America's Dark Age (1783 to 1850)
When Record Keeping Broke Down in the Appalachians and West
By Cecilia Fábos-Becker - Published 2018-08-17
I, and most researchers in the field of family history, have always encountered great difficulty in researching one particular 40 + year period and area of the Early United States: those new states, as well as parts of existing states, settled after 1783 - 1823, and even up to 1850 or a bit later. After considerable reflection, it seems appropriate to write this article, in an attempt to explain why family history research for this period and area is so hard to accomplish.
The American Dark Age
These Americans created their own 'Dark Age', not much less uncivilized and barbaric than its namesake, the so called 'Dark Ages' of Western Europe.
The Western European 'Dark Ages' refer to the period after the Western Roman Empire collapsed, and before Christianity and powerful, organized nations redeveloped (beginning in the period of the Italian Renaissance). In renouncing civilization, science, mathematics and and literacy to begin their own 'Dark Age, these Early American people made a choice more deliberate than what the non-Roman West Europeans made 16 centuries ago. This period, 1783-1823, is when there were few towns in the vast new areas of the U.S., and with fewer towns, fewer churches, and few if any schools. Literacy became almost non-existent. It also meant there were fewer books, including Bibles, in households and no writing instruments to keep any records among families. Yet, after the Revolution, the human population boomed as these new increasingly illiterate Americans spread out westwards.
Here is why and how this 'Dark Age,' happened. At the end of the American Revolution in 1783, England dominated the United Kingdom in every way: in parliament, in language, manners, religion, social and economic structures. England had deliberately tried to keep North America economically dependent by prohibiting manufacturing, limiting free trade and financing extraction, exploitation and export to the UK of natural resources. England also controlled religion, deciding not just what religions would be allowed and where, but the social and governmental structures within religion. English overlords insisted that ministers, in all religions that had ministers, be educated. Since education was not free, this meant religious authority was vested in the socio-economic elites. When America revolted against England, many Americans were not just revolting against English government, and its treatment of Americans as second class citizens with fewer political and civil rights, but against everything Americans believed was connected with England that restricted ordinary American lives. With our newly won Independence, everything that was thought to be related to England was repudiated--except for English, the spoken language.
The only reason spoken English lasted, is because it was the common language of all 13 colonies and so could be mutually understood by all 13 (the alternative being a three way civil war over Gaelic, German and English). English had been the language of business, trade and government and we intended to retain and develop business, trade and local government. We wanted the new states' governments to be able to work together in a federation and otherwise communicate without difficulties. English had also been made the dominant language even among all the Celtic peoples in the UK for at least two centuries before the Revolution. This repudiation of things seen as 'too English' lasted until well AFTER the War of 1812, which had been perceived by many as an attempt by England to reconquer the 13 American colonies. The problem with this anti-England fervor was that almost all religion, manners, civility, education, organization and record keeping (taxes are associated with records, after all), were seen as 'too English.'
The Great Awakening and Anti-England Fervor
These U.S. 'Dark Ages,' had roots in the euphemistically named 'Great Awakening'. According to most scholars of the subject, there were four stages in the Great Awakening. The two that had the greatest impact on the U.S. were the first (roughly 1740-1770), and the second (roughly 1783-1825).
The Great Awakening was reaction directly against intellectualism, science, mathematics, and social hierarchies, and what was thought to be a stiff, too restrictive civil and church society. The Great Awakening was intended to democratize church structures and emphasize a personal, spiritual and EMOTIONAL relationship with God. Unfortunately, it was also an awakening of what we now call the 'dinosaur brain', that most ancient part of the brain that reacts most simply and strongly to outside environmental impact, and does not rationalize about anything, including consequences. It is the part of the brain that connects us most to what humans like to consider, base, inferior animals.
