John Wright Account Books, 1818-1859
Call no.: MS 162
Farmer, freight hauler, laborer, cider-maker, landlord, and town official who was a seventh-generation descendant of Samuel Wright, one of the first English settlers of Northampton, Massachusetts. Nine bound volumes and four folders of loose material include accounts of his businesses with his brother Samuel and son Edwin and activities, as well as letters, and miscellaneous papers and figurings.
John and Samuel Wright were brothers, seventh generation descendants of Samuel Wright, one of the first English settlers of Northampton, Massachusetts. The first Samuel removed from Springfield to what would become Northampton in 1655 or 1656. John Pynchon financed the purchase of the land on the west side of the Connecticut River valley at Norwottuck, as he did most of the towns in the valley. The Pynchons played a dominant role, serving almost as manorial barons, in the settlement of the valley in the seventeenth century. Before his removal with his family and son, Samuel Jr., the first New World Samuel was a farmer, and worked as a laborer and teamster for John Pynchon. He was paid in 1653, according to Pynchon’s account books, for “carrying from my house to the foot of the falls 44 bushels of wheate…[,] 1 day at the mill…[,] Reaping and carrying Indian [Corne].”1 He died in Northampton in 1665; his son was killed by the Indians at Northfield, Massachusetts on September 2, 1675 in King Philip’s War. Nevertheless, the Wrights had started what would be centuries of residence and involvement in the community.
The seventh generation John and Samuel did similar work to their great great great-great grandfather. John was born in 1782, Samuel in 1788. Post-revolutionary Northampton was still an agricultural community, with a strong network of trade between households in the area.2 The Wrights listed themselves as farmers in censuses throughout the first half of the nineteenth century. Yet farming in this New England family-based economy was not simply agricultural; it implied a cooperative effort by the whole household, women and children, including home manufacture of goods for trade, swapped labor between households, and exchange of other goods and services. Thus while households could be said to be relatively independent, they were not self-sufficient.3 From 1818 on, we have documentation in these account books of some of how John and Samuel, and later, John’s son, Edwin, made a living.
By 1820, the social and economic world of Western Massachusetts was clearly increasingly commercial, and nascent industrial activity was establishing a foothold in the valley. As the shire town of a recently divided Hampshire County, Northampton played a central role in an economy which stretched from the hilltowns to the west, out into Hadley, Amherst, and Pelham to the northeast, and Granby, South Hadley, and Ware to the southeast. Most business transactions were done by account book, as cash was relatively scarce. Long running accounts were kept by families and merchants. Stores accepted goods in trade, as well as cash when possible, for debits on account, just as families did. This type of economy required strong social ties, a sense of trust and reciprocity between parties. Individuals and families who succeeded in this social and economic world needed to be flexible, utilizing many different sources of income and exchange. The Wrights exhibited flexibility and adaptability, as evident in their account books. While farming remained central in their lives, they engaged in substantial business in hauling freight, or as described in the Hampshire County Registrar of Deeds books, they were “joint partners in the business of common carriers.”4
The 1790s saw the start of development of many turnpikes in an attempt to improve the rather primitive road conditions in New England. However rural Western Massachusetts was, it was energetically increasing its trading reach both internally, and externally to the burgeoning trade routes of New England. John and Samuel Wright fit well into this interdependent network of households and merchants, cities and towns. Their family ties in the area were deep and wide. By 1810, there were seventeen heads of household named Wright in Northampton, most all of them related, however distantly, to John and Samuel. In 1840, there were twenty six. Moreover, the Wrights had intermarried over the generations with many other prominent and prevalent families in the town and throughout the area. The Wrights owned land along Bridge St., right off of the downtown Northampton area which had seen a building boom between 1809 and 1820, including a new church, county courthouse, town hall, and several store buildings.5 Just below the plateau that held the Bridge St. area was the rich farm land of the meadows that arced around between Northampton and the Connecticut River. John and Samuel owned farm land in the meadows and would increase their holdings as the decades of the nineteenth century went on. Transportation of the early nineteenth century was still based on horse and wagon, with teams of four, six, and eight used to haul freight as needed.6 The Wrights had the requisite land and crops, and the social and economic contacts, to provide a vital need in this changing commercial world of commerce, transportation of goods, and services.
