ANOTHER DAY OLDER & DEEPER IN DEBT

Radio Script # 314
by David Minor "Timemaster" Salmagundy WXXI (91.5) NPR
May 3, 2003

Our own age has come to realize that history is more than just lives of notorious or great women and men. For every De Witt Clinton, Lucinda Morgan, Thurlow Weed or William Astor in 1827 New York there were thousands of the unnamed, little-known and marginalized, caught up in the concerns of the day.

Farthest out on the geographical margins were the residents of the western part of the state, settlers on the Holland Purchase. In February, 140 delegates from six counties gathered in Buffalo to consider the plight of the residents. A committee of 24 met in an all day session, reporting the following day, "Such is the uniformity of the condition among the inhabitants of every part of the purchase, that a description of the affairs of a single settler will present a fair picture, with some slight shades of difference, of the pecuniary situation of two thirds, of our population."

They went on to describe a man who had come into the western country with his family fifteen or twenty years previously, seeking inexpensive land. Confident in his ability to make a new life for himself, he bought 200 acres of wild, heavily-wooded land at four dollars an acre, payable in half a dozen yearly installments, at an annual interest rate of 7%. He'd cleared the land and planted crops. Now he finds himself worn out by his efforts, supporting a larger family, far behind in his payments to his landlord the Holland Company, unable due to poor transportation, especially if he's not close to the new canal, to get his produce to market and, because of grasping, short-sighted policies of the Company, in possession of land that new settlers are bypassing for less expensive land further west. In other words, our brave pioneer finds himself in economic servitude.

The convention resolves to seek concessions from the company, such as reducing the prices of unsold lands; relinquishing part of the debt due from each settler along with the percentage of interest charged, and extending the payback period, all designed to encourage current settlers to remain on the land and to attract new settlers as well as capital. Under the name of The Agrarian Convention of the Holland Purchase the committee agrees to meet annually in Buffalo until the situation has been remedied.

As bad as the plight of the Holland Purchase tenants is, there are those even lower on the social and financial scale. On March 23rd, Genesee County's Republican Advocate carries the following: "NOTICE. Jane, a black slave, who sometimes calls herself Jane Adams, and sometimes Jane Butler, left the service and employment of the subscriber some time since. I hereby forbid all persons harboring, sheltering, giving assistance or employment to the said slave, under the penalty of the law. William Keyes".

Some help is on the way. On July 4th, the continuance of slavery in the state comes to an end. But the practice is far from ended. The children of slaves born on or after July 4, 1799, are legally free. But. They are required to serve their mother's owner as indentured servants. Among the many slaves who are eligible for freedom is Isabella Van Wagener. In 1843 she will take the name Sojourner Truth.

Then there are those who have become wards of the state, through no fault of their own. Jumping ahead to the later part of the century, one brief, fading item in Genesee County's Progressive Batavian, dated January 29th of 1886, will tell you Phebe White's story. In part... "FIFTY-EIGHT YEARS IN THE POOR HOUSE.--Miss Phebe White was found dead in her room in the County House on Sunday morning last. She was 67 years of age. For 58 years she had been an inmate, never having spent a single night away from that institution. The County House was completed in 1827 and Miss White entered it at 9 years of age in 1828, thus becoming one of the first recipients of its care and protection."