Category Archives: 19th Century

The Beckers Viewer

Nineteenth century Americans were fascinated with photography. The first photographic experiments were made in Europe during the 1830s, and by the 1860s wet plate photography had become a lucrative business in America. Hundreds of studio photographers cranked out the most popular photographic product of the day: customer portraits printed on visiting cards, a Victorian version of the selfie.

Also popular was the stereograph, an early form of 3D in which two nearly identical photos were mounted on stiff 4×8 inch cards; when seen through the lenses of a special viewer they produced a three-dimensional image. Families would assemble large collections of stereo cards; topics included travel, anthropological, historical, and otherwise educational photos, religious subjects, fine arts, humorous subjects and news of the day. So many of these cards were produced that they are still ubiquitous in antique stores and on sites like Ebay.

Eadweard Muybridge was an eccentric English inventor, shady wild west character, and erstwhile hobnobber with the rich and famous whose photographic experiments would eventually, through the machinations of Thomas Edison, lead to the invention of cinema. In the 1860s, not being suited to the sedate indoor life of a studio photographer, Muybridge took his photographic equipment outdoors and became one of the earliest landscape photographers in America. His stereo views of Yosemite Valley and Alaska were eagerly purchased by Americans who could never otherwise experience such places.

One of Muybridge’s early projects foreshadows motion pictures by about thirty years. He made a series of stereo views of San Francisco taken from atop a hill on the edge of town. By turning the camera slowly left to right and taking serial photos, he made a panoramic representation of the city. Around this time a device was being produced in New York called the Alexander Beckers Viewer; it was a stereograph viewer that could hold up to fifty cards, and the user turned a knob to flip between views. When Muybridge’s panoramic San Francisco views were placed in the Beckers Viewer they produced the effect of what would later, in filmmaking, be called “panning.”

(Ball 75)

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Standard Railway Time

In the 19th century in America, time was determined by the sun. Towns and cities set their public clocks according to when the sun reached its zenith at “high noon.” Thus, even cities that were separated by only a few miles had their clocks set to different times. Railroad stations had multiple clocks, one for each railroad that used the station and one for local time.

Individuals had their choice of sources for the correct time: clocks on church towers and town halls, watches in jewelers’ windows, or factory whistles and bells. Large cities had time balls that would rise and drop every day at noon, by which city dwellers could set their watches; the ritual survives in the annual New Year’s event in Times Square.

Time became standardized when Western Union’s New York time ball dropped at noon on Sunday, November 18, 1883. Standard Railway Time was put into effect after a decade’s discussion among railroad executives, scientists, civil engineers and meteorologists, without benefit of either federal law or public demand.

Many cities and states resisted Standard Railway Time for years, for various political and religious reasons; these dissident voices were finally stilled, and Standard Railway Time made into federal law, with the Standard Time Act of 1918 – the first year in which the US also experimented with nationwide Daylight Savings Time.

(Schlereth 29-31)

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White Flour and the American Family

Flour was one of the earliest products in America to become industrialized. The commercialization of flour was to play a critical role in transforming the lives of women and the structure of domestic life in America.

Automated flour mills began appearing just after the close of the Revolutionary War. These mills required about half the number of laborers required by traditional grist mills, and the new technology produced a finer, whiter flour than had been possible with more traditional methods. The high price of white flour, combined with reduced labor costs, made commercial mills a booming business in closing years of the eighteenth century.

White flour, stripped of its germ and bran, did not readily deteriorate during shipping. Therefore, most of this early white flour was produced for export to war-ravaged Europe; very little commercial flour was sold domestically during this period. American families continued to grow and process their own grain, and locally-produced whole-grain corn and wheat meal continued to be staple foods.

The domestic production and use of whole-grain flour required the contributions of each member of a household. Men and boys were traditionally given the job of hand-grinding corn and wheat. If the grain was to be hauled to a mill for grinding, this was father’s job. Because the grain began to deteriorate quickly after milling, the tough jobs of hauling or hand-grinding grains kept husbands and sons busy throughout the year. Mother had it a little easier, because baking with coarse flour was a straightforward process: liquid and leavening were added to the meal, and the batter was then baked or fried into a simple quick bread.