As did many in the early decades of the century, the Wrights, particularly John, formed many partnerships. John and Samuel Wright; Wright, Pomeroy & Co.; Wright & Edwards; and John and Edwin Wright were some of these. Samuel is involved more toward the beginning of the years documented by the account books, both by himself and in partnership with John. All the rest involve John Wright, who wore many hats in his working life: farmer, freight hauler, laborer, cider-maker, Selectman, Assessor, Overseer of the Poor, representative of relatives in Probate Court, Guardian for individuals and families, landlord, renter of horses, etc. Samuel’s work life seems to have been more farm-oriented, with some freight hauling, laboring, and cider-making, especially in the 1820s. Edwin shows up as his father’s partner in the freight business, and from the mid 1830s on, keeps the books and is principally involved in hauling of freight on more local lines. Interestingly, the account books are full of debits for cash paid on accounts at stores for individuals, presumably at discount. Thus, it appears that in a not yet cash-based economy, the Wrights, mainly John, were able to utilize their supply of cash, gathered as go-betweens in the commercial world, to front money, a valuable service, and gain what ever discount was allowed between credit and cash accounts.
The account books reflect the adaptation necessary in this time and particularly in this line of business of being common carriers. The Wrights would seem to have had a virtual monopoly on the freight hauling in these decades, as evidenced by their accounts with what amounts to a who’s who of merchants, businesses, and prominent families of Northampton and Williamsburg, and with the few merchants in the surrounding towns, especially in the booming broom and palm-leaf hat businesses of Hadley and Amherst. However, this was a rapidly changing world. The turnpikes of the 1790s into the early nineteenth century, which were never very successful, gave way gradually to the newer innovations of canals and railroads. While the Northampton-New Haven Canal was never consistently reliable or of significant impact on the economy, its appearance in 1837 is concurrent with a shift of focus for the Wrights from distant routes to more local carrying.7 By 1845, the railroad had reached Northampton, and the days of freight hauling by horse and wagon were limited to local routing.8
The Wrights adapted to the changing conditions in agriculture, business and industry, as they did to the rapidly developing new world of transportation available, which ultimately shrunk the scope of, then presumably ended their ventures in hauling freight as common carriers. The Hampshire County Register of Deeds shows many transactions by the two brothers increasing their landholdings, mostly in the meadows, from 1820 on, when the deed signed over to them by their father in 1815 was entered into the Register, two years after his death. Apparently never achieving great wealth or prominence, the Wrights were an integral part of their community and the surrounding area. What potential for riches and renown was available for many in the early nineteenth century Hampshire County was carried to and fro by John, Samuel and Edwin Wright, serving in roles not far removed from those of their forebear to John Pynchon. John Wright died in 1870 at the age of 88 of dysentery. His son Edwin followed him in 1880, age 70, with cancer. They were buried in the Bridge St. cemetery in Northampton near their homes and land. Samuel Wright died later that year in 1880 at the age of 92, of cholera. He was buried in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts. All three were listed in the City Clerk’s vital statistics register as farmers.
1 From The Pynchon Papers Vol. I, III, quoted in Stephen C. Innes, “A Patriarchal Society: Economic Dependency and Social Order in Springfield, Massachusetts, 1636-1702,” Ph.D Dissertation, Northwestern University, 1978, p. 216.
2 Christopher Clark, The Roots of Rural Capitalism: Western Massachusetts 1780-1990, Ithaca, NY, 1990.
4 Hampshire County Record Books, Registry of Deeds, many entries.
5 Clark, p. 174.
6 George Rogers Taylor, The Transportation Revolution, 1815-1860, NY, 1951, p. 15-28.
7 William P. Donovan, “The New Haven and Northampton Canal” in The Northampton Book, compiled and edited by The Tercentenary History Committee, Northampton, Mass., 1954, p. 85-88.