Religion led by educated, socially elite ministers was 'too English,' and therefore not democratic enough. To keep up with demand for preachers and the vital religious rituals marking birth, marriage and death, on the expanding frontier, new sects of the Protestant religions developed which were less concerned about organization, and records' keeping of the long-held Christian rituals of life that determined relationships in families. They were more concerned about attendees at occasional Sunday sermons and the mere belief in one God and the existence of Christ and a few bits of daily behavior. In fact, some of the most popular early preachers that helped organize numerous churches were semi-educated ACTORS who offered entertainment as much as moral inspiration with the idea that if you made the lessons of the sermons dramatic enough, they might be remembered longer. Ordination didn't exist for these new religions, or sects of religion as in the Methodists at first, as that meant standards of education and conduct--and accountability to the ordaining authorities, and thus a hierarchy setting up another elite. Many of the ministers and preachers of the new 'democratic' religions, and sects were merely 'trained' and then sent forth by the sect's earlier preachers, even if the 'trainers' themselves were not ordained, or actors. This was particularly the case for preachers, who were circuit riding itinerants, not assigned to any particular congregation. Some of the merely trained preachers and ministers were illiterate and couldn't even read the Bible they were preaching about--and their audiences seldom knew that they were illiterate. Many who were at least minimally literate, were assigned to more than one church in an more limited area and kept records in personal journals, but which they kept as personal possessions, neither property of the churches nor stored by the churches--where churches even existed!. These journals were often destroyed by their children or grandchildren of the circuit-ministers, as just so much useless waste paper.
Early 'Awakening' religions were loosely organized and only emphasized a few main beliefs concocted by their first hellfire and damnation preachers to attract large audiences, or simple views of extracts of selected stark issues of right and wrong from the Old Testament. The selections were to simplify the democratic religions so anyone, right down to the lowest common denominators of society and education could follow the tenets, and thus the bar was set low to be a 'good democratic Christian.' Since fewer people were literate, this meant a few rules that could be taught by verbal rote, with some drama, and did not need any thought. The post Revolution U.S., heavily influenced by the 'Awakening religions,' differentiating itself from the UK as it was perceived to be, also insisted that there be no differences in regard and treatment of people regardless of education, skills, manners, etc.
We were also getting rid of educated elites in the county administration and courthouses, the state legislatures, Congress, and eventually in the Presidency. In many counties, record keeping became less detailed, spelling and grammar worse, and legibility likewise. I've had historical societies tell me, yes, certain records existed, but almost nothing about the incident recorded could be read and it was a waste of time and money to send the records to me, since I was unlikely to be able to decipher the records any more than the dozen or so people who had already tried. The general attitude and the attempts to make it universally practiced, was, in some ways, an early form of communism.
This extreme democratization in society and increasingly in government, worked when everyone, or nearly everyone was a subsistence farmer and otherwise did a little light manufacturing for themselves with simple tools, often in or near people's homes. Even the early manufacturing workers whose products were sold, themselves, still tended gardens and aspired to own land. After all, food storage was still pretty primitive up until the 1840's, when canned foods, and canning supplies became more available.
If literacy, education, and manners are not seen as of greater value in a community or society, then they will be discarded. If they are seen as means of restricting people unfairly, a tool of tyranny, they will be discarded. But people needed to be aware of whom and what they were allowing to persuade them that all this was or is not necessary, and they allowed entertaining preachers to influence them, and the temporary success of day-to day farming on newly cleared, already fertile lands to delude them. They thought that what they had would last forever, farming didn't need education, and that good land and abundant clean water was unlimited. They became uncivilized, illiterate, subsistent, emotion-driven barbarians.
Rural audiences who never traveled beyond their nearest market town or county seat at most, and flocked to their entertaining drama, failed to notice that the preachers, themselves, did not live as they preached. The educated, better traveled parts of the population had notice, but were elites, and what they saw that ended up in publications, of course was not read by the majority of illiterate fans of the preachers and members of the new religions and sects of religions. Preachers were accused of being more interested in their own physical well-being than that of their listeners, but few knew of this, or paid attention to those saying so. For example, George Whitefield was a famous preacher of the 1st Awakening, and when he died, he left an estate of £1500, seven times that of the average American in 1770.