The booming export market for American flour eventually collapsed when the Napoleonic hostilities in Europe ceased. At the same time, the opening of several major canals in New England and the Mid-Atlantic states made it cheaper to transport flour domestically, while also making the small-scale production of flour less profitable. So flour from merchant mills began to replace the product of local grist mills in the early nineteenth century. By the outbreak of the Civil War, flour milling was the leading American industry, and homegrown and locally-ground grains had largely disappeared from American tables.

Commercial white flour did not deteriorate as rapidly as home-grown flour. Therefore, it did not need to be continually hauled and milled; large quantities could be purchased at a time and stored. The switch to store-bought flour relieved men and boys of one of their most time-consuming domestic chores, the grinding and hauling of flour.

White flour was also used very differently than whole-meal flour. White flour could be made into pastries, cakes, and white, fluffy loaves leavened with yeast. Soon, quick breads came to be regarded as fare fit only for the lower classes, while white bread became one of the first “status symbols” of the industrial period in America. Unfortunately, cake baking and the production of yeast breads required much time, heavy labor, and attention to detail. All this work, of course, fell exclusively to the housewife.

In short, the advent of industrialized flour meant that the nineteenth-century housewife was spending a lot more of her time working in the kitchen than her grandmother had, while the role of her husband and sons in domestic activity began to disappear.

The switch to white flour helped to make the industrial-era American home into a place of idleness for men and children, but where “woman’s work is never done.”

(Cowan 46-53)

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The First Phone Book

New Haven, Connecticut was a city of 150,000 people when, in 1878, it became the home of one of the world’s first telephone exchanges.

The District Telephone Company of New Haven was founded by George W. Coy, a former telegraph operator and the inventor of the commercial switchboard. In order to realize his dream of starting a telephone company, he borrowed six hundred dollars to fund the venture, then drafted an advertising circular which explained the potential benefits of telephone subscription. He mailed a thousand copies to the residents of New Haven. From the thousand letters, Coy received only one subscription.

Undeterred, he hired a team of salesmen, each of whom was paid $1.50 for every new customer. This worked a little better, and soon Coy had twenty more subscribers. Installation of the telephones began in November of 1877; lines were strung up informally, attached to trees, roofs or any other handy spot. By January of the next year the world’s first telephone exchange was in operation.

This progenitor of today’s telecommunications firms consisted of a small office where Coy himself sat on a soapbox and operated the switchboard he had personally designed and built. The switchboard was referred to as “Coy’s chicken” because of the squawking noises it made, and it rested on top of a kitchen table. The only other office furniture was a packing box which served as the office desk, and an old armchair for visitors. Company records from the time list the value of all the office goods, including the switchboard, at $39.50.

Despite these inauspicious beginnings, the District Telephone Company of New Haven was a pioneer in American telecommunications. The company, which changed its name to the Southern New England Telephone Company (SNET) in 1882, was responsible for the world’s first telephone booth (1878), the first pay phone (1879), and the nation’s first school for telephone operators (1907).

And it produced the world’s first telephone directory. In February of 1878, just a month into operations, the District Telephone Company released a printed list of its telephone subscribers. This list is today considered the world’s first phone book. Although other businesses had used telephones before, and even printed lists of subscribers, the New Haven specimen’s claim to primacy rests on the fact that it is the first such list to include private customers as well as business lines.

This phone “book” did not list telephone numbers, only names. Early telephone directories existed solely for the purpose of alerting customers to the existence of other telephone subscribers. To make a call, the telephone user would pick up the phone and tell the operator (all of whom, at this early stage, were male) the name of the person to ring up.

The first New Haven directory lists as the entirety of its contents three physicians, two dentists, two boarding stables, twenty stores and factories, four meat and fish markets, eleven residences, and eight places marked “miscellaneous.”

Although there are many reprints of this famous document, of the 150 copies originally printed only one survives. It is kept at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center at the University of Connecticut. The New Haven exchange itself is long gone. The location, at the intersection of State and Chapel streets, was awarded landmark status in 1964, and then torn down in 1973 by the New Haven Redevelopment Agency to make way for a parking garage.

A slightly newer version of the New Haven directory, from November 1878, was auctioned by Christie’s in May of 2008 and sold for $170,500.

(Shea 12-17)

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The Emigrant Diet

In 1859, U.S. Army Captain Randolph B. Marcy was asked by the War Department to write a guidebook for westward-bound pioneers. The resulting publication, The Prairie Traveler, became the emigrants’ principal manual for safe passage West. In The Prairie Traveler, Marcy spent a chapter advising pioneers on which routes to take and what to bring along. His section on “Stores and Provisions” is a glimpse into how the emigrants may have subsisted along the trail.