8 Caroline MacGill, ed., History of Transportation in the U.S. before 1860, Washington, 1917, p. 334.
Daybooks and ledgers of John, Samuel, and Edwin Wright consisting of nine bound volumes, and four folders of loose material including accounts, letters, and miscellaneous papers and figurings.
Volume 1: The first volume, “John & Samuel Wrights Day Book 1818,” is a daybook, that is, the accounts have been entered, untallied, in chronological order as they occurred. From 1818 to 1824, the accounts follow the months and days of their business up to page 181. After that, the dates of the entries jump around and serve as a temporary catch-all for various accounts for twenty-three more pages. There then follow approximately forty blank pages. The routing is largely Northampton to Boston, with a few stops in between, and to a lesser degree, Northampton to Hartford. The items vary from whiting and cod to hats, wool, bales of cloth, chests of tea, barrels of cider, tubs of butter, salt, tallow, flour, the exchange of sides and hides of leather, carpeting, brooms, saddle trees, lemons and raisins, glue, indigo, and services such as paying the highway tax, bringing a jackass from Boston, and cash paid in Hartford for accounts and for freight brought from New York. There are a few accounts of boarders’ debits and of farm sales and exchanges.
Volume 2: The second volume is entitled “Samuel Wright’s Northampton Apl 1824.” This proved to be the most problematic book to figure out, as it appeared to be a general store or wholesale general business from the look of the accounts, which listed quantities of goods, without designation of any as freight or as to destination or origin. This style of entry covers pages 1-81. Further delving into the books revealed that all of these accounts are the tallied versions of the entries of Book #3, which clearly lists these as running accounts, i.e., chronological, of freight hauled between Northampton and Hartford. There are no weights given to the items, but all are listed, rather, by container, i.e., hogshead (hhd), barrel (bbl), box, etc. The items are foodstuffs, dry goods, hardware, etc. Pages 82-85 are blank, and then 86 to 91 serve as tallied accounts of John and Samuel Wright, as well as some of their drivers.
Volume 3: This volume, “John & Samuel Wrights Book 1824 […] to page 77 & then John Wrights,” is for its first 27 pages, a day book, i.e., the untallied accounts of Book 2, involving freight hauling from Northampton to Hartford, and from Day’s Landing to Hartford. Further looking reveals that this traffic was connected somehow to boat travel on the Connecticut, involving Day’s Landing and “the falls” somewhere between Northampton and Hartford. At this time the Connecticut above Hartford was a difficult course for boats with the falls at Enfield, Connecticut, and then those at South Hadley major obstacles. In 1829, a canal was put through to circumvent the Enfield falls. Luther Clark 2nd was the hauler here for the Wrights, and was reimbursed for expenses to Hartford, at Hartford, to Falls, at Falls, over Falls, from Falls to Day’s (or, sometimes, home). The first trip in March was apparently a bit experimental, and included hiring hands for help at Day’s Landing and the Falls. John Wright was paid for having bought the boat from Joseph Edwards for the brothers’ partnership. The boat cost $10.00, and a horse bought at the same time cost $70.00. Clark was reimbursed for a spike for boat, oars, and paid for “work boating and profit.” This route combining land and river lasted until November of 1824, and was apparently abandoned at that point. Pages 28 to 77 are John and Samuel’s freight hauling accounts on the Boston-Northampton route up to 1827. Page 78 on is John Wright’s, extending up to 1838, reflecting his work for Wright, Pomeroy & Co., and as an individual in many of his roles. His work for the Town of Northampton is fairly well documented here, as Selectman, and as Overseer of the Poor. Whether carting manure, moving fields, assessing properties, doing town books and paying school teachers, representing people in Probate Court, acting as Selectman, etc., John was always reimbursed a dollar a day for his labor. The differentiation of work’s worth from lawyering to raking, cider-making to overseeing the poor was not yet in place, at least not in John Wright’s world.
