Special Collections and University Archives, W.E.B. Du Bois Library, University of Massachusetts Amherst
John Wright Account Books
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.