Marcy advised first that bacon or well-cured pork be brought along in hundred-pound sacks or packed in boxes, surrounded by “bran” to keep the fat from melting away. Flour was to be sewn up in stout, double-thick canvas bags, one hundred pounds to each. Butter was to be first boiled and skimmed until it was as clear as oil, and then sealed up in tin canisters. Sugar was to be secured into India-rubber sacks and kept well away from any source of dampness.

In the mid-nineteenth century, many people felt that fruits and vegetables were unhealthy. Marcy spent a long paragraph defending the usefulness of vegetables and emphasizing their antiscorbutic properties. Although canned vegetables were widely available, they were heavy, so emigrants were advised to purchase dried vegetables from a particular supplier in New York. Imported from Paris, the vegetables (they are only mentioned generically, no particular variety is named) were sliced and pressed into solid cakes which were as hard as rocks. A piece half the size of a man’s hand, he claimed, could be soaked in water and reconstituted to fill “a vegetable dish,” and would feed four men. A cubic yard of the stuff contained 16,000 rations.

If one were unable, or unwilling, to procure dessicated vegetables, Marcy advised them instead to take along citric acid. This could, if mixed with sugar and water and a little “essence of lemon,” pass as a substitute for lemonade. Other possible antidotes for scurvy were wild onions, wild grapes, greens, or tea made from hemlock leaves.

Another useful item was pemmican, which Marcy claimed constituted almost the entire diet of those working in the Northwest fur trade. To prepare pemmican, you were to take buffalo meat, cut it into thin strips, and dry it well in the sun. The dried meat was then to be pounded into a fine powder, mixed with melted grease, and sewn into bags of animal hide (with the fur, he is careful to mention, on the outside). Pemmican was to be eaten raw, but as a change one could also mix it with a little flour and boil it.

Then Marcy described the simplest and most portable source of calories, used extensively, he claimed, by Mexicans and Indians. It was something called “cold flour,” and it was made by mixing cornmeal with a little cinnamon and sugar. This was to be mixed into water and used as a beverage, and he claimed that on half a bushel of the stuff, and with no other provisions, a man could easily subsist for thirty days.

In extreme situations, a little creativity was to be exerted. Mules and horses could be consumed, but Marcy warned that if the animals were half-starved and stringy, a man would have to eat a lot of this excessively lean meat, perhaps five or six pounds a day, to stay alive. In the absence of salt, a mule or horse steak could be charred in the fire and then sprinkled with a little gunpowder to make it more palatable. Men desperate for tobacco could resort to smoking the roasted bark of the red willow, or sumac leaf. A good coffee substitute could be found in dried “horse mint.”

To make the journey from the Missouri River to California, each grown person would require 150 pounds of flour or hardtack, 25 pounds of bacon, cured pork, or meat driven on the hoof, 15 pounds of coffee, and 25 pounds of sugar. These were the essential articles needed, and Marcy warned travelers to be careful and not use up all their provisions during the first half of the trip. It is hard to imagine how that could have been a temptation.

(Marcy 30-36)

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Abolition vs. Gradual Emancipation

American slavery was widely criticized from the very beginning, and many of the nation’s founders hoped, perhaps naively, that the Peculiar Institution would soon die a natural death. But critics of slavery could never seem to agree on how the institution should best be discontinued.

The War of Independence generated a lot of public discourse concerning freedom and personal liberty, and during the last several decades of the eighteenth century, every northern state in the U.S. enacted measures to prohibit slavery. But the hoped-for natural death of slavery did not follow. Partly this was attributable to the fact that the federal government remained largely in the hands of southerners; between 1788 and 1848 all but four U.S. presidents were slaveholders.

Then, in the early nineteenth century, slavery was given a new lease on life. This was due to the sudden and spectacular growth in world demand for cotton, which quickly became the country’s most important export. Slave states and free states alike benefited from the cotton trade, and the antislavery sentiments inspired by the War for Independence soon faded in the light of these new economic considerations.

Still, slavery remained a divisive political issue, and between 1790 and 1830 dozens of antislavery proposals came before Congress. During this period, most antislavery proposals were paired with the idea of “colonization” – the removal of the black population from the United States. Advocates of this idea envisioned a nation peacefully freed from both the institution of slavery and the unwanted presence of free blacks.