These areas even discarded the lessons learned in Europe, particularly the UK, from fires, such as the Great Fire of London in 1666. After 1666, in London, and in many other cities and towns, it was forbidden to erect buildings of flammable materials, especially flammable roofs. Other European nations gradually adopted similar standards. The U.S. instead, used cheap, easy to throw together wood, even for courthouses and churches, up to the 20th century--and wasn't buying and reading any history books. We had abundant forests after all, and as farmers, we needed to clear the land of forests. Never mind the fact that wood buildings lighted and heated by open flames or easily knocked over lamps with flame and fuel, burned and so did their contents. We also didn't value the contents of most wood buildings. The developing religions all held that things and even buildings were not important; only the soul and its relationship with God, and otherwise enough people living long enough to be good sermon attendees--and support the preachers.
This is why, today, there are few major building and town/city fires in Europe, and many in the U.S. This is why in many counties of many states, that had so many courthouse and church fires, there are large amounts of missing records from the period of about 1785-1850, and even later. We have found counties that had wooden courthouses and fires as late as 1880 for one county in Indiana and about 1895 for another in Missouri. The records of hundreds of thousands, even a few millions, of vital events, such as marriages and deaths, which also affect land ownership and taxation have been lost for good.
Their ancestors had not lived such mean lives. Prior to the American Revolution, in Virginia, Pennsylvania and other colonies, especially where there were large numbers of Presbyterians or Quakers, education had been held highly important. The Presbyterians wanted everyone to be able to read the Bible for himself or herself, and be also able to read and understand contracts, important to economic survival. They also believed in educating both girls and boys to a certain minimum, including in arithmetic. There was no government assistance in those days and it was believed that if individuals had enough skills and could avoid being defrauded and living beyond their means, they would not become dependent upon the charity of others in the community, including churches. The Anglican Episcopal Church quickly saw the sense in this and also began promoting education and eventually the Congregationalists in Massachusetts followed, though they preferred to educate only males. The more affluent, such as the Woods' family in Augusta County, for instance, hired teachers and set up schools in their communities for all the local children to attend, as being a common good. Children's families paid, often in kind, what they could to the support of the building and teachers. This largely stopped after the Revolution, west of the Appalachians. An extra impetus to education was how you obtained land and licenses to grow nationally valuable commercial crops, like hemp, or have businesses. If you wanted choice land, the right to grow and partly process hemp, have a large smithy that served more than your extended family, or money to back an early trading or manufacturing enterprise, you had to appeal to the existing structure of the UK. With education came cultured speech, intellectual discourse demonstrating superiority of mind, and manners, all necessary to impress the colonial governors, the big land-grant owners, and financial investors in, or from the UK, whose privileges to own and sell or lease land, to issue business licenses, etc., had been set by the highest of UK socio-political authority.
In colonial times, not everyone could own land. There were also limits to expansion westward and a significant amount of the land was owned under royal grants by large landholders in the UK who could sell or rent the lands out as they chose. The Native Americans, such as the Iroquois Confederation, still owned large swaths of land, and had certain rights to defend it and keep out squatters, particularly in Pennsylvania and New York. Though there were legislatures in the colonies, the voting was limited to white men who had property or a business worth a certain amount--and were literate. Tenants could not vote, unless they owned business assets. Apprentices, indentured servants, slaves, women could not vote, and neither could Native Americans, even those who lived in the European settlements and had been educated according to good UK standards. The colonies were all officially under 'the Church of England' (and its 'daughters' the Church of Scotland and Church of Ireland) which we now mostly call 'Episcopal.' The official Church was charged with supporting the state and kept records, as well as the colonial governors and legislators and the counties within them. It was all very organized--in a very English system. Worse, after the Revolution, the Episcopal ministers mostly returned to England taking the records of their churches with them, and the churches closed and abandoned, or were made over to other religions. So the nation also lost a large body of church records for its own people, in rejecting 'everything English.'
