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A Republic of Farm People: Women, Families, and Market-Minded Agrarianism in Ohio, 1820s–1830s

From: Ohio History
Volume 114, 2007
pp. 28-45 | 10.1353/ohh.0.0012

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On April 31, 1832, forty-eight-year-old Aaron Miller departed his native Louden County, Virginia, home on horseback, accompanied by his brother Daniel, to travel westward to Ohio. Their expressed purpose was to seek out and purchase farms capable of profitable wheat production for several of the Miller brothers and their families. Over the next month and a half, Miller recorded his detailed observations about Ohio and its agriculture, farm people, and overall state of economic and material development. Certainly, whatever Thomas Jefferson had envisioned within his agrarian ideology regarding the future growth and prosperity for the young United States and its "republic of farmers" was alive, well, and commercially succeeding in Ohio by the 1830s, major elements of which were documented by Miller.1

Even before crossing into the state, on a route that would traverse central Ohio counties primarily along the National Road and briefly into Indiana, Miller met almost daily with two, three, or five droves of Ohio cattle bound for the Baltimore and Philadelphia markets. At every turn he sought the "knolage and good sense" of the local farm people on matters including what kinds of agriculture were practiced and had flourished, land value per acre, market access, and the general health of the country. The negative condition of the latter in particular, though infrequent, was enough to dissuade Miller from even looking at farms in an area of that character. Upon coming into Champaign County, for example, Miller learned that the land there was "filled with a certain something" that the locals could not identify and only knew that if the cattle ate "it" in the woods, what was termed "milk sickness" would prevail upon them. This sickness often brought on an agonizing death to both cattle and unsuspecting humans who drank the sick cattle's milk. That being the case, he and his brother rode on.2

Miller was primarily guided in the search for his and his relatives' new Ohio farms by a calculus, or rationalization, of "advantage." After all, these were going to be cash purchases that would form the basis of family farming enterprises whose owners had aspirations of profitability. Miller also knew that his determination of selecting the site with the best advantages for wheat growing would set into motion the relocation of numerous family members and several neighbors from Virginia, a move that in all likelihood would be permanent. Among the advantages he noted about the places he passed were their fine grass, soil quality, good spring water (as opposed to well water), the overall state of cultivation, the level of activity in the county seat, and even the abundance of "nice farmers," such as those he found in Germantown (in Montgomery County). Of particular interest to Miller was the advantage of water navigation, and in his diary he offers important insight on the influence of Ohio's canal-building era on the development of the state's agriculture as well as on the lives and livelihood of its farm people. Newark, situated on the canal, appealed to him because flour was regularly shipped out from there for the New York market. Also, there seemed to be no limit to the growth potential of Chillicothe, which was "improveing verry fast" as a result of the canal being constructed twenty miles south of the town, with the contractors having committed to extending it northward by the fall. This convinced Miller that the farm people there "will have the advantage of the new york market and the new Orleans market." He added, "Certainly verry great are the advantages of this canal of the state of Ohio."3

Market-minded agrarianism pervaded Miller's diary in his search for the most economically advantageous situation for his family and clearly served as the major ideological and economic context for his perception of Ohio and the emerging Midwest. It apparently resonated as well with the numerous farm people from whom Miller gathered information and with those whom he merely observed in their agricultural activities. This state of affairs in Ohio and the West during the 1820s and 1830s is in sharp contrast to the scholarly argument that the market of the expanding republic...