Volume 4: The fourth volume is untitled. Pages 1 to 21 are untallied accounts of the Boston route from September 1827 to August 1828. From page 22 on, the Boston route and some local trade of 1827 to 1832 is presented in tallied accounts, i.e.- listed by name with balancing on occasion of the credits and debits. Evidence of the variety of goods carried, the range of prominent Northampton citizens, cash paid and discounts given, and the increasing involvement of Edwin (b. 1810) is detailed. The back cover has a directory of names and corresponding page numbers to locate accounts.
Volume 5: The fifth volume is entitled, “Wright, Pomeroy & Co. Book Jan’y 1833 […] to page 78 & then John & Edwin Wrights.” References to this partnership occur through many of the books. It seems to have involved at times four men, with William Pomeroy and another being Williamsburg residents. This book is in two parts. The first, pages 1 to 77, covers the Boston-Worcester-Northampton route, 1833-1838, with almost all freight listed simply by weight, without mention of items. The rest of the book is an 1840-1857 Wilbraham to Williamsburg route, passing through Northampton, and connecting the new industries along the Mill River from Northampton, Leeds, Haydenville, Skinnerville on up to Williamsburg. This new route may have reflected an adaptation of the Wright’s, as the canal to Northampton was in, however ineffective it was, and the railroad connection was established with Western Massachusetts from Boston with a depot at Wilbraham. Two letters from William Lloyd Garrison to Northampton in 1843 mention taking “the cars” from Boston to Wilbraham and then the stage from there. Also, the Wrights’ accounts occasionally show railroad fees paid for clients at the depot in Wilbraham. The Pomeroy connection must have helped from here on, as the Wrights compiled as impressive a list of prominent names on account in the greater Williamsburg area as they did in Northampton earlier. Indeed, almost all of the names in this part of the book are Williamsburg and Haydenville residents. This section serves as the tallying of accounts in Book 7.
Volume 6: This is a fragment of pages still strung together, but without binding, that was separated, apparently, from some lost account book. It is of a Northampton-Boston route and covers the years 1834 to 1838. The first two years show a considerable amount of freight hauled for the Northampton Woolen Manufacturing Company. Wool, leather, axes, and brooms are the more prevalent items. Samuel Whitmarsh’s silk industry’s beginnings are documented here as well as in Books 4 and 5.
Volume 7: The seventh volume, “John & Edwin Wrights Book Northampton Jan’y 1840,” lists the untallied accounts of Williamsburg residents and businesses that are tallied in the second half of Book 5. Edwin seems to be the principal Wright here. Again, the names serve as a roll call of prominence in the Williamsburg area.
Volume 8: The untitled volume eight is a small blue book, whereas the others are almost all more traditional ledger sized. The handwriting here, as in Books 7 and 9, is meticulous, and appears to be that of Edwin Wright. This book, covering 1850-1852, seems almost a continuation of Book 7 with the years 1846-1850 left out. Perhaps a book is missing. Again, all the routing is to and from Williamsburg. The items hauled are clearly for households, stores, and factories, with industry predominating.
Volume 9: “John & Edwin Wrights act Book Jan’y 1856,” is the ninth and last volume, covering the last years of the decade up to 1859. It is Williamsburg based, with many entries for Haydenville and Leeds as well. The successful industries of the area are evident throughout the book. Mattresses, pickles, bedsteads, bales of silk, dyestuffs, soap, clapboards, limes, carboys, sumac, brick, iron kettles, plaster, skeins of yarn, suspenders, and doors are some of the items brought to Williamsburg. Shipped out are crates, coat hooks, boxes, silk, leather, warp beams, boxes of cloth, wool, keys, tools, pails, tubs of butter, etc.
Four Folders: The four folders contain a variety of scraps of paper with figuring and tallying on them, notes, a few letters, etc.
The collection is open for research.
Cite as: John Wright Account Books (MS 162). Special Collections and University Archives, W.E.B. Du Bois Library, University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Acquired from Charles Apfelbaum, 1987
Processed by Paul Gaffney, 1990.
- Freight and freightage--Massachusetts
- Northampton (Mass.)--Economic conditions--19th century
Types of material
- Account books