Although colonization may sound far-fetched today, it was quite popular in its time, and Thomas Jefferson remained committed to the idea to his dying day. He personally proposed that the federal government purchase all slave children born each year for the purpose of deporting them – yes, infants – so that the slave population would age and eventually die out.

The first emancipation – that of slaves in the north – had contained no provision for colonization. That emancipation had been gradual rather than immediate, and usually included some sort of compensation to the owners. For example, slave children born after a certain date were required to work for the mother’s owner for a certain number of years before eventually becoming free. In effect, these slaves were required to purchase their own freedom with a period of indentured servitude.

It seems to have been assumed in the north that the former slaves would somehow just be absorbed into mainstream society. But this did not happen. Indeed, it should not be imagined that free northern blacks enjoyed either political or social equality with whites; they could neither vote, become citizens, nor serve in the armed forces. Instead, the rapid growth of the free northern black population was followed by a upsurge of anti-black sentiment among northern whites. The American Colonization Society, founded in 1816, first directed its efforts at removing free blacks from the north.

Although a few African-Americans agreed with the colonization movement, most were strongly against the idea of being deported, either voluntarily or by force, from the land of their birth. Their vision of an America of birthright citizenship and equality before the law helped to give rise to a new, militant abolitionism in the 1820s and 30s.

Abolitionism combined the energies of two impulses – black anti-colonization and white evangelicalism. It rejected gradual emancipation, compensation, and colonization, and called for immediate, uncompensated emancipation and an America that was fully biracial. Rather than spending time formulating detailed plans for emancipation, abolitionists focused on altering public opinion, using the public media of the day – lectures, petitions, and pamphlets. Abolitionist rhetoric often appealed to the heart as well the mind, exposing the day-to-day brutality of slavery as well as its weakness as an economic system.

Abolitionists diverged most widely from other critics of slavery in their vision of a post-slavery America. The first racially integrated social movement in America, abolitionism was also the first to link emancipation with equal rights.

This was a radical departure from the mainstream, and many northerners expressed their disfavor by violently attacking abolitionist meetings and destroying printing presses. Still, during the 1830s between 200,000 and 300,000 northerners joined the movement.

Colonizationists resented the spread of abolitionism, and they were responsible for instigating a series of anti-abolitionist riots that swept the north. Their main objection was that abolitionism would harm the cause of emancipation since no southerner would ever accept the idea of equal rights.

(Foner 14-22)

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A Day on the Oregon Trail

The earliest emigrants on the Oregon Trail set a basic pattern that would be followed, with some refinements, by wagon trains making the same journey in the decades to come.

On May 20 of 1843, that first group gathered near Independence, Missouri, to hold an organizational meeting and elect a captain. The next day about 875 emigrants assembled, with 120 wagons and the oxen that were required to pull them (oxen had proven better suited for this purpose than either horses or mules). The group hired a retired mountain man as a guide, and the next day they all set off.

A typical day would begin at 4 a.m., when the emigrants would be awakened by a volley of shots fired by the wagon train’s sentinels. Quickly they would strike their tents, hitch up their teams, and take their places in the column of wagons. The wagons were divided into platoons of four, often groups of friends or extended family. Because the wagons in the rear of the train would be exposed to all the dust kicked up by those in front, each platoon moved forward one place in the order each day. But if one wagon were late getting started, its whole platoon would lose its place in line. This tended to encourage speedy preparation!

During the day, the guide would lead a party of riders ahead of the group to choose the best route, and to make any improvements the route might need, such as filling in deep ruts. Other riders would range out to hunt game, while women and children would ride in the wagons or, more often, walk alongside. When the guide party found a suitable location, the whole train would halt for lunch; during this hour everyone ate, rested, and watered the animals. A bugle would summon them to resume the day’s march.

Near sunset, the guide would lead the party to a suitable camping place, and the teamsters would circle the wagons. The front of each wagon was chained to the back of the one ahead of it, to make a corral; the animals were secured in the center of the circle, which formed a defensive barrier against any Indians or other dangers that might be about. Then the men would tend to their stock or dig wells for fresh water, while the children collected buffalo chips for fuel and the women cooked the evening meal. A little fiddle or banjo music might round out the day, but bedtime was generally early for everyone but those who had sentinel duty.

