Elia Peattie, an Uncommon Woman


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Post-Civil War America

Post-Civil War America was haunted by an increased complexity in daily economic survival. This was nowhere more apparent than in the South, where abject poverty was the norm. Indeed, the South had been ruined financially by the Civil War, and within that larger, broken scaffolding lay the crumbled dreams of almost all those who had belonged to the Confederacy. Out of this ruin the Farmers' Alliance was born.

The emancipation of the South's former labor force, the slaves, caused Southern farming to fail almost overnight. Confederate currency became useless. This monetary devaluation, in disastrous turn, caused Southern banking to likewise fold. The numbers, however, tell the story best: "Massachusetts alone had five times as much national bank circulation as the entire South. . . . The per capita figure for Rhode Island was $77.16; it was 13 cents for Arkansas. One hundred and twenty-three counties in the state of Georgia had no banking facilities of any kind. The South had become, in the words of one historian, 'a giant pawn shop.'" [2]

Southern farmers were faced with two disquieting options: starve to death in their hometowns or head westward, which for most Southerners meant relocating to Texas, and face possible financial failure there. Thousands of citizens decided to take their chances on the unknown and move west; many just chalked the letters "G.T.T" ("gone to Texas") on their front doors and left during the night. The exodus out of the South swelled every year until during the 1870s, nearly 100,000 departed for new lands and opportunities in the country's largest state. [3] Calls such as that of land speculator W.P. Soash served to nullify any warnings from prior settlers to Texas that might filter back to those still waiting to reach it: "Riches in the soil, prosperity in the air, progress everywhere. An Empire in the making! Get a farm in Texas while land is cheap—where every man is a landlord!" [4] Just a few decades earlier surveyor Robert Marcy had assessed this region as "a desolate waste of uninhabitable solitude . . . wholly uninhabitable by people depending upon agriculture for their subsistence." [5] Desperate settlers from the South, however, were not privy to this judgment and found too late that life in Texas presented its own set of crippling economic challenges.

In Texas, farmers were simply without the funds to buy outright what they needed to turn a crop: farming supplies, machinery, livestock, and essentials necessary for the support of the farmer's family. Possessing no capital, the farmer was forced to "purchase" any supplies necessary for raising a year's crops from "furnishing merchants," who would take out a lien against the farmer's harvest. Rarely at harvest time was the homesteader's production sufficient to "pay off" his debt to the merchant. What was owed would be carried over to the next year, and the agriculturalist would begin the next growing season, not only without surplus or savings but also already in debt. The debt–and its attending, yearly interest–would only deepen with each growing season that passed.

Works Cited

Egan, Timothy. The Worst Hard Time. Boston: First Mariner of Houghton, Mifflin, 2006.

Goodwyn, Lawrence. Democratic Promise: The Populist Moment in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.

———. The Populist Moment. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.


1 Goodwyn, Moment 3.   [back to text]
2 Goodwyn, Moment 22.   [back to text]
3 Goodwyn, Democratic 25.   [back to text]
4 Egan, 24.   [back to text]
5 Egan, 21.   [back to text]

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