Sunday, 22 April 2012

Child labour in our family

Samuel Austin Cravath - my great great grand-uncle on my father's mother's side was born on Sept. 27 1836.  When he was less than a year old, his father, grand-father and uncle all died within days of each other, having all moved together to Crawford county in Pennsylvania a few years prior from their previous residence in New York state.

This is what SA Cravath says in his memoirs:

A large area of timber land had been flooded to make a reservoir for the Pittsburg & Erie canal, and it was supposed that this flooding was the cause of a Malignant Malarial fever which prevailed extensively at the time and of which grandfather, father and Potter died.

About four years later, mother, having married Galcott Kinney meanwhile, the family moved to a farm which was about one and a half miles northeast of Oberlin, O[hio].  Here mother died May 30, 1848 - thirty nine years of age.  The children after mother's second marriage were, Mary, Joel, Chester and Julius.   The last died in infancy.  After mother's death the family was broken up and scattered among relatives.  George [my great great grandfather] found a home with his Grandfather Davis and his Aunt Amanda who kept house for grandfather Giles with his Uncle Augustus Cravath, and I with Uncle Giles A. Davis for a year or two and then with Aunt Amanda.  The family was never reunited and no two of them lived for any considerable time in the same family.  I was over ten years old at this time.

Samuel remembers coming as a family (with his step-father Galcott Kinney) to then newly established college town of Oberlin, Ohio:

The country was nearly level, sometimes swampy, and the great primeval forests had been pushed back but a little distance from the roadside.  Winding worm fences inclosed the small cleared patches of land which were thickly dotted with stumps. Oberlin was located in the forest and the first houses were constructed from timber cut upon the townsite.  The town and college had been founded but seven years at that time.  The stumps had been quite thoroughly cleared out of the town site, but they with the forests stood thick all around the rising college.

Father Kinney secured thirty acres of land a mile and a half northeast of Oberlin.  I think it was all dense forest.  While a house was being built we lived with a near neighbor, a Mr. Josiah B. Hall, who occupied a place that had been under cultivation long enough to grow an orchard and his apples were a temptation to the boys in the neighborhood for many years, for they were the only fruit, except wild fruit which grew in the settlement.

These early years must have been years of privation and some hardship to my mother for she had been reared amid more comfortable surroundings, but I was not aware of the privations.  During the six or seven years of residence near Oberlin, the forests were generally pushed back from the immediate vicinity of the house, but hardly more than ten acres were brought under cultivation so as to contribute food for the family. The cattle had free range of the woods and got their living there wholly in the summer and partly in the winter.  When feed was scarce in early spring, the forest trees were felled so that they could browse upon the buds and small branches.

It was no small part of the chores of my brother Giles and myself to find the cows in the unfenced miles of forest and drive them home for milking.  Did we ever get lost?  Yes, sometimes, but never so badly but that we found ourselves again by some land mark we knew, for we soon became familiar with the forests as well as the fields.

I remember one occasion, when after a long search alone, I had found the herd and tried to drive them home, but the old bell-cow broke away and passed me, taking the whole herd with her.  I could only follow, for I could not "lead" them.  She soon lead out into a place where a road had been surveyed through the forest and the trees filled, preparatory to making the highway.  I then found that the bell cow was right and I was wrong as to the direction of home.  (pp. 15-16)

Talking about his work at the time, Samuel Cravath writes a few pages later:

These were years of work, hard work for children of our years. Father Kinney was absent from home so much attending meetings and in colporteur labors, that a large part of the raising of crops on the home place and on rented land fell to my brothers and myself.  Day after day we were sent to the forest to fell trees and work them up into wood, with no older person to direct us.  We tracked down the smaller trees and generally managed to get them down without lodging them in some of their larger neighbours.

As I said previously, brother George [my great, great grandfather who was 4 years older than Samuel] never had a faculty to manage animals and was rather weak physically. This threw the team work on Giles [Samuel's middle brother - 2 years older to him] and me. One of us would drive or ride and the other hold the plow - generally taking turns.  Both driving and holding the plow was pretty lively work amid the stumps and roots of a pioneer farm.

The care of the team [of horses] gradually fell to me; perhaps from choice.  From the time I was eight years old to eleven, I generally went with the team whenever there was work for the team to do. I hauled four feet wood to the village and had to do the unloading myself.  I was sent not infrequently to Turkey Rock, a stone quarry fifteen miles from Oberlin, for large, square building stones, or half a dozen of which would make a load.  I enjoyed such trips, for tho' it made a long hard day for the horses, there was enough variety along the road to keep me entertained.  The loading and unloading of the big square rocks was always a matter of some anxiety for me.  As the quarry I generally got the assistance fo the quarry men, tho' with some grumbling.  At Oberlin, I generally got the load off alone with the aid of a handspike, which I learned to handle with some skill.  (pp. 19-20)

Reading these words that Samuel Austin Cravath wrote 111 years ago has been a challenging experience for me.  SA Cravath typed out his memoir when he was 65 years old.  As a man SA Cravath's careers saw him experience being a farm hand, college graduate (he returned  back to Oberlin to study), a teacher, a principal, a district school superintendent, a surgeon, a doctor, and finally a newspaper editor and owner.  The internet article I read on him also talks about him being a banker and prominent citizen of Grinnel Iowa which is where he lived the last years of his life.

For one thing I have always considered myself a son-of-the-soil Indian.  Well, this document shows otherwise.  At least one strand of my family was busy cutting the forests and steadily moving west-wards, colonizing the vastness of the United States.  

As a person trained in forestry I have always had a beef against people who allow their cattle to graze in the forests.  Even more so against people who do slash and burn agriculture.  Well, as a young boy at least, Samuel Cravath clearly was doing both. Its strange to find myself on the other side - considering the actions of my ancestor understandable as he helped his family eke out a living, pushing back 'the primeval forest.'

But the thing that really gets me is how hard Samuel Cravath had to work.  And at such a young age.  

I look back at the luxury of my life.  What did I have to do when I was 8 years old?  Read books.  Play downstairs.  Climb trees.  My father made us a tree house.  Samuel's step-dad was so involved with preaching and taking books to others - that much of the business of keeping the family afloat fell an Samuel and his brothers.  My father also did do some travelling when I was a stripling lad - but it never lead to any privation on our part, it never forced any extra labor for my sister, brother and myself!

Its a long way to 1844 and there abouts.  But its not so long - or so far.  Just a casual glance on the street, a quick look into the local eateries - or into the automobile workshops - will show that there are plenty of young children working in our city.  How many of them will be able to step outside this cycle of child labour? And how many will remain confined into the same general (and often alcohol-soaked) poverty of their parents and grandparents?

Reading Samuel Austin Cravath's life-sketch is such a tremendous gift of grace to me.  He writes in the forward that these notes (a 69 paged typewritten manuscript) were written at the request of his beloved daughter Myra... and that "this sketch is not intended for publication or public perusal, but strictly for the family which it concerns."

Well, as a descendant I am interpreting that particular injunction in the broadest possible sense.  Hearing what SA Cravath has to say about the incidents which 'have gone into the making up of a life' has brought many thoughts about my own life, and the function of memory which allows us to go back in time and listen to voices that are all but forgotten in the thick wall of 'information' that we now have to swim our way through.  

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