Monday, July 26, 2010

Tycoons and Midwives

The summer is half over and I'm finishing up two books to enhance my understanding of the past. The biographies reflect the lives of individuals and their families in the 1800s and late1700s respectively.

Getting out of one's 21st century mindset is essential
for understanding the life and times of our ancestors.

Though these books weren't written by my ancestors nor are they about my ancestors, I've learned a lot about two previous centuries in our nation's history. 

The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt, by T. J. Stiles, chronicles a part of the development of our transportation system that was glossed over in my high school and college history courses. I knew that Vanderbilt was a self-made millionaire, but I didn't know it began with ferrying folks from Staten Island to New York. His business developed along with the nation, as he expanded his transport lines on the completion of the Erie Canal and his railroad companies began to crisscross the landscape. The California gold rush provided impetus for serving passengers via boat and train as the mainstay of Vanderbilt's great empire.
The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt (Vintage)
Vanderbilt's development of the passage through Nicaragua was several days faster than the rival Panama route promoted by the US government. Though he could do it cheaper and faster, Vanderbilt never won the government's approval as a mail carrier service to the west coast. In 1854, the cost of steerage from New York to San Francisco was as low as $35. For many years, he personally earned 20% of each ticket on his line. What amazes me is that most of his ships were steam-driven side or stern paddle wheelers.

While his business savvy is legendary, it would appear from this Pulitzer Prize winning biography that some of Vanderbilt's wealth was acquired through what we would now call insider stock trading. But apparently treachery is a 2-way street. I learned that while Vanderbilt sailed throughout Europe with his family later in life, it was stunning how his competitors connived to oust him from a transportation board and cut his monthly income by $32,000. That would be a little hard to take, but his other investments more than held his head above water.Vanderbilt frequently fought his opponents and won, if by nothing other than under-bidding contracts and forcing the competition to buy him out.

From an 1877 tribute by the directors of the US railroads Vanderbilt had lead as president:

"The truest monument to Cornelius Vanderbilt is the fact that he so organized his creation that the work will go on, though the master workman is gone...

His career was a dazzling success. In an age and in a country distinguished for their marvelous personal triumphs, his achievements rank among the most extraordinary and distinctive of all. Thoroughly practical and faithfully wrought out, their splendor yet gives them a tinge of romance. He was essentially the creator, not the creature , of circumstance which he molded to his purposes. He was the architect of his own fortune." Ibid. p. 565.

A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812By contrast the second book (I've always got three or four at my bedside) is A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard Based on her Diary 1785-1812 . Author Laurel Thatcher Ulrich won a Pulitzer Prize for this book that speaks to the challenges faced by a woman in medicine, a profession that then felt women were suited only to the drudgery of housework.

From the epilogue we learn a little of the provenance of the diary:
"That Martha Ballard kept her diary is one small miracle; that her descendants saved it is another. When her great-great-granddaughter Mary Hobart inherited it in 1884, it was 'a hopeless pile of loose unconsecutive pages' - but it was all there. The diary remained in Augusta for more than sixty years, probably in the family of Dolly Lambard [Martha's daughter], who seems to have assumed custody of her mother's papers along with the rented cow. At Dolly's death in 1861, the diary descended to her daughters, Sarah Lambard and Hannah Lambard Walcott. Kames North no doubt consulted the diary at Sarah Lambard's house on Chapel Street in Augusta, extracting the few pages he included in his History."  Ibid p. 346.
In addition to a short bibliography, there are detailed end notes for each chapter, and an appendix titled "Medicinal Ingredients". The author incorporates research in the contemporary diary of Henry Sewall; Hollowell town records; Kennebec court, deed and probate records; and Lincoln County, Maine court and deed books. There are references to the William and Mary Quarterly and the New England Historical and Genealogical Register. Comparisons are demonstrated with previous regional histories such as Charles Nash's 1904 publication titled The History of Augusta: First Settlement and Early Days as a Town (1785-1812) and James W. North's The History of Augusta published in 1870.

This is just the sort of sound historical research one would wish to study when reading Martha's diary.
Consider Ulrich's work a good study of the early upper New England region of our country. After all, the weather, social customs, household accouterments, clothing, availability of goods and services and midwifery are just what at least 1/2 of our early Maine ancestors experienced first hand.

SO WHAT BOOKS HAVE PROVED USEFUL in developing historical context for your ancestral research?

Myrt     :)
Your friend in genealogy.


  1. Thanks! Always looking for an interesting title!

  2. Martha Ballard's Diary is online and searchable at - a great joy for those of us with ancestors in the Augusta area in that time period.