Estates and Credit Reports

In addition to simply reading the Ranney letters, a diligent historian would want to find out as much as possible about where they lived and about all the aspects of their lives for which there might be records. People were writing histories of places like Ashfield Massachusetts, Phelps New York, and Allen Michigan throughout the nineteenth century. In the case of Ashfield, it was already old by American standards, since the town was originally settled in the 1760s. The western New York and Michigan histories were partly about memorializing the pioneer period in those areas, especially as the pioneer generation started to age and die. So there’s a lot of good information on what it looked like and how people lived in these places.

Similarly, wills and estate inventories can often tell you a lot about the day to day lives of nineteenth century subjects. People would literally list
all the property of the deceased and tally up the value. If we pay close attention, this allows us to know intimate details of people’s lives: how many shirts they had, what books they read, what type of animals they kept. Using these details, we can reconstruct a picture of their lives and fill the frame with the appropriate, real stuff, rather than just leaving it to some vague imaginary backdrop from historical movies we saw as kids.

The probate records for Ashfield are in the Franklin County Courthouse in Greenfield Massachusetts. People working in probate offices are usually focused on the present, because they spend most of their time helping people who come in with present-day needs. But they’re also usually aware that stashed away somewhere in the vault they have old documents that probably contain some interesting history. When I’ve visited these offices, the clerks and probate officers have always been very helpful and interested in what I’m finding.

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In Greenfield I found Henry S. Ranney’s estate documents, and also George Ranney’s (Henry’s grandfather), which he wrote in 1819, three years before his death. George provides for his widow (his second wife, Alithea Patch), giving her one cow, three sheep, and all the furniture she brought to the marriage, plus the use of a third of his real estate for the rest of her life. He gives his eldest sons Samuel and Jesse a nominal fifty cents each, and gives the bulk of his estate to George “Jr.,” H. S. Ranney’s father. As mentioned earlier, it was fairly common practice in the nineteenth century to leave the bulk of the estate to the youngest son, who would be with the aging parents longest and would take care of them in their old age, long after older brothers had established households of their own.

I was also able to get in touch with the probate people in Ontario County New York, and get copies of the estates of Samuel Ranney, Roswell Ranney, and Alonzo Franklin Ranney (Henry’s oldest brother). Unfortunately, they did not have one for George Jr., possibly because he died suddenly, before writing a will (although there are sometimes documents for intestate estates, too). There’s interesting material in those, which I’ll get to when the time comes.

Another source of information, which fits into the chronology right about here, is a credit report done on Henry Ranney by a reporter for the R. G. Dun & Company credit agency in 1842-3. The credit reporting company had been established only a year earlier by Lewis Tappan (1788-1873, born in Northampton Massachusetts, most famous for his work as an abolitionist), so the entries in the 1842 ledger on the small company of “Cook and Ranney” are some of the earliest. For a really good introduction to the credit crisis of 1837 and the rise of reporting agencies, see Christopher Clark’s
The Roots of Rural Capitalism, 1990. These records are much harder to get your hands on than wills and estate inventories, since the ledger books are held at the Baker Library at Harvard, where they’re a little picky about who they let in and they don’t let you photograph the pages. They’re big, heavy books, divided by region, with handwritten transcriptions of the reports sent in by field agents. This is what they say about Henry S. Ranney:


Ashfield, Cook & Ranney,

"Dec 22 '42 From the enquiries we've made...

R...clever young man...was clk to J. Bement. Can't learn that he or C have more than a few hundred $ worth of property. Has been suggested that they may be assisted by Levi Cook of NY but can't say with certainty.

11-43 C we presume is the son of Levi Cook who has not any property but he has a son doing business in NY who is reported to be wealthy.

The Rs of Ashfield are considered to be men of some but not large property.

We learned that they are reputed safe and doing good business.

Aug 43 Have no knowledge of the real position of this firm. Their reputation is that they are close young men but unless they are assisted by Levi Cook of NY we don't suppose they have much capital.

Aug 44 In fair credit.

Oct 15 47 Ages 34 and 30. In business 10 years. Good character business men credit and business fair. Worth 2 to 3,000. Considered good for engagements.