My Blakeslee ancestors and the panic of 1857

Sepia Saturday 474: Third in a series on the odd 1860 separation of my great-great-great grandparents Zebulon and Hannah (Hance) Blakeslee — a summertime census mystery.

After discovering that my great-great-great grandparents Zebulon and Hannah (Hance) Blakeslee were living apart during the 1860 U.S. Census, I wondered whether there was some major economic downturn that precipitated their separation.

Did hard times cause Hannah, her daughters Rhoda and Mary, and their families to relocate to Walton, Delaware Co., N.Y. — leaving Zebulon behind in Brookdale, Susquehanna Co., Penna. to mind the store while boarding with another household?

That’s when I learned about the Panic of 1857.

First worldwide economic crisis

The Panic of 1857 was precipitated by a downturn in the international economy and an over-expansion in the U.S. economy, which were interconnected by the 1850s — making it the first worldwide capitalist economic crisis.

It arrived in the years before the U.S. Civil War — as the Gold Rush, wild land speculation and the western expansion of railroads were winding down. And economic recovery did not come until the start of the war in 1861.

The panic also overlapped the period when Zeb and Hannah last lived together in Brookdale, Penna. (circa 1856) and when they lived separately (during the 1860 U.S. census). So could the 1857 economic crisis and the ensuing three-year depression have been factors in their separation?

Impact on workers, farmers, merchants

Economic times were tough in the years after the 1857 panic — there were runs on the banks, mortgage-holding insurance companies collapsed, grain prices plummeted and workers were laid off their jobs.

In 1850, Zebulon Blakeslee owned a family farm in Conklin, N.Y. just north of the Pennsylvania border — growing oats and other grains and producing butter — while working at other jobs and professions to make ends meet.
Ripening oats. Grain prices fell during the Panic of 1857, impacting family farmers and small merchants like my great-great-grandfather Zebulon Blakeslee and his son-in-law William Whitney. Did economic hardship precipitate my ggg grandparents’ 1860 separation? Photo: Arcaion/pixabay

Yet by 1858 — when Zeb lived in Brookdale, Penna., about six miles south — he had only a house in town and a store with no sign of a farm.

Possibly his daughter Rhoda Ann and her husband William Whitney took over his Conklin farm, located next door to theirs in 1850. William was listed as a farmer in the 1855 New York State census[1]1855 N.Y.S. census: Family search requires free login to view records. — a year after the Blakeslees’ moved to Brookdale.

The 1860 move

But five years later, during the 1860 U.S. census, William, Rhoda and their children had left their Conklin farm behind and moved to Walton in Delaware County, N.Y. — where they lived in the home of Arthur T. and Mary E. (Blakeslee) Bull, Zeb’s other daughter and son-in-law, along with Zeb’s wife Hannah.

Arthur was working as a tannery foreman — a step up from his 1855 tanner job in Conklin, N.Y. But William’s occupation was “hired man” — an apparent step down from owning and running a family farm. Could the mortgage upheaval during and after 1857 have jeopardized the family farm?

And what about Zeb?

Zeb was still a merchant in 1860, so  he was presumably hanging onto his Brookdale, Penna. store — perhaps to send money to his wife and daughters and later join them? However, he was was boarding with another family —  implying that his house, which may have been mortgaged, was gone.

It’s hard not to conclude that the Panic of 1857 might have had an impact on my Blakeslee and Bull ancestors, as well as my Whitney collateral relatives. But where could I find more specifics about the effects of the panic on the local economy?

I turned to digitized Pennsylvania newspapers in search of answers — and that’s when I discovered the unexpected solution to the mystery of why my great-great-great grandparents Zebulon and Hannah (Hance) Blakeslee were living separately in 1860.

More on the surprising solution of this Blakeslee mystery in the next post. Meanwhile, please visit the blogs of this week’s other Sepia Saturday participants here.

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1 1855 N.Y.S. census: Family search requires free login to view records.

16 thoughts on “My Blakeslee ancestors and the panic of 1857”

    1. Thanks, Diane. Yes, this saga could certainly benefit from a musical score 🙂 And as soon as one set of questions is answered, another set appears!

  1. Oh boy, a cliff hanger. This is like tv! I learned about the Panic researching something else one time, but I do like it as a theory for why couples lived apart. Apparently that’s not going to be the case. I’m staying tuned.

  2. Really enjoyed reading this! Yeah I was shocked to learn about the Panic of 1857. It’s amazing the history you learn while researching family. I’m visiting from the Genealogy Blog Party by the way.

  3. I like serial stories. More room for development. The Great Depression was certainly not the first or only economic downturn. In the early 19th century before rail, canalboats, and good roads allowed timely transportation, a lot of farmers failed just because they couldn’t get their harvest to the big urban markets. So bulky grain was distilled into whisky before it spoiled. And wooden kegs were easier to move by wagon. Was hard liquor common in this region?

    1. Hmmm…seems Zebulon Blakeslee owned a tavern in the late 1850s. I also found a number of references to purveyors of “liquor” (though not my ancestor) during the 1800s in Susquehanna County, Penna. Thanks for suggesting this interesting line of inquiry.

  4. Dang! You’ve left us hanging from a ‘cliff’ or tied to the railroad tracks like the old silent melodrama films of yesteryear re: the “Perils of Pauline”! 🙂

    1. Or like daily soap operas that have a cliffhanger every Friday. Stay tuned for the big reveal in the next post 🙂

  5. Fascinating. As it happens, I’ve been researching a similar event, the Bread Riots in Chicago in the 1870s after the Great Fire.

  6. You are mean to me! I wanted to know today what really happened. Did you ever write suspense stories for radio broadcast? That’s what it feels like to me! Kidding of course. I can wait, with baited breath!

    1. I have long wanted to write a mystery story…but never imagined it would be about my great-great-great grandparents! Hang in there. This big reveal is next 🙂

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