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  • At Home in the Hoosier Hills: Agriculture, Politics, and Religion in Southern Indiana, 1810–1870
  • Kenneth E. Koons
At Home in the Hoosier Hills: Agriculture, Politics, and Religion in Southern Indiana, 1810–1870. By Richard F. Nation ( Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005. xi plus 274 pp. $35.00).

In At Home in the Hoosier Hills, Richard F. Nation describes and analyzes socio-cultural development in the hill region of southern Indiana during the period from initial settlement (ca. 1810) to the post-Civil War era (1870). Migrants from Pennsylvania and the upland South, attracted by cheap land, went to the hill country of southern Indiana to create farms and establish communities. Nation focuses on this region in order to tell the story of peoples and their elected officials who "resist[ed] the nationalizing and commercializing transformations that had swept much of the North by the Civil War" (1). As farmers in more northerly sections of Indiana embraced increasingly commercialized forms of agriculture, peoples of the hill country remained distrustful of forces of "progress," such as banks, railroads, distantly located markets, consumerism, and outside politicians. Since, as Nation points out, peoples of other regions of the United States shared this deep ambivalence about the advent of forces of modernity and the growing centralization of economic life, this book may be viewed as a case-study.

In the opening chapter, Nation describes the experiences of the pioneer generation, giving particular attention to the role of land in the lives of hill country Hoosiers. Settlers viewed land not only as a source of livelihood and even prosperity, but also as an economic asset whose ownership promoted independence and egalitarianism. Hill country Hoosiers persisted on the land to an unusual degree, but those without access to land or lacking family ties moved on. The remainder of the book is organized on the basis of Nation's argument that hill country communities were shaped by a strong ethic of "localism," which manifested itself in their inhabitants' religious values (chapter 2), economic behavior (chapter 3), political outlook (chapter 4), and attitudes about African Americans, particularly in the context of the Civil War (chapter 5).

Nation's analysis of the formation of religious values shows that neighborhood churches set standards of morality and regulated behavior—including economic activity—within their congregations, thereby serving as a powerful force of community cohesion. German Catholics and Primitive Baptists, each for their own reasons, insisted upon the autonomy of local churches, and rejected the growing tendency among some denominations to relegate church discipline to higher (and extra-local) church authorities. German Catholics worked purposefully, often under the guidance of parish priests, to recreate "separate" (47), locally oriented communities centered on their churches. Primitive Baptists embraced an emotional style of worship, rejecting the notion that religious practice required the "assistance of learned elites" (59) not from their own communities.

Strong localist sentiment also shaped attitudes and practices regarding market exchange. Farmers' used their land and other farm assets to work toward two main familial goals: earning livelihoods for subsistence and placing children on land of their own as they came of age. To accomplish these goals, farmers pursued a conservative, "safety-first" strategy of "surplus produce." Although farmers raised a diverse array of crops and livestock, they emphasized production of [End Page 237] hogs and corn. Farmers and their families subsisted on what they produced, and surpluses could be traded to extra-local markets. Although participation in long distance trade was critical for the accumulation of funds to buy land for children, hill country Hoosiers were careful not to make their household economies dependent upon it. They believed that merchants from outside the region, who were not influenced or regulated by local standards of morality, could manipulate the market for their own benefit. This became especially apparent during economic downturns and periods of financial panic. In this chapter Nation also documents farm women's roles in the functioning of the local and household economy, arguing that "women's production—not the selling of corn and pork—formed the basis of most trade essential to the household's day-to-day survival" (110).

Hill Hoosiers' fears of extra-regional markets and...


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