Title Reviewed:
American Grit: A Woman's Letters from the Ohio Frontier

Author Reviewed:
Emily Foster

Ginette Aley


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 100, Issue 1, pp 74-76

Article Type:
Book Review

Download Source:

American Grit A Woman's Letters from the Ohio Frontier Edited by Emily Foster (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2002. Pp. x, 344. Illustrations, notes, appendices, bibliography, index. $45.00.)

Few published collections of letters capture the heart of an antebellum pioneer family, the essence of their daily struggles, and the building up of the Midwest more perceptively than American Grit: A Woman's Letters from the OhioFrontier, edited by Emily Foster. The volume, a title in the University Press of Kentucky's Ohio River Valley series, showcases the richly detailed letters that Anna Briggs Bentley wrote from Ohio to her much beloved kin in Maryland between 1826 and 1858. The letters offer insight on Ohio Quakerism, frontier home medicinal practices, and the roles of women's, family, and community labor in antebellum agricultural societies. They are also notable for their rare references to farming during the Midwest's canal–building era.

In 1826 Joseph and Anna Bentley, their six children, and a black servant named Henry left Maryland to join fellow Quaker pioneer farmers in Columbiana County, Ohio, where they entered a world of unrelenting, "slavish" labor. Anna's letters routinely describe the litany of chores that comprise "a most laborious" day or week, along with their physical efforts upon her, sometimes expressing solace only in the realization that part of her next day's labor can be done while seated. For example, after noting that she had washed, baked, scoured, and cooked, "&c," Bentley remarks that "I have been constantly on my feet; and I feel very tired now and look forward to tomorrow as a treat, for I have a great pile of patching to do that I can set down to" (p. 40). Especially revealing are her characterizations of family and neighbor labor, which formed the most salient feature of pioneer interconnected–ness (followed by caring for the sick, grieving with the mourning, and attending to the young). While the division of labor tended to be along gender lines, Bentley's letters also document that these lines frequently blurred according to the needs of the moment. Pioneers prized labor for its contribution to the whole while disparaging the "good for nothing"; this is evident whether Anna writes with pride about eight–year–old Maria's capabilities or about her own limitations during her thirteen pregnancies.

The regional landscape of independent farms that Anna's family helped to create was quite dependent upon a western culture of neighborly assistance and obligation. Apparently Bentley was unaccustomed to this form of community labor. Commenting on the scarcity of money that prompted payment in kind, she writes that it is the "custom here in harvest or other busy times to collect as many neighbors as they can, and they will pay back in work" (p. 38). Neighboring women collaborated to provide food for the hands. She notes numerous other labor arrangements such as engaging one man to plow and sow their flax field in return for granting him his own small section, or the employment of a neighbor's teenage daughter for domestic chores in exchange for educational or social instruction. All was not harmonious, however; Anna writes with disgust about those who failed to assist, the family's stolen beehive, and the frequency of lawsuits to obtain a payment of debt.

So much more can be gleaned from these remarkable letters. Given Bent–ley's own excommunication over a doctrinal dispute, they are less about Quakerism than they are about western pioneering—a point Foster, as editor, fails to develop. Conspicuously missing from her bibliography is R. Douglas Hurt's illuminating work The Ohio Frontier, which would have provided a broader context for the story of agricultural development during westward expansion. Also absent is the fundamental connection to the increasingly rich historiography of rural women. Still, American Grit is a must–read for nineteenth–century scholars and those generally interested in the history of the Midwest.

GINETTE ALEY is completing a Ph.D. dissertation at Iowa State University on the early American Midwest, and is an instructor at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, Virginia. She is the author of a forthcoming chapter, "Bringing About the Dawn: Agriculture, Internal Improvement, Indian Policy, and Euro–American Hegemony in the Old Northwest, 1800–1846," in Daniel P Barr, ed., The Boundaries Between Us: Natives, Newcomers, and the Struggle for the Old Northwest, 1740–1840 (Kent State University Press, 2004).

Published by the Indiana University Department of History.