How many records were lost in this manner? Many tens of thousands, if not more, were lost. Here is why. Although by grants and other means colonies had been allowed to have other religions, such as the Congregationalists in Massachusetts, the Quakers in Pennsylvania, and Catholics in Maryland, by 1692, even when your marriage occurred in another religion other than the Church of England, or your child was baptized, you were expected to re-register the event in the nearest church of the Church of England and could be fined if you did not. After about 100 years of initial violent conflicts, mass murders, etc. in the colonies (roughly 1620-1720), in most colonies agreements were finally made to accept registration of marriages and baptisms by other major religions, such as the now numerous Presbyterians, and the Catholics in Maryland and New York, the Congregationalists in Massachusetts, and the Quakers (Friends). The Quakers were among the last of the first group of non-Catholic religions to reach the North America and had been granted the set-apart colony of Pennsylvania, but quickly spread beyond its original colony. Thankfully, the Quakers believed in education, industry and business, and hierarchy in civil government. William Penn, an educated mannerly gentleman, developed good relations with King Charles II and the socio-political elite of his court. The Quakers, almost from their creation had set up orderly methods of keeping records of their 'monthly meetings' and all the vital events in them, such as marriages and deaths, and that satisfied the English crown.
New 'Awakening' religions, with no churches or monthly meeting buildings and record keeping, especially those willing to ordain less educated ministers were another order of things--or lack of order, and of great concern to the colonial governments and other religions. The establishments were further appalled when some of the early preachers were found to have been ACTORS--one of the lowest and most disreputable classes of society! It may surprise many Americans today to learn that Baptists and Methodists, (unless the latter were Episcopal Methodists and used ordained ministers in their churches), were not seen as Christians or even as 'real religions' to be protected by law. The members were seen as worse than the pagan native savages because these European descended followers of new sects had seen and heard real Christianity and REJECTED it. They were originally not seen as really new religions, as religions were understood to be, or expected to be, in the form of organized entities, and the adherents of these unorganized, sects were seriously mistreated for not being real Christians. The adherents were even called heathens and savages and there were organized attacks on their communities, denial of civil rights, and ministers from other religions by their church leadership were ordered to re-convert them back to orderly Christianity. Matters were not helped when even the major religions with educated hierarchies were still occasionally physically fighting among one another and, as late as the 1690's, had been killing each other's ministers and priests and burned churches. If adherents of one religion or another took over the colonial legislature and/or governor's council, they could, and did, deny the civil rights of adherents of other religions, such as the right to vote or hold land, as happened to Catholics in Maryland for a time after 1689 when Protestants took over the government in Maryland. However, by the 1730's mainstream religions had developed greater tolerance toward one another, just not the new sects and religions, and religion itself was not allowed to be a bar to voting, land ownership and business licenses. Ministers from Presbyterian, Quaker and Episcopal religions were already urging colonial legislatures and petitioning the Crown and Parliament to allow equality and freedom to practice most religions without having permission of the Church of England.
Despite their increasing tolerance, after the Revolution, the older, colonial U.S., religions lost ground to the new religions. The other consistency from before the Revolution and after, was that religion itself was still an important influence on society and people wanted to keep it that way. The religions themselves changed, and the social order in them, but not the desire to have religion be a major influence in human society. Many families who were Presbyterian, became Baptist. Many who had been Quaker, or Church of England/Episcopal, became Methodist. These two religions eventually became the largest religious denominations in most of the U.S. by 1830, despite having the least educated, and most un-ordained ministers, including many whom were completely illiterate, and more preachers than ministers in many areas. That's what then influenced all of American society.
The success of the American Revolution expanded the U.S. frontier to at least the Mississippi River, and with the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, another huge tract of land was added. The large land-grants of the English kings had been ended and were broken up. The colonies, now states, and the infant U.S. as a whole, couldn't pay its Continental army and state militias for their seven years of services in the Revolution, and later couldn't pay the U.S. army in the war of 1812, in cash, so they issued land grants. The Native Americans who had fought alongside the English in the Revolution and then again in the War of 1812 (Tecumseh, notably and his allies) were punished by suffering losses of their lands. Suddenly there was land for every free-born or freed person--except natives. No one needed to be a tenant. No one needed to make a mannerly civil petition to ask for land, or read and sign a written contract for a mortgage to buy a piece of land. American's could take land that had been forfeited by Natives (and not otherwise granted as payment for military service), and mark boundaries with simple cairns of stones and blazes on trees and insist that a clerk in a county courthouse register it as yours, and hire a surveyor to make it more legal. No one needed to learn the skills of early manufacturing, or much else. You could use all the resources on your many hundreds of acres to build what you needed, or wanted, yourself, or have servants do so. It was believed you didn't need books and schools to learn how to farm and raise livestock, or to learn to spin or weave or make basic furniture and houses. You didn't need fancy clothes and manners to mingle in society for political or economic advantages. The English needed and had all of those and we didn't need, or want, the English. We'd even beaten the English.
