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5 The Common Dependence of Man In April 1824, Clarinda Tate notified her mother in Kentucky of the death of her infant son. The boy, born February 13, had lived but an hour. She wrote that the child had “breathed its last without a groan[.] I felt much resigned to the will of God.” Clarinda had suffered from ill health during her pregnancy, having a “bad cold and cough,” shortness of breath, and a pain in her left side. Her husband, James, had been troubled by back pain and confined to the house. “He lays himself up with hard work,” she noted sadly. Their daughter Mary had also been sick, “taken with vomiting and purging of worms.” Clarinda wrote that she had suffered much, but neighboring women and a skilled midwife had helped greatly. “Mrs. Henderson staid with me 3 weeks almost constent[.] She attended me night and day as tenderly as she could have don her own child.” Clarinda recorded that she had company almost continuously for the past seven weeks. Clearly moved by the generosity of her neighbors, who had also helped build the family a cabin the previous October, she reported that they had done everything for her that they could. “Some come to see me that had not been acquainted with us before. I feel much attached to our acquaintences here they appear more like relations than strangers.” She wrote that a neighbor had been so helpful, “she appears more like a sister than a neighbor. She is often sending me things we stand in need of.” Though she missed her mother and had endured a terrible winter, Clarinda ended her letter by saying, “I feel better satisfied now than I ever did” with her friends in Kentucky.1 Few rural households could survive completely alone, and few ever tried. Farm families did not exist in a social or economic vacuum, and they depended 82 chapter five upon on one another for mutual assistance and survival. Neighborhoods and communities were an essential and necessary part of life for nineteenth-century farmers. They provided security, comfort, and companionship. No family could produce everything that it needed by itself, and individual households depended upon each other. Women assisted in giving birth or took part in quilting parties, while men might help a family with communal physical labor such as a barn raising. Male slaves often completed work for neighbors who needed help, being loaned or hired out by their owners. Missouri residents also provided hospitality to travelers, giving assistance to people they would probably never see again. Farm families exchanged labor, tools, animals, agricultural products, and other help with each other, but they did not see such cooperation in solely practical terms. Neighbors shared work and recreation, including fishing, hunting, and going to church. People received emotional and psychological support from friends and neighbors, as well as enjoying crucial economic assistance.2 This cooperative and supportive behavior—variously called “reciprocity,” “neighborhood exchange,” or “borrowing”—included almost all aspects of rural and agricultural life, from assistance with clearing land to construction projects. Most farm families lacked the labor to complete many of these tasks or did not own enough livestock or tools to complete harvesting or plowing. Many farms also lacked dairy cows or large plots of grazing land, or farm families did not produce enough of all foodstuffs to feed themselves. Farm families did not possess the vaunted self-sufficiency claimed by many historians in the twentieth century. Thus, these families had to obtain part of their food requirements or labor needs from others. Such farm families had to enter into exchange relationships, not solely for profit or to increase their standard of living, but simply to feed themselves, have a place to live, or harvest their crops. Frederick Steines noted, “many farmers have neither carts nor wagons because their price is extravagant.” He also wrote that his brother often borrowed his oxen for plowing or transport. This borrowing system provided crucial assistance to families during the initial years of agriculture in Missouri, as well as during the transition to some commercial production. In fact, such cooperation continued throughout the antebellum period, and the involvement of families in markets did not lead to any reduction in neighborhood reciprocity.3 Studies have demonstrated the inability of farm households to practice selfsufficiency . Bettye Hobbs Pruitt argued that the independence of American The Common Dependence of Man 83 farmers was a “mythic vision.” Pruitt found that a majority of farms in...


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