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3 I Can Live Here Better Families came to Missouri in search of a competency, or comfortable independence . They sought productive and affordable farmland that allowed them to buy property for future generations. They also wanted rich soil, which better rewarded their effort. This enabled them to produce more farm goods for market or to more easily provide for themselves. J. Davis, in a letter to his family in Massachusetts, claimed his chance to gain a “competency” was far greater in Missouri than in New England. He also noted that the soil of Missouri was “rich in the extreme” and produced almost any crop in “great profusion.” People like Davis came west to achieve what they could not in more populated or expensive areas: settle their children nearby on their own land. Family welfare required land ownership and the continued acquisition of it. Parents needed to have property far beyond their own needs, so it could be passed on as they aged.1 Parents also did not want to be separated from their children. Nathan Haines made this clear in a letter to his siblings. “To think my son is so far from me that I cant se him no more it is almost more than i can bear.” Stephen Goddard wrote to his children in Pennsylvania, asking them to come join him in Clay County, Missouri. He promised to give them ten acres of land and livestock each, including as “many hogs as you wish.” Goddard added that he would also provide each child with grain and meat for a year, as well as additional improved land if they would come join him. Dr. John Sappington, who promoted the use of quinine to fight malaria in the antebellum United States, made a fortune from his medicine business. One of his goals was to provide for his children and less successful relatives.2 34 chapter three Cheap land offered the opportunity to start a new life or to add to a family’s wealth. The ownership of land in antebellum America gave families economic independence and social status. Since most households lived in rural areas, people made their living from the soil. Thus, inexpensive and fertile land provided unparalleled opportunities to those who had access to it. Most migrants mentioned the possibilities that this provided, and they commented on it regularly. John Chauncey wrote to his friend Francis Dallam in Baltimore praising the opportunities that Missouri offered. He noted that the country was healthy and provided a “frontier market for all kinds of produce.” Chauncey urged his friend to join him in the state, as it would benefit his family. Dallam would be able to secure his children’s independence through investments in land or business. He suggested that his friend set up a store, as merchants had been making large profits. Waltus Watkins and his brothers left Kentucky in the 1830s, hoping to buy land at low prices in Missouri. They planned to sell property in their home state that was valued at $30 to $40 an acre and purchase land at $1.25 or $2 an acre in Clay and Clinton Counties in the western section of the state.3 Land shortages and soil exhaustion in Virginia forced thousands to leave in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, as young men in southeastern states faced diminishing economic prospects. Such men went west in search of the independence that they did not think they could find in Virginia, just as Davis had left Massachusetts. Younger sons and their families left the state, often leaving older family members behind. In October 1826, George Bingham wrote to his son, Wyatt, from his home in Stanardsville. He wished that he could see his son and his family again, but they were too distant. “I am now brought to be glad that so many of my children and grand Children have made their escape from this poor part of the world and have got to a safe fertile Country where they get to raise a plenty to support life comfortably.” Wyatt’s chance to find a competency had steep costs, though. “Well I know I cant live long and you my dear Children lay near my heart and as we cant expect to see each other in this life O my dear Children pray for me and let us try to meet in Heaven.”4 Land ownership and market participation complemented one another and helped support family autonomy. Those who bought substantial...


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