You didn't need to go to church weekly and you didn't need to read the Bible, you could have someone else tell you what was in it, or just the few most important points of the Bible, or what was in the few newspapers around. Voting was no longer restricted by literacy in many states and communities. You didn't have to read or write to vote--you just made your 'mark', where someone you trusted, or someone who was giving you some nice whiskey, in the pub that was the place you voted, told you to put them. You could hand-fast with the lady of your choice and get God's blessing from the next preacher who passed through your community in front of family and other local witnesses. You could baptize and bury your loved ones, yourself, as needed, and do the burying on your own property. You just had to hope that someone in the family would continue to own the land in which you were buried and that you would not someday in the future, be dug up and your bones pitched in a refuse heap, like you were doing with the Native American bones.
Thus, between illiterate families, illiterate ministers, fighting among religions--and sects of religions, church fires and flooding from non-maintained fragile church roofs, church records for baptisms, marriages and burials in the U.S. between 1783 and 1850 in many places up to the 1880's are scarce. In fact, we've found that fires and water damage to churches caused records losses up to the late 1930's in some counties. Churches in recent times have also been completely abandoned and closed and their records sent to archives, or museums, when they survived, and then communities forgot where they were sent. Meanwhile, the churches and sects were fracturing into more sects further confusing records keeping and storage. Even today, the Evangelical Lutherans are a separate sect from the Lutherans, and there are still several sects of the Baptists, and, until recently, at least three sects of Methodists, all with their own archives for older records, records from closed churches, and not even the ministers and some of the archivists know where the older records have gone. Some of these newer religions are still pretty disorganized in the 21st century, and have little regard for the records of their members, or their ancestors who were members in the past, and built up the churches!
As a result of both courthouse and church fires, water damage from ill-maintained roofs and wars, and a general 'I don't care for records, they might lead to taxes' attitude, many counties have few civil or church records between 1783 and about 1850, or later. This is in stark contrast to European records' keeping and safe storage, where it's possible to find church and civil records for all classes of people going back 400, 500 and even 700-800 years (Ireland being an exception to this, see our other articles about the losses of Irish records). The best U.S. records for the period of 1785-1850, now, often end up being the gravestones in older church and family cemeteries--where the families had gravestones that had the names and dates of family members, and later non-family owners of the family cemetery properties didn't either bury or break-up and re-use the stones for farm building foundations. Stone, though, doesn't burn and it takes decades of water to erode carvings. Other than that, the state and federal records are what's left, because these levels of government did care, if only for taxation, and management of land, mineral resources and waterways for industry and commerce, and these records were usually not stored locally.
School records are another source of family history information, after the 1840's, as they were stored in separate county administration buildings or state buildings and those show who, among children lived where and when. Even some of the criminal records were stored in buildings separate from the local courthouse where civil and probate records were stored. After the War of 1812 in which the capital of the U.S. was largely burned, the federal government began building more with brick and stone. So did some of the state governments. Murder and certain other crimes were state offenses, not just local, and prisons were state institutions. If your ancestors behaved badly enough, their records would not just be kept locally.