The ox-drawn caravan could cover about fifteen or twenty miles in a day. That first group reached its destination, in the valley of the Grand Ronde, on October 1. During the four-and-a-half months of the migration, although four men of the group had died from illness or drowning, the party’s total numbers had increased: more than that many babies had been born along the trail.

(Woodworth 72-76)

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Transportation in the Early U.S.

Today, most of us spend our lives moving around on paved streets and roads, and we tend to view our world as a series of locations connected by lines on a map. But the earliest European settlers in North America encountered a vast, amorphous wilderness. In this wilderness there existed no roads, nor any convenient means of transporting objects and people from place to place.

The very first roads in the US were bison paths. These were useful for human purposes, because they tended to link water sources and followed the most level routes. Similar to these were the network of Indian trails, which also followed paths of least resistance. With the help of Indians, early American colonists were able to improve these trails, widening them to accommodate wagons.

During the colonial period, mail was an extremely important means of communication. The first highway in America, the Boston Post Road, dates to 1673. It took a post rider two weeks on this unpaved road to deliver the mail from New York City to Boston. Deputy postmaster Benjamin Franklin personally toured the 500 miles of the Boston Post Road to mark the route with milestones. Eventually, all the major cities in the thirteen colonies were connected by a system of post roads.

In the late 1700s, the introduction of stagecoach passenger and mail service made road improvements necessary. By the time of the Revolutionary War, larger colonies were actively building roads, especially the type known as “corduroy” roads, constructed of wooden planks.

But after the war, federal and state governments quit building roads, and private companies took over. Land companies bought right-of-ways and cleared land to build wagon trails. The first hard-surface road in America was constructed by a private company, the Philadelphia and Lancaster Turn Pike Company. It was a 62-mile toll road from Philadelphia to Lancaster, Pennsylvania that was made of broken stones and gravel, built in 1794.

During the next forty years, private companies built many more “turn pikes,” so called because of the toll gates, known as “pikes,” at which travelers were required to stop and pay a fee. These fees went to cover the cost of road maintenance. About 3,000 miles of these roads were built in the early 1800s.

But as the 19th century progressed, interest in road construction began to wane. Toll fees could no longer cover the costs of road maintenance. The cheapest and most common means of transporting men and materials was by water. To facilitate east-west traffic, a system of canals was built. The 1840s saw the brief appearance of both the steamboat and the fast clipper ship. These technological advances caused road building to fall out of favor for a time.

America’s westward expansion was conducted mostly by horse-drawn wagon train along a few main routes. These famous pioneer trails included the Oregon Trail, the Santa Fe Trail, the California Trail and others. By the mid-1800s stagecoach passenger travel had also become commonplace; each stagecoach company developed its own preferred route to the west coast. All these “roads” were actually just crude pathways of dust and mud.

Disputes over routing helped to delay the development of overland mail service until 1857, when Congress passed an act offering mail contracts to private companies. The first contract went to Butterfield’s Southern Overland Mail; they chose the 2,795-mile Oxbow Route from St. Louis to San Francisco, with stages at ten-mile intervals. Mail service took nearly a month. The famous Pony Express offered an expensive, yet high-speed alternative – mail service in less than a week! – until the transcontinental telegraph made it obsolete in 1861.

The years following the Civil War saw the development of transcontinental railroad service, and for the remainder of the century domestic land travel in America was dominated by trains.

Most cities at that time had only crude, dirt streets filled with garbage and animal waste. While urban residents  struggled with congested, dirty, smelly city streets, rural America had to make the best of rutted, muddy or dusty earthen paths. Travel time to transport livestock or ripened crops to the nearest railhead was critical for farmers, but in favorable weather, a horse and buggy could travel only about five miles per hour along such roads.

Then in the 1890s a new invention helped to shift the nation’s focus back to the need for paved roads. That invention was the bicycle. Thousands of people got caught up in the bicycle craze of the 1890s. But because of the bad condition of most city streets, bicycle enthusiasts were forced to crowd onto the few paved surfaces that existed. Cyclists organized what was called the “Good Roads” movement, petitioning state and local governments for all-weather hard-surfaced roads and streets.

At the same time, the federal government also began to recognize the need for road improvements; after the institution of free rural postal delivery, the US Post Office was in dire need of better roads along its postal routes.

Finally, at the very end of the century, the invention of the automobile would usher in a new era of unprecedented road construction and change the landscape forever.

