The part of New York State popularly known as the Central-Leatherstocking Region encompasses several counties — Schoharie, Broome and Oneida — where my great, great grandfather Arthur Bull and my other Bull ancestors worked as leather tanners during the 19th century.
This made me curious: What was the tanning industry like back then? And were there work-related reasons why Arthur Bull and his family relocated so frequently, both before and after the U.S. Civil War?
In the 1800s, the tanning trade required a location with adequate water power, good transportation to bring in animal hides, and enough hemlock and oak trees for the requisite tannin to process those hides into leather.
The Catskills area bordering New York’s Hudson River — where Arthur Bull learned the tanning trade — had all of these in abundance in the early 19th century, as outlined in Augustus Ostow’s excellent environmental blog post The Catskill Tanning Industry.
The work itself was a physically demanding, grisly business, with open vats of fermenting hides — as depicted in the photo above — sending up quite a stench. Yet the need for domestically produced leather kept most Catskills tanneries active until the mid 1800s.
Eventually, however, forests became depleted through overuse by the tanning industry. That and an economic recession from 1833-1840 — which caused leather prices to plummet — likely prompted some Catskills tanners to pick up and relocate.
Moving for work
Among those who moved was the family of origin of my great, great grandfather Arthur Bull. By 1855 they had left the Catskills area and settled in the Town of Conklin, Broome County, N.Y. — in the state’s Central-Leatherstocking Region — where Arthur, his father Jeremiah and brother Milo were listed as tanners in the 1855 New York State census.
This move was the first of many for Bull family members as they followed the booms and busts of the leather tanning trade to start over again and again in new, forested locations.
Judging by the birth locations and ages given for Arthur’s children in the 1865 New York State census for Town of Conklin, Broome County, N.Y, he and his wife Mary Elizbeth (Blakeslee) Bull lived in three different locations during the nine years between their 1856 marriage and the end of the U.S. Civil War:
- Pennsylvania in 1858 [most likely in Susquehanna County just south of Broome County, N.Y.],
- Delaware County, N.Y., in 1860, and then back to
- Broome County, N.Y., until at least 1865.
Nor was that the end of their moves around the Empire State. More in the next post as I continue on the trail of my great, great grandfather Arthur Bull’s civilian life before and after the U.S. Civil War.
© 2015 Molly Charboneau. All rights reserved.