Newspapers, as there were 'area' newspapers that might come out weekly or monthly, that covered several counties, had their own storage areas for issues and when some eventually folded, replaced by larger city newspapers with regional distribution, the old copies of the small local/regional papers, often did end up in county libraries and historical societies' buildings. There are limitations to the use of the old newspapers. Unfortunately, newspapers covered marriages and deaths only of prominent people, or victims of sensational, lurid crimes like murder. Otherwise they would publish lists of the deceased from major disasters in which several persons died, such as a fire that killed an entire family or a mining disaster, or if a riverboat blew up and nearly everyone was lost, or when multiple people in a community all died from an epidemic in a short period of time. Individuals, who were neither criminal nor victim could live their entire lives without notice and many seemed to have done just that.
As a result, there is a large hole in our records between 1783-1850, as a majority of Americans in the younger, more recently settled, parts of the U.S.A. became illiterate and lived not much differently than pagan Anglo-Saxons who had invaded England 1600 years ago or the pagan barbarians of Europe before the Roman empire two thousand years earlier. International travelers even wrote for their European, or eastern city audiences, that it was hard to tell who the native savages were, since everyone lived much the same way, and civilization was hard to find anywhere west of the Appalachians. The travelers believed the majority of Americans had devolved into savages, no different than their allegedly inferior Native American neighbors. Many lived and died simply, leaving nothing behind of themselves, not even names inscribed or written ANYWHERE, not even on a headstone to indicate they'd lived at all.
For family history research, we have learned to be grateful for the Baptists in a certain macabre way. The Baptists prohibited alcohol, and drinking hot stimulants such as coffee and tea. (Even herbal teas were at least suspect, as many people still believed in witchcraft and people were driven out of communities on suspicion and rumor later. There were witchcraft trials as late as 1795 in Virginia). Not having studied water with the new magnifying lenses out of the Netherlands, and not caring, the U.S. was later than Europe in learning that animal and human excrement and other wastes poisons water, enabling contagion of water and human borne diseases. The bacteria that cause these diseases are killed by both alcohol and boiling water. The resulting epidemics of cholera and typhoid ravaged these Baptist households, and created one other form of public record keeping: the newspaper lists of deaths from bad water. Baptists also believe they could heal one another with the laying on of hands and didn't need doctors. Most fatal, contagious diseases are very well spread by dirty hands coming into contact with germ covered disease victims, their coughs, clothing, bedding, effluvia, etc.
England had figured out the cause of cholera, diphtheria and typhoid epidemics shortly after Prince Albert died in the 1850's and started cleaning up its water supplies in towns and cities. It also started quarantining individuals and groups with deadly diseases and limiting contact with them. The U.S. didn't do that consistently until nearly 1900, 50 years later. In San Jose and San Francisco entire families were still being completely or mostly wiped out by typhoid and diphtheria in the 1880's and 1890's, as per the local papers. The worst epidemics and largest losses of human life occurred in areas dominated by the Baptist religion, where all the water drunk was 'as it came.' Unfortunately, among the first killed, were county clerks, doctors (some desperate Baptists would call the doctors in at the last moments, anyway), ministers and teachers--the most literate people by the mid and late 1800's and who interacted most with others.
Near the end of this 40 year Dark Age, these insular and illiterate Americans had become a political power called the 'know nothings', and help elect Andrew Jackson, and then at Jackson's inauguration party, the interior of the newly rebuilt White House was nearly destroyed by his own ill-behaved supporters.
This was also the period when Irish immigrants began to be persecuted, even murdered, by mobs (see articles about the Duffy's Cut Massacre, for example) and when brawls in river towns encompassed a large part of the male--and sometimes some of the female--population and ears and fingers were bitten off, eyes were gouged out and of course murders happened (examples: 'Bloody Bill' Howard and Robert Wickliffe murders in the 1830's in Kentucky, which we found in our family history research into Collins' lines). With the lack of hygiene and sanitation, most severe injuries inevitably resulted in death, and seen as murder, just to a lesser degree of it.
Family history researchers have learned to be grateful that there were just enough literate sheriff's, deputies, judges and court clerks so that at least our barbaric, drunken, murderous ancestors, or their immediate relatives who were the murderers and thugs, made it into the county and state records, and newspapers, for their convictions. In our research, we've learned to be grateful for the occasional murderous thugs, whose identities were often described in court records as son of so-and-so and/or brother of whosis, but we've also hoped these barbaric thugs were only the brothers of our own ancestors, and that said thugs didn't have offspring of their own.