(Kaszynski 11-23)

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The First Oregon Settlers

In the first four decades following the Revolutionary War, the American frontier crept steadily westward across the continent, to the Mississippi River and beyond, reaching the western part of Missouri and eastern Iowa by the 1830s.

There, Manifest Destiny paused for a time. After all, further west lay the Great Plains, a sere and desolate wasteland, and beyond that were the Rockies. Although Lewis and Clark had followed an overland route to the Oregon coast in 1805, their experience was an epic adventure beyond the resources of the typical frontier settler. For thirty years after Lewis and Clark, no settlers braved the dangers of the Far West.

Religion provided the initial catalyst for settlement in Oregon. In 1831 a small group of northwestern Indians, curious about the white man’s country, traveled to St. Louis for a visit with William Clark, then serving as U.S. Superintendent of Indian Affairs. A story began to circulate that the Indians, while in St. Louis, had requested that the white man’s “Book of Heaven,” as well as some suitable instructors, be sent back to their homeland in the Northwest. Soon, many devout Christians began planning missionary journeys to Oregon.

One of the first was 30-year-old Methodist pastor and schoolteacher Jason Lee, who traveled overland with some fur traders to establish a mission in the Willamette Valley. Another early missionary was physician Marcus Whitman, who became famous for successfully removing an arrowhead from mountain man Jim Bridger’s back. Whitman and his wife Narcissa, along with a group of fellow Presbyterians including missionaries Henry and Eliza Spalding, traveled west to plant a mission near present-day Walla Walla, Washington. Narcissa and Elizabeth became the first white women to cross the Rockies; their letters home helped to popularize the overland journey to Oregon as a practical, accessible family project.

At that time, under an agreement reached in 1818, the vast, amorphous Oregon Country was being held in “joint occupancy” by both Britain and the United States. This arrangement worked well only as long as the region was largely unoccupied. But as soon as settlers began pouring in, Oregon’s ownership became an issue. In the fall of 1838, Jason Lee made a speaking tour of the East, bringing tales of a Columbia River teeming with salmon. Inspired by his powerful lectures, a group of seventeen men from Peoria, Illinois decided to head west for the specific purpose of wresting Oregon away from the British.

Calling themselves the Oregon Dragoons, the group elected as their leader lawyer Thomas J. Farnham. Bearing a banner with the legend, “Oregon or the Grave,” the group set out in May, 1839. They planned to follow the famous northern fur-trading route, later known as the Oregon Trail, which combined directness with relative ease of travel.

However, the journey did not prove an easy one. The group, which became known as the Peoria Party, spent three stressful weeks of travel just to reach Independence, Missouri. While there, Farnham changed his mind and decided to follow the more southerly Santa Fe trail instead. Unprepared for the prairie’s terrifying weather phenomena, the group struggled miserably. Food supplies ran short; three members of the group quit and returned home.

Squabbling within the group became increasingly intense; during a heated quarrel, one man was accidentally shot in the side and badly injured. This forced the group to make even slower progress. Then the group voted to depose Farnham as leader and elected another man. Sioux raiders stole two of their horses. Three more members quit the group.

In Bent’s Fort, Colorado, the strife among the Peorians reached a crisis. The wounded man, another man, and former leader Farnham were all voted out of the group. Two other men decided to join Farnham’s faction, and the two separate groups set out separately for Oregon. Finally, both groups splintered further into ones and twos.

Nine of the original seventeen eventually reached Oregon. Far from being conquerors, the men, worn thin and ragged by their trials, arrived merely as settlers. Their experiences hardly seemed to bode well for American migration to Oregon. Yet by the time Farnham and the others finally arrived in Oregon, at least ten different towns back east had already formed “Oregon Societies” for the purpose of settling the region.

(Woodworth 57-62)

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Abolitionism and Evangelical Christianity

The Abolitionist movement began in Britain, where evangelical Christians like William Wilberforce succeeded in ending slavery by 1833. The idea migrated to America with religious groups such as the Quakers and the Methodists. But Abolitionism would prove more problematic in the U.S., with its millions of slaves throughout the southern states, than in the British Empire, where slavery mostly existed in far-flung colonies.

