Monday, November 4, 2013

Daily work for boys in southeast Ohio around 1820

One way to break a Dark Age deadlock is to find a literate and gossipy neighbor who wrote things down. Even better is to find one who had his or her reminiscences published. Best of all if it's someone that you're actually related to.

When you find such a treasure, don't stop at extracting the genealogical gold (like an overseas grandfather's date of death). In fact, if you have any people anywhere in eastern or southeastern Ohio in the early 1800s, you will enjoy William Cooper Howells's Recollections of Life in Ohio from 1813 to 1840. His son was the well-known literary man William Dean Howells (1837-1920), and Howells families (with a terrifyingly small set of given names) are tangled throughout the Midwest and right back to eighteenth-century Wales. The senior Howells's lucid and astringent recollections also provide a model of style and tone for those of us likely to fall into sentimentalism or other kinds of editorializing.

As young boys, William Cooper Howells and his brother Tom plowed difficult ground with a difficult horse and not much harness:

When the corn was small [Paddy the horse] would get out of the rows and trample the corn, and when it had grown to some size he would stop to eat it in spite of all the efforts we could make with loud hallooing on my part and vigorous thrashing on Tom's part. . . . We had no buckles to the harness, and with our little hands we could not tie a knot that would stand. It was the same when we hauled wood, which we mostly did by the process called "snaking." We would tie a chain around the end of a log, and thereby drag it on the ground. If the log was small, or there was snow, we got along pretty well; but if the load was heavy, we usually had a scene of balking and harness breaking trying to my patience and unpleasant to Tom if he rode. Paddy was a safe horse -- that is, he was small, and it did not hurt any one to fall from him, and if he didn't stay in his tracks he was always to be found where there was something to eat.
In the spring of 1821 his (unnamed) uncle Howells decided to move 80 miles to an unsettled area of Coshocton County, where he could only afford to lease land. With young William's help, they took along cattle, sheep, and pigs as well as household goods and tools.
The loading up of the wagons occupied nearly the whole day of starting, and it was late in the afternoon when we mustered the cattle, sheep and pigs in the rear of the wagons. . . . To start off with such a mixed drove of animals was no trifling affair, for, though they would drive pretty well after getting used to the road and a day or two's experience, their obstinacy and contrariety at first was without parallel, and a boy to each animal was little enough. First, a pig would dart back and run like a deer till he was headed and turned, by which time the others would meet him and all have to be driven up; while in the meantime a cow or two would be sailing down a by-lane with elevated head and tail, and a breathless boy circling through a field or the woods to intercept her career . . . . We worked along till night, when we put up, about seven miles from the starting point.
Plenty more where that came from . . .

William Cooper Howells, Recollections of Life in Ohio from 1813 to 1840 (Cincinnati: The Robert Clarke Company, 1895), 82-83, 87; digital images, Internet Archive ( : viewed October 2013).

Harold Henderson, "Daily work for boys in southeast Ohio around 1820," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 4 November 2013 ( : viewed [date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]


Anonymous said...

Wonderful! I have an elusive Hammond ancestor who was born in eastern Ohio in 1813 and likely spent his boyhood and early manhood there. This looks like a great window of insight into what his experiences may have been like - adding it to my reading list.

Sonja Hunter said...

Thanks! I have ancestors who lived in Jefferson county, OH during this time period.