The Industrial Revolution forces change
The first requirements for standardized public education for at least four to six years of elementary school began in the cities and largest towns where regional commerce and light manufacturing began, in the 1820's--forty years after the Revolution. As the first few tentative effects of industrial revolution came to the U.S, we began our own early forays into manufacturing. Unspoiled fertile land with abundant water became less available to expanding, westward pushing families, and the demand for more education and skills began to slowly increase. Change was very uneven, with only a few areas initially affected. Many more rural counties in these states had no such requirements until a generation or more later. Voting laws changed, and apprentices, so long as they were 21, and tenants could vote. Some states and counties had literacy requirements, many did not. All you still had to do was make 'x's' on the ballots in the places where someone else told you to do so. But as the first few manufacturing towns expanded to accommodate industrial workers, manufactured goods began to be traded with other nations, and competition required attention to quality and production efficiency to earn profits. Keeping good records became necessary, as well as education for other skills.
Besides the problem of more people living on the same land, the primitive practices of subsistence agriculture were also wearing out the best land with the most water, and water was getting more polluted, endangering people, livestock and crops from agricultural and human wastes. As towns grew and they were using the same waterways as nearby farmers, the towns also contributed to pollution. By the 1820's in the more populous eastern states, children in large families, especially daughters, who could not get land, rather than move westward, were more willing, to stay closer to their families and communities, to take jobs in early manufacturing, trades and commerce. To do this, they needed more education and skills training than parents were usually providing. Education, skills, and specialized experience were seen by factory owners, commercial and legal offices, and investors, and banking lenders, as increasing the quality of products and efficiency of production and thus profits.
Education, skills and experience became seen as 'tools' or 'assets,' of value. The results were that by the late 1820's, the perceptions of needs in manufacturing began to clash with the simplistic, emotional, religions that were teaching and treating everyone as equal, and placed no value on education. However, the pressures of manufacturing, commercial and professional needs did not affect all states, or even parts of states all at once. The industrial revolution spread slowly at first across the existing nation, as towns and cities slowly grew. So many states and parts of states continued to lag in even seeing a need for education for up to 30 years or more--to the eve of the Civil War. In Kentucky for instance, I discovered that the first public schools were set up in Louisville in the 1820's, and in one or two other large towns--the towns, not the counties surrounding them, but public schools did not exist until the 1840's in many less populous counties, where towns were what we'd call villages today and there was but one or two in the entire county. In Indiana, where Lincoln grew from child to teen, a governor using the broad powers he initially had tried to set up a major infrastructure building program and public grade schools for all in the 1820's. Most counties had not yet set up their schools when the government began going bankrupt. In 1841, it did, also forcing changes in the nature of government in that state. The bankruptcy, new state Constitution and organization left the counties, themselves to choose, or not, to continue to have and support schools. The new Constitution also restricted how the counties could support the schools, and in the 1850's declared several counties' taxation for schools, unconstitutional causing them to close for a few years while the counties tried to find other means of support. Two centuries later, these conflicts, including educational standards for successful employment, are all still unresolved in many states and the nation.
Alexis de Tocqueville
In 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont were sent by the French government to study the American prison system, and returned with a wealth of broader observations that he codified in his famous book 'Democracy in America' (1835). We will strongly suggest that reader who is looking for corroboration of these problematic trends in Early America check this great work. With its trenchant observations on equality and individualism, Tocqueville's work remains a valuable explanation of America to Europeans and of Americans to themselves. de Tocqueville admired the American passion for moral principle and righteous behavior, but decried the lack of learning and intellectualism. Here is one quote:
'I cannot help fearing that men may reach a point where they look on every new theory as a danger, every innovation as a toilsome trouble, every social advance as a first step toward revolution, and that they may absolutely refuse to move at all.'