In the 18th century, most Americans, North and South, believed that slavery was basically an evil, although regrettably a necessary one. But by the 1820s and 30s the cotton gin, the amazing profits to be made from cotton, and the correspondingly high price of slaves had effected a change in attitudes. Slavery was increasingly being promoted in the South as a positive good, something that needed to be expanded. A number of states passed laws making manumission illegal. Southerners became hostile to any criticism of slavery.

The earliest anti-slavery organizations in the U.S. advocated the resettlement of African-Americans to Africa. Groups like the American Colonization Society believed that slaveholders would willingly let their slaves go if they knew that upon their emancipation the freedmen would immediately leave the country. But this supposedly painless option never materialized; only a few free African Americans migrated to Liberia, and the Society never freed a single slave.

Abolitionists found the deportation idea offensively tame. They called for an immediate, uncompensated termination of slavery. Most Abolitionists were evangelical Christians, to whom slavery was a blatant violation of God’s command to love one’s neighbor, a sin that must be completely renounced.

Churches were enormously important institutions in the early 19th century. The American Methodist Episcopal denomination had more than one million members, with regular church attenders numbering two to three times that many. On any given Sunday, one in five Americans was sitting in a Methodist church! The Methodist church had always been strongly anti-slavery, and in 1800 the General Conference required conferences in slave states to petition their legislatures for abolition.

But mainstream Americans considered abolition a dangerously radical idea. It was frightening, not so much because of the financial loss it would cause, which was considerable, but because the specter of a lot of freed slaves suddenly living among whites on a basis of equality was too shocking to comprehend.

In the 1820s and 30s, Abolitionists were a radical minority; even in the North, abolitionist orators were often the targets of mob action. Southern leaders threatened to lynch any northerner found carrying Abolitionist literature. Southern congressmen succeeded in banning Abolitionist materials from the U.S. Mail. In 1836, proslavery congressmen passed a “Gag Rule” – no petition about slavery would be read or debated. A similar rule was passed in the Senate.

But the harder proslavery forces worked to suppress Abolition, the more northerners joined the cause. Americans who were not at first interested in slavery were stirred by Congress’s blatant infringement of their time-honored right of petition. Suddenly, antislavery petitions began flooding the Capitol, and a small group of sympathetic congressmen, including John Quincy Adams, fought to get them read. And it seemed that every time a southern mob attacked an Abolitionist, more and more complacent northerners were awakened to the tyranny of slavery.

To many northerners, the final straw was Article IV, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution: the Fugitive Slave Law. This law meant that slave states could override the rights of free states by retrieving escaped slaves from states were slavery did not exist. This was an intolerable violation of states’ rights.

For many citizens, the Fugitive Slave Law was asking them to place human law above divine law. Church congregations and abolitionist groups all over the North passed resolutions declaring that human laws contrary to divine law were not binding. By 1848, seven northern states had passed personal liberty laws, declaring that no state personnel or facilities could be used for retrieving runaway slaves. If the federal government insisted on dragging people into slavery, it would have to attend to the matter itself.

Meanwhile, more and more northerners were becoming involved in aiding fugitive slaves, and many colleges, seminaries and other Christian institutions became stations on the Underground Railroad.

But Methodism, facing constant pressure from its southern congregations, dropped the ball. National Methodist leadership began to assert that slavery was a social evil, rather than an individual one. Therefore, slaveholders would not be barred from church membership. The rapid influx of unrepentant slaveholders irreparably weakened the denomination’s stance on slavery. By the 1820s Methodist periodicals were urging church members not to be “judgmental” against slavery. In 1836 the General Conference, as always more interested in stability than in religious zeal, announced that the Methodist Church would henceforth refrain from discussing the disturbing subject of slavery.

This did not reflect majority sentiment in Methodist pews and pulpits in the North. Seven of every eight Abolitionists were evangelical Christians, and most were Methodists. Dissatisfaction with denominational acquiescence on slavery inspired about 15,000 Methodists to splinter off and form a new antislavery denomination, the Wesleyans, in 1843. Then in 1844, following a scandal concerning a slave-owning bishop, outraged southerners left to form their own strongly proslavery denomination, the Methodist Episcopal Church, South.

Similar splits occurred within the Baptist and Presbyterian denominations. These various schisms in the 1840s reflected the beginnings of a major rift within the nation as a whole. For the average American, religious matters were much more important day-to-day than the doings of Congress. By polarizing along strictly North-South lines, the denominations succeeded where politics had failed: now, to the average American, the country was beginning to seem divided in two.

(Woodworth 40-54)

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