken sick the 28 of January and died 7th of Feb." Stricken by a fever, John had apparently been in great distress, for "it took four men some of the time to keep him on the bed.." Anna’s vulnerability as a widow with children to support was clear. She mentioned that John had failed to make a will and admitted that "the laws are different in Ohio than they are in Mass[achusetts]" (April 7, 1844). She reported:
The appraisers set off two hundred and fifty dollars for my years support they appraised everything low and I could take it at the appraisal they will sell for a great deal more I take horses and wagons farming tools 18 Acres of wheat 20 bushels wheat Hams pork Beef potatoes both green apples and dried and the land give me 12 sheep 1 cow the furniture with a few exceptions besides what they set off, there is enough personal property very near to straiten everything (April 7, 1844).
The following year was a difficult one for Anna as she struggled with illness, loneliness, and depression in order to repair the shattered remains of her life in Ballville. In November of 1845 she wrote of her plans to return East, but an interesting note was included. She concluded, "Then if I should want to come back again in one year it would be hard beginning again for a woman --- " (November 9, 1845). Despite the privations, the loneliness, and the loss of a husband and a child,
Anna was nevertheless willing to entertain the possibility of returning to an Ohio community which was evolving from a frontier town to her home. With or without John, Anna Grave’s life and future were tied to a community that she, in her own small way, had helped to build.
Anna did indeed return, to marry William Colby, to bear another child, and to survive to see the growth of a community which would eventually be the home of a United States President. Instead of loneliness and isolation, Anna could write on March 4, 1891, "Our Opera house is in full blast," which was indeed a far cry from the "meting" which she had braved stormy weather in order to attend more than fifty years before in the struggling community of Ballville.
The history of John and Anna Graves as revealed through their letters is often spotty and incomplete. Letters from such men and women rarely take the historian into the world of the "movers and shakers’ but they do provide a glimpse into how the "movers and shakers" affected the lives of everyday men and women, men and women rarely chronicled in the histories of the rich and the famous. And although it is often these prominent and "representative" citizens who move and direct our history, it is the John and Anna Graves of our society who must live that history. They provide us with valuable insights into life as it was, rather than life as we wish it were.
1 The History of Sandusky County, Ohio with Portraits and Biographies of Prominent Citizens (Cleveland, 1882) and Basil Meeks, ed. Twentieth-Century History of Sandusky County, Ohio, and Representative Citizens (Chicago, 1909). go back
2 Lawrence Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American
Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom (NY, 1977.), x.
3 Although focusing more on the Midwest prairie than on the Ohio frontier, a good example of this type of scholarship is Carol Fairbanks and Sarah Brooks Sundberg, Farmwomen on the Prairie Frontier: A Sourcebook for Canada and the United States (Metuchen, NJ, 1983). For a relatively early example of a feminist perspective on American History, see Mary R. Beard, America Through Women’s Eyes 1933. (New York, 1969). go back
4 Julie Ray Jeffrey, Frontier Women: The Trans-Mississippi West: 1840-1880 (New York, 1979), xiii. go back
5 Elisabeth Hampsten, Read this only to Yourself: The Private Writings of
Midwestern Women, 1880-1910 (Bloomington, 1982), 100.
6 Carlyle R. Buley, The Old Northwest Pioneer Period 1813-1840, 2 vols.(Indianapolis, 1950), 2:157. go back
7 Although the original of this letter carries no year, from the information
it contains, it can be dated as 1836. All quotes from letters from John and Anna
Graves are taken from correspondence contained in the Mary Hafford Garrett
Collection at the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center Library in Fremont,
Ohio. The original spelling and punctuation have been retained.
For an extensive treatment of marital relations and the changing nature of domestic relations on the frontier, refer to John Mack Faragher, Women and Men on the Overland Trail (New Haven, 1979) and Glenda Riley, Frontierswomen: The Iowa Experience (Ames, 1981).
8 Francis S. Philbrick, The Rise of the West 1754-1830 (NY, 1965), 307. go back
9 Harry N. Scheiber, Ohio Canal Era: A Case Study of Government and the Economy 1820-1861 (Athens, OH 1969), xvii. go back
10 Buley, 1:534. go back
11 Philbrick, 335. go back
12 Philbrick, 338. go back
13 Philbrick, 338. go back
14 Idem, 11:100. go back
15 Ibid, 11:101. go back
16 History of Sandusky County, 742. go back
17 David Schob, Hired Hands and Ploughboys: Farm Labor in the Midwest, 1815-1860 (Urbana, 1975), p. 20. Schob provides a wealth of information about labor on the frontier in a clear, well-documented study. For a more general overview, see Eugene H. Roseboom and Francis Weisenburger, A History of Ohio. 1953 (Columbus, 1967), 119-128. go back
18 Schob, p. 19. go back
19 Christopher Leaming is generally credited with the invention of the process of deep plowing in 1837 when he reported a yield of 104 bushels per acre as compared with the normal average of fifty to sixty bushels per acre. See Buley, 1:175 and Francis P. Weisenburger, The Passing of the Frontier 1825-1850, Volume 3 of Carl Wittke, ed. The History of the State of Ohio, six volumes (Columbus, 1941), 60. go back
20 Glenda Riley feels the "myth" of loneliness on the frontier to
be "at odds with reality" (172). She concludes that,
feelings of isolation and loneliness are relative. If some of us record that we arelonely in our high-rise,
industrialized, technological world of the 1980s, willhistorians someday praise our fortitude in surviving such
a harsh world, or will they pity us our cruel situation (176)?
Faragher, on the other hand, has concluded that the lives of most midwesterners before 1860 were shaped by two major restrictions: the dependence of farm labor on hand-tool technology, and the isolation of the homestead from markets and neighbors (179). Although Riley’s warning about reading our own interpretations of loneliness into a situation is well-taken, one cannot ignore the fact of the very real physical isolation on the frontier as compared with communities back East. Should we in the future develop more humane living situations in our urban areas, perhaps historians will admire our fortitude in overcoming the psychological isolation present in such areas. go back
21 Contraception proved to be a constant worry for women on the frontier. See Hampsten, 102-111. go back
22 For a detailed examination of the Panic and its aftermath in Ohio, see Weisenburger, The Passing of the Frontier, 328-363; for a brief overview, consult Rosebloom, 149-150. go back
23 Roseboom,149. go back
24 Hampsten treats this topic, 96-102. In a discussion of health problems specific to the Maumee Valley and the Black Swamp, see Daniel A. Dwarko, The Settler in Maumee Valley: Henry, Lucas and Wood Counties, Ohio, 1830-1860 (Diss. BGSU, 1981), 135-142. go back
25 Although many of the individual railroad lines developed rather slowly in their initial stages, by 1860 Ohio possessed more railroad mileage within its borders than any other state. See Scheiber, p. 271. go back
26 Roseboom, p. 126. go back
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