Civil War and Beyond
Then there was the Civil War and all the repudiation and hatred that had been practiced toward the English and their ways, was now practiced on one half of the country by the other, as slavery and rebellion were seen the products of the white southern culture. So, many zealous soldiers, and some officers, were very willing to use cemeteries for target practice, burn churches and burn courthouses, or use the courthouses for command headquarters and burn the contents. They never considered the fact that someday, afterward, the Union would be restored and the chain of land-ownership would need to be known for taxes to rebuild, and to learn what lands could be legally redistributed and to whom, and that they were destroying not only what had belonged to the temporary rebels against the U.S., but their ancestors who had NOT been rebels, but loyal patriots to the U.S. during the Revolution and War of 1812. They also were negligently destroying the records of, the dependent wives and children of the past and the Civil War present who could not vote and had no say in the rebellion any more than the slaves of the large landowners did.
In the southern and north-south Border States, the armies of the Civil War (1861-1865, with Union army occupation and more destruction up to 1874 in the same states) also deliberately burned churches and courthouses as they were seen as associated with the culture of one side or another. Many in the border states, such as the town of Osceola, in Missouri, suffered from both sides' armies attempting to shell and burn the local courthouse, although the Union under the madman rogue Senator Jim Lane--and brigadier general (never mind that his appointment was a direct violation of the Constitution) pillaged and burned the entire town, before Missouri even tried to secede (September 22, 1861) and left 150 dead, another equal or larger number dying, and over 2,000 homeless as winter was approaching. It was another period and form of deliberate rejection, just as Americans had rejected and discarded English culture. While the Congress and top military officials of the U.S. army verbally condemned deliberate destruction of courthouses and churches, especially incidents like Osceola, the Congress never enacted any legislation, nor funding, to attempt to replace what was lost, causing bitterness and anger in many states toward the U.S. government, but particularly states seen as the perpetrators and victors, that is ongoing to this day. Reconstruction was seen as a bad joke, and in reality, anything but, except for some railroad infrastructure, and occasional river levees.
Even now, we Americans all struggle with the legacy of this deliberate, self-chosen period of ignorance and illiteracy, whether one is a family history researcher, a manufacturing company owner, manager or investor or a politician trying to secure a better economic future for all Americans. This U.S. 'Dark Age' legacy is one of ignorance of most Americans of both their own family's history and nation's real history, and a continued mistaken belief held by majorities in some states and parts of states, mostly those least literate between 1783-1870 that one can do well with very little education. Even a high school education is often seen as of dubious value, and some counties as well as certain urban neighborhoods have high-school dropout rates as high as 30 and 40%. There is also still persistence in the beliefs that the uneducated, unskilled are equal to those who have education and skills, and deserve to be paid to live as well as people who have studied and learned more to improve their skills and experience, that all taxes and governments are bad, that without education and factual information--and being able to know the difference between fact and fable, one can still understand and make decisions beyond one's family for communities, states, the nation--and even the entire rest of the world. The 'Great Awakening' has also left a legacy that unconstrained emotions and acting them out is just fine, even violence toward others, or murder, so long as it is in the name of religion or the priorities, or major beliefs, of this sect, or that sect.
It is a legacy that continues to fill the courts with more records of conflicts, and the names, and vital statistics of individuals involved and who is related to whom and how, which might somehow benefit historical researchers of the future, if we don't blow our courthouses to smithereens with our latest developments in pyrotechnics.
That works for a time, at least, for families, communities, states and a nation, if you have a lot of land, few people, no infrastructure to get goods and people around, nor need for it, and if you know how to farm, raise livestock, spin, weave and knit, keep your water clean, and if have a nearby doctor and pharmacist who accepts payment in kind or barter, whenever you decide you really need one, if your nation has zero relations of any kind with any other nation, and if you don't care that, eventually, no one ever remembers, or cares, that you or your family ever lived. We now see the damage of living like this upon our past and present. Is this what we want for our future? Will there come a time when the entire United States, by its own choices, is as forgotten as the kingdom of Bohemia, or the Kushan Empire of northwest India, Pakistan and Afghanistan? Alternatively, perhaps we'll someday be invaded by some more civilized empire or nation and what are now Americans will be seen as inferior savages to be eradicated, along with their culture, as